KD Smith: Creative Non-Fiction: Jan 2022

Southern Legitimacy Statement: “Stop bein’ ugly or I’ll paint your back porch red.” Jerked from the reverence of a funeral graveside prayer because the fire ants have crawled into your sandals, driving nails into your feet. Sitting on the porch swing, watching the heat lightning while listening to Christmas music in hopes to cool off. The front porch is always open, always ready for your aunt to walk over and gossip. Don’t have to ask for grits for breakfast. Daddy always called common katydids sawbugs, and they compete with the field and tree crickets and the cicadas to see who can sing the songs of summer the loudest. There is no one “Southern accent.” Coke tastes better from a glass bottle. Hot summer nights under the stars is where young love grows best. Funeral fans aren’t just for funerals. Strawberries still warm from the sun on Papaw’s table. Mama slicing home-grown peaches for preserves at Granny’s while you steal the pieces as fast as she cuts. Standing on a chair in front of the window unit, holding your hair off your sweaty neck. A cloud coming up in the afternoon, knocking out power. Fixin’ to is as good as done. Knowing where the line is between y’all and you’uns. My South is home.

None But a Mule

Right up into the 1970s my husband’s grandfather still plowed his field with two mules, both named Hattie. Every mule Granddaddy ever had was named Hattie. There wasn’t a thing a tractor could do better than a good pair of mules could.

My family’s farming roots go deep into the southern soil, and most of that soil was turned by a mule. My family up both sides were primarily subsistence farmers, and the mule was the most valuable piece of equipment they had for their survival.

“Whoa, Becky!” my Papaw would say every time he parked his ’63 Chevy Nova. We girls would giggle and chime in, “Whoa, Becky!” from the back seat. We finally asked Papaw why he called his car Becky. It wasn’t the car – growing up, Becky was the name of his family mule and every single trip, every single workday, ended with, “Whoa, Becky.”

Papaw liked to tell the story of the time he was on his way back from town and stopped to visit with my Nana, who he was courting. The sun was setting, and Becky, restless, wanted to get back to her barn and her fresh hay. Papaw wasn’t in as big a hurry, and continued to sit on the porch, visiting with Nana. Becky decided they had visited long enough, so she took a notion to head on home without Papaw. When Papaw realized Becky and the wagon were gone, he took off running through the field, hoping to cut Becky off at the four-way near his family’s house. Becky was faster and beat Papaw back to the barn. He found her there, that barn-sour mule, trying to pull the wagon into the barn so she could eat. 

Papaw said Becky was the inspiration for the phrase, “stubborn as a mule.”  One morning his daddy, Granddaddy McCullough, got Becky harnessed to the plow and was ready to start work when Becky decided she didn’t much feel like working that day. She refused to move. Nothing they did made Becky take a step. They pulled, they pushed, they yelled, they held out hay – Becky wouldn’t budge. Papaw said Granddaddy decided they had only one choice left to get that mule to move. 

They kindled a fire under Becky’s belly. 

The fire grew, but Becky just stood there. Finally, Becky decided she might oughta move rather than burn, so she started walking. Happy that this had worked, Granddaddy got behind the plow. Becky walked far enough to get out of the fire, then stopped, and refused to move another step.

Another family mule’s name has been lost to history, but her story endures. In the fall of 1864, Union Troops were present in Henry County and groups of soldiers went out on foraging missions to replenish supplies for the troops. Someone near my great-great-grandfather’s farm rode up into the yard and shouted, “The Yankees are coming!” Granddaddy Blackmon grabbed what few valuables the family had and ran to the well, climbing down and hiding. His son, my great-grandfather John Wesley, was supposed to run to the house and stay there. The family had discussed what to do if the soldiers came, and Granddaddy and Granny Blackmon worried aloud about how they would continue to farm when the Yankees took their mule. When my then six-year-old great-grandfather saw the troops enter the yard and look at the now nameless mule, he decided that their mule wasn’t going anywhere. He ran from the house and grabbed the bridle on the mule and refused to let go. The soldiers shook the mule and ordered the child to let the mule go, but John Wesley held on for dear life. Tears streamed down his face, yet he never let go. Finally, the commanding officer of the Yankee troops said, “If he wants that mule so bad, let him keep it,” and ordered the men to leave the yard. That mule stayed put, and my family was able to continue to farm, which meant they were able to eat.

The last mule of the family was what you might call a loaner mule. In 2008, a tornado struck the Live Oak community in Polk County, Georgia. A woman was killed, and her husband seriously injured when their brick home was reduced to rubble. The couple had a horse and a mule which was blind in her right eye. My mother-in-law, who we called MawMaw, volunteered their back pasture for the horse and the mule while the man recovered. The horse and mule were inseparable, and any time the horse got on the right side of the mule, the mule would start to scream. The horse would patiently turn and walk around the mule, back to her left side, and the mule would stop screaming. The two would nuzzle, and then continue to graze. While they were there, my ten-year-old daughter learned that horses don’t much care for lemon ice cream but that mules seem to enjoy it. 

The mule was very vocal, and after the pair were able to return to their home in the Live Oak community, MawMaw said she really missed hearing the mule bray. “It’s comforting,” she said. “It sounds like when Daddy had old Hattie.”