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Our Mother Sister
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The Spectator
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 by Frank Shortt
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       She was a beautiful baby, always agreeable from the time she could reason. Being the oldest girl, she naturally became caregiver to the others as they came along. Her instincts told her that she was indeed a mother and she was truly that at an early age. By the time she could stand in a chair and wash dishes or even dirty diapers, she did the bulk of those unwanted chores.
       Ours wasn’t the greatest environment being raised in a coal mining community in the County of Buchanan in the State of Virginia. Our parents, Edward and Stella Addison Shortt, worked from daylight to dark at their respective chores to make ends meet. Dad was a coal miner and Mom a devoted housewife. She stuck with Dad through thick and thin.
       Raleigh was the oldest boy, Frances, the oldest girl, then came Lula, Wendell, Frank, Ruthann, E.L. and Carol. We were not unruly children but we were ruled by Puritan ethics which sometimes would not allow us to express ourselves in any matter. Our Parent’s word was law and to back up that law there was always a belt or keen switch ready at hand. Many times the children had stripes around their legs and back.
       Frances, knowing that such a responsibility rested on her, was usually as stern as our parents, if not more. She could wield a mean stick if any of us stirred her up. I have felt the point of her wrath many times.
       “Frankie, go get us a bucket of water” was the usual command at about the time Mom and Dad left for town to buy groceries.
       “Aw, why can’t Wendell go get it” I would cry.
       “Because he is already out cutting wood, and if you don’t head out soon, I’ll whale the daylights out of you!” I went.
       Then there was the time that Wendell, Bill Chambers and I got into Ira Chambers’ moonshine. He kept it in an old smoke house on the edge of the creek. This creek was lined with outhouses up and down no one thinking that the residue from them leaked into the creek. God took a hand in 1957 when he sent a flood on this creek, Grassy creek, to be exact, and floated off the majority of the outhouses. The County seat was odiferous for a while afterward. This Saturday morning was like most other Saturday mornings in Shortt Gap. Mom and dad had gotten up pretty early to go shopping at the Farm Bureau in Richlands leaving Frances in charge.
       She took her responsibilities very seriously and for a couple of reasons. One, she was a very responsible person, and secondly she knew that if she let anything serious happen, she would get the brunt of it when our parents returned.
       Bill, Wendell and I went into the musty old shed, watching all the while for spiders, lizards and copperheads that sometimes take up their abode in such places. We poured about a quart of the highly toxic liquid into a fruit jar procured from among mom’s storage. We then proceeded to the creek and poured this wonderful creek water into the void left by our pilfering the jug. This was the beginning of a very eventful and memorable morning.
       Bill and Wendell drank several swigs before I entered the festivities. As a result, they became intoxicated long before I was affected by the brew. Moonshine is a very subtle intoxicant. It creeps upon one as would a fog after a rain.
       Bill ran to the outhouse, screaming at the top of his lungs, soon lying down on the dirty floor going “whoopee” and eventually passing into oblivion. Wendell ran all over the hillside and later came into the front yard acting like a chicken with its head cut off. I was standing at the edge of the yard which abruptly ended where a steep hill began leading down to the creek. I hit Wendell a solid blow to his torso sending him headlong down the hill and eventually landing at the road which divided the hill.
       About this time, Frances, who had been inside cleaning the house and was unaware of the situation, came storming out of the house, red of face and with murder in her heart for anyone who would hamper her progress.
       “What in the world are you boys doing?” She demanded.
       Not being much of a liar I replied, “Wendell and Bill got into Ira’s moonshine and have been drinking it.”
       “Did you drink any,” she asked.
       “Only a little swig,” was my feeble reply.
       “Well, you’re just as guilty as they are, and where are Wendell and Bill?”
       “Bill is in the outhouse and Wendell is layin’ down in the road.”
       Sis evaluated the situation and deduced, “Help me drag Wendell up here by the water barrel, we’ll just leave Bill in the toilet for now.”
       Although I was feeling a little queasy and a little scared of what I was in for, I helped her drag Wendell up by the rain barrel. We commenced to empty the contents of the barrel pouring it into Wendell’s face and all over his body trying to sober him up like we had seen in the movies. It is a wonder we didn’t drown him. After this we dragged Bill down to the barrel and poured the remainder of the stagnant water on him. By this time I was feeling pretty sick never having encountered Moonshine Whiskey before. After a while, probably because the effects of the ‘shine’ wore off and not because we almost drowned the two delinquents, they regained consciousness. After the ‘moonshine’ incident when Sis wanted us to do anything all she had to do was make a little motion of drinking some liquid and we were more than happy to do her bidding.
       This went on until Frances left home and eventually married. She never told our parents about the incident and probably for two reasons. She would have gotten into trouble for allowing us to do it in the first place and secondly, she was able to get boo-koos of work out of Wendell and I. She didn’t tell Ira about us, probably until this day, because she would have been responsible for Ira beating Bill half to death and she was too embarrassed to let Ira know that we had put old dirty creek water back in his jug. We were too young to figure out that she would have gotten into just as much trouble as we if she had told our parents right away.
       Frances was destined to always be a hard-working, sensitive girl who would sacrifice much for the rest of the children in our family. In fact, she was mother, sister, nurse, caretaker and also a tender comforter to many of us when we would encounter hurts of one kind or another. She was the one who changed our diapers, wiped our noses, and spanked us when we needed it.
       I will never forget the time when, one Saturday morning, mom and dad had gone to town for the weekly groceries. They mostly shopped at the “Farm Bureau” in the town of Richlands, Virginia, where things were a little less expensive. Of course, in those days one could buy enough groceries for the whole week with a ten dollar bill. Getting the money was another story.
      Frances was mopping the kitchen floor, another of her many tasks, when all at once I came running onto her wet floor with a pair of muddy shoes. Boy, did I regret that action. She turned around like a protective lioness and shoved the dirty, wet mop right smack dab into my face. I, of course, saw red and pulled off one of my muddy shoes, for lack of another weapon, and threw it at her with all my might. This was another regretful maneuver. She ducked the shoe which went flying right through one of the kitchen windows. I agonized for the rest of the day, knowing what was coming when mom and dad arrived home. Sure enough, the first thing mom noticed when she came into the kitchen was the broken windowpane. I had difficulty sitting down for the next week!!
       One Saturday, in the heat of summer, my sisters Lula and Ruthann, my brothers, Wendell, E.L. and I found the opportune time to go down by the creek to smoke some Rabbit tobacco which we had stashed away for this opportunity.
       “Hey y’all, let’s go play down by the old Ira Chambers barn.” Wendell and I suggested.
       Lula was a little reluctant, being the careful one. The other younger ones came willingly just to be with the ‘bigger kids’.
       “We can have lot’s of fun while mom and dad ain’t here!”
       Off we went for a Saturday morning adventure.
       Mom and dad were shopping at the Farm Bureau again in Richlands and Albert, Hobart and Fay Stilwell’s parents, our nearest neighbors, had gone shopping to Tazwell as they said the groceries were much cheaper up there. We always believed that they thought they were a step above the Shortts and therefore wanted to go to the bigger town just to ‘be highfalutin’. We had some strange thoughts back then. Anyhow, Frances was left in charge of the little Shortts and Jerelene was left in charge of the little Stilwells.
       “Hey Hobie, why don’t you and Albert come down and play with us in the creek bottom”? This we told them because we didn’t want to spill the beans at first. “We can catch some crawdads and hornie heads and all kinds of other things.” I promised.
       After a little hollering up to the Stilwell house, we were able to coax the three younger Stilwells down to the old building that Ira Chambers had used for a barn. This was to be our smoking place. That ‘barn’ proved to be a place where lots of childhood memories resided.
       Hobart, Albert and Faye had never been in on our debauchery, so it took some time to cajole them into joining us. In fact, they had never smoked anything in their lives. They were probably the most disciplined children in our neighborhood, I don’t mean that we were not ‘disciplined’, it is just that they were naturally inclined to be good children.
       “Oh, come on, you little chickens Bok, bok, bok!” One of the Shortts said with a sneer.
       “No, we’d better not smoke, mom will whale the daylights out of us,” Albert replied. He usually was spokesman for all three.
      “It won’t hurt you, it’s not even real tobacco. Who’s gonna smell it on you? You can eat some onions if you’re scared of your mom smelling it on your breath!”
       I told them this because it was a favorite trick of mine. Mom usually smelled the tobacco anyway. I had been walloped, called tobacco worm, and all kinds of denigrating names all to no avail.
       It came as a surprise that the Stillwell children took their turns on the ‘rabbit tobacco’ cigarette, coughing and wheezing all the while. Of course, the smaller Shortt children were not doing much better. None of us realized how much danger we were placing ourselves in. That old barn was dry as a desert bone and had leftover straw and hay lying everywhere. Frances, or Jerelene must have seen the smoke coming out the cracks and ran down to the creek bottom to put an end to our smoking excursion. We did not realize it at the time but they probably saved our lives. After spankings all around and promises to ‘never do that again’, we walked softly for a few days, knowing that our older sisters had something more to hold over our heads.
Sliding Down the Slate Dump


