A Belated Mother’s Day Story

I look to you for courage in my life
And I promise it’s not just foolish idolatry
That makes me gaze at you in wonder.

–Holly Near, “Something About the Women”

My mom’s a Smoky Mountain gal, and I’m in the process of writing a book about her life and times. I’m happy to finally be able to say I’m on the downhill side of the project, but it’s still a long ride. Thought I’d share a little of her backstory in her honor during this Mother’s Day week.

Mother as a teenager–at 4-H camp

Mother’s ancestors arrived in the Smokies with little more than they could carry. Those early pioneers spent their days working the land. The mainstay meat product was pork—hogs were more numerous than all other livestock combined, with farmers killing a hog or two annually for their families to live on until next hog-killing season. It was the era of subsistence farming. Most of the necessities of life were produced in the home or on the farm, and most exchange was by barter. There was little contact with the outside world, even in one’s own county. That’s how scarce roads were.

A record of early settlers’ homes and the sturdy, industrious people who built and occupied them was summarized by Edgar H. Stillwell, Mother’s second cousin once removed and former history professor at what is now Western Carolina University.
Stillwell wrote that no sooner were their rough, one-room cabins built than the pioneers began clearing the cheap, plentiful land for cultivation, making their crude farm implements themselves from whatever was available. He added, “All other necessaries were manufactured by hand . . . ” It was a world of do it yourself or do without.

Such were the conditions in the 1820s, when the family of Mother’s third-great-grandparents, Mary Nicholson and Barak Norton, were the first settlers of Whiteside Cove in the Cashiers community, which is now part of Jackson County. Barak lived to be 92, Mary to 95. Her 1883 obituary stated that she never had need of a doctor until her last year.

Barak and Mary Nicholson Norton

Meanwhile, other of Pam’s ancestors were moving into other sections of southwestern NC, most notably a bit north in the Oconaluftee area, most of it now lying within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Soon after Sarah and Jacob Mingus settled the area in the earliest years of the 1800s, the Stillwells arrived, and then the Holdens.

In the isolated coves where they settled, religious services were typically conducted in private homes, as was the case with Lufty Baptist Church founded in 1836. Lufty’s early meetings were held in the home of Dr. John Mingus, whose parents (Jacob and Sarah), Mother’s third-great-grandparents, were among the very earliest settlers in the region.

The Minguses were described by one old-timer in an oral history interview with the park historian. “They are ordinarily large, heavy built with a ruddy complexion having broad faces with a slightly Roman nose. They have soft blue or gray eyes, a grave expression yet comical. They are honest and thrifty. They as a whole delight in paying every penny they owe but it almost kills them to pay an unjust debt. They have a high explosive temper easily offended but quick to forgive . . . Most of the Minguses I ever knew was law abiding and God fearing people. I was raised on the Ocona Lufty river and her tributaries and I never saw a drunk Mingus in all my life . . . They use very little profanity. They have few habits. The women folks are mostly good housekeepers and cooks. They all work and teach their children to work.”

Mingus Mill, Great Smoky Mountains National Park–        Creative Commons photo courtesy of Brian Stansberry [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D

John Preston Arthur, in his History of Western North Carolina, said, “It was the women who were the true heroines of this section. The hardships and constant toil to which they were generally subjected were blighting and exacting in the extreme. If their lord and master could find time to hunt and fish, go to the Big Musters, spend Saturdays loafing or drinking in the settlement or about the country ‘stores,’ as the shops were and still are called, their wives could scarcely, if ever, find a moment they could call their own.”
Edgar Stillwell added, “. . . at last, tired and worn out with the long day’s duties, [they fell] on the bed for a well-earned night’s repose, which was often broken by the cries of a sick baby or the return of some male member of the family late in the night. Thus our great great grandmothers served from day to day; thus they labored without honor, often with little reward, and always unselfishly. Heroines indeed they were.”

Indeed.

With few exceptions, not much is known of these women beyond what can be gleaned from various census records. That so little information is available may be due—aside from patriarchy—to the poor state of things like roads and communication systems in western North Carolina in its early, and not so early, days.

