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Have you heard about my newest book, Blackberries and Biscuits? It’s all about my mom’s life and times growing up in the Smokies of western North Carolina during the years of the Great Depression–and afterwards, too.  Here’s the opening scene:

Not again!” she snapped. Until this moment, it had been a perfect morning. But when she turned on the tap to fill the coffee pot, nothing. Dadgum it! Preparing a hearty breakfast before seeing Braxton off to work was one of the many ways she strove to be the best wife she could possibly be. This thing with the water was getting to be a nuisance. All she asked of the Harwell boy was that he wait a measly half-hour to divert the water supply from the house to the cattle trough so Brack could get a pre-workday shower and she could fix his breakfast.

Today was one time too many. In a flash of huff, she trounced across the kitchen, slammed the screen door behind her, stomped across the sandy back yard in her pink and blue flowered pajamas, climbed over the barbed wire fence into the neighbors’ pasture, and turned off the cattle trough faucet with a sharp wrist twist.

She marched triumphantly back to the kitchen, still mad, but smug. Today there would be coffee.

Who is this woman?

Her name is Pansy (Pam) Dillard Coates, and I know this true-life episode because the four-year-old version of me was in the kitchen when it happened. Surely, the only reason this long-ago moment stands so clearly in my memory is that such a display of temper was so unlike the quiet, gentle woman I knew as my mother.

That woman would never snap, never slam, and never, ever leave the house in her pajamas.

At the time, our young family of four was living in Mars Bluff, South Carolina, about eight miles east of Florence where Daddy worked. My parents rented an old farmhouse from the Harwells who lived next door in “one of the finest examples of Greek Revival antebellum architecture in South Carolina.”

Built in 1857, the plantation house had been in the possession of Mrs. Harwell’s mother since 1902 and remains in the family today. Even I knew it was pretty impressive, encircled as it was with twenty-two Doric columns. Not that I knew to call them that.

By contrast, our small, wood frame house stood atop brick pillars, the open space under the house intended to keep things cooler in hot southern summers. A wide screened porch ran all the way across the front. In my recollection, a hall sliced the house’s length from front door to back with a living room, bedroom, tiny den (most of which was filled with an oil heater), and a kitchen on the left side and a couple of bedrooms and a bathroom along the right. The cavernous bathroom had a floor of hardwood, dark and shiny. Surely it was originally another bedroom, repurposed when indoor plumbing came along.

Perhaps the nearby presence of The Columns, as the Harwell home was known, made our house look shabby to the lady who came calling one day to welcome us to Florence’s First Baptist Church. Mother did not like the overwhelming sense that this matron “felt sorry for us,” maybe even looked down on us. It was a slight she found hard to forget, though they worked side by side at church functions for decades.

But our home wasn’t nearly as pathetic as the unpainted two-room shanty occupied by a sharecropping couple. On occasion, I walked across the farm fields to visit them. It was a tiny space, even by a four-year-old’s standards. To enter, I walked into a small area designated as the kitchen. There was room for a rough-sawn countertop on one side of the ill-fitting door and a wood-fired cookstove and old-fashioned icebox—I’d never seen one of those before—on the other. An open doorway led into their combination living-bedroom. The place was dismally spare. I wouldn’t be surprised if it had once been slave quarters.

At least our house had electricity. And running water—sometimes.

There are plenty of old photos in Blackberries and Biscuits–more than 100! This one shows Mom with me and my brother Alan on Easter Sunday when our family lived in Mars Bluff.

It’s not too late to order a copy of Blackberries and Biscuits for someone on your holiday gift list–or even as a treat for yourself. You can find it here. (Tip: If you’re local, I’ve got a deal for you—just give me a buzz or pm me on FB.)

Blackberries and Biscuits

I couldn’t be more excited to share with you that my latest book has been published and is now available for purchase on Amazon. (You can find the reason for the title in Chapter Five.)

Isn’t the cover gorgeous?! The Gnome is responsible for that.

Here’s the Amazon description for Blackberries and Biscuits: Life and Times of a Smoky Mountain Girl (also known as my one-minute ‘elevator speech.’)

