Great-Momma and the horses

''Great-Momma'' is what the children with some affection call their great-grandmother. But in this, her hundred-and-first year, all four of them were suddenly uneasy about visiting.

After all, hadn't she been born before television or radio . . . or even cars? ''This,'' I intruded, ''is something very special, not something to be afraid of. Ask her about it.''

''About what?'' they said.

''Ask her about the horses.''

That was the right thing.

But when we drove to Union Bridge and the children all sat silently around the outer edges of Great-Momma's living room, I wasn't so sure at first. Then they gradually wandered over in her direction.

''Did you have a horse when you were little?'' one of them asked her.

''A horse?'' she answered. ''Anybody had a horse.''

An inconclusive pause.

''When I was six and I even had two older sisters, Fleta and Cora, they made me take the eggs to the crossroads all by myself because I wasn't afraid to go over the water with the horse. And I didn't even know my last name. But I did know Virginians were Democrats.''

I didn't know what to make of all that, and I was sure the children knew even less.

I turned to the kids and explained. ''She means the horses would sometimes shy when you rode them through the streams.''

They didn't seem to care about having the explanation.

''I'd take ten dozen eggs,'' she went on.

They won't believe this one at all, I thought. Try to get them to bring just one egg carton from the refrigerator to the table without dropping it.

Our Edwardian secretary is piled high with melon baskets from St. John, Cherokee baskets from the Smokies, and a beach plum basket from Cape Cod. I suddenly understood what Great-Momma was saying.

''She means she carried them in a big basket,'' I announced.

The children glanced at me with condescending patience.

''When I got to the crossroads store, I gave the eggs up on the counter. And you know that man knew me, because I must've gotten credit for them . . .

''Well, I was looking at the penny candy. You got more than one for a penny then. He came along and said to me, 'What's your name, little girl?'

''I had to think a minute. Then I told him.

'' 'Hattie . . . Leotta . . . DEMOCRAT!'

'' 'In that case,' he said, 'you can have all the candy you want.' ''

Great-Momma chuckled with delight. So did the children.

''Tell us something else about horses,'' they begged.

''The best story I know that has horses in it is one my Momma told me. It's short and exciting. But it's not really about horses . . .''

The children didn't seem to mind.

''During the War when the Yankees came riding up to our house, making a lot of noise and dust - ''

''Do you know who the Yankees were?'' I interrupted.

I saw from the children's eyes that they didn't want my explanation. Anyway, the horrific meaning had been conveyed somehow by Great-Momma's tone.

'' - Momma had already hidden all the meat under the beds - ''

I avoided explanations about just what is valuable in what culture.

'' - under my bed, too. The Yankees crashed right into the room, and Momma just stood there with her broom.

'' 'Y'allclearoutta here,' Momma said, 'or I'll - ' No, Momma didn't say, 'I'll beat your brains out!' What did she say? What was it? ' - or I'll cut your brains out!' ''

I wasn't in the mood for discussing the processes of yearly butchering in the Great Valley of Virginia and what Great-Momma had meant. Besides, who cared?

''You know,'' Great-Momma continued, ''that's just what they did. They got out. Jumped on their tired ole horses and left. And we got to keep our meat. And that's what happened.''

The children were enthralled.

''Tell us something else,'' they asked, wrapped up in a century before they were born.

''I'll tell you just one more little story because I want you to remember the point.

''Now listen.

''When the horses plowed the fields for spring planting, the plows turned up a lot of rocks and stones, Some very round and smooth, and some flat for walls.

''The first three children in my family were all girls, like I told you, so we had to work on the farm just like boys. Hard work, but we didn't have any choice. And it was important work for our Poppa. Like taking the eggs to the crossroads was a big help to him.

''After plowing, all these stones had to be picked up and hauled out of the fields. We'd hitch two horses to a big wood' sled, and the three of us little girls would drive it over the fields, pick up rocks, and throw them onto the sled, and then go dump the ones we didn't want for a wall into the creek to make a ford for a crossing or a dam for a pond.

''Do you know what the point is I want you to remember? It doesn't matter if it was a hundred years ago, the point I want you to remember is that young 'uns like you are very important. Very important.

''We were important on my Poppa's farm then, and you're important to your Poppa now. Girls as well as boys.''

It's quite a span of years between Great-Momma and the children. Or it isn't, depending upon your point of view.

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