Posts Tagged ‘tradition’

Interior of Mary Todd Lincoln Home, Lexington, KY.  Photo credit: Sam Matteson

Interior of Mary Todd Lincoln Home, Lexington, KY. Leaning against the hearth is a crude broom that evokes the memory of the yard broom of the story. Photo: Sam Matteson

Some heirlooms are not as ponderous as a black wrought iron pot or as self-consciously decorative as a crocheted doily. Some treasures passed down by mothers to their children through the generations are as intangible as they are precious, nevertheless they are as pointed as Pa Moates’ awl, even if as ephemeral as the breath of my first grand child, Paul, on my cheek when I held him close on the day he was born,   Paradoxically, the most enduring legacy is one that is beyond our touch; it may seem ever out of reach—impalpable, even ghost-like, yet never beyond touching us.   The artifact of most durable beauty is often invisible to others, a holy relic of the spirit. Such are the “yard sweepers.”

Down South, stories are part of the fabric of society and of who we are. Narrative weaves between the people: over one, under another, in a Jacquard of life and history. In the damask and twill of struggle, lessons are writ in the tales that define and give meaning to our history—personal as well as corporate. The stories may be remolded by memory and the retelling, growing a patina of myth, but their truth shines through unmistakably. A treasured century-old aphorism came to me that way, told first by my Ma Bertie to a favorite daughter Audrey; bequeathed by her to a son, me, and passed on to his progeny. We all share it as if it were a familial watchword that allows us safe passage into the larger family, a shibboleth of belonging. We know it; we treasure it; we pass it on because it is ours—and because it is true. And because we belong to it.

A Tangible Memory Encountered

It comes to mind again, resuscitated in physical reality on a summer day by our visit to a living history museum. It is like a lace curtain—so often ignored—that unexpectedly billows, propelled by spirit or by wind, a genteel but bracing slap across our face. My daughter echoes her great grandmother, whom she knows only in story and in her admonition: “Sweep the backyard first.”

We are standing before a restored antebellum dog trot set high on orange fired brick pillars with a broad pine stoop leading up to the covered porch that wraps around the clapboard structure like an apron drawn up with a string on the ample waist of a matron. From the creaking rocking chairs we survey the yard under the pines and oaks. There is not one blade of grass for a hundred yards in every direction until the shoulder-high weeds begin over there, on the way out to the field that is a dark and dangerous tangle, cut only by a beaten path. This was precisely the way of the early days of the rural twentieth century of my mother’s Alabama youth, recreated faithfully here, a custom born of practicality. Fire and snakes menaced the home when grass grew too close to the door. So bare dirt yards were the norm then, long before suburban homeowners took to grass farming and became perennial lawn mowers and greens keepers.

A broomstraw yard sweeper stands in the corner ready for its daily ritual of grooming the tamped and barren earth. Grass and weed seed fall but never take root when daily swept away. “We swept the yard,” Mother frequently told me “to make it safe.” But “Mother,” my mother intoned with impressive gravity and slow incantation, “Always reminded me, ‘Sweep the backyard first’.”

On a beach on another day, I retrieve a clam and oyster shell and learn again the same, simple lesson. I hold the clamshell in my left hand and marvel at its symmetry and fluted ridges. Inside, however, is plain and unremarkable. The oyster shell in my other hand seems fit only for roadwork and fill, so apparently misshapen and drab, until I turn it over and catch the glint of mother of pearl and iridescent beauty—within.

A Treasure In Your House

Subsequently, my kindergartener grandson visits my home while I am away, and plays at pirates and treasure maps. Returning, I find his note: “FROM PAUL TO PAPA… THER. IS. A. CHRECHIR. CHEST. IN. YOUR. HAWS.” Old truth, ever iridescent, flashes again in his innocent script. When in the press of pride and self-absorption I am tempted to expend my energy in meaningless show and glory-seeking, I hear again my grandmother and her Good Book speaking: “Honey, sweep the back yard first. Where your treasure is, there your heart really lives.”

Katie Robertia Holland Moates, The Original Yardsweeper, ca. 1950 Family photo.

Katie Robertia Holland Moates, The Original Yardsweeper, ca. 1950 Family photo.


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