Reposted with permission of the author
The Well Cup
The Home of Lee and Mary Belle Rice
By Stephen L. Wilmeth
It had been hanging there for more years than anyone alive can remember. It was a cup hung on a little chain tied to a mill frame over a hand-dug well. Water would be drawn from the well with a bucket and then dipped with the cup. The water was cold and sweet even in the heat of summer.
The cup was polished metal. It wasn’t fancy. It was stout and well made with a handle where the chain was attached. When it was used, it was wet and cold from dipping the water out of the bucket. The cup and everything about it was refreshing not the least of which is the memory.
The Home of Lee and Mary Belle (May) Rice
From elder family members to visitors and guests, cousins, farmhands and strangers, it was shared without question or qualification. Old men would drink that cold water before they went into the house. Little kids would gather and clamor for their turn because of the adventure of drinking at the well. Haying crews would drink their fill, wash their faces until they were rosy red, and then comb their hair before they filed into the screened porch area to sit in the shade for a few minutes before they were called to dinner. Cowboys would roll a smoke and stand around and talk after they hoisted the water and drank. The well was a meeting place, a place to pause, and the cup made all who gathered there equal.
Because of its location, many important events took place at the well cup. Babies were born and paraded by it on their way to meet Lee and May for the first time. Young men passed by it on their way to two wars and many conflicts. Hospital visits, marriage ceremonies, funerals, birthday parties, graduations, elections, brandings, church services, morning and evening chores, Sunday visits, ball games and other daily events all started or ended by those passing the cup.
Few things in modern life make such an impact across a swath of humanity. Old, rich, young, poor, important, male, ordinary, and female, it was used by everybody. Nobody gave a second thought about drinking from the community cup. It was part of life and it was all things most important at the moment.
In addition to it being a great equalizer, it became an object of agreement. Few who used it can recall anything but pleasant experiences. It forever remained the same. Those boys returning from the horrors of war stopped and drank in memory of a more innocent life. At least one thing hadn’t changed in their ravaged being.
Old men and women, once boys and girls, who drank from it as kids and later as sparking teenagers, recalled events and experiences beginning and ending at that cup. They smiled at the memory.
Today, of course, it wouldn’t be allowed. Mothers raised on Oprah and Sesame Street would want paper cups. Children mustn’t be exposed to germs and who knows what else! Hand cleaner and paper towels would be required. If overseen by the government, there would be a warning label etched into it, and this has all had repercussions.
Life as it once existed, especially rural life, has changed dramatically. Along with that, the well cup disappeared. Nobody can remember when or where it went.
What we need in this confusing new world of urban-dominated pursuits and logic is a proxy to the well cup. It would have to be the same great equalizer and object of mutual agreement. It would have to be at a place of common ground and preferred gathering. People would have to communicate and be expected to police their own actions. It would be an object of the most basic need. It would also be something everybody considered his or her own responsibility to perpetuate.
All Americans as well as their historical industries need to find that proxy to the well cup. If it can’t be found, the chasm between rural and urban beliefs and expectations will only widen. Our customs and culture will further diminish. What is important is to remember the promise of its existence. Its use was the most pleasant common experience, refreshing, and honest.
Those of you who can relate to the memory of a well cup, savor it. To those who can’t, seek someone who can tell you about times of more simplicity when hard work and respect displaced division and rancor. People conversed which encouraged agreement. At least they did for the precious few minutes they paused by the well!
Indeed, we need that well cup.
Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “Several readers of Ma’ Rice’s letter of last week asked about The Well Cup which appeared in the summer edition of Range Magazine in 2011. Herein above is the edited version of that article centered around the entrance to Ma’s house under the turnoff to Sacaton Mesa on the west side of the Gila River in Grant County. My great grandmother’s house was a place of wonder. From catching a trout by hand in her system of canales constructed to water her yard, to scaring ourselves in venturing to look at the grizzly rug on her back porch after dark, to the gardens, barn, orchards, granary, her organ, the colorful little bubblers on her Christmas trees, and the smell of her kitchen, it was truly special. It was a cornerstone of life, and, in this Christmas season, it remains a most special place in my heart. The well cup, which hung from the hand dug well near her front screened porch entrance was a gift to us then and can serve as a reminder of our own rebirth this week as we celebrate our Saviour’s birth. Merry Christmas. May God bless you, your families, our President and leadership, and our United States of America.
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As usual, Wilmeth has brought back memories of my own. In this case it is of the North Place on the DuBois Ranch. The cup hung on the windmill, and was filled by holding it at the end of a pipe that ran to the storage tank. We filled our water bags there too. I remember as a youngster, still not tall enough to reach the end of the pipe, of being invited to take a short dip in the tank. And short it was. I couldn’t believe how cold that water was. I didn’t need any help getting out either.