|Irene Buckner Stith (Fontaine)
Photo at right June 1911
Writings by Irene Buckner Stith (Fontaine)
Autobiography of Sis (unfinished)
Cave Woman by Irene Buckner Stith (Fontaine) April 23, 1912
Some lives are highways and do service
as guides and sign posts. Others are criss-crossed with by-paths over which weeds meet
together, while above like tender ripened fruit are the ungraspable, ungatherable things
Life began for me in a quiet nook of the world where primitive customs held sway. Home, church, marriage were the only recognized institutions and people grew up in fear of disfavor of the three, not in fear of God for He was an unknown quantity. It was creed they worshipped and my life was not unlike the rest except that I had a Christian father, a man of acute and tender feeling expressed in his singing to us children, in a clear soprano, the many, many hymns with which he was familiar. On Sundays our sanctuary was the woods. Every bird, stone, tree, flower and shrub shared with us its secrets interpreted by the magician, my father.
Young womanhood came too quickly and found me unprepared. I was the oldest and up until my fifteenth year, when I tried in my crude way to teach a little private school, had never been away from my family and its simple problems and though quiet was rebelling somewhat and indulging in dreams without definite shape.
When seventeen I taught a short-termed public school, leaving my home Mondays and returning Friday afternoons. When concluded I married Prince Charming. We spent one year in desultory fashion, visiting our numerous kin, playing at keeping house.
My husband was seized with a desire to go west, he going first to blaze the trail and me to follow, which I did two or three months later. Impressions did not reach me clearly, nor was my calm, serene poise disturbed until physical distress, sometimes coincident with early symptoms of motherhood, distressed me.
It was then an intense inner life awoke in me that nothing could appease, although my husband took a house in a quiet place with forest trees around. I longed with intense longing for freedom from restraint. I wandered far for the sweet country air. I grew morbidly sensitive over meeting folks, fearing greatly less they pity me, although it was human companionship that I missed and needed most of all - those dear, dear loved ones left behind. I lived in fancy my peaceful years with them. Thus my imagination was developed and grew backward.
My husband decided on another move that took us to a small town far from railroads, to a country so beautiful, so rich, so vast that one could spend a lifetime in exploration of its resources. This was our chief occupation until the time drew near for our babys arrival.
Once more our home was made in a grove of forest trees. Toward the sunrise rose Grand Preirie crowned with knobs, immense in size, half bald, half clothed in timber. Horizontally intersecting both forest and prairie ran a creek beyond which towered mountains short, flat, round and blue until lost in the highest peak of the Ozarks.
The townspeople yearly delved into the forest for pecans. On the prairie was found snipe and quail. The home of the wild turkey was in the deep recesses of scraggy timber growth overhung with moss along the slaty, dried up water courses.
The creek, besides furnishing fish, was the mecca for all religionists. They were all dipped in the clear, limpid, flowing waters on sunny Sunday afternoons following a heated revival.
There could have been no fairer place for a home. It was ours for seven years. Three children were born. Again restlessness seized my husband. He sallied forth in quest of new fortunes leaving me to fight alone my first sorrow. My very being had taken roots here. Oh! what grief it was to leave it all - the beautiful country, the dear home sacred through the birth of our children.
I followed him fully resolved never to let my affections fasten on another home or country. Our destination found us within five miles of our first halting place when we landed in the west. This stimulated interest and the country around was lovely. But our place of abode was dreadful; situated near an alley in the rear of well-to-do peoples homes, where the smells invaded and the hot sun poured down one long, hot summer.
Alas! my poor babes, to have been brought to this. I straightway questioned my husbands judgment and relegated to him that maternal love like unto that I gave the children, with the same allowances for his shortcomings. His nerves were strained in his efforts for our living and, while there was no question to determine the wisdom of the many moves he had made, there was one thing he did question and that was whether he hadnt married the wrong woman. Well he might question for I was floundering. Folks were neither restful nor inspiring. I was groping backward. The cave woman instinct came to the rescue. A beloved mountain was near; my eyes had long been cast thitherward. A chance visitor told of a vacant house that rented for less than half what we were paying. Coaxingly I pleaded for the childrens health. Soon we were installed in this delightful place. Not many months passed before we had built a home of our own.
But my mans vanity had suffered a blow. He grew morose and sulky, yet withal remained considerate and tender. He wanted to move to another state but I opposed him with some showing of righteous indignation and felt a much abused woman. Leave my mountain - never.
