Every spring my family would mark the cold spells as they came and went. They had beautiful names: Redbud Winter, Dogwood Winter, Blackberry Winter. We even had a little spell we called Raspberry Winter. Then after the Tenth of May cold spell you could go barefoot until fall, and usually did as much as we could. These “winters” were temporary cold snaps after Spring had begun. They seemed to come with regularity. Every time the weather went below, say 60 degrees, we would look to see what was blooming and name the spell after that flower. Redbuds bloomed first, then dogwoods, then the berries. So the progression of Spring moved through those waves of blossoms as the earth adjusted to its position with the sun.
It was tradition in our family to pay attention to the signs of nature. Pappaw told that his grandfather always waited to plant field corn until “oak leaves were a big as squirrel’s ears.” Planting usually began with gassing the tobacco beds in February. A huge sheet of plastic was placed over the bed (about 10 feet by fifty feet), on boards nailed together. Gas cans were placed beneath the plastic and opened up to release their chemical. This treated the bed so when seedlings came up they had a good chance to mature. We usually had the beds sewn by the time the “frogs started hollerin’.”
Next the lettuce beds and onion sets and cabbage were planted. The lettuce was usually sewn in a bed defined by four boards nailed in a frame. A piece of cheese cloth was nailed to the top so the rain and light could get through. If it got cold, the frame and cloth was enough to help protect the young leaves. Onions and cabbage could usually stand any cold snap, and could be planted as early as the second week of February.
There is a long held tradition in our part of the country to plant potatoes around Good Friday. This date moves from year to year with the lunar calendar. It is the Friday before Easter. As I’ve been taught, Easter is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. This could put it from mid March to late April. It is possible to get a bad cold snap between March and April. When it has happened it sometimes kills the young apple blossoms, and can snap the first sprouts from potato vines.
As the Spring progresses the rest of the garden is laid off and planted. After the tenth of May it is generally okay to plant everything that needs to wait until “all danger of frost has past.” So, then beans, squash, corn, and what-have-you can go in the ground. Tomato plants, too. And of course, the transplanted tobacco seedlings. We kids were sometimes told to wait until after May 15 to shed our shoes, but sometimes we took it a little early. It was thought that we were in danger of catching cold if we didn’t listen.
When I served a church near Bluefield, Virginia, an older woman there told me that there was another cold spell in those parts that happened around the end of May or first of June. It was called the “Sheep Rains.” This was a spell that happened about the time the sheep were sheared. It was several days in a row of light rain and cooler temperatures. Of course, this is the county where a preacher once told me that in 1940 he was serving a church near the Indian Paintings and they had scheduled a revival for the second week of May only to cancel it because of snow. The year he told me that it was in the 90s on Mother’s Day. At home May was the month to get the tobacco planted and try to get the first mowing of hay put up.
We tend to mark time by the tragedies of life. For even as life is going well, there are those unexpected twists and turns. My childhood was marked by an event in April, 1977 when it rained for several days in a row. The Holston River got out of its banks higher than we ever had seen. Over in Clinchport, the water got up in all the houses of that little town. Grundy, Virginia, also had devastating floods. Our school became the lunchtime site for the Clinchport Elementary kids who were bussed from their home town to Weber City to attend school in the educational building of the Baptist Church. They would walk the quarter mile down Jennings Street to our school to eat. We were not allowed to play with them, but we watched them make that march down and back each school day, and were told to remember them in their losses. So, the “Flood of ’77” has become a kind of marker for our lives, and theirs. Today there is hardly anything left of that town.
“The year Granddaddy died” is another marker. 1974, Granddaddy Ketron passed. His farm was then divided and the herd was sold. It changed relations in the family and we no longer got together for Christmas as we once had.
The “year the church burned down” was another I heard a lot about. It coincided with the labor strike at the Kingsport Press. 1963, January. Preacher Brown had gone to start the furnace to heat the church up for services. When he walked across the parking lot to the parsonage, he heard a loud noise, looked back and saw the flames shooting up through the church. This was very traumatic for our community. The old church had stood since 1899. It was the place where generations had been baptized, married, found saving grace, and had funerals. That year brought change in the town of Kingsport with the strike. It was never settled and it caused my uncles, my grandfather, and my dad to seek other work. Retirement accounts dried up in thin air. Our family must have thought God had left them in the events of that terrible year. But we survived. A new church was built and dedicated in June of 1967. Livelihoods were found. We moved on.
That’s the way it is. We are used to tragedy coming even in the good times of life. We expect, and even brace for it. We mark the winters of life. We wait for the warmth to return. We move on. May the warm sun of God’s love continue to smile down upon us through life’s ups and downs.