Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Memories of Muddy for Johnnie Jo

There is a little town in Southern Illinois, just a remnant of a town nowadays, named Muddy. It doesn’t take much imagination to conclude it probably wasn’t named for a Mr. Muddy. Back in the 1930s it was a coal mining town, one of several along a stretch of road in Saline County, just outside of Harrisburg on U. S. Highway 45… first Muddy, then Wasson, Eldorado, Raleigh. I suppose the mines came first, then the road, and soon the railroad, needed to haul the coal away. Today Muddy is mostly gone, a few small houses, grassy fields, and broken concrete, bordered on the east by the highway and railroad. A person can google this town and learn about its past but I’d like to tell you how it was from the eyes of a child in the 1950s.

My mother’s parents lived in Muddy in the early 1950s even though Grandpa no longer worked in the mines. Their seven children were grown and gone, but just a few houses away lived Grandpa’s mother and his old maid aunt, Mammie and Til. And one row over lived a cousin, Vol Rich, with his family, and closer to the mine, another of Grandpa’s sisters, Mary Adeline, nicknamed Mice. It was a Smith family community. I believe the mine shut down about 1937 so this must have been a place where housing was affordable and available, once company housing now little houses for rent.

In my four-year-old mind, Muddy was a summer vacation world with soft green grass, pretty yellow dandelions, and cousins! The little wood framed house Grandma and Grandpa lived in was big enough for two people but when our family of five dropped in, and some of our aunts, uncles, and cousins arrived we spilled out into the yard and beyond. Walking barefoot along a dusty road, avoiding cinders and clinkers, kicking up powdery dirt, us kids explored the area as children will, always warned “don’t go near the mine.” 

We walked up to the little grocery store, the post office, past the church, down the next row of houses, looking for adventure. The air was humid and hot, with bees and flies everywhere. But wait. That’s my seventy-one year old self describing Muddy. My four-year-old self would be taking it in through all senses, simultaneously! Yes, I remember…the droning of the flies and bees attracted to the sweat on my face and hair, the slippery feel of the powdery dirt on the soles of my feet, squirting between my toes, the smell of the mine tailings, a sulphurous, swampy smell, not offensive for I associated it with my grandparents and their clothing. And there was more. The taste of well water sipped from a metal dipper, the talk of adults in the house with their Kentucky accents and southern cadence, a comforting presence. As night came on there were lightning bugs and mosquitoes, the sweet smell of DDT sprayed through a hand-held pump, a change in the adult voices inside the house as my Grandpa got drunk and argumentative while his adult daughters conspired to pour out his whiskey and replace it with water. And night brought on another sense, too, that unnamed danger of the nearby mine with its spooky tipple, dark against the fading light in the sky. Then the sound of the train rumbling and shaking the ground as it approached, accompanied by the whistle, mournful and fading as the train continued on its way, never stopping in Muddy.

I don’t remember if the house had electricity in 1951…probably not. There was no running water, no indoor plumbing. But Grandma kept a chamber pot inside at night so we didn’t have to venture out to the outhouse, and that had its own unique odor. Grandpa smoked and chewed and Grandma dipped snuff. They were Kentuckians, after all. They drank coffee too. Their home was soaked with the odors of living, heating with coal, cleaning with lye soap, cooking great northern beans, frying bacon, drinking coffee and whiskey, and smoking cigarettes. If I could capture those smells and save them in a bottle to be uncorked for a quick sniff when I am feeling low or homesick I would do it. I know my sense of smell is connected to a primeval, visceral place in my brain where emotions live and wait to be awakened. For me an unexpected whiff of the smell of cigarette smoke, once so common but now rare in my life, takes me back to a time and place when life was simpler, when I was four. And when I talk on the phone with one of my cousins who still carries that southern lilt in her voice I feel a clenching in my chest and tears come to my eyes.

Muddy, Illinois. Just a spot along the road….and a spot in my heart where my mother is still alive, my grandmother laughs and her belly shakes, and me and my cousins are young and skinny and starting our lives. Dear cousin, Johnnie Jo, this story is for you, thirteen years old that summer I was four. Happy 80th birthday, love, Peemo.

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