Even in this remote area, a few morsels of Mother’s matrilineage did make it into print or oral history.

In 1775 or so, a fort was raised on the land of Mother’s third-great-grandparents, William and Rebecca Cathey in what is now McDowell County, NC, to protect their family and neighbors against Cherokee raids during the Revolutionary War period. It was the westernmost military outpost in the state. A historical marker sits along Highway 221/226.

From that battle came this tale about Catheys Fort and the mother of one of the Cathey men, whose specific identity I’ve not yet been able to confirm. The Catheys were familiar with Cherokee attacks on their property and fort. Mrs. Cathey knew there had been attacks on several nearby communities by the Cherokee/Tory Army, led by Dragging Canoe, war chief of the Chickamauga Cherokee, “and she dang well was ready to alarm McDowell residents” of the coming danger, so she mounted a horse in her stable “astride and at quarter speed” to warn the settlement to flee to the fort.

They barely made it to relative safety before the fighting began. Then one of the defending party cried out that all the powder was gone, an admission that could have spelled doom for the fort’s occupants. At that point, “old Mrs. Cathey” (I’m not sure if this was Rebecca or another family member) once again came to the rescue. She “pulled off a pair of red flannel pockets and called out that there was powder aplenty.” At just that moment one of the attackers was shot and the invaders retreated. The ploy was a ruse—her pockets were empty, but “the bravery and quick wit of Mrs. Cathey saved the party.”

Though there is some confusion, the woman in this photo may be Catherine Cathey (Mother’s second-great-grandmother), daughter of William and Rebecca.

When John Holden left to fight in the Civil War in 1862, Mother’s maternal great-grandmother, Arminda, was left to care for their five young children, ages 5 months to 7 years, give birth to another, and manage all aspects of the family home and farm on her own. After John’s return in 1865, Arminda gave birth to another eight children. That was fourteen children over twenty-six years.

John and Arminda Norton Holden

Mother’s grandmother, Martha Jane Henry Dillard was only eleven when her older brothers went off to war, their father having died that same year. That left Martha Jane, her nine-year-old brother, and their mother, Sarah Elliott Henry to fend for themselves during those dangerous times.

Martha Jane Henry Dillard with grandchildren–Mother is the baby, bottom left

And back to Mary Norton. According to John Preston Arthur, “It is a well authenticated fact that Mrs. Norton, then living in Cashier’s Valley, was awakened one night while her husband was away from home, by hearing a great commotion and the squealing of hogs at the hog-pen nearby. Her children were small and there was no ‘man pusson’ about the place. The night was cold and she had no time to clothe herself, but, rushing from the cabin in her night dress and with bare feet, she snatched an axe from the wood-pile and hastening to the hog-pen, saw a large black bear in the act of killing one of her pet ‘fattening hogs.’ She did not hesitate an instant, but went on and aiming a well directed blow at Bruin’s cranium, split it from ears to chin and so had bear meat for breakfast instead of furnishing pork for the daring marauder.”

Such is the stock from which Pam Dillard Coates comes.

Mother in her late sixties

Mother in her upper eighties

I suspect most, if not all, of us have similar stories somewhere in our family histories, even though we may not know them. So, on behalf of children everywhere, thank you to the mothers of the ages—today and every day—for your struggles, your determination and strength, your survival, and the amazing genes that you carried and passed on. We’re here because of you.

 

Proud Mountain Woman

(This essay was first published in the 2018 issue of Gateways Creative Arts Journal, themed Remembering and Forgetting.)

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 just a measly half-hour to divert the water supply 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 cows’ water supply 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? What is her story? Her name is Pam Dillard Coates. I know this true life episode because the four-year-old me was in the kitchen when it happened. No doubt, the only reason this long-ago moment stands so clearly in my memory is that such a display of temper and venom 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. My parents rented an old farmhouse from the Harwells who lived next door in what has been described as one of the finest examples of Greek Revival antebellum architecture in South Carolina. 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, in the way of many houses of its era. The open space under the house was intended to keep things cooler in the hot southern summertime. Perhaps the nearby presence of “The Columns,” as the Harwell home was known, made our little house look shabby to the lady who came calling one day to welcome us to church. Mother did not like the sense she got that this matron felt sorry for us and that she looked down on us. It was a slight Mother never forgot.