We struggled on, working often side by side, I utterly unable to grasp his viewpoint, with life so full, so content with conditions as I had helped to make them and as I loved them to be. I did not know that my husband endured it for my sake.
We rode, hunted, picnicked and worked in the fields. Our tabernacle was the forest on a high bluff overlooking the spires of a city five miles distant, a mighty river below us fed by an inflowing stream that had helped carve these bluffs and that watered that mighty forest. Morning, noon and twilight hours we made pilgrimages to our own bluff nearby, where the noises from the city below were like sweetest music, so near but not of it, so free were we. The church bells floated on the air like incense to kneeling worshippers or tolled sorrowfully of departed souls or rang clamoring and incessant the alarm of fire. Happy! happy years, the last we spent together.
After four years had passed I awakened to the realization that I had no husband. Something or somebody had stolen him away. My first thought was that the city, the monster, had engulfed him along with the fast-growing children who were daily in school there. So voluntarily I gave up this dear home hallowed with close associations and wealth of beautiful scenery.
Our circumstances were now much changed. Our entry was triumphant back to the place poverty had exiled us from. With home and children so blessed life would round out its closing years. In trying to adjust myself to this new life, ever new with me because my soul will not come out to meet folks, there were many trysts made back, back to Heartbreak Hill for such the mound was christened that bore the remains of our lovely baby boy. Many anguished tears were shed over this grave and that of marital happiness. For I had no husband and I, the self-contained young woman who had no love of folks but her own and those far removed by the years and distance, who had left her stronghold, the mountain, flew to an old, old stronghold, the subconscious self.
Those were terrible days. No mortals better self was ever butchered more mercilessly. The world, the people thereon did not exist for me except as an irritation. My children and their playmates came and went each their separate ways. I lived, moved, had my being outwardly calm but inwardly seething. Often I talked when I shouldnt, told grievances that I now imagined had lasted fifteen years. Furies were bottled up in me and when I could stand it no longer I would talk - always my own selfish interpretation, my cave self looking from the inside outward. O! what a dark cavern I inhabited alone. No one ever guessed; no one ever glimpsed its blackness, unless it was my husband. No mortal could have held out against this lowering, blackish pall that hung over our lives.
The talks were the last straw. My husband was borne down with his own faithlessness and my stupidity. With mighty growlings of wrath he belched fire from a gun into a mans back, implicating my honor.
I was out of my cave into the open where all who run could read. But it had taken eight years for me to thus imperfectly set forth my part in the drama, eight short years spent with folks with only an occasional withdrawal into the cave, years fraught with alarming things both tragic and comic and full to overflowing.
April 23, 1912
Autobiography of Sis
Life from my third year had its seamy side.
My parents removed to their new home that was erected on the topmost crest of a brown sedge hill where the brownish yellow waving stuff sloped off into hollows of thicket-grown sinkholes and on to the timbered horizon that closed in so near and bounded my small world. Over the rim of one bald sage grass crest the sun peeped gloriously onto our lives that began the day with Father feeding the squealing pigs, Mother over the breakfast in the close unwindowed kitchen and I with my small and ever increasing charges, my baby brothers.
In the early morning hours I could not glimpse the world below from the window in the gable end of my raftered chamber that faced the rising sun, nor did I think overly much of the fowls and animals. The sky I peopled with angels and the wooded hills with bogey men.
In the winter we played on the floor warmed from the blazing logs of the fireplace. In summer we spilled over into the fields, as carefree and as shy as the wild creatures of the woods.
This was unchanged until my tenth year when a sister came.
We had as usual been sent away to my grandmothers, horseback over the Ridge Road. As we emerged from the heavy timber onto the cleared boundaries of her home, lying so snug amid the cedars, locusts and maples near the foot of a gradual sloped hill from whose crest we always rapturously viewed the sunlit valley whose horizon was much larger than our own, our stoical acceptances of these pilgrimages and our recall to take up the burdens of life, with the youngest becoming my bedfellow and special charge, contained this time no hint of change though a suitable name could hardly be found for the dainty miss.
Now my brothers and I helped more with the work both indoors and out. There were cows to be milked, bushes to cut after the planting season was over, and a desire for improvements was shown in the walks we laid of flat stones and poles gotten from the woods and set in groups arbor-fashion for vines.
Oftentimes on Sundays the neighbor children came for the day. But we no longer slid down the straw stack or the steep sides of the red gullies. It was seldom that I knew rest or peace and probably cared for neither until I would notice my slim sister leaning against the doorway in mute protest to mine and the brothers roughness, or the furies in me would be aroused over her gentle caressing ways with my father. It was along about this time that I would give the brothers many a sly tweak and they would yell, Ma, make Sis quit a-pinchin me.