In this love story to her mom and the mountains she called home, Carole Coates gives the reader a glimpse into early twentieth century life in rural southwestern North Carolina where her mother was born and raised. The life journey of Pam Dillard Coates takes us through the Great Depression, the New Deal era, the Secret City of World War II, and on into the twenty-first century. The story follows her adventures as a farm girl, wife, war worker, mother, librarian, entrepreneur, and more. Part memoir, part genealogy, part history, Blackberries and Biscuits is a tale of childhood escapades, wartime secrecy, family life, and personal loss, but mostly love. The narrative weaves a tapestry of people, time, and place too rapidly disappearing from our cultural landscape.

Writing this story was a huge, multi-year project requiring lots of research, travel, and informational tooth-pulling. I loved (almost) every minute of it. I learned so many new things along the way, especially about my mother, but also about such disparate things as the Oleo Wars, the history of birth control in the US, half-dimes, and Civil War widows’ pensions. 

But I also felt a tremendous time pressure. Since this is a story about my mother and for my  mother, I really wanted her to be able to see it. And I’ve been promising it to her for so long she probably decided the whole thing was a hoax. Mother just celebrated her ninety-sixth birthday—so you can understand that there have been times I was frantic that I wouldn’t be able to make good on my promise.

We surprise-delivered Mom’s copy to her last week—just as soon as the big box of beautiful books showed up on our doorstep. To say she was thrilled would be an understatement. Her first words on seeing the book? “Okay, y’all can go home now. I have reading to do.”

Mom’s first look at ‘her’ book.

I am one very happy camper.

I would be thrilled if you choose to read it. While my purpose was to present a very personal gift to Mother and to preserve her story for our family members, it became much more than that, encompassing important historical periods in our nation’s history from a personal standpoint.

The Gnome has spent a couple of very dedicated weeks working on an e-book version, which, because of all the photographs (it’s chock full of pictures) and other formatting issues, took a whole lot longer than we’d imagined. But it, too, is finally available on Amazon. I strongly recommend the print version precisely because of the photos—they’re a big part of the story and the electronic layout just don’t quite do justice to them. But for those with vision problems or who are really into e-reading or who prefer saving a few bucks (hey, I totally get that), by all means go for the e-book. (By the way, the two versions aren’t yet linked on Amazon, so they don’t show up together, but if you do a search for the title, you should see one below the other in a list.)

Now, time for me to take a really deep, long breath. Except for blogging and a small genealogy writing project I’ve also been working on for a while, I plan to take a little writing break. I’ve got a couple of years’ worth of dusting to catch up on!

File:Celebration of Light Brazil 2012 20.JPG - Wikimedia Commons

Family History as a Civics Lesson

Once upon a time, I thought it was decidedly macabre for people to wander around cemeteries randomly looking for names on tombstones. Then I turned into one of them—long before I qualified as the kind of person (OLD) who seemed most fascinated by this hobby. 

The Gnome and I found ourselves immersed in genealogy in our earliest forties. At first, it was nothing more than wanting to find the names and origins of our ancestors, but it quickly became so much more. I wanted to know about these people who came before me. And the more I learned, the more I wanted to know: who they were, what they did, how they ended up where they were, what their world looked like. I wanted to round out their stories.

That’s when I realized that, at least for the intellectually curious, one’s family history is really a massive civics and history lesson.

Do you know how roads in the United States were maintained in the early days? If not for genealogy, I wouldn’t. Each locality required all ‘able-bodied’ men to spend a designated number of days on road work. Imagine that today. Fines—maybe worse—were imposed on shirkers. I suspect most of us are happier paying a fuel tax than putting aside our normal work to build roads on demand with pickaxes and shovels in hand. I understand the quality of those roads was somewhat (!) unreliable. It was a serendipitous lesson to discover that history because it helped me understand the nature and evolution of mutual responsibility for public works.

As for my own story, I lucked out when I came upon the account of a pair of ancestors, Jimmie and Jerutha Holland, written by Nellie Holland Russell for her pre-teen nephews. The somewhat fictionalized version of these early Scots-Irish settlers nonetheless told me how desperate things were in the ‘old country,’ how dangerous it was for two teenagers to cross the Atlantic on a rickety boat (‘ship’ is much too generous a word), how their vessel turned out to be run by pirates, how their naiveté in a strange land made them easy marks. In short, it told me I’m darned lucky to be here today.