But our home wasn’t nearly as pitiful as the two-room unpainted wooden shanty occupied by a tenant-farming couple. I walked across the fields to visit them on occasion. It was a tiny space, even by four-year-old standards. I walked into the small area designated as a kitchen with room for a wooden counter top on one side of the door and an old-fashioned icebox on the other. An open doorway led into the combination living-bedroom. The place was dismally spare. At least our house had electricity—and running water, sometimes.

We lived a couple hundred miles and a world apart from Mother’s hometown in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina. The people of sandy eastern South Carolina thought her mountain accent was quaint. By one means or another, someone was always calling attention to her differentness. She felt out of place, patronized, and she was rightly sensitive to any hint of disdain.

In the mountains, she was in her element. Her family was well-respected. Her parents were leaders in the small community. It was home.

She didn’t realize just how much. Though she was unaware of it, all of Mother’s ancestors had settled the area when it was first opened up via cession by the Cherokee. Every single one of them came to this country no later than the 1700s, some earlier. Like today’s immigrants, they were mostly poor folk who left their home countries in search of a better life. For the most part, they found it.

The Stillwells, Loves, Dillards, and Nortons were some of the first to move to western North Carolina as it opened up for settlement. The rest came not long after. Some made their way from Virginia through eastern Tennessee. A few moved from points further east in North Carolina, and more came from bordering counties in South Carolina and Georgia.

In other words, Mother’s mountain heritage included the very deepest roots among European settlers. And though she is still the sweet, gentle woman I remember from my childhood, I now understand that she is—and has always been—so much more. She shares many of the traits commonly attributed to Southern Highland mountaineers: self-reliance, persistence, and stoicism borne of necessity; reticence, independence, and individualism borne of isolation; and a hefty dose of mountain pride that demands to be treated with dignity.

Today she’s even more proud of her mountain heritage than she was as a twenty-something young mother. So am I.

The Heart of Dixie: A Holiday Story

(Originally published 12/21/2017)

A little preface may be called for here. Way back in the last century—in the mid-70s—our local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) established a number of consciousness-raising groups. Those of us who were interested were randomly assigned to one group or another.

C-R meetings were safe spaces where women could share our deepest secrets, questions, fears, and issues as women. Initially, C-R groups were meant to be a mass-organizing tool for broad political action, but consciousness raising quickly became a form of political action in its own right.

At C-R gatherings, our sense of isolation imploded as we each discovered our individual experiences were anything but unique, anything but small. As we discussed problems and events from our own lives, our stories became a tool for change. We gained strength and courage to take on systemic, structural sexism wherever it existed—sometimes in our own heads. It’s an on-going process, but one where we learned that indeed the personal is political, a truth we still see in today’s various human rights struggles. And though C-R groups were sometimes pooh-poohed as nothing more than group navel gazing, those who benefited from the institution of sexism soon found the results a power to be reckoned with.

*****

We were eight or nine in number, almost all strangers when our Consciousness-Raising group had been formed. In our short time together, we’d tackled all manner of topics, from workplace discrimination to deeply personal and painful issues to women’s health care to daily gender-based slights. It didn’t take long to bond. We were tight.

Dixie volunteered to host our December meeting, more a holiday celebration than a discussion of feminist politics. We had agreed in advance that, in lieu of tangible gifts, we’d each read a favored poem or essay—any subject. I chose Rod McKuen’s “A Cat Named Sloopy.”

It was an appropriate selection on several levels. I’d always been a cat lover and was owned by two of them at the time. And at our very first group meeting, one of the members observed that I reminded her of a cat with my easy movements and my quiet, sensitive manner.

