Walking the Hills

"A green Christmas makes for a fat graveyard," my Aunt Dot used to say a long time ago, waving her crooked index finger at anyone who'd listen. It was her explanation for why people sickened and di

"A green Christmas makes for a fat graveyard," my Aunt Dot used to say a long time ago, waving her crooked index finger at anyone who'd listen. It was her explanation for why people sickened and died even in mild winters.

According to her logic, if December wasn't cold enough to freeze the virus germs, a lot of people would die. We've seen tornadoes in Germany and even in Florida, in February of all times!

I have a new mantra, though: When I get the blues, I reach for my shoes.

My favorite walking buddy is Ma Crow, and she and I are intrepid. A walk through snow and slush makes us feel amazingly virtuous.

As a reward, this afternoon we saw a cardinal — a fat male, scarlet red against the dun color of the day. He perched on a tree limb dotted with snow and preened his feathers, puffing himself up as if he were a member of Cincinnati City Council.

When we started our walks up Sycamore Hill, we were doing some steep climbing and my ragged breath cut through the silence, the only sound I could hear.

An old Appalachian woman named Esther used to say, "Aw, I walked up Sycamore Hill ever'day from the Bank Café carryin' two or three kids and three sacks of groceries."

When Ma and I got to the top of the hill, we turned right into Walker Street, through the woodsy trail where I've often seen deer wallows. It leads to a small city park. We passed the swings and slides and then walked down the long flight of steps, concrete blocks with wrought iron handrails. It was built, like so many beautiful things, by the WPA.

Ma is in better shape than I am; her little legs seemed to fly. Her long salt-and-pepper hair sprang into ringlets in places, and her cheeks were pink.

Her sister died last spring, and she suffered from it but could do nothing about it. It was her younger sister, the one she was supposed to take care of, the one who was supposed to outlive her. Ma flew to Knoxville, Tenn., last fall to hike around the Smokey Mountains.

It makes me think of a story about Sara Carter of the singing Carter Family, who "walked the mountain" every day when she still lived in Maces Springs, Va. In Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg's book Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music, Carter says she asked for someone to help her "walk the mountain" one last time before she died. I've heard her granddaughter, Rita, tell the story.

Carter was a tall woman, a traipsin' woman. She had a beautiful alto voice, but she could not stay married to A.P. — possibly no one could have — and it interfered with her performing in the group. Instead she moved to California and wrote her most famous, only, song, "Lonesome Pine Blues." Ma loves to sing it.

I knew Sara Carter when she was an old woman, and I once spent time with her and her cousin Maybelle when both of them were back in Virginia for a visit at the Carter's Store Saturday night show at the same time. The Katie Laur Band was appearing, and both women were in the audience.

It was like an unexpected glimpse of royalty, because I could feel their power as surely as if they wore crowns or tiaras. Yet they were unimposing women. Sara was taller and raw-boned, and Maybelle was tiny and trim.

It seemed absolutely ridiculous for me to sing one of the songs they recorded, the height of foolishness to be singing a Carter Family song with my own band, but Sara always insisted I sing "You Are My Flower." It was one of her songs, and she thought I sang it beautifully.

One winter, on the way back to Cincinnati in our old green van, we got stuck in about 9 feet of snow, but everybody in the Valley turned up to help us out. That's how it must have been when Sara, A.P., Maybelle and Uncle Ezra (Maybelle's husband) took off to New Jersey to record for RCA Victor in 1928. Considerable preparations were necessary to get their old Model T out of a snowbank or a mudhole and back up on the two-lane highway.

One of the men got us stuck, but the rest of them got us going again and everybody was laughing and cheering as we slipped and slid out way up the hill to the asphalt.

I knew a wonderful old-time fiddler in West Virginia named John Morris, who used to come over to the Carter fold to play music. He was red-haired and freckled with china blue eyes and a high color.

He and his father, who was also a musician, were drinking coffee at Janette's house on the top of the mountain on a Sunday morning when the phone rang. It was Janette's cousin, June Carter (Maybelle's daughter), and her husband, Johnny Cash.

"Oh, lord," she said, absolutely stricken. Morris said her knuckles went white on the back of the chair.

Both of them jumped up immediately and said, "Janette, what in the world?"

Janette replied, "There's a millionaire a'comin' to my house for breakfast."

Morris and his father had to clean up the kitchen for her while she gathered her wits, but when she did she served up some perfect biscuits (just short enough to be light), scrambled eggs and country ham and bacon and two kinds of gravy. Plus, of course, a jar or two of damson plum preserves.

CONTACT KATIE LAUR: letters(at)citybeat.com. Her column appears here the first issue of each month.

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