They were plain sharecroppers who helped to raise me in my early years, teaching me valuable lessons like how to build kites every spring, how to sip Folger’s from a saucer so it wouldn’t burn your lips, how to find the sweetest blackberries and stew them up with dumplings—small, necessary lessons tied to the seasons and the land.
Spring was for kites. Not the citified or store-bought things, oh no, not those. I’d come racing down their driveway with their mail in hand after school, and when my feet hit the porch, Pappaw would say, “There’s something for you on the table,” and sure enough, if the wind had been kicking up just so in the last few days, there it would be: a brown paper bag. I knew the drill from there. Borrow Mammaw’s quilting scissors, grab a pencil for tracing the cut lines and a box of crayons for the decoration, cut the bag open and lay it out flat on the floor next to Pappaw’s rocking chair on the porch, edges of the paper secured by rocks. Then I’d hie off to gather two perfect cross-sticks from the woods and, on the way back to the house, four perfect broom straws from the patch where Mammaw grew her straw: “Don’t trample the rest of it,” Pappaw’s words, only ever said the first time (when I was four) and never repeated, but I heard it in my head every year just the same and usually said it out loud myself because I savored the sound of homespun words like “trample” and understood in my bones the import of carrying on the family history well enough that you could tell it yourself: “She’ll be wanting that straw to make new brooms soon. You just pick four good flyers.”
Four good flyers. Four long tail wings for that kite. Pappaw helped me make a series of slits through which the stalks could be threaded, then helped me to get the cross braces made and the paper bag attached to it. These were no flimsy kites. These were large, sturdy, working people’s art and I put markings on them every year to depict what was most important to us: the sun, the rain, the dirt, the trees, a standing field of sweet corn, some blackberry brambles, and always a flower and some birds and some horses and so on. That all took a considerable amount of time (because I never could draw worth a lick but was determined to do it anyway), so the kite never flew on its first day of being. The next afternoon, though, when the parts had had time to get into the habit of each other, Pappaw would hand over the treasured ball of twine, we’d connect the kite to it with a doubled-off set of farmer’s knots, and then off we’d head up the hill pasture in front of their house to find a winsome thread of the wind on which to launch our beautiful creation.
There are not many sections of sky in rural southern Mississippi that didn’t have trees just waiting to snatch our beautiful kites from the sky, but that field above the house had a sweet spot in its middle and the pines and oaks would have to just stand alongside its edges and stare at us, I believed. So they would stand and speak the gentle wind’s name and watch without touching as we all flew and laughed, happy and forever, and Pappaw would always say at least once and sometimes twice, “That’s a working man’s kite,” and I knew it to be god’s truth and myself a working man in this world, and my chest and head would swell with the pride of being in that line and I’d work that kite from my feet on the ground but the rest of me up there with it until my blistered fingers could no longer hold onto the twine, and then we’d finally haul in the kite and head to the house for dinner.
For throwback Thursday this week, all I could think about were kites. It’s been decades since I built one, because after Pappaw died—in that horrible, long drawn-out way with the cancer eating out a whole side of his face and him in such pain he could no longer even grin at me (though he still tried)—I just couldn’t do it without him. I would sit on the porch by his still, empty rocking chair with my paper bag and tools all ready and the wind calling our names as always, but I just couldn’t do it with him gone. I fly our kites in my heart, though. Build and fly our kites in my heart. One day soon I will teach my granddaughter to build a working man’s kite, too, and then she can carry one of her great great grandfathers in her bones and, in this way, I trust, know herself also to be a working man capable of wresting four good fliers from a field without trampling the rest and setting one beautiful thing loose in the world for one perfect afternoon every spring.
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