Local folk called her Granny Woman, That Medicine Thing,
Root Doctor, “the woods gal.” An intuitive alchemist,
the Lucky Seven of 18 children born to Freedmen, she
burst in on the Fourth of July, the blood of ancestors
conjuring Africa in her Tar River veins. On its banks
she ferreted the roots, flowers, the husks and thin skeins
of river grasses, the white mint, silkweed, sassafras,
mullein, double tansy, catnip, maypop, horseradish.
“Born with her third eye open,” her mother swore.
From the day she walked, she smelled and tasted fruits
wasting on the forest floor, stalks that caught her nose,
any balm that blows over alluvial Piedmont’s core.
“Tansy” derives from the Greek athanatos–immortality.
Granny didn’t study the word’s etymology, whether
we called it so because it’s long-lived or because Zeus
made beloved Ganymeade an Immortal with a dose
on Olympus. She just knew the lushness of its fruits
and leaves, knew what mix folks need for gall bladder,
dry heaves, stomach; had a tonic for bad joints,
nervous tic, everything from athlete’s foot to lice.
She fixed menses, sped miscarriage for troubled girls,
too. In the swampy heat of August or July she’d take
her tin bucket to Tar River, tie the bundles to dry, then
kettle-boil them and jar her elixirs in stone jugs, like
the moonshiners do. These mixtures, they say, looked
like chaw spit, stung the nose and mouth like turpentine.
But for ailing locals, it was healing as communion wine.
White mint for circulation, catnip to shush the colic
and whooping cough. Sassafras for catarrh, impure
blood, gleets, gout, even syphilis and the clap—Granny
had a jar for that. She knew a plant by its signature stalk,
scissored leaves, bulbous fruit, the gums and sap inside stems.
Granny knew all about rabbit tobacco, as the Cherokee had.
Known by a dozen names: sot weed, cat’s foot, None-so-Pretty,
Fussy Gussy, poverty weed, and of course Sweet Everlasting,
because even dried and withered, wasting, its stalk will stand.
Sweet Everlasting, they say, walks between the worlds of bloom
and death, keeps a soul in pure blood and good breath.
Granny’s pantry was full of jars for what ails you, her house
wafted out pine tar. Folks came and went all hours for cures.
She turned none away: potions for nightmares, insomnia caused
by haints, smudge to scare the spell from a witch. Often townfolk
could not pay but Granny just said “Take this in faith.” It was black
as pitch, but you took it in faith. All this cure, she said, sot weed,
Sweet Everlasting, not really her brew, but a tincture from God.
Granny knew always to squeeze or pluck the flower with clean hands
and clean heart. Her shelf brew, she took until she died at 95.
She stewed it with the bark of a berry tree she grew herself at home.
She called it Bible tree, growing from a seed she swore was blessed
by a saint in Rome. She planted it with her own hands, throwing
her back into the digging, impregnating it with hope. Granny rests
now, but her tree gropes the sky, Sweet Everlasting, reinheriting itself.
Pamela Sumners’ work has been published or recognized by almost 40 journals or publishing houses in the US and abroad. She has placed in several poetry contests, and her work has appeared in several anthologies. She was selected for inclusion in both the 2018 and 2019 64 Best anthologies (Halcyone/Black Mountain Press). Her first chapbook, “Finding Helen,” won the Rane Arroyo chapbook contest and will be released in 2021. Her first full collection, “Ragpicking Ezekiel’s Bones,” won UnCollected Press’ open competition and will be released in late 2020 or early 2021. A native Alabamian, she now lives in St. Louis.
© 2020, Pamela Sumners