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.

That Feel Good Moment (Another Kind of Love Story)

We woke up to another glorious snowfall, this one a fluffy six inches deep and preceded by hoar frost that made all outdoors a glittery white. We bundled up in warm layers and snow boots in preparation for a trip to town for a few errands.

On the porch, the Gnome was fumbling with boxes destined for the recycling bin while I was busy locking the door. I turned around to see what looked like an apparition of Amber, one of our beloved pets of yore.

The dog was beguiling with her golden plume of a tail wagging in youthful enthusiasm. Where had she come from? We live far from a public road. How long had she been out? She must be hungry and cold.

For a moment we thought we’d once again been adopted. But she was wearing a harness. She must have been with her humans recently. Surely she hadn’t been abandoned by the side of the road.

As the Gnome held tightly to her harness, he felt for a tag. Appropriately, it read, “Not all who wander are lost, but I might be.” There was a phone number. I was already digging for my cell phone.

“Hello,” the male voice answered.

“Hi, we have a dog here whose tag has this phone number attached.”

I could hear deep worry quickly replaced by relief as he told me he and his wife were out looking for her at that very moment. We exchanged information; they were less than half a mile away. I told him we’d pile her in the car and meet them in a few minutes.

But they weren’t about to hang around waiting. Before we got to the road, we saw them hiking up the mountain on our very long, climbing, gravel road. Red-faced, wet-haired, and with tears rolling down their cheeks, they hugged each other, they hugged the dog, they hugged the Gnome. (I’m sure they would have hugged me, too, but I was still buckled up in the car at the moment.)

Turns out this young couple had been out on a romp with their barely one-year-old pup. They’d practiced letting her off leash at home for a few weeks with no problems and decided today, on the remote path they were hiking, would be a good time to try it further afield. But they turned away for a mere second. That was all it took for her to disappear. Probably spotted a rabbit or maybe a deer.

They’d been searching for a couple of hours, climbing ever higher in the deepening snow—exhausted, worried, with no idea if they were going in the right direction, and about to give up when the phone rang. In the few minutes she’d been in our custody, we’d already fallen a little in love with the dog, but our infatuation couldn’t hold a candle to the adoration this young couple showed for their furbaby.

Even though they insisted they could walk, we couldn’t let them trek another half mile home. They were on a natural high but obviously overheated and exhausted. We piled the humans in the car, too, with the dog safely ensconced between them.

After we dropped them off, I realized how full my heart was. I looked at the Gnome and said, “Doesn’t it feel good to do a good deed!” We had smiles on our faces, smiles in our hearts, and livelier springs in our steps the rest of the day.

Have you found your good deed for today? This day devoted to love is the perfect time to reach out. You’ll be glad you did.

“Everything I Need”

Have I mentioned I have the most amazing mom? Really, I do. This woman, 95 today, has never ceased being my mentor and teacher. And I’ll bet she doesn’t even realize it. She’s no longer trying to mold me; that work is done. Yet, her daily, living example does influence me.

I recently came across a March 19, 2018, New York Times article by Jane E. Brody: “Finding Meaning and Happiness in Old Age.” She references several experts in the field of geriatrics with observations such as these:

  • Even when physical decline and losses restrict one’s options, there remains the capacity to appreciate and approach each day with a sense of purpose. It’s all about how you frame what you have.

  • Positive aging is “a state of mind that is positive, optimistic, courageous, and able to adapt and cope in flexible ways with life’s changes.”

  • older people, knowing they face a limited time in front of them, focus their energies on things that give them pleasure in the moment,” not on a future that may never be.

That sounds a lot like Mom, now classified as among ‘the oldest of the old.’

Five years ago, my mother lived in a six-room house filled with antiques and family heirlooms. She and my dad had already downsized once or twice. Today, widowed after sixty years of marriage, she lives in one room in an assisted living facility. She no longer drives. She shares her small room with all her possessions—a chest, a rocking chair, a couple of bedside tables and lamps, a small bookcase overflowing with books and word puzzles, a television set, and a few pictures and pieces of needlework adorning the walls. Aside from her clothing and a bed furnished by the facility, that’s about it. Talk about downsizing!

Having suffered a broken hip, a fractured pelvis, severe osteoarthritis, and several fractured vertebrae that shortened her height by at least five inches, she moves slowly, painfully, and infrequently—with an aluminum walker as her constant companion.

Some people would look at her circumstances and be overcome with sadness. Not Mom. Sometimes when we’re on the phone, she’ll randomly say something like, “Not many ninety-four-year-olds are as lucky as I am,” citing her long and happy marriage, her children, the mountain view from her room, the resident cats that come for daily visits.

