I hail from a place in rural Kentucky where the roads are named after the indigenous farmers who lived there and who secured the land for their posterity. Toad Mattingly Road, Gerald O’Daniel Road, Cowherd Lane, and Sam Browning Road are just a few of those roads. I grew up on Sam Browning Road and my history begins there. As a child growing up in a large family, I was not cognizant of the history of which I was apart, nor did I know that when I left Sam Browning Road, I would take with me all the necessary tools to be the adult I am today.
Ed and Roberta Flanagan married on November 25, 1937 and beget eight children and those children had thirty grandchildren. Those thirty children, my twin brother, older sister, and the five Browning children who lived across the road, were my first friends. Long, lazy summers and Sundays, post Mass, found most of us in Mamaw and Papaw Flanagan’s front yard under the shade of the catalpa and maple trees, having just shared an enormous deep fried meal. The kids played, the grown ups talked, and someone always had a guitar. There was always a new baby to hold and make over and someone usually brought home a new husband or wife to join our ever growing clan. It is argued that school is necessary for socialization. For me, school, in it’s organized confinement, only stunted my social skills. We were a family, a tribe, a clan and through it I learned how to comport myself around adults, teens, babies and the elderly in a respectful, joyous, loving, and communal way that no school could ever accomplish. A parent to one was a parent to us all; we respected each adult as we respected our own parents and they treated us all as if we were their own children. We were safe, loved, valued…and well fed. And we knew it.
Papaw was known for his mordant, sometimes caustic, approach to life. I never knew him to hug one of us, or even his own children, for that matter; that was just not his way. That’s not to say he never did–I just never saw him do it. He did not tolerate self-aggrandizing or indolence and it was no secret he was judgmental to a fault. He liked a person or disliked him upon first meeting him–and his first impression never wavered. Mamaw was our true matriarch. At mealtimes, one could find her doting and fussing over everyone, making sure children and adults alike had tea in their glasses and food on their plates. I remember her asking, “What are you huntin’ for?” and she would be out of her chair and accommodating whatever request we had. It was rare she even sat down at all during meal times. Before her own children were grown, she, like many of the women of the time, would go and stay with new mothers, ensuring their health and the health of their new babies in the weeks postpartum.
Aunt Mary, with Becky, Jack, and Chris in tow, would come from Louisville to stay every summer and help take care of Mamaw and Papaw and their homestead as they were getting older. All six of them would live in that tiny farmhouse with no bathroom and no central air. It was in this house I had my first cup of coffee at eight years old, drank raw milk and shared a “water dipper” with about five or six kids throughout the course of a day…and never once got sick. Long gone are the days before “germ-o-phobes” and the constant application of hand sanitizer. If Papaw and Mamaw were poor, none of us knew it. We always had something to eat, somebody to play with, and somebody to watch over us. To be honest, in my early youth, I just assumed everybody’s grandparents used an outhouse!
I remember when my cousin Joe was barely a teenager and learning to play guitar. He would practice in Papaw’s barn and although I was enamored with my older cousin and his budding talent, I also knew that his learning to play a musical instrument was a normal rite of passage in our family and a fulfillment of a legacy.
Aunt Theresa was an artist with the brush and I remember listening to the stories of Old Nell–Papaw’s work horse, and of neighbors and family as I looked at her portraits of the Flanagan homestead. She, too, was a writer and I remember sitting in the front yard at my grandparents, her writing of her formative years on the Flanagan farm being read aloud to us.
We shared in the failings of life, as well. There were was a divorce or two, discord between children, alcoholism (we are Irish Catholic, after all), a tussle here and there, and deaths along the way. But the heartaches and loss were but stumbling blocks and never, ever tore any of us apart even if it meant the occasional estrangement from time to time. It was also understood we all need time away to come to terms with whatever hardship one was enduring.