This historical marker in Wayne County, NC, celebrates my fourth-great-grandparents. Who knew?

Surely it was much the same for millions more immigrants whenever and however they made their own journeys. It’s a piece of our collective history we would all do well to understand.

As the Gnome and I became more involved in learning about our family histories, we found ourselves engrossed in their times. I have precious few details about a great-grandfather and another great-great grandfather who fought in the Civil War. When I came across a book of letters from Confederate soldiers to their families back home, I wildly hoped I’d luck across one signed by one of my ancestors.

 

 

My great-great-grandfather, John Holden, and my great-grandfather William Holland Thomas Dillard were soldiers in the US Civil War.

Of course, I didn’t, but that didn’t make the stories any less compelling—stories of boredom mingled with bloody horror, near starvation, worry about a son or other family member in another unit, prison conditions, anxiety about the women and children back home. In that moment, it didn’t matter whose signature was on a letter or which side of the conflict he was on. I suspect the story was much the same for every soldier.

I read about soldiers returning home to western North Carolina from the prison in Petersburg, Virginia, after the war had ended. I pictured what it would have been like to be in their shoes. Or their bare feet, for some were without shoes. My grandpas weren’t part of that group, but reading about the odyssey told me a lot about how it must feel to return home after war, defeated, carrying the wounded, hungry, walking most of the several hundred miles to reach home, not knowing what one will find upon arriving. Seeing the desolation along the way. No parades, no hordes cheering from the roadsides.

It’s a story that’s been repeated through the ages and still is today in too many corners of the world. Looking through this lens, without the judgment of who’s right or wrong, but simply seeing the human heart, gives a person new perspective.

When I traveled to the heritage center in my dad’s hometown, I was hoping to learn more about my grandparents. What was education all about then? Why did Granddaddy only go to school through the seventh grade? He was eighteen when he finished, and within days he married his teacher, only a few months older than he. What a treat when the center’s director pulled out an old survey which included my great-grandparents’ farm. A little square on the edge of their property designated a school. They donated that bit of land to the county. It’s where Granddaddy went to school and most likely where he met my grandmother. With that tidbit of new knowledge. I felt closer to them.

I learned that school wasn’t compulsory, that children who did attend often started at age eight.

In those days, a three-person committee ran each school independently. In some cases, when they needed money to build a new school house, rather than raising taxes as the committee had the authority to do, they chose instead to close the school for a year and divert the teacher’s salary to purchase building materials. Hmm—no wonder a person didn’t finish seventh grade at age twelve.

I was in my small, local public library browsing some North Carolina history books when I came upon a small volume about tobacco-growing in the state. My dad’s father was a tobacco farmer. Working in tobacco—and cotton—was how Daddy and his brothers grew up. Maybe I’d find something useful in the pages of my book discovery. I did, but not what I was expecting. There was something about mules—how important they were to farm life in earlier days—so important they were considered part of the family. I asked my Uncle Edwin about that. “Noooo! They were never part of the family. I’d chop cotton [one of the most dreaded farm chores] before I’d plow a mule!” Now, that told me something about my dad’s life growing up. And I never would have known it if the only place I’d searched was the genealogy shelf. 

Daddy’s relationships with the family mules were as varied as their personalities. Rhodie was one of his favorites.

Random gleanings from random places. And each one a jewel that deepens my understanding. Our human story is so much more than the bare bones of begats. It’s a broader story, a deeply-textured one. Everyone’s story is different. Whatever yours is, if you let your curiosity guide you, it will teach you civics and history which will inform your knowledge about the world around you, give you an appreciation for where we are now as a society and what our forebears lived through to get us here. You might even discover a new passion.

Because there is a story to tell. You just have to find it.

Family Ties

Last year, I participated in a genealogy challenge on social media called Fifty-two Ancestors in Fifty-Two Weeks. You never know where delving into family history will lead you. You end up learning about people you’d never even heard of. It’s not about attaching yourself to fame and glory, at least not for me. But it does remind me that I’m connected to the history I learned about (and didn’t learn about) in school. It brings history to life. Being conscious of that history is not only interesting, but creates connectivity to others. It can teach important life lessons. And were it not for them—all of them—I wouldn’t be here.

