Monday, November 26, 2007

Fruit Jars Under the Windmill

By Liz Adair

One of the earliest family stories I remember hearing as a child, sitting on the swept-earthen dooryard of my grandmother's house, listening to the grownups rocking and reminiscing in the balmy air of a New Mexican summer evening, was how a team that my grandfather was breaking to harness bolted. He had them hitched to a buckboard, and as he tried to gain control, he stood in the wagon and hauled back on the reins.

This was about 1920; my mother was four years old, the last of nine children raised on a starve-out homestead. In the front yard was a derelict windmill fan, and under its spreading blades my grandmother stored all her fruit jars. As the runaway team cut through the yard, my Uncle Curtis scooped up my mother and carried her to the safety of the doorway of the house. Just as they reached the doorway, they turned in time to see the horses leap over the fan, dragging the wagon behind, with Granddad still on his feet, cursing and sawing on the reins.

The scene must have been etched in more than one memory, because whenever the family gathered, someone would tell the story. It was eerie, forty years later, to drive out to the old homesite and find the rusted windmill fan with broken, blue-glass shards underneath, a testament to the story's veracity.

I used this story as I wrote The Honest in Heart. Here's the passage:

Emory took his cigarette papers out of his pocket, selected one and slowly made a crease in it. Without taking his eyes from the job at hand, he asked, “Do you remember that flashy chestnut that appeared one day at our place out at Cutter?”

“The one we called Dutchess? Sure, I remember. She wasn’t a mustang, that was for sure!”

“Nope. She was one of them five-hunnerd-dollar horses with a pedigree long as old Ollie’s face come payday. The old Gent took his time about finding who she belonged to. I don’t know, but I think he’d like to’ve had a foal out of her before he went lookin’ for the owner.” Emory licked the paper and twisted the end of his cigarette. He put it in his mouth and turned sideways to get a match out of his pocket. “Do you remember the day he decided to break Dutchess to harness?” Lighting the cigarette, he pitched the flaming match out the window and looked inquisitively at Heck.

“Sure I remember! He had her doubled with old Headlight. I was the one that got Lucy out of the way when they bolted.”

“I can still see Papa standin’ up on the wagon box, whippin’ those horses and cussin’ a bluestreak, with Dutchess all white-eyed, and Headlight—danged if I don’t think he was enjoyin’ it! They went right over that old windmill fan that was lyin’ on the ground. It’s a wonder one of ‘em—horse or man—didn’t get killed.”

“Yep, and Mama had her empty fruit jars stored under that windmill. Broke pretty near every one.”

They both sat still, remembering, seeing again their father standing in the wagon as it pitched and reeled and finally flew through the air as the horses, galloping, pulled it over the huge silver blades.


Cecily Markland said...

Great passage, Liz. I loved reading it again. It captures the essence of the scene, but, even more importantly, it brings in the action, the emotion and the humor of it all. Great example of using a fun family story in your fiction. I'm looking forward to seeing Honest in Heart in print in 2008!

Terry said...

That is a great story. I have a story about my great grandfather, Will Neff who was shot and killed by a neighbor who had stolen his plow. I wrote a short story based on that event, but it is stored away in an old English folder. I should post it on my blog. Thanks for your example. Couple of quick questions, do you keep a list of writing ideas? How do you prioritize what to write? Looking forward to your book, too!

Terry said...

One more question. Do you print and keep hard copies of your blogs for family/posterity?

Liz Adair said...

I didn't read your comment before I posted my Make Hard Copies!!! blog today. That's too funny!

Marsha Ward said...


The more I read on this blog and your other work in using family stories in fiction, the more I remember that I have indeed done that. I've written a couple of short stories based on family stories my dad told me. They just haven't seen the light of publication yet.