Today's Reading


While some boarders in the Allen house paid a small rental fee, many of the extended relatives were unable to contribute financially due to lack of steady work. Most had costly drinking habits too, so the money never seemed enough, even when Fred's sister, Novis, eight years his elder, dropped out of school to take her own double shifts at the mill. When the adults 'were' home, they were usually inebriated or asleep. This lack of supervision was not only frightening for such a young boy, it was quite dangerous. Gangs of unsupervised adolescents roamed the village, as did a number of shady adults. The situation was of great concern to Fred's grandfather, Noah Freeman, a man of Cherokee descent whose extensive knowledge about natural resources had landed him a job teaching botany at nearby Carrollton A&M.

Noah and his wife, Peg, both valued education and had tried to give ample opportunity to their four children, but the crashed economy had taken a heavy toll on the already-impoverished state of Georgia. That, in addition to the cultural prejudices against anyone with Native American blood, had given Velma and her siblings few options and left them with even less than their hardworking parents had managed to acquire. Like many in that situation, Velma had married young, and her husband, mill worker Grady Allen, a Scots-Irish southerner, brought a toxic mix of dysfunction into the Freeman family.

When the poor economy resulted in Noah's job loss, he moved into Velma and Grady's mill village home hoping to help care for his young grandson, Fred. His wife, Peg, had also lost her job at the normal school—a two-year program designed to educate teachers—and had since moved in with an older, ailing relative who needed her care. Times were tough, and people had to learn to make ends meet, even if that meant married couples separating for a while.

Despite the Freemans' education, the Allens did not have the kind of home where bookshelves lined the walls. In fact, the old family Bible was the only book to be found. But Noah had managed to acquire a ragged set of encyclopedias for the Allen household before leaving his college position, so he set out to educate his young grandson with the tools he had at hand.

During these times, Noah would sit on the small porch with Fred at his side and read aloud from the leather-bound volumes. At four pounds each, the gold-embossed books were a bit too heavy for the preschooler to manage, but he was given the task of turning the flimsy pages as the cross- generational duo aimed to read all the way from A to "Zymotic Diseases," with forty million words in between.

When Noah and Fred weren't reading about some obscure medical experiment or mapping a continent far away, they could be found in the family's humble yard, where Noah taught Fred the deeper lessons he knew by heart. While LaGrange was notorious for its cotton mills, it also had garnered tremendous praise for its flower gardens. So much so that the owners of the mill would hold gardening contests, and the locals would compete for cash prizes. The mill also provided free seeds, encouraging those in the village to take pride in landscaping their small lots.

Noah made the most of this opportunity, teaching his young grandson everything he knew. But unlike others who only grew flowers and a vegetable or two, Noah's knowledge was far more extensive than root-shoot-fruit. Still carrying on his family traditions, he could not only identify the plants that grew wild around LaGrange, he also knew the medicinal uses of each. He quickly developed a reputation as a healer, and many mill workers who could not afford to see a proper doctor turned to Noah for less expensive remedies.

It was not unusual for Fred to help his grandfather gather roots for locals who wanted to boost their immune function. Noah taught Fred the power of the mullein leaf and often brewed an infusion when Fred showed the slightest sign of a cough. If neighbors complained of sinus trouble, the two would make a tincture using goldenrod, yarrow, or nettles, but their favorite all- around preventative was elderberry syrup, which they sold by the jar. While supplying natural remedies helped supplement the family's income, it was never enough to keep bellies full.

One day a client listened to Noah lament about the lack of job opportunities for a man his age. Fred eavesdropped as his grandfather complained. "As bad as it is in the mills, at least those men get paid to work." "True," the woman said, her southern twang thick on her tongue. Her long hair held a bright pink bloom, visible to little Fred when she bent to inhale the fragrance of the summer roses.

When she moved toward the poppy patch, she brushed her palms over the vibrant flowers and said, "Seems to me you got all the money you'd ever need right here in your own backyard." She plucked a poppy from the plot. "Times like these, everybody and his brother be itchin' for more." The woman looked Noah in the eye. "Name your price, ol' man."

Fred's grandfather laughed away the absurd suggestion and turned his attention to the setting sun. "I don't roll in the mud by choice. No matter how hot the day might feel."

"Choice?" The woman looked around at the crowded mill houses. She eyed young Fred, barefoot, with too little meat on his bones. She examined the old man's threadbare collar and the hole worn through his straw cap. "Seems to me, you ain't got much choice at all." Then she lifted the hem of her skirt to reveal a secret pocket. "Trick Mayhayley taught me," she said with a grin. "Extra-wide seams. Nobody never suspects a thing."

From the hem, she pulled a fold of cash and placed two bills in Noah's hand. "Gimme all you can get. And start plantin' more. We'll run through this in no time flat."

The old man looked at his hand as if there might be a new lesson written there just for him. Then his tired eyes lifted to his garden, to the woman standing there before him and the grandson left to his care. But then he looked away from her, and to the boy it seemed Noah was trying to take in the whole world at once.

This excerpt ends on page 12 of the paperback edition.

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