None of us kids could ever be found in front of a television. From sun up til sundown we were somewhere on that farm. Papaw’s hay wagon was our stage for our Mandrell sisters reenactment–I was always Irline…the one who couldn’t sing. We grew up on the creek banks, in shady front yards, snowy hillsides, and barn lots. Our life consisted of very few outdoor toys, other than bikes, balls and baseball bats, but we were never bored; we could conjure entertainment like a shaman invokes a spirit. But, at dusk most evenings in the summer, the voices of Christine Browning, Mary Cecilia, and my own mother would call us all home to our respective houses. Our being fed was of little concern, as we probably ate at whomever’s home we happen to be in at mealtime. We’d trod home, sweaty, hot, tired, and more likely than not, sustaining an injury of some sort. Minor cuts, ankle sprains, sunburns, bugbites, and even the occasional bruised ego was normal and dealt with by the mommas. Any injury requiring more than ice or a bandaid was inspected first by my mother, a nurse, before a trip to the doctor was ever considered. My mother was frequently awakened in the night or sometimes greeted first thing in the morning by a neighbor with a sick child or ailing parent, and was generally called first when someone was getting ready to pass away, in the hopes of easing discomfort and consoling those on the brink of impending grief.
Farmwork, as with play, was a communal endeavor. John Dennie Browning helped Papaw cut and haul hay, my daddy would direct a wayward cow back to John Dennie without complaint. Our neighbors–Frankie Hutchins, John Dennie, Leon Browning, Charles Owen Smith–all helped each other with tobacco planting, cutting, stripping, and hanging, hay cutting and bailing, and fence building. I vividly remember helping to pick peppers and thinking it was fun. I think it was then I learned the joy, significance, and value of hard work.
As my grandparents got older and the first cousins grew up, gatherings became more sporadic. My brother Charlie, since he was old enough to walk, spent everyday by Papaw’s side. He learned every inch of the land, how to cut and bail hay, how to care for cattle, and how to drive at age ten. I recall my mother nearly having a coronary the first time she saw my brother’s two blue eyes peeking over the steering wheel as he plowed across the field for the first time, Papaw bouncing beside him in the passenger’s seat. Papaw patiently taught him these things, and when Papaw’s health started to fail, my brother, a teenage boy, spent every day for two years taking care of him and Mamaw, who was beginning to suffer from dementia. He fixed their meals; my mother recalls the myriad calls at work whereby Charlie would ask her how to fry pork chops or make corn bread. He saw to it that their basic hygiene needs were met and kept them company. My brother now owns and farms that same land and is raising his own children there, having built a house in the same spot my grandparents raised their eight children.
I left home at eighteen. To say I had my own demons to face was a gross understatement, and I believe I looked for Sam Browning Road every where I lived. Couple that with the fact that I became soldier’s wife, and by design, I became rather reclusive. I’m older now,and have faced and conquered my various demons, and I certainly have no regrets. Well, that’s not entirely true, I suppose. To my only daughter, I failed to give the gift of siblings, and I will always regret this. I worry about my husband’s and my own mortality, and on whom she will lean, if anyone, when her father and I are gone. I am far removed, several times, from Sam Browning Road, but with it I will always have a sense of place and a history. Regardless of what I have done or what I will do, I will always know where I came from. My own daughter will only have the stories I tell her of her great-grandparents, my aunts and uncles and my cousins.
I suppose for me, it took leaving the hill on Sam Browning Road to appreciate what I gained from the experiences there. The axiomatic belief that one can never go home may be true physically, as inhabitants and landscapes change. But the home in my memories will never change–and I “revisit” it often. My cousins grew up to follow their various calls; some became soldiers, musicians, nurses, mothers and fathers. What did I become? Well, I haven’t quite figured that out yet. But what I do know is this: the promise of a better job, a larger paycheck, and more places to eat, shop, and be entertained are poor substitutes for the love, community, and kinship of a large family that is within walking distance.
©Mary Flanagan Taylor