For one weekly genealogy challenge, I wrote about my great-grandmother, Sarah Elizabeth Creech Smith. Somehow, that post popped up on a Creech family page, and next thing I knew I’d been invited to a Creech reunion. Of course, I had to go.

Columbus and Elizabeth Creech Smith

My curiosity about family and family history far outweighed my strong introvert credentials. I’d never met a Creech, probably because my grandmother died four years before I was born. That, and the fact that I was not born and raised in Johnston County, North Carolina, home to many a Creech and the location of the reunion.

I was anxious about being a stranger in the crowd, anxiety that was much alleviated by the Gnome’s presence at my side. (He’s as interested in my family history as I am.) But there was no need to worry. As the newcomer, I wasn’t only welcomed; I was practically rushed by my previously unknown cousins of various degrees.

What a welcoming crowd! Many of us appeared to be from the same generation, all descended from various of Martha Hare and Worley Creech’s nine children. If I’ve got it right, I’m third cousin to most of the kind folks I met that day.

Worley Creech, our common ancestor

Martha Hare Creech, our common ancestor

I gathered a few interesting facts about my ancestry. For one thing, the Creeches are a seriously musical bunch with a long heritage of vocal and instrumental talent. They played and sang for more than an hour, and it was beautiful. So that’s where my dad and his brothers and so many of my cousins got lots of their melodic genes!

My ‘new’ cousin Charles remembered being in the house where Worley (second-great-grandfather, if you’re keeping up) grew up. Worley’s youngest son, Carmel, lived and died in that house. Charles, just a kid at the time, remembered when Carmel’s body was brought back to the house. While the children played outside, the adults gathered around to watch over the body and to sing hymns, accompanied by the pump organ that had belonged to Carmel. The worn-out skeleton of the house still stands, hidden by a mass of pine trees and overgrown weeds. It remains in family hands.

Unfortunately, stroke has also played an outsized role in the Creech family for generations. My great-grandmother was a stroke victim. According to one of my uncles, “Grandma Creech was bed-ridden for as long as I can remember.” And my grandmother, Lula, died as the result of her second stroke. That’s why I never got a chance to know her. Not such a good sign—though stroke has not claimed anyone in my direct line since.

In addition to Charles, I met cousins Vicki (reunion host), Genie, Jody, Brenda, Steve, Sharon, Susan, Katherine, Shirley, Tap, and too many more to keep all the names straight—sorry.

A highlight of the day was being in the presence of the family’s matriarch—my second cousin once removed. But eighty-nine-year-old Sarah and I are much closer than that. She knew my dad! And remembered most of his brothers. She knew my great-grandparents! I could have jumped out of my skin. She remembered my great-grandfather, Columbus (Uncle Lumbus, she called him), from Creech reunions way back. And she told me a story about my great-grandmother, Sarah Elizabeth. It went something like this.

“There was this corner store our family went to. One day, I was in the buggy with Mother and we stopped at the store where Mother bought a bag of candies. Oh, how I wanted some of that candy! When we came out of the store and got back in the buggy, she said, ‘I want to tell you something. We’re going to see this lady who’s sick [that would be Elizabeth—Sarah’s mother was her niece], and this candy is for her. Now, she’s going to offer you a piece, because that’s what people do. But you are not to accept it.’

“And sure enough, that’s just what she did. And even though I really wanted a piece of that candy, I did just what my mother said, because that’s what people did.”

At the age of seventy-three I sat in the presence, held hands with, a woman who had been in the presence of, and probably held hands with, my great-grandmother. How about that!

Sarah fills me in. (Sarah was also  pianist for all the fine singing.)

I wouldn’t take anything for that reunion day.

(If you care about things like family degrees of separation, you can learn more here.)

Spring Time

(Note: In one of my delightful writing groups, we were challenged to write on the theme of spring. These prompts are much more wide open than they might appear at first glance. This was my offering. It’s a true story.)

Daddy grew up in the poorhouse.

It’s probably not what you think.

 

The former Johnston County (NC) poorhouse , aka County Farm and Home, is a private nursing home. The building stands as it did when it was first built in the early 1920s.

