These are the hills Granny Kate dragged me over, minus the possums hanging from the tree in the foreground, namely brothers Paul and Tim. The hills were beautiful and green, but I don’t have a color picture.
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It was one of those days when women howl at the moon. You know. The moon cycle. I had stayed out of school curled up in bed and doing some howling of my own. My grandmother, Kate Duncan, was over for a visit. Visits lasted days back then, not just over-nighters. Now, let me tell you right off. Granny was not a mean person. Just severe. She had lived a hard-scrabble life and didn’t believe in pandering pain. After all, she had given birth to thirteen children, worked the fields, fought poverty. She also had never had a bad moon day in her life, therefore she didn’t believe in it. So, by extension, she thought I was faking being sick to stay out of school.
That meant I was available to help her. And when granny tapped you to help her, well, you didn’t say no. I tried. But there was no swaying her. So I got to my feet and went out the door. But I didn’t do it just because she told me to. It was because I loved her. All her grandchildren loved her because we knew she loved us. Not because she ever said it. But because we knew.
So what was so important that I had to be dragged from my death bed? My dad had spotted a nest of baby raccoons while herding cows up on the hills. So, not only did I have to walk, I had to climb hills bent like a bag lady on a bad day. We never found the nest, or whatever it is ‘coons hole up in. But being around granny, or any of the Duncans, made you tough. You either got tough or you stayed out of sight. I remember a doctor was burning a wart off my finger once and I didn’t even wince. He looked at me intensely. “Doesn’t that hurt?” he asked. “Well. . . YEah,” I said. Like what’s the big deal? HE’D never climbed Alabama hills on a moon day. What did he know. You suck it up. You go on.
But I digress. I’m talking about Granny Kate and her penchant for wild things. And, believe it or not, they loved her. She would find a baby raccoon and raise it. Or even a possum. She had the spirit of Ellie May Clampett, and was the spitting image of Daisy May Moses, better known as “Granny” on the Beverly Hillbillies. My granny was barely five feet, if that, a little wizened, with a lot of fire. Even the platoon of big boys she raised — though they might fight like hell on wheels with each other — didn’t push her too far. That was my Granny Kate. Hers was a tough love without the mushy. Therefore, when you pleased her, that sharp, quick head nod was as good as a group hug.
My mother, bless her soul, was always jealous of the attention Granny poured into her wild pets. How do I know? Mama told me. But I understood. There’s a big difference between people and pets. One can give you lots of grief. The other simply loves. Granny, mother of thirteen, hard worker, with a demanding life, needed some solace. Something that would love her back for just a few little scraps and some attention. That’s all.
At some point, Granny “invited” a crow over for dinner and he stayed. They became constant companions. She even taught it to talk — probably just a few rudimentary words, like a parrot. “She loved that crow more than me,” mama complained.
In Granny’s later years, after the many kids were grown and even the grandkids were half-grown, Granny got herself a pet pig. A little pink pig that wore a ribbon around its neck and lived in the house. I don’t know how long that lasted. I guess until the little swine got to be a big swine (swain?). I don’t know. Is swine both singular AND plural? All I know is that wild animals never had a fear of her. Birds would come to her. She had an aura that drew them like a lodestone.
That trait was passed down to at least one of her children and a couple of her grandchildren. My Uncle Marrell (also known as “Art” for his first name, Arthur), made his career in the Air Force. When Mom, my cousin Joan, and I, visited him and his family in California a few years back, he took us to the back garden and introduced us to his pet bird. No. Not one from a pet store. One from the air who visited him daily. No dog in the neighborhood threatened him, no matter their temperament.
My sister Katie — named for Granny Kate — got a little of that DNA. I used to think of her as a creature in a fairy tale with her long blonde hair, big blue eyes, and birds that she could coax to her. She always had a few animal groupies around her, and I’m not talking the two-legged kind. One night, when she lived far from the nearest neighbor, her big black lab saved her life. Though he was a sweet dog, he had an instinct for people, good or bad, and was very protective of Katie and her son Corey, barely out of toddler stage. They were watching TV when Katie heard some cars pull up in the yard. Before she could look to see who they were, the door started rattling as it was kicked and slammed. But before the invaders had even gotten to the porch, the dog’s hackles were up and his teeth were bared. When they tried breaking in, the big lab lunged at the door with a deep ferocity that said, “You better hope you don’t get in and I don’t get out.” When Katie yelled she was about to release this hound of hell, the home invaders ran like they really believed it was.
Brother, Paul McDaniel, many years ago. He loves all animals.
My brother, Paul, also inherited some of Granny Kate’s spirit. His tenderness with all animals can bring tears to my eyes. He’s like a Saint Francis but without the saint part, though his eyes sometimes reminds me of one. Recently he kept telling me about his Duck Jeffrey and kitten, Smokey. Sometimes Paul would be sitting outside in the evening, (his usual haunt), and he’d give me a call. He would laugh and tell me about the antics of Jeffrey the Duck and Smokey the Kitten, who were best friends.
One night he called me and we laughed over his descriptions of Jeffrey and Smokey playing around him. The next day he called me crying. A couple of stray dogs they had been feeding had killed both Jeffrey and Smokey. Paul had found one of their bodies in the garden. “I FED those dogs,” he cried. “I ought to shoot ’em, but I can’t kill an animal. I can’t kill an animal.” I let him talk on and on and get his grief out. I felt cheated that I had not even gotten to meet his two best friends and watch them frolic. But, a few days later, Paul was back to spending money on dog food. For the strays. “I can’t see anything go hungry,” he said. “They didn’t know no better.”
I think Granny Kate would have been proud that some of her descendants picked up on her love and unusual gift for our furry and feathered friends.
Granny Annie Gillihan and Granny Kate Duncan