After the rest of us had read our pieces, it was Dixie’s turn. Instead of pulling out a book, she asked to be excused for a minute. When she returned, she was wearing a big grin and carrying a basket full of small, white gift boxes. Cries of “Oh, Dixie” and the like filled the room. The rest of us had followed our mutual agreement—why was she giving out presents?

But, for reasons of her own, Dixie needed to bring an offering. And it was obvious from the pleased exclamations and laughter as we opened our little boxes and pulled out identical items that what she chose was perfect.

Dixie gave us each an egg. More accurately stated, she gave us each an eggshell, an egg whose contents had been carefully blown out. With red ink, Dixie had drawn facial features on each egg and encircled each one with a fat piece of red yarn tied into a bow at its narrowed top. An ornament hook was stuck into the bow’s knot. My name was written on the back of my egg.

It had to have been a tedious, time-consuming process, likely with more than a few failed attempts. It was a gift of thoughtfulness and love. Dixie found a clever, personal expression of our shared womanhood—the very essence of our relationship.

That was almost forty-five years ago. I still have my egg. The ink has faded, yet it’s an unrivaled possession, safely stored with other treasured holiday ornaments and always ready to play a starring role when it’s brought out for special occasions. In the intervening years, I’ve given a few of my own.

dixie egg

My prized vintage egg from Dixie

My egg reminds me of more than that heady time and those extraordinary women. It reminds me of change, of the unexpected. My egg has traveled with me across two states; through a wild adventure of leaving behind almost everything I knew to hand-build a home with my soulmate; it’s been with me through child-rearing, a career, and now my life’s vintage chapter.

My fragile, yet enduring, egg is a symbol of the strength of perseverance, courage, and tenacity. It symbolizes the power of knowledge and community of spirit. It symbolizes friendship and freedom of thought. It symbolizes time and all the experience that accompanies it. And it epitomizes the exquisite purity of giving from the heart.

Wherever you are today, dear Dixie, thank you for breaking the rules, thank you for your generous heart, and thank you for opening mine a little wider.

Here’s to New Chapters

I’ve been thinking about momentous occasions lately. The end of summer brings a lot of them. One grandchild began 3K just about the time another officially became a college freshman.

Just a few boxes filled with essential items for college life

I shared some thoughts about the start of college about this time last year. You can read those here and here. It suddenly got a lot more personal this year as one of those college freshmen is my eldest grandchild. Her life is about to change in ways she nor her parents can imagine.

. . . and in a flash, the younger sister becomes an only child, so to speak.

Naturally, my mind hearkens back to my own graduation summer and college freshman fall. Letters passed between three soon-to-be roommates. Who were we? What clothes should we pack? How should we decorate our dorm room? I was nothing but ecstatic and expectant. For years, I’d spent most of my summers away at one 4-H camp or another, so the notion of homesickness never occurred to me. I was only looking forward. My mood didn’t alter all summer.

Then came the big day, our family of five and all my luggage crammed in my parents’ car for the four-hour trip to the college of my choice. I sat on the right-hand side of the back seat in the soft pink shirtwaist dress trimmed with deeper pink hand-embroidered stitching on the collar edge and both sides of the collar-to-hem button placket. All hand-made by Mother. It was one of my favorites, a dress to help me put my best foot forward as I entered my new life.

It was only when directional signs to my school appeared, just a couple of miles from our destination, that I started to freak. Totally unexpected, my tummy brimmed with butterflies. While I was still mostly excited about what the future held for me, a tiny but powerful part was ready to turn around and head back home. Had I been on my own, I might have done just that.

I’m so glad turning around wasn’t an option. Even as the heady anticipation of that summer evolved into all-night exam cramming sessions, even as the grades I was used to in high school eluded me, even as idealism turned to reality and sometimes cynicism, even as I endured the agony of heartbreak, I had found my place. Not once did I consider giving up.

At most, I traveled home for school holidays and summer breaks. On occasion, I even stayed at school during shorter breaks. I appreciated the solitude of a dorm and campus empty of the hustle-bustle of daily student life. I could read for pleasure, reflect, organize, take solitary strolls through my favorite spots, daydream. There wasn’t much time for those things the rest of the school year.

