A woman caught my eye as I pulled my car up in front of Pendleton's post office. On first glance there was nothing particularly striking about the woman. Her white hair was parted down the middle and woven into thick braids. Her skin was the color of sun-warmed honey. She wore a calico-print dress. It hung loose around her thick middle. Her legs looked strong, like those of a long-distance runner. Her dark eyes squinted against the sun. Her broad face bore neither frown nor wrinkle.
To me, she seemed eerily familiar.
This woman was the near spitting image of my great-aunt Lucille. Or Aunt Cil, as we kids called her. Cil was one of several daughters born to an English woman, Louisa Shropshire, and a Cherokee man, whose name nobody in the family recalls.
Aunt Cil was a Christian woman in every sense of that word. She was married to old Doc Christian. They lived in a house built on stilts that was situated on a corner known as Christian Bend. Nearly everyone who lived in the Tennessee holler was a Christian, at least by name. Doc wasn't really a doctor. Mama doesn't know why he was called Doc.
Around the corner from their house was the church were Aunt Cil worshipped, three times weekly. Twice on Sunday and once during the middle of the week, on prayer meeting night.
Cil had plenty of burdens to pray about. Doc Christian had been a widowed man, nearly twice her age, when she married him. Doc and Cil never had any children of their own. But Cil helped raise Doc's son, Lon, the mute boy whose birth had helped hasten his own mama's death. Doc died before his child-rearing task was complete, leaving Cil and Lon without a pension or a promise for a better tomorrow.
Cil got by on routine. The stove was stoked with firewood first thing every morning. Sometimes for warmth. Always for biscuits. Lon drew water from the well twice a day. Once in the coolness of the morning and again in the evening, in the shade of dusk. There was a garden of fresh vegetables out back and a pen of filthy pigs out front. There was a two-seater outhouse near the apple orchard and one-butt rocker on the porch for afternoon visiting.
I sat countless days on Aunt Cil's porch, peppering her with questions.
"How come the house is built so high off the ground?" I asked.
"So the snakes can't get in," Cil replied.
(Mental note to myself: Stay out from under the house when playing cops and robbers with Brother Frankie).
Aunt Cil died in 1968, two years after Daddy was killed at war. She was buried on a sunny afternoon in the graveyard at the Freewill Christian Church. Unlike Daddy's battered corpse, which had scared the heebie-jeebies out of me, Aunt Cil's corpse looked downright beautiful. She wore a pink gown. Her long braids, white as talcum powder, fell across her chest. Her hands were wrapped in prayer, around her dog-eared Bible.
I went back to Christian Bend recently. Aunt Cil's house is no longer standing, but the barn where the pigs wallowed remains. Apples still grow green on the hillside. And the church graveyard is full of Christians, those by name and those by faith.
I went back with a purpose. I wanted to buy Aunt Cil a headstone. A pink marble one. Cil loved all things pink. On it I had engraved the words of an author whose name I can't remember but whose truth I appreciate: Words rise up out of the country.
That truth surfaced again last weekend while I was attending Fishtrap, the writers conference held twice yearly at Wallowa Lake outside Joseph. My husband is a third-generation Joseph native. In Wallowa County, people often refer to me as "Tim's wife" or "Gene and Gwen's daughter-in-law."
It was while I was living in Wallowa County in the early 1980s that I began to jot down some stories of my own making. During that recent trip South, I shared a few of my stories with Aunt Cil as I knelt beside her grave and that of my great-grandmother, Louisa.
A light rain fell from the sky. The trees whispered to one another.
"That's one of Lucille Christian's kin," the pines above murmured.
Words do rise up out of the country.
And every now and then we meet the ghost of our elders at the corner post office.
It's through our memories, our stories that the old ways continue.
Karen Spears Zacharias can be reached via phone at 541.379.8572 or by e-mail at www.heromama.org