Of course there were more babies, both girls and boys. But I think my interest in them was waning.
Two incidents of those early irresponsible days stand out in memory. One afternoon I wanted very much to go home with my aunt, but nowhere could we find my new checkered calico bonnet. My mother rightly thinking I had lost it in the fields and to punish me brought forth an old brown worsted bonnet with strips of pasteboard set in quilted spaces that entirely hid my face and the tails of it hung to my knees. On the way we met a favorite uncle who had to take both hands to open up the bonnet to see my face, and how he did roar at my comical appearance.
One morning in spring my brother next to me and the oldest of the boys and myself started to school with a shiny new bucket filled for our lunch. We had no sooner climbed the fence leaving the cleared boundary of my fathers place when a hen pheasant whirred out and zipped around us two or three times. My brother dropped the bucket and ran; I stooped down with the pheasant whizzing around and saved that precious lunch.
Our men and boys did not wear tow linen shirts but their coats and trousers were made from soft gray woolen linsey woven by our grandmother. We knitted, in addition to our stockings, their socks and gloves. The yearly visitation of Santa Claus was made possible by our mother knitting extra heavy fingered gloves that fetched a good price at the country store. This was done at night after her regular mending or knitting was laid aside.
A great troupe of us trudged our way to the log schoolhouse over hills and hollows, carrying an immense basket of lunch. Wild animals crossed our paths seldom now. It was only on cold snowy evenings when seeking their dens that we saw them. Those same dens were haunted by an old uncle of Mothers who wore a coonskin cap, the sight of whom, always with his rifle slung across the saddle and he so small on his big upstanding horse, brought a cackle of mirth from us.
We worked or played with might and main though our paths were diverging, the boys more in the fields, and in the house through the long summer there was yarn to spin for the knitting, the mens clothes and the blankets. We played less and less around the shaded sinkholes that we were mortally afraid of, and always the hollow open space or bottomless cavity were kept carefully covered with brush. We were afraid because we had been taught that the bad man lived in the ground and we expected him to bob up at any time. Still this spice of danger lent interest. One beautifully shaded one, with the bluegrass growing under the trees was our favorite; it was near the house so we felt secure. But when my oldest brother tripped and started rolling towards the brush-covered center he yelled Help! Sis help. I waited on the brim to see what would happen. Of course he was unharmed.
Our next brother had quite an adventure. We had to ride the horses a quarter of a mile or more for water two or three times daily. The pond was in a low, dark, wooded place peopled with bullfrogs and it always did seem that all the foxes and crows in the grape story lived there. We older ones were daring, for a ride was a ride even though our hearts came to our throats, and we liked for the gears to jangle loud so that we could not hear the awful din too plainly.
This slip of a boys heart failed him and he let old Vic drink from a treacherous sinkhole filled with water that was just outside of Frogland. The ground caved and mare and boy went in. The plucky youngster scrambled from her shoulders onto her knees that were gripping for a footing, thence to the bank and then to the house with the information that old Vic was in the sinkhole. She was rescued and in time the treacherous place filled up.
The question of locomotion was a problem. Vic the roan mare and Friday the horse were inadequate for our wants.
While Vic lived she lived in clover
When she died she died all over
we sang jubilantly over her passing, for we did like the idea, after being rigged in Sunday clothes, to be set up amidst her prominent bones.
Her successor Daisy was a light bay yew-necked mare, stone blind. So we fared no better. Some young bloods came on later that matched us in youthful spirits and we were riding them before the prescribed limit of three years. To be sure they gave us many a fling in the yellow mud but we did not mind.
We were taken twice a year to the county seat fourteen miles distant for shoes, hats and store-bought clothes. We eagerly looked forward to these trips though we had to rise at three in the morning and, with the horses creeping the entire distance hitched to the heavy farm wagon, it was after dark before we were back home, O! so tired, many times prostrate in the wagon bed. These trips afforded us the only glimpse of the outside world.
About this time a family of cultivated, refined people moved into the neighborhood. The oldest daughter was a teacher and by far the best we had ever known. She had charge of our school three years and thoroughly drilled us in the use of better English, and extended our reading beyond the regular school readers. When invited to her home we forgot our self-consciousness in enjoyment of music and games.