 

His father was hired to oversee the place during the years of the Great Depression, and the entire family of nine got to live and eat there, cost-free. Not that they weren’t owed that. Grampa’s salary was paltry to begin with and got cut as the Depression worsened. Not to mention that Gramma was expected to oversee the cooking, the laundry, the cleaning, and the nursing of the county home’s residents for no salary whatsoever.

Daddy said there was a lot of sickness at the poorhouse—and a lot of dying, too, what with the inmates, as they were called, being frail and elderly, developmentally disabled, or previously homeless—sometimes all of those things simultaneously.

Most people, Daddy said, when they came to live at the poorhouse, they also came to die there. And when that happened, unless a family member came to claim the body—and usually no one did, Grampa held a simple service, then the unembalmed body was placed in a plain pine casket and lowered into an unmarked grave which had been dug by Grampa, his sons, and the fittest of the inmates earlier in the day. It was a real potters’ field.

Well, with death always lurking around the corner, Grampa stored truckloads of pine boxes in a room of one of the old outbuildings on the property, where they sat waiting for the next person to die. Daddy and his brothers knew the darkened space as the coffin room.

It was one of their favorite play places.

It was where they hid when they thought a chore was about to be assigned, and it was a fine destination during a neighborhood game of hide and seek.

And Daddy, who once fancied he’d grow up to be a preacher, picked the coffin room to practice his oratory. For some reason, there was an old bed stored in the coffin room, too, and it was a springy thing. Daddy used the bed as his ‘pulpit.’

During his sermon sessions, he jumped up and down on that old bed. With its iron springs, it acted kind of like a pogo stick. Now, Daddy was a fiery orator, and as his fervor increased, so did his bouncing. He’d spring higher and higher until both he and his message finally fizzled out.

Well, Daddy never did get that call to be a minister. He reckoned the world just wasn’t ready for a preacher with so much spring in his step.

(P. S. You can find more stories about Daddy’s youth in my book, Boyhood Daze and Other Stories: Growing Up Happy During the Great Depression.)

 

Garland

Note: I am not a writer of fiction. But when faced with a writing workshop challenge to compose a fiction piece from someone else’s perspective, what was I to do? Since I was in the midst of writing a true-story book chapter featuring my grandfather, I called upon a few real-life details to evoke this bit of fantasy. I didn’t even bother to change the names, but you can believe me when I say it is a fictional piece. The thoughts I’ve put in his head came from mine, not his. Besides, my grandfather may have been taciturn, but he was never at a loss for words. Trust me. (And I adored him!)

GARLAND

Born in 1886, Garland grew up with mostly brothers. For three years straight during his twenties, he made the seven-mile walk to Cullowhee Normal School every Monday morning and then back again every Friday afternoon with his younger brother, Odell. During the week, they shared a boardinghouse room.

Garland was used to male company.

When he began teaching school, Garland was surrounded by children. His only adult companionship, such as it was, was with the other teacher in the two-room schoolhouse. She, however, was not male. At night, he went home to his new bride, Georgia. He was all asea in this new world devoid of men.

Ten years later, his family had increased by five—four girls, one boy. One boy, Billy, who turned out to be too much like his father—too smart, too stubborn, too pig-headed—to be much company, even in adulthood. They kept their distance.

The rest of the household hummed with activity: the whir of the treadle sewing machine; the never-ending yackety-yak of Georgia and her quilting friends; sisters playing house or school; the string of neighbor women dropping in to borrow the phone. Why, oh why, had they ever had it put in? And all that girl-crying—was it the answer to everything? The cacophony was a constant cricket chirp in Garland’s ears. Other times, it sounded like fingernails scraping against his schoolroom blackboard.

That’s about the time he gave up teaching in favor of running the little country store just down the road apiece. Once the high schoolers waiting near the door boarded their school bus each morning, it was reassuringly quiet around the place. As the day wore on and morning farm chores completed, farmers began trickling in to pick up their mail, restock their feed supply, or scrounge for a piece of hardware for this or that equipment repair.