Saturday was the day that mom and dad
Shopped at the farm bureau for food
Not only for the animals we kept
But also their eight hungry brood.
 
There was Raleigh, Frances, Lula, Wendell and me
Ruthann, E L and the baby Carol
What a ragtag motley crew we made
In our home-made and threadbare apparel!
 
Frances was left to watch over us,
As she was the oldest girl,
Not much more than a child herself,
We kept her head in a whirl.
 
We were always making demands of her
“Sis what can we do to have fun”?
She would often be heard to reply
“Well, you can play when the work is done”.
 
One day she was asked by Wendell
“Can we play in the slate dump today”?
We were surely surprised when she said, “Yes!”
Being ready for total dismay.
The slate dump was created by
Our uncle Elmer and our dad
By dumping the residue from the coal they mined
To the side of the tipple they had.
We took some old cardboard boxes
That mom had thrown in the trash
And proceeded to the top of the dump
To begin our forbidden bash!
If mom had only seen us then
As we scooted from the top of the hill
She would probably have had a heart attack
As we pursued our greatest thrill!
 
What a wonderful time was had by all
And we hated like mad to be done
But as we were filthy from head to toe
And mom’s return we had to outrun.
Frances herded us all down to Grassy creek
After procuring a towel and some soap
And made us to wash, clothes and all
With our protests she wouldn’t cope.
Mom didn’t find out for many a year
About our clandestine little escapade
All she could do right then was laugh
And not enter a frantic tirade!


Sis went on to become a wife, a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She has remained faithful to each one of us from the least to the greatest. She has changed the diapers, wiped the runny noses, healed the hurts, dried the eyes of each succeeding generation, and stayed true to her calling through thick and thin. Her life has been full as she, like a fruit tree, only bears the fruit that is in her roots. How can anyone do different?