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Cheryl Hughes: Learning for Myself

For too long in my life, I was angry at my dad and stepmom for not watching out for me.  They fed me and clothed me and made sure I went to school.  They didn’t, however, watch out for the everyday things that got me.

I wasn’t warned about the bite of the large Bull Nettles that grew in the field in front of our house on Ashes Creek or the danger of the small piece of metal that was sticking out on the bottom edge of the screen door at our house in Mt. Washington.  They didn’t tell me to check the milk to make sure it hadn’t gone bad before I poured it onto my bowl full of cereal, and they didn’t tell me to wear gloves when I busted up lumps of coal to carry in for our fire when we lived in the old farmhouse.  (Consequently, I wore a tiny sliver of coal under the skin of my left hand for years before it worked its way out.)

It took me awhile to appreciate the importance of learning things for myself.  To this day, I can recognize a Bull Nettle and all its cousins from several yards away.  Having been bitten by that bunch, I steer clear of that family.  Twice, I cut my ankle on the piece of metal hanging from the bottom of the screen door at Mt. Washington before I learned to exit by a different door.  If dairy products are past their use by date, I don’t use them, and I always wear gloves for outside work.

There were other things that I figured out on my own.  It was under the big shade tree in our front yard where I learned how to pinch sweat bees from my arm, instead of slapping at them—an exercise that resulted only in hurting my arm and further irritating the bees.  As I push mowed the grass at our house on Ashes creek, I learned that the job will teach you how to do it. I figured out not to walk barefoot near the clothesline, because bumble bees loved the blooms on the clover there.  

I came to understand that heat rises to the upstairs rooms of an old farmhouse in the summer, but if you sleep with the windows open, while living near a creek, all manner of sinus infections and strep will seek you out.  I learned the best way to chop down weeds with a hoe for animals that were in a pen, and the smartest way to transport them was in my little brother’s red wagon.  It was on Ashes Creek where I learned that tobacco barns contain dust particles in the air that will choke you, making it an unfit location for a playhouse.

You have to take chances if you are to learn things on your own, and I was a little kid willing to take them, especially on a riverbank.  My family fished Salt River, and I think I spent more time falling into the edge of the river than I did on the bank.  I was not a patient fisherman, which meant I was always trying to find a better spot, one with instant gratification.  I would climb up and down the riverbank, across exposed roots and snags sticking out of the water.  The entire area was river-mud slick, so inevitably, I fell into the water.  When my dad heard the big splash, he didn’t have to take his eyes off his cane pole.  He knew it was me.  He’d yell, “Cheryl June, get up out of that water!  You’re scaring all the fish away!”

I still take more chances than I should, considering my age, but I have backed away from a few things.  I stopped riding my bike on the road that runs by my house—my hearing and reaction time aren’t what they once were.  I didn’t climb on the roof last Christmas to string lights.  I do, however, have my eye on some summer projects that involve a ladder.  I will have to take care of those when Garey isn’t looking.

The conclusion I’ve reached, all these years later, is that learning on my own has made me braver than I would have otherwise been.  It has also given me the ability to see how things are relative to one another.  One plant with tiny barbs will sting your skin the same way one plant with large barbs will.  Ragged metal on any surface is a dangerous thing.  Coal, wood or gasoline are all stronger than your skin.  Wear gloves.  Always, always check all dairy products before you use them.  There is no sicker sick than food poisoning.

To be fair to my parents, there were seven of us kids.  They had their hands full just keeping us alive.  They actually did me a huge favor by allowing me to learn things on my own.  Thanks Dad and Mom.  


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