When I was very young, Mom and Dad bought my Aunt Annie’s share of Pap’s estate, which consisted of some 11 hillside acres and an old house she and Uncle Mander had built on the property with the understanding they would one day inherit the premises on which it was erected.
The property was adjacent to Pap’s old homeplace, which he had bequeathed to Mom along with a similar amount of acreage. But Uncle Mander and Aunt Annie had long since decided that the times and job opportunities were far better in the industrial midwest than they were in the head of Blair Branch.
Staying on the hollow meant spending the daylight hours at high risk to life and on your knees deep inside a mine with just over 40 inches of head clearance and hand shoveling 16 tons of coal into small gondolas so that it could be pulled by ponies to the bright outdoors.
It also meant tending a few acres of hillside crops and orchards and growing hogs and chickens to put adequate food on the table because no miner could really afford to raise a family on the wages paid back the early ’50s.
Like thousands of other natives of the hills, Uncle Mander opted out and headed, with his growing family, to Ohio. Mom had spent a few years during World War II as a machinist in an arms factory in Detroit and Dad had traveled extensively as a soldier before they married, and they both had come to believe, when all was said and done, that there was no place like home.
They needed the extra land and the price was right and they figured they could rent out the house for $10 or $15 a month to keep up with the bank payments.
The house was build of rough sawed oak lumber and originally roofed with handmade white oak shingles. By the time Mom and Dad acquired it, the roof was so bad that it leaked even during a heavy dew fall. But Dad bought tin roofing for both it and Pap’s old barn and a host of my uncles and older cousins spent a weekend tearing off the shingles and putting on the new roofs.
As a testament to tin roofing, I will simply point out that both the old house and the barn are still standing, still dry, and have utility to this day. The house is no longer occupied and my brothers and I keep saying we will turn it into a place to go when we need to get back to our roots, but so far that hasn’t happened and we’re getting too up in years to realize the dream.
I’ve lost track of the newlyweds who started their original housekeeping in that old house. Suffice to say, it was so inconveniently located (parking lot several hundred feet away and a steep uphill walk) that living there provided much incentive to find a better place to live. But the rent was more than fair even if the well did go dry during hot weather.
A gentle little spring-fed stream that we called Mander’s Branch ran just beside and a few steps over the hill from the house so cool, clear, clean water was always available if one needed it bad enough. But still not the place for anybody sold on convenience.
Today I received a Christmas card from Lovell and Lois Blair and I have to sit back from my keyboard to recite the message because tears are rough on electronics, I am told. Here’s what Lois wrote:
“My memory takes me back this time of year to thinking about you 50 years ago and to a humble house and two precious people, Marie and Elmer Adams, and four little boys excited about Christmas. Oh how I’d like to go back, but I keep my memories. Love you, Lovell and Lois.”
Lois spoke, in that brief and heartrending greeting, of my parents and my younger brothers and me when, just married, the Blairs lived in that old house to set up housekeeping and were far, far more than renters. They were the best of friends to our family and the ultimate best of neighbors. My mom cried when, a couple of years later, Lovell built his new home just down the road from us and they moved out. I’m sure she would have paid them to stay instead of the other way around. Lois was the daughter she never had and she was sure that Lovell hung the moon. My father was like-minded.
Lovell and Lois Blair are growing old but they still live there in the head of Blair Branch and anytime I start thinking about my youth, I think of them as mentors, shapers and makers of who and what I am. Lois used the term “precious” to describe my mom and dad. And though we live some 150 miles apart, Christmas would not be Christmas if we didn’t get in touch with one another. And, however rare and fleeting the notice may be, let each other know that we are loved.
I wish that Lovell and Lois knew how precious they are to me.