I discovered new passions during my college years. I set out on a career path, though it morphed and morphed again in my post-college years. I learned what mattered to me. I discovered independence. Ideas jelled into philosophies. I found love. I lost love. I found it again. I survived. I learned that I could.

It’s not that I think college years are the best years of one’s life, a sentiment I’ve heard so many times. How depressing to hit twenty-one and think all the best times are behind you. No, I see those college years as a unique time, a time to grow, a time to explore, a time to discover what you’re made of. If all goes reasonably well, it’s a time to look back on with fond nostalgia, not as the best time of life but as one that holds sweet memories and provided important building blocks for the life to come.

As we said I goodbyes, I wished I could find the wisdom and the words to give my granddaughter the most brilliant piece of advice, the pithiest sentiment. In the end, all I could do was give her a hug and say, “I love you.”

I wish my granddaughter and all her fellow college freshmen the very best college has to offer, hopefully with only a few disappointments, though those are important to growth, too. Sometimes it’s our mistakes that define us; hard as they are, we need a few along the way. It’s what we do with them that matters.

Here’s to you, Starshine!

 

 

So Beautiful It Changed My Life

What an amazing concept—something so beautiful it could change a life. Most of us, if we’ve lived long enough, have had at least a couple of life-changing experiences. But by nothing more than beauty? That was the writing challenge I was presented recently: a time when something was so beautiful it changed your life. It took me aback for a moment. But only for a moment. As I scoured my memory, it came to me.

Driving from Kentucky to the mountains of North Carolina in 1979, after the Gnome and I had made the mental decision to move but before we had actually taken action to make it happen (in other words, it would be easy enough to back out), I looked at the mountains on the horizon with new eyes. It was as if they were cloaked in blue-green velvet.

Their apparent softness overwhelmed me. Though I didn’t have words to articulate it, I sensed something magnificent. Those ancient rocks, some of the oldest in the world, had been worn down by eons of rain and wind; in the process, they had been reshaped from the haughty cragginess of youth into the gentle wisdom of age. Their strength lay in their graceful endurance. I didn’t want to back out.

We spent a week searching for a spot to call home Discouraged by all the not-right-for-us places we’d been shown, we were about to head back to Louisville with unfulfilled dreams. At the last minute, our realtor recalled a secluded piece of land tucked away on a mountainside, and our decision was made. In early April, things were still pretty barren; still, we were confident we’d found what we were looking for. We signed some papers and went back to Louisville to prepare for the big move.

When we returned to our mountain with all our worldly goods not quite three months later, my heart stopped as we drove into a meadow bursting with daisies. (How did the universe know to greet me with this outsize bouquet of my favorite flower?) 

It stopped again the first time I looked over a cloud-filled valley, mountaintops peeking out like islands in a sea of snowy foam.

I knew I’d never leave.

pict0068

(To read more about our adventure of moving and building a home with our bare hands while living in the wild, begin here.)

Here’s to What We Don’t Know

Another quick assignment in my Wednesday writing group—you’ll find the prompt in the last nine words of this post. (Unh-uh! No skipping to the end!)

Living in a tent on ten acres of land in a strange place with no water, no electricity, no phone access, no knowledge of local weather conditions—like that severe thunderstorms could and would pop up daily with no warning, no jobs, and no money but with two elementary-aged children, two neurotic cats, and a notion we could live this way for as long as it took to design our own house, get planning approval, and build the entire thing with nothing more than our own four hands and a few hand tools . . . well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Little Things Mean A Lot

Little Things Mean A Lot

Have you ever looked around your home and thought about which things are especially meaningful to you? If you’re like me, it won’t be the big-ticket items, whatever they are. Instead, it will be the little things, sometimes things you’ve held onto for no apparent reason, things to which no one else would attach any importance.

I took a virtual house tour recently and came up with a few special items.

