Sometimes we learn from the most unlikely of places. A number of years ago, I went to visit my grandmother, then 82 years old, in White Sulphur Springs W.Va. I didn’t visit her often, but since she was going to be alone that Thanksgiving Day, I thought the least I could do was to stop by for a long weekend. After a fine meal filled with wild stories of family members long passed, my grandmother announced that she wanted to pay a visit, over the mountains, to her sister Marge the next day. The plan was set; early after breakfast I would drive “Mama” over the mountains to Marge’s farm.
The trip began without event, with Mama strapped into the front passenger seat of my bright yellow 1976 Datsun B-210. Now, my car was a lot like most of my friends’ cars. It wasn’t much to look at but was filled with interesting distractions: cassette player, dart board, two or three bottles of beer, an old pair of Nike’s, and – maybe surprisingly – a small pouch of Levi Garrett chewing tobacco. Unfortunately, it was the tobacco that Mama spied first. Immediately she asked if it was mine. How can you lie to an 82-year-old grandmother? “Yes, Mama, it’s mine,” I replied sheepishly, not sure of what question was next. “Do you want a plug now?” was the next question out of Mama’s lips. I wasn’t sure what my response should be. I did indeed enjoy a little chew while driving in those days and we had a few hours to get to Aunt Marge’s farm so, hesitantly, I said yes!
What Mama then did was a mix of art, love and history. She proceeded to tell me that her father, William Bryson Hill (the namesake of my son Bryson), chewed tobacco every day of his life, and was very particular with how he liked his plug. With that, she began pulling leaves out of the pouch, pinching off the stems and butts and smoothing those tobacco leaves out in her soft leathery 82 year old hands. After nine or ten leaves, she tucked the ends and rolled the leaves into what looked like a small black cigar. “Just how he liked it,” she said, with the glint in her eye of a ten year old and in the voice of an old woman. With that she passed me the plug and said it would last all day.
Thinking back on that day, now 27 years past, I realize I had the chance to actually experience history. I never asked Mama the last time she had made a plug of tobacco for her father. Was it 1910? 1915? Certainly no later that 1919, when she went off to “Standard School” to become a teacher. Regardless of the exact date, I felt a powerful sense of the hand of my great grandfather, reaching across the decades and thanking his eleventh child, my grandmother, for a fresh plug.
Over the years I have tried to replicate the plug that Mama rolled that day. I have counted out the leaves, picked off the stems, even rolled and tucked the ends into a small plug. Even with practice, it’s never been the same. It’s often that way in the lessons of life. We must find a way to keep our eyes open in the here and now. Too often we are worrying about something that is looming in the future, or maybe ruminating over something that has happened in the past. This life of ours is happening “live,” right now in the present! We need to keep our eyes open, ever expectant to experience history, and possibly to receive a tobacco plug from another century.