On my most recent visit, I asked if there was anything I could pick up for her. She took a cursory glance around, looked me straight in the eyes with a tranquil smile, and said, “You know, I have everything I need.”

I’d say she’s mastered the art of finding meaning and happiness in old age. Now, if only I can be as good a pupil as she is a teacher.    

Mom through the years

 

Delighting the Senses

I’ve mentioned my writing group before on this blog. I get so many great writing ideas from our two-hour Wednesday sessions. A few weeks ago, we were asked to select from a pile of phrases our illustrious leader had torn from the pages of magazines. I chose “Delight all five senses.” The assignment: in ten minutes, write a poem inspired by our selected phrase. Here’s mine:

Delight in All Five Senses

The taste of homemade ice cream with homegrown blueberries
The smell of a dying midnight campfire
The sound of a baby’s laughter
The touch of a cat nuzzling my sleepy morning cheek
The sight of a long lost friend

The taste of a snowflake melting on my tongue
The smell of spicy ferns as they brush legs on a woodland walk
The sound of a mating wren’s melodious song
The touch of a mossy stone caressing my toes
The sight of fireflies on a moonless June night

The Holy in the Here and Now

The Holy in the Here and Now

Someone recently mentioned to me that dogs are more in tune with the earth than we humans. Think about it: they sense moods; they know when a storm is coming. In a car with the window down, they sniff out every scent—apparently with great joy. They know when their beloved human is due to arrive or even when someone unexpected is about to come up the drive.

Chalk it up to heightened sensory skills if you want. But the bottom line is dogs aren’t distracted by the sometimes inane things we allow to get in the way of capturing the moment. They don’t share our incessant ability to fret over the past and agonize about the future. They’re all about the present.

It’s a lucky person who can see what is holy in the here and now:

a child’s laughter,
the wind,
daffodils and cardinals,
redbuds and moss,
the wingbeat of bats,

the architecture of a tree,
a baby’s toes,
sister duets,
cloud shadows drifting across mountains,
the poetry of a shovel’s utility,

dew drops on a spider web,
the songs of spring peepers after an evening shower,
little red wagons,
a seed’s unfurling tiny leaves as they break through the soil,
baseball and kite-flying,

a cow’s bellow or the dignity of a donkey,
food from the field,
a friend’s voice,
leaf mold and mushrooms on the forest floor,
a letter in the mail,

embers of an evening campfire,
grapes fresh off the vine,
the kindness of a stranger,
hope,
a poem,

Spanish moss dripping from oak branches,
a pat on the back,
a smile across the room,
a snowflake caught on the tongue,
a mockingbird’s repertoire or a magpie’s iridescence.

The holy: it’s where we choose to look and how we choose to see.

 

 

Soul Food

Since the Gnome and I took up gardening in a serious way, food has sort of taken over my life. It all starts in January when I sit down with the tall stack of seed catalogs that have been filling my box for the last month or so.

The pictures alone make me drool. The exotic new vegetables, the colorful ones, and especially bean seeds capture my imagination. In truth, beans aren’t my favorite dish, but I’m batty over the seeds. So, beans take up a fair amount of the garden landscape.

After the seeds arrive in February or March, I begin diagramming the garden. How much space to allot to this or that veggie, how to rotate the crops, which plants will be good companions are all questions that come into play during the planning process.

Spring means cleaning up the previous year’s garden, weeding, and watching long-term forecasts to determine when I dare to plant the earliest crops. By late spring, I do an almost daily dance with the weather, trying to outguess its long-range plans. Can I push the planting up a week this year or should I err on the side of caution and wait for that ‘last average frost date’?

At whatever date I settle on, planting begins in earnest, along with mulching and more weeding. Seeds need moisture to germinate, so I find myself in the garden with a hose on dry days. Within days, maybe up to a couple of weeks in some cases, tiny green sprouts begin popping up out of the ground. It’s a magical time and my joy is palpable.

When I’m gardening, I’m following in some mighty big footsteps. Feeding the family from the land was the work of all my grandparents and theirs before them. For them, it was honest work that meant survival. Every moment I’m in the garden feeds me ancestrally.

But harvest time is what truly feeds me, both literally and figuratively. I can’t help but smile when I look at a dinner plate filled with only the bounty of our garden: green salad, asparagus, Swiss chard, squash, rutabaga, corn, kale, eggplant. Whatever the dishes of the day, I’m satiated before I take the first bite.

Harvest time also means preserving, another soul-fulfilling activity. The hours and days I invest in food preservation mean we’ll have tasty, healthy eating from our garden all the way through winter and right on up until the next harvest season rolls around.

Typical grocery list during gardening season

Harvesting food and preserving it make me sing. It doesn’t get much better than that.