Now I was always advised that silence is golden, and I’d be best off in the end to keep my mouth shut and my thoughts to myself and behave like a lady, lest I be thought a wild woman. Well, I’ve been thinking on that good ol’ advice, and I’ve come to my own conclusions.
Winter falls hard here. It comes while we’re sleeping, like a thief in the night, and steals the blues from the heavens and the greens from the cedars, leaving a black and white silent film of a world. We’ve seen this old flick before, and we know how it ends. It all reminds me of the Mother Mountain in her current gray steel and silent reverie. She’s absolute and raw and real, like that old black and white film. She tells it like it is. She wears that silent gray like a cloak of honor and stays still for months on end. Nothing worth sowing grows from her soil in these dark days. The technicolor blues and golden yellows of our summertime youth and playground days are hidden beyond the layers of clouds and holiday bills, and we long for the return of warmth and her winsome yellows.
But we can only stay silent for so long, Mama.
It’s a particular outfit that I recollect, a pale yellow ensemble of cotton stretch pants with a matching top, little black pinstripes and all. Now I was proud of that outfit, and truth be told, I didn’t have others like it. It was a hand-me-down from one of the church girls that was more fortunate than I had ever been, and it fit my blossoming thirteen year-old frame like a regular glove. Eighth Grade girls can be cruel, and I’ll never forget the day when a schoolmate, a fortunate girl with a big brick house and a big perm asked me why I wore that yellow outfit almost everyday, and didn’t I know that people notice. And good Lord, your shoes don’t even match. Are you poor?
Well, I suppose I’d never considered that other folks paid attention to what clothes I wore, much less the bright pink jelly shoes that had already seen a summer or two. Maybe three. But they did. Oh, yes, they did. But silence was golden then, too, as I’d been told, as golden as my yellow outfit, and I said nothing despite my embarrassment.
But yes, we were poor. Appalachian poor, indeed, which is a sight worse than any other poor in this great country. We were poor to the point of that good ol’ yellow government cheese I’m reminiscing on, and how, despite the poverty of my youth and Daddy being laid off from the coal mines and us having nothing to show for his years of labor and strife but a modest mobile home and a small piece of Appalachian ground, that cheese made us feel regal and blessed when we’d slice off a slab and make grilled government cheese sandwiches, which we’d cut gingerly into four small squares. They last longer that way, you know.
And the cornbread, too. Golden yellow from the cornmeal, all grainy and good and even more wonderful with that good yellow cow butter, the real deal, churned from scratch by one of the Pentecostal church ladies that donated to our family when the Kroger or Acme didn’t trust Daddy’s checks anymore. We’d have gladly paid with food stamps, if we had them, but Daddy had worked too much and stayed golden silent for too long and the numbers never added up. We got nothing for free, despite that yellow outfit. I paid for it with the cruel comments from my Eighth Grade peers. And not a dab of that good butter was wasted. Waste not, want not.
And Lord help us if we didn’t eat what Mama put on our plates. Have mercy. Throwing away a piece of a fried golden tater or turning up your nose at the third bowl of soup beans for the week would see you in the bed with an empty and ungrateful stomach. If you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat it, Mama would say. And eat it, we did. Even if it was beef liver and onions, or sauerkraut and wieners, or another bowl of soup beans, or fried fatback and turnip greens. As I recollect it, I never knew the splendor of pizza, or a fast food hamburger, or a carbonated beverage until I was old enough to buy them myself. No, never.
But that Appalachian ground allowed us garden vegetables in the Virginia shine and yellow months of summer, and we’d eat cucumbers and tomatoes and bell peppers raw and warm, rain-washed and perfect. Yellow summer squash, too. Rhubarb and sweet strawberries and a grove of wild grapes, too. And golden honey from Granny’s hive, ambrosial and warm and gifted from Nature herself, and regular heaven on bites of her biscuits, yellow-crusted tops and all. Yellow like the siding on the new house Daddy and Mama were able to build, thanks to the boom of the coal industry in the late 1980s. Yellow like the April dandelions that prove Life lives here, thank you very much, and plenty of them to afford a Spring tonic to wake up your Winter bones.
Oh yes, if you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat it.
I learned that lesson too hard. A plentiful handful of us are still eating, even when we’re full and tired. We’ve put up with more than we can digest, simply because we were hungry at the time, and because silence is golden, girl. You know what I’m talking about. Oh, yes. You’re silent when you want to scream. You learned that lesson too hard, as I did. As Granny did, too. If you start it, you finish it. You made your bed, now lie in it. And you might go to bed every night, full and fed up to the gills, and pray to God to wipe away the leftovers on your plate, for you weren’t as hungry as you once thought. Yes, you know what I mean. Food ain’t the only thing that’ll fill you up. We’ve seen the ending of that black and white film too many times.
Take a lesson from our dear Mother Mountain. She gets tired of that gray cloak, and then she shakes it off and becomes a wild woman, naked and shining golden and loud. I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to eat it if you ain’t hungry, girl. You might have asked for it. You just may have heaped a second helping of it on your plate. You may still be having it for dessert, even if it ain’t sweet anymore or soothing to your palate. Even when you’re no longer hungry. Even when you ain’t sweet anymore, neither.
I’d rather starve than eat another pone of cornbread and another bean, I’d tell Mama. I’m tired of lettuce and bacon grease and onions and this yellow government cheese, no matter how regal and good it is, and people looking at me like I’m nobody, like I’m just another pitiful mouth in another Appalachian holler.
I grew tired of watching that same black and white film. I grew tired of expectations and promises and those godforsaken beans. I grew tired of being silent. I was full as a tick. But alas, I’m not hungry anymore. Lord, no. Too many years and seasons worth of beans and liver and things that sustain only for the time at hand and not for the time to come. Oh, yes, girl. You can be nourished and still not healthy. Fed and still not full. Throw those scraps out. Somebody else can use them, and you know it’s true. One girl’s trash is another girl’s treasure. Another girl’s yellow outfit.
Long gone are the days of that modest mobile home and the garden cucumbers and tomatoes, and that glorious government cheese. But I’d wear that yellow outfit again if I could, and those pink jelly shoes, too. I’d wear them everyday, for as long as I felt like it. I’d make government cheese grilled sandwiches and make a poor girl feel regal again. I’d suck the yellow marrow out of those days, had I known they’d be gone soon enough. I’d punch that girl with the big brick house and big perm in her fat mouth, and ask her if it hurt, and inform her that her blood was the same color as mine.
Oh, yes. We know how this movie ends. And beyond the recollections of mean girls and hunger, the golden yellow awaits us. Once again the Mother Mountain will rise up from her long sleep and shake off the gray. And so will you. And she’ll spread out a feast of yellow sunrises and garden vegetables and wisdom and warmth. We can wait a bit longer. Yes, you can wait, as those yellow-winged Monarch butterflies swarm in your belly. Our summertime youth and playground days are hidden beyond the layers of clouds and holiday bills.
No, ma’am. Silence is not golden. Golden is the lightening that cuts a path through the heavens and hollers like a panther, and says without an ounce of doubt, I am alive, poor and soup beans or not. I am reborn again and again. You might play me again next year, but I’ll always come back, just like that old movie with the ending you already know. Golden is that regal cheese, the sweet butter, the hand-me-down-outfit, the very yellow sunshine that sustains us during that predictable black and white film and the soon to bloom dandelions.
I’ll say it once more: silence is not golden.
I am a wild woman, bright yellow and roaring like the Spring lightening. Listen for it, girl. Throw out those scraps. That Spring tonic will bloom soon, yellow and proud.
And if you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat it.