Never will I forget one occasion. When they first came Mother allowed me to call but I had to take my sister. We were received on the porch with its wealth of trellised vines and softly enshrined chairs. I was charmed, but soon Sister said I want some lasses and brad. It was promptly gotten; we had resumed our conversation when I want more lasses and brad. This happened three or four times. You may know I never, never took her with me again.
If I had time for a bit of reading from the books loaned me, it was in the early morning hours before I was called. If Mother found the book it was hidden. Often in warm weather I could steal with it to the orchard and hide in the thick branches from the kids.
It was at this time that I coaxed more and more to go to my grandmothers on Saturday afternoons, not alone because I loved the noisy clamor of the birds in the old trees, nor yet that I knew of the strawberry beds and loaded cherry trees and loved the walks lined with larkspur and other flowers common in those gardens of long ago. Rather that I liked the company that always rounded in there for Sunday dinner, young and old, greybeards and maiden ladies. Besides there were uncles and aunts but little older than myself. Often we would go horseback to church returning with more company. One Sunday in June my oldest aunt and myself went to spend the day with teachers folks. We decided to go blackberrying after dinner, and the young son of that house guided me to the shade of elder bushes and told of his love for me. I was too shy to either question or ever again think of it except as a far-off dream.
Once again at grandmothers an uncouth country boy was awkwardly making love to me. I knew not how to fence with him. It was in the parlor, out in the open I should have run away. Fortunately an uncle came in and began to talk of the crops. At home I would have been saved embarrassing situations because we were one great family. No mere boy that came had ever singled me out for any special attention.
I had reached my sixteenth year.
It was a heavy fruit. Vast and unceasing were our efforts to dry it. We stood for long hours either placing the fruit or removing it from scaffolds underneath which fires were kept burning.
In August the work slackened. One afternoon an uncle and aunt came to take me to a party in another neighborhood. It was a swell affair. In the large dining room we were seated at tables forming a cross. Games were played on the lawn. People from over the county were jumbled together...
In these upsetting times when people everywhere are pausing to consider and even
question the trend of events, there is more or less struggling of chained spirits to be
free or palpable rebirth of the soul.
The ministers and teachers are doing what they can to lead the people towards what they are seeking. But even these are sometimes weary trying to lead and guide aright. It behooves us then to receive their messages with hopeful, uncritical minds and hearts open and responsive.
The average young person starts life with hope, faith, charity, and to us older ones who love and watch them closely we marvel at their courage and sit in awe of the keen insight and the sometimes sternness of their judgments.
As they come trooping easy and carefree, wearing unconsciously the aforesaid graces of hope, faith, charity, and so gladly take up the responsibilities of life, there is like to be an end of soul growth, for too soon they become stultified if moderately successful and a bit self-righteous and prone to see the mote in brothers eye but not the beam in their own, prone to consider themselves better and wiser than older folks and tis here that snobbishness and other barnacles grow and grow until there is no end, until almost all fineness of character is gone. Tis then perhaps he will take unto himself a wife and to convince her of his uprightness will go to church while the honeymoon lasts and spend the rest of his life berating the church people because, though a stranger himself inside the doors, they were not given a more gracious and befitting welcome.
This question of marriage should, therefore, have a season of preparation for both parties in the house of God. Feeling sure of himself, having a pathway cleared wide enough for both, there would be no heart-burnings over the seeming negligence of others. On the other hand, she would have prepared the way for the welcome of their children in the Sunday School. Every mother wants to feel that her children have a homey feeling in the Sunday School and every parent is eager to dedicate them in tender mercy to the call of religion and education. Yet oftentimes there are breaches and gaps of conflict between the homes and these institutions that the loving, trusting children can not reconcile one with the other. So it behooves us to interpret kindly and to cling, though sometimes blindly, to those world old adages, Hope for the best or All things come to him who waits which means work.
These young people fight against being obligated to what they consider the bondages that the acceptance of Christ into their life imposes and, for all their courage, are much in fear of the strict judgment of their elders.
I can clearly recall these awesome fears that lasted well along in the years of my own life, the stern judgments of elderly loved ones and their controversies over doctrines and creeds, and so I very early decided that I would stay on the outside with those under the ban and could always more clearly tolerate the messages from the poets and prose writers of the world and into the darkest corners of my life could creep manifest peace from close communion with nature and her visible forms and so have lived out my life, now nearing the half century mark, with all regrettable mistakes, without having confessed Christ as my personal Savior before the world. Oftentimes Ive seen the greatest afflictions visited on those who have lived under the strict guidance of His teachings and would wonder if they were better fitted than I to stand it. But I question no longer.