My papa, Charles P. Kuykendall, told me his daddy had “poplar legs.” I thought he meant “popular legs” – an awful weird thing to say about your daddy.
One spring day, Papa and I were walking through the woods to go trout fishing and came up on a yellow and orange, tulip-like blossom in the path. I picked it up and took a whiff. It smelled sweet. I thought about touching my tongue to it to see if it was sweet tasting, like honeysuckle, but it was loaded with little black bugs and I thought better of it.
“That came from this poplar tree,” he said and patted the rough, dark gray, straight trunk.
I just about fell backwards straining to see the blossoms silhouetted against the blue beyond the canopy way above my head.
“Oh! Legs like a poplar tree!” I said. “I get it now. Your daddy had very long legs, right?”
“Right.” Papa smiled, nodded, and we kept walking.
Robert Valentine Kuykendall lived in Hendersonville and was about 6-feet 5-inches tall. And that’s where I got my long legs, everybody tells me. Great Granddaddy’s parents were Henry Pinkney Kuykendall and Cynthia Carolyn Capps Kuykendall. He was from a long line of Kuykendalls who settled in Carolina backwoods when it was still wilderness, about twenty years before the American Revolution.
I had seen a couple of pictures of my great grandfather as an old man when I was little. In one, he was sitting on an apple crate with my then six-year-old Uncle Johnny in his lap. He could have gotten three more younguns in that lap. In the other picture, he was standing in front of my grandparents’ farmhouse in Greenville, near Parris Mountain, wearing overalls. His plow mule was behind him, all hitched up. I swear he made that mule look like a pony.
At one point, he delivered mail in the mountains. I recently acquired a picture of him sitting in his mail wagon. He really fills it up, too. I wonder if I got my wild imagination from him. Papa said he was a real storyteller, and he sang little songs he made up all the time. I wonder if the brain in that big Kuykendall head was just clicking away with stories, poems, and lyrics while he was riding those mountain roads. Mine goes into overload when I’m driving alone or on the tractor cutting the grass.
My uncles told me he once knocked out Jack Dempsey cold when Dempsey came to Hendersonville to train. It seems they needed a big fella for him to punch on. After that, they told Gramps to go home; they didn’t need him any more.
All those Kuykendalls are naturally strong, big size or not, even Momma. When we were almost grown, she could still scoop us up and throw us over her shoulder like we were small sacks of chicken scratch. She’s pushing eighty now and still strong.
My favorite of all the Kuykendall pictures is one I found in a box of genealogy stuff I inherited from Momma’s Aunt Helen. I calculate it to be about 110-years-old. Robert Valentine is sitting in a chair in a photographer’s studio with two toddlers in his lap. I think they are his first two tow-headed sons, Rufus and Roy, and I figure Robert is about twenty-six-years-old in this picture.
Knowing that back in those days you had to sit still a while to have your picture made, I’m absolutely fascinated by this picture. First of all, there are two toddler BOYS in his lap who had to sit still for about ten seconds. How the heck did he accomplish that? His lips are parted under a (I imagine copper and gold) handle-bar mustache. I bet he is whispering, “Be still. Be still,” to them. I think the older boy, Rufus, was able to comply, but not the least one — his little feet and face are blurry.
When I was making out the invitation list for my wedding, I sat in Papa’s kitchen going over it with him to see if I left anybody off. He was stirring his coffee with annoying clinks and staring at me.
“What is it?” I asked.
“You know, you favor my daddy more than any of us.”
Well, that just threw me for a loop. I had only seen the pictures of him with the mule and the one with Uncle Johnny before then. He was a bald, pot-bellied old man. I teared-up a little. How could Papa say such a thing? And how can looks skip three generations, anyway? That hurt my feelings. But I didn’t let him know. Papa died of a stroke a couple of weeks after that. He never got the chance to show me the other pictures he had of his parents when they were young. My wedding day, one month later, was bitter-sweet.
I never saw those pictures till last year when I got the box of stuff that belonged to Aunt Helen, and there was the 110-year old picture. Those cheekbones, that nose, that forehead, and lips – all mine (and my brother’s) sans mustache. And I’ll be darned if looks can’t skip down three generations.