My great Aunt Bett told me we were going to gather a root to treat Uncle Sinc's ailments. Uncle Sinc was not truly my uncle, nor was he in any way related to my family, but my great grandfather had granted him a land lease many years before my time, and it was right at the mouth of our holler. He was a tall, skinny stooped old man when I was young, and seemed to never say much to anybody, and nothing to me. I saw him every day of the year, bent over diggin at something in his garden. He had a pig pen, with no pig in it, and a barn that held no cows or horses. He did have an old mule. It was not his old mule that cleared our garden every spring, because it was as cantankerous as was Uncle Sinc. But that old mule and Uncle Sinc must have had an understanding, because they did plow their garden together.
If I walked along the roadside to get to Aunt Bett's house, I had to pass Uncle Sinc's house, his garden, and his old mule. The old mule took a liking to me, because he would see me coming and meet me at the corner of the fence around the barn. It also was the fence that separated Uncle Sinc's back lot from Aunt Bett's back garden. I usually hopped the creek and walked down the creekside to go to Aunt Bett's just so I wouldn't have to pass that cantankerous old mule and grouchy Uncle Sinc. On this particular morning, I walked along the roadside, and sure enough, that old mule came out to meet me. He stuck his head over that fence, took one look at me and sneezed all his innards all over my new overalls.
We had gone all the way to Wise, Virginia to get those overalls, since there were no stores around that sold overalls small enough for me. My mother had the bright idea that overalls would keep me covered enough that no bugs and no briars would be able to get in my britches. I was happy to get them because they had more pockets than jeans. I liked to collect things in my pockets. I stomped into Aunt Bett's house grumbling like an old hounddog who had been roused from slumber by an annoying horsefly.
Aunt Bett cleaned me up, wiped the mess off my overalls and told me we needed the root of the wild geranium, so she could make an infusion for Uncle Sinc's sore throat. I told her that maybe we could give some to his mule, too, since he seemed to have a problem with his nose and throat as well.
Geranium maculatum was also known as wild geranium, cranesbill geranium and alum root. It had been used by the old ones, Aunt Bett said, to cure a number of things. We were making our way up the side of the mountain that was just beside her garden, and we didn't have far to go. From that view I could see Uncle Sinc and the snotty old mule working a plow beside his last row of beans. He was going to plant a late crop.
"You reckon that alum root will cure Uncle Sinc? What's he need to be cured of, anyhow, except his grouchy self?" Aunt Bett gave me one of her looks that said without a word: "You have an attitude problem, child." It seems that his wife had died from birthing seven babies, and only three of them had lived to see the light of day. Uncle Sinc had raised all three right there on his little plot of land. His children had grown up and moved on, and Uncle Sinc was left with no one to care for except that old mule. Aunt Bett said that old mule had been there right near as long as Uncle Sinc, so they both had a right to be as onery as they wanted to be. I took that to heart and went on my way to gather alum root.
The wild geranium blooms from April till late July, and the ones in the mountains were a lovely lavender blue color, though we also saw some that were pink, as well as a few that were white. Aunt Bett told me we needed the roots of the plants that had not bloomed yet. I was ready to throw one of my fits, the one I used when I thought things should be done a bit differently. I did not want to kill a plant that had not bloomed. She stopped that fit cold when she told me that the Blackfoot Indians used the root to stop bleeding and also to treat other things, but Uncle Sinc needed it for his sore throat. She was going to make an infusion that he could gargle. I asked her if the old mule could gargle it, too, but she gave me that look again.
As was her usual practice, Aunt Bett only gathered a few of the plants that grew in the sunshine, and left the others to continue growing and blooming all summer long. Before we started back down the mountain, she showed me the alum root that bloomed white, and said that we would also dig up three or four of them to take back because she wanted me to plant them alongside her back door and around her back windows. Well, of course, I asked her why she would do that, since she hardly had any flowers at all around her house. She told me that it was said that snakes will not go where white geraniums grow, and if it grew near windows the bees and the flies would not enter a house. That was good enough for me, I was just happy that the white geranium was getting away with its life, and would live and bloom.
We got home and Aunt Bett set to making an infusion from the roots she carried with her, and I set to planting the whole plant with the white blossoms near her back door and window. The morning sun hit the back of the house after it finally rose above the mountain behind us, so I knew it would grow there in her rich soil. Then Aunt Bett asked me if I would go with her to take the infusion tea to Uncle Sinc. Well. I wasn't overly fond of the old man, but I didn't have any reason for that opinion except for the fact that he seemed to ignore me. I decided I would let him know that something bad was wrong with his old mule.
We got to Uncle Sinc's house, and as was the way in the mountains we went to the back door. We climbed the rough hewn steps up to the porch and a long sleek hound dog rose to meet us, drooping tail wagging, and soulful eyes looking us over. Well, looking me over. I had never been that close to Uncle Sinc's house before. Uncle Sinc was waiting just inside the door: "Well Betty Ann, you got that tea you promised me," he asked in a whispery voice. Aunt Bett said she sure did have it and it was still hot from the boiling. Uncle Sinc took a sip, then another, just like it was nectar from the sweetest honeysuckle. "Ahhhhhh, that's good stuff, Betty Ann, I can feel a cure already."
"Uncle Sinc," I asked, "Whyn't you ever talk to me? Your old mule sneezed all over my new overhauls, and Aunt Bett had to clean me up good before I could go pick this alum root for you. I don't care 'bout that much, but I was wonderin' why you don't never talk to me when I walk right past you out by the barn?"
"Well, chile, it's like this. I ain't got much to say till the time's rite, and looks to me like neither do you. I reckon th' time's 'bout rite now, so you go ahead and talk all you want to."
"Uncle Sinc," I said, "Can I give some of your tea to your old mule, I think he needs it to cure his sneezes, and then he wouldn't be sneezin' his innards out all over me and my new overhauls."
"Let's go see," Uncle Sinc said. And we did. And you know what? That mule drunk that tea down like there was no tomorrow, and when I reached up and scritched his ear, he smiled till all his big yellow teeth showed.
I learned more about quiet old men and grouchy old mules than I learned about wild geraniums that day. I guess that is important, too.
Information from this story comes from my Aunt Bett's writings.
Photogaphs are from Plant files,