1. The one I’ve had the longest is a Little Golden Book, Busy Timmy. I have a few others, too, but this one captures my imagination for a variety of reasons. Stereotypical as these books were when I was an impressionable tyke, they were my ticket to the wonderful world of words. Timmy could do anything, it seemed. I was just as proud when I could do something on my own—that was the whole idea, after all. I loved the illustrations. And I learned to read. I’ve had this book for close to seventy years. (How is that even possible?!) It never gets old, and it tickles me no end to share it with my grands.

These books are well worn!

2. You’ve surely been asked the question, “If your house was on fire and you could save just one thing, what would it be?” Though I’m sure the true answer lies only in the experience of the moment, my answer to the hypothetical has always been “my photographs.” I’m addicted to picture-taking. I get even more joy from perusing old photos—snapshots of friends and family, vacation scenes, nature photography. I love it all. Of course, I’d never succeed in my photo-saving quest—my albums fill close to ten linear feet of my bookshelf real estate. And that’s not counting the boxes full of loose snapshots or the photos on external drives and SD cards. But I’d do my best. They’re memories of the richest sort. Visual links to time and place that only exist in memory. Treasured keepsakes to share with next generations whose only tie to their past lies in pictures and words.

3. A large, two-tone brown mixing bowl was a fixture in Mom’s kitchen for as long as I can remember—the kind you might find in an antique consignment shop these days. Everything from meatloaf to cake got mixed in that bowl. It’s long had a hair crack down one side, but I still use it almost daily. It wasn’t just part of my childhood; it was part of my learning to cook, an essential item in my 4-H foods project. I mixed up my prize-winning cornbread in it, and I still do today.

4. Growing up, I never cared all that much for framed crewel, embroidery, or cross-stitched pieces. They were too old-fashioned for my taste. But when my mother was breaking up housekeeping, I grabbed a few for old times’ sake. Today, they hang on my walls in places of honor. Each one has a story. This one’s my favorite.

5. My dad took up woodworking in retirement, following in the footsteps of a couple of his brothers. He carved walking sticks, made wooden chimes, turned earrings from exotic woods. I especially liked the clocks he made of aged barn wood. He enjoyed coming up with corny themes for them. (Corn was one of his specialties.) On the frame of mine, he etched, “Spring Time.” Each numeral is represented by a small metal spring. It makes me chuckle. It’s just so Dad.  

6. After decades of filling up precious bookshelf space with my old college textbooks (not to mention hauling them move after move), I finally admitted I no longer had a use for them. Gosh, the psychology texts were embarrassingly outdated. But there’s just something about those old books: their look, their heft, their scent. The slick pages alone send me into paroxysms of nostalgic joy. No doubt part of the allure is the childhood memory of my dad’s sole surviving college text. When I was eight years old, I tortured my younger brother with “school,” while I, as teacher, busily underlined sentences full of words I didn’t understand in that chicken husbandry book.

Still, I knew it was time. Wistfully and semi-regretfully, I began packing my old books in a donation box. Then I came upon my treasured Milton text. I temporarily set it to the side. Not for its content—I tried rereading a few lines. Crikey! No, it was for what it represents: a small seminar class where I was fully present. I loved the challenge of it. I dared to speak out. I got listened to, I belonged, I thrived.

I kept the book.

I could go on and on, but you get my drift. Sentimental trinkets, whose meaning often lies in what they represent rather than the objects themselves—these are the things I value. One of my favorite Top 40 hits during my teens was the song, “Little Things Mean A Lot,” sung by Joni James. “Blow me a kiss from across the room/Say I look nice when I’m not/Touch my hair as you pass my chair/Little things mean a lot . . . Don’t have to buy me diamonds and pearls/champagne, sables, and such/I never cared much for diamonds and pearls/’cause honestly honey they just cost money.” In spite of some fingernails-on-the-blackboard grammar, the song’s theme aligned with my ethos then and now.

I guess it shows.

What about you? Have you taken inventory of your most precious things? Where do they rank on the scale of monetary value? Do you love them for what they are or for what they signify? Or is it just me? Feel free to share in a comment.