They were in no hurry. Whatever emergency awaited them back at the farm wasn’t going anywhere. It would still be there when they returned to their chores. That’s one thing they could count on. There was always time to sit on one of the ladder back chairs or three-legged stools arranged around the pot-belled stove sitting in the middle of the room.

Garland savored those moments. Here, he was in his element. In the company of men. He was never too busy for a bit of fat-chewing with his comrades.

He knew that sooner or later the talk would turn from the weather and the price of cattle to the hot topic of politics. And he knew his face would get as red as the blistering coals in the stove soon as some rube aligned himself with Hoover and his cronies. It was bound to happen. Still, he’d rather engage in a battle of wits with someone in overalls than listen to the incessant yackety-yack of the women who came in to trade their eggs and butter or buy a bolt of fabric.

Retail trade, though, in the midst of the Great Depression, was an even less reliable way to put food on the table than a teacher’s paltry salary. Garland returned to his school room.

Five days a week, nothing but children and women, women and children. Schoolchild rowdiness, sister chatter, housewife gossip, Georgia’s nagging. He retreated into a shell of taciturnity, lonely in places bursting with people. At home, he often slipped off to the barn to get away from it all.

Saturdays, though. Saturdays were his escape. He woke early as usual, dressed, fed the animals and milked the cows like always, then ambled the two miles to town where he could be found standing in the midst of a small clutch of his fellow men, each as anxious as he to escape the drudgery of home life and the grip of their womenfolk.

The man who had nothing to say all week, who felt so out of place on his own property, found a new home on the sidewalks of Sylva. Once again in the company of men, words tumbled from Garland’s mouth as fast and furious as the torrents plunged over the boulders of Black Rock Mountain above his house on their way to Scotts Creek below.

No matter that not one of those men was as whip smart as Garland. No matter that all of them were rock sure they were. No matter that their politics were wrong-headed or that they could argue as long and loud and red-faced as he, as sure of their rightness as he was of his. He had found his place, and for a few hours each week, he was comfortable in his own skin.

The real Garland and Georgia, 50th wedding anniversary. Probably not so comfortable in his own skin at this moment.

Honoring the Dead

A while back I wrote a social media post for the “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” genealogy challenge. The week’s prompt was Oldest, and I wrote about the oldest cousin on my mom’s side of the family.

Little Bill died in a tragic vehicle accident at the age of seven, leaving me as heir to the title of oldest. His siblings thanked me for memorializing someone whose life was too short to leave much of a legacy of his own.  

A friend of mine shared that the oldest child in her family had been a ‘blue baby,’ living only nine weeks. When her parents moved nearby in their later years, she learned more about the brother she never knew. She learned about her parents’ abiding love for him. She discovered he was always alive in their hearts. Now that her parents have died, too, she feels called upon to keep his memory alive. That need fuels a deep connection to this person who had never been much more than a myth to her.

I’m currently working on a book about my mother’s life and times. That means her siblings, her parents, her grandparents, too. Almost all of them are long gone from this world, so part of my process involves calling up memories, begging them to awaken from their slumber deep in the recesses of my mind, sometimes birthing random mental snapshots into full-blown narratives.

I was having trouble getting my grandparents’ story to make much sense on paper. I found myself fervently wishing they were still here for a face-to-face. (Actually, this is something I regularly wish for.)

Sometimes, it feels as if they have heard me. My eyes wander beyond the keyboard and I see their ethereal presence. It’s not my imagination; they’re there. Side by side they stand, he in his dark brown dress trousers, their legs as wide at the bottom as at the top, the way they were back in the ’50s. She’s wearing her usual fare: a cotton shirtwaist dress, small brown print on a beige background, her stockings rolled tightly an inch or two above her knees just the way I remember.

I only see my grandparents from mid-thigh down. But I feel them standing together, their arms touching, their eyes boring into the top of my head. They don’t answer my questions. But their presence is powerful. They are urging me on, assuring me if I keep at it, I’ll figure it out. But reminding me it’s all up to me now. They can only cheerlead. And they do. Silently, but hard.

I don’t dare look up. I’m so afraid the gossamer thread that binds us in this moment will drift off, my grandparents with it, and I want them to stay.

 

 

I, too, feel a deep and abiding connection to these people who no longer walk among us. They continue to have much to offer. I want to be the keeper of their flames.