An Appalachian friend called after Christmas to wish me belated happy holidays. After catching up about families and goings-on, he bemoaned the fact that several December visitors to his home had extended their sojourns past New Year’s Day and still gave no indication of when they would depart.
“They’ve worn out their welcome, my supply of groceries, clean towels and linens and my patience,” he complained. “What can be done about guests who will not leave?”
My late wife discovered quite by accident that tuna fish salad for breakfast, lunch, and dinner tends to discourage holiday hangers-on after the decorations have come down and regular household routine re-established. “When the fish starts to smell, they usually pack up and head down the road,” she chortled.
But I always adhered to a different defense: Run away from company when you see it coming.
Many rural Appalachians in the 1940s and 1950s distrusted visitors unless they were blood or marriage relations, close neighbors, or fellow church members. When I was in elementary school and stayed with Granny during summer vacations, I learned a drill that had been practiced in the family for a hundred years or more.
We fled whenever unannounced visitors or strangers were spotted.
Granny cared for a host of grandchildren and neighbor kids. She fed us, assigned chores, cuddled us, whipped us with a switch when the need arose, read to us from the Bible, treated our minor injuries and told us stories about the wilderness frontier, Indians, panthers, haunts, and spirits. In short, she fiercely loved her large brood (offspring of 14 sons and daughters).
Granny was the babysitter for them, also for other families living in the isolated “cove” down by the Tennessee River. The old white house rocked with activity and reverberated with noise on summer days, children of all ages running and hollering. Unmarried aunts and female cousins tried to ride herd on the swarm, but most of us ignored them.
We knew Granny’s rules well enough not to run afoul of whippings or the awful castor oil tonics she used on obstreperous kids. Still there was a myriad of ways to get into trouble. One was to be the last kid standing in the open when a car or truck rolled down the gravel lane toward the farmhouse, sending up a cloud of limestone dust as the warning signal.
Unannounced, unknown visitors were potential trouble. Therefore, the flock of grandkids and neighbor children had been trained to scatter like a covey of quail when uninvited “company” came calling.
At the time, I lived with my parents in a city subdivision with a TV set, indoor plumbing, fast-food restaurants nearby and department stores downtown. However, at Granny’s house the urge to run when someone came calling became ingrained.
“Somebody’s a-coming!” the shout would go up. Whatever you were doing, wherever you stood, sat or lay, your muscles tensed. Adrenalin pumped into your bloodstream. The age-old threat reaction, flee or fight, took over. We scrambled to find a place to hide.
Closets around the house, the crawlspace under the rough plank floor, barn stalls, other farm buildings (the smokehouse, which smelled of hickory char and molasses, was popular but filled quickly), behind the outhouse (weedy and stinky) or the surrounding woods, thickets and fields, all could be reached quickly. You never looked back and ran fast as possible.
I often wondered what lost motorists or door-to-door salesmen wondered when no one answered their knock on the door. If Granny or another adult did greet them, it was with suspicion and curt words until they were sure the visitors were harmless and somewhat friendly.
Sometimes, the view of a shotgun was needed to convince a stubborn caller to hit the road. The kids emerged from hiding only when they heard Granny hammer the rusty old dinner bell on the back porch.
The run-and-hide reaction was electric, scary and exciting at the same time. Even if you did not hear a warning, the glimpse of a cousin shagging toward a weedy ditch was enough to galvanize your flight reaction.
In this 21st Century, with 911 call centers, high-tech law enforcement, wireless communications, emergency responders and a road network that connects practically all of Appalachia, the safety and security concerns of isolated farm families more than 70 years ago don’t have comparable weight.
However, only 70 years separated those rural folks from what their parents taught them in response to very real threats caused by lawlessness and a breakdown of social order in the wake of the Civil War. Another 70 years backwards was the era of frontier settlement, when danger and the risk of violence ruled the land.
But this is becoming too philosophical. My contention is that when unwelcome company is headed your way – relatives or friends who in the past have outstayed your hospitality – the sensible reaction is to run and hide.
Granny took in orphans and strays, fed neighbors and the homeless and lived by the Golden Rule. But she taught us head for the hills when unwanted guests showed up.