Celebration

 

Today marks a big anniversary in the Gnome and Crone’s household. Exactly forty years ago, our family began our biggest-ever family adventure when we came to this little corner of paradise to stay. Two thirty-something adults, two children only weeks away from their sixth and ninth birthdays, and two formerly housebound cats. We came with a suitcase each of clothes, a tent, and not much else except a whole lot of enthusiasm. Almost everything else—including jobs and any sense of financial security—we left behind.

We’d seen our property twice before—once in early April when we signed the contract, and again in late May. There was no sign of spring on either of those visits.

We had expected our Memorial Day weekend trip to be filled with clearing debris. Wearing nothing more than shorts, tees, and flip flops, we were unprepared when we opened the tent flap the next morning to snow! Clearly, we had a lot to learn about living in the mountains.

But this time was different. On July 2, 1979, summer was in full swing. No longer bare, the five acres of woods were lush with full-leafed maple, oak, beech, poplar, cherry, locust, and wild magnolia trees. The almost equally large section of open meadow was a massive sea of daisies, with the occasional black-eyed Susan thrown in for variety. It took my breath away.

The first few days were for exploring. We discovered the delicate deliciousness of tiny wild strawberries growing everywhere; we visited our wooded mountain creek; we discovered an old locust fence in the edge of the woods along our east boundary line; we found twists of downed trees and ferns and mushrooms and wildflowers.

We found home.

Forty years later, things look a bit different around here. Most of the meadow is gone, thanks to trees sprouting up when mowers were out of order or when we were too busy with life to get around to mowing. We jumped on the Christmas-tree-growing bandwagon and planted a few hundred Fraser Fir and Norway Spruce seedlings. Those, too, got out of hand. Today, they are crowded evergreen giants making a home for birds and other wildlife. Most of the daisies have gotten crowded out.

Just the lower portion of a few overgrown Christmas trees

We got the house built—and decades later, rebuilt. All with our own hands. As dyed-in-the-wool do-it-yourselfers, we can’t bear to farm out any of the work on our place even if that means it gets left undone for far too long.

But we have done a lot. We cleared the land of some trees and over time planted more; we built our forever home with our four hands—as well as the help of four much smaller hands (setting out the building lines, foundation, plumbing, electrical, roofing—the whole bit); we built a spring house and pumped water up from the creek; we built a couple of outbuildings.

We started and abandoned one garden only to begin again a few decades later. This time we enclosed a 5400 square foot space, a space where many of those gorgeous daisies once lived, for vegetables and fruits—we’ve been working on that project for four or five years now, and we do a pretty good job of feeding ourselves from it throughout the year.

 

 

(It may not look like it, but that 5,400 sq ft of enclosed garden space (ready for planting) could hold six clones of our house with a decent amount of space left for landscaping. A couple days’ worth of harvest in pictures 2 and 3.)

Most of all, we raised a family. A family where our children learned the value of making do, of making their own fun, of how to do things with their hands, of learning by doing, and that it’s okay to take (certain) risks—to try new things with an entire world of unknowns in front of you.

(Hover over each photo for caption.)

And now, we have grandchildren to share it all with, too.

It’s been a good forty years. We are looking forward to many more.

     

Same view (more or less) 1979 and 2019. Our road is under the snow.

 

    

Version 1.0 in need of serious rehab after 30 years vs. Version 2.0

If you want to learn more about our early homebuilding experience, you can start here.

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.

To the Old Person Who Lives in My Mirror

(The following poem first appeared in the 2018 issue of Gateways Creative Arts Journal, themed Remembering and Forgetting)

 

Who the hell are you?
Don’t think I don’t see you there,
lurking smugly,
checking me out,
searching for one more wrinkle on my face,
yet another white hair on my head,
yet more thinning of it.

Why are you gloating?

Well, you’re not getting away with it.
I can stare right back at you.
I see deep into your eyes,
and that’s where I find her—
the one more recognizable, more what I expect to see.
The one with thick black hair, smooth face,
eyes brightly lit with the anticipation of life.

What did you do with her?

I know she’s still there.
Except she’s not.
She experienced life;
she acquired wisdom.
And it only added dimension to her being.
So you can’t hide her.
She’s here, on this side of the mirror.

And she’s better than ever.

 

(Photo credit: Lip Kee from Singapore, Republic of Singapore [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Lost Keys

They weren’t lost. We knew exactly where the keys were, all three sets.

As usual, mine were in my bag, in the car. I don’t like to carry baggage—of any sort. The Gnome was driving. He has pockets. He always takes his keys with him.

As we stepped into the parking lot with a full grocery cart that night, a funny look came over the Gnome’s face. “Do you have your keys?” he asked. “I must have left mine in the ignition.” Sure enough, that’s where they were.

We called the local constabulary. This was in the day when cars were equipped with a button just next to the window on the inside edge of each car door. To lock the door, all you had to do was press the button as you exited the car. All too easy to leave a key inside. It was also possible for skilled hand to pull the little button up into the open position with a coat hanger or similar device. The police carried such a device.

The black car arrived after an awkwardly long wait. The next few minutes could have been a scene from a TV sitcom.

The officer quizzed us. “Don’t you have a second set?”

“Yes sir, they’re in the car, too.” (Like we just explained,” I muttered—under my breath.)

“What about at home? Do you have an extra set there?”

“Well, yes. But our home is half an hour’s drive away. And with our keys locked inside the car, we can’t exactly drive there to get the keys to unlock the car door.” (If we could do that, I thought, we wouldn’t have needed to call you, now, would we?)

“Can’t you get someone to take you home to get your key?”

“Not exactly. Besides, that key is inside the house, and the house is locked, too. And guess where the house keys are. On the same key ring with the car keys.”

He seemed incapable of grasping our catch-22 predicament. Round and round we went. Somewhere, sometime, somebody was going to have to force some lock for us or we’d forever be out in the cold, literally.

Thankfully, the officer finally relented and with a quick flick of his wrist, we were finally on our way, groceries and all.

What about you? Do you have a lost keys story?

Creative Commons photo credit: Basile Morin [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

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.

Despised Scent

Have you ever tried to describe a smell? Either a favorite one or one you detest? It’s hard. How do you describe a scent without mentioning the scent itself. That’s what you’d have to do to describe it to someone unfamiliar with it.

Because it’s such a hard thing to write about, writing instructors often require their students to do just that. Our Wednesday writing workshop leader has done it a couple of times. Most recently, I observed that the majority of us chose to write about a distasteful smell rather than one a favorite one, I guess because the power of a detestable smell evokes more powerful thoughts.

It’s what prompted me to write about a loathed aroma. At first, I tried to write about something sweet and beloved, but as I attempted to think of descriptors, I came up blank. Calling up bad smells, however, was visceral. I chose to write about—you guessed it—skunks.

* * * * *

I rather like the musky evidence of skunk—from a distance. It leaves a hint of citrusy lemon aroma in the air. A little fresher skunk scent is more that of burnt coffee—the same smell that makes me wrinkle my nose when I get to close to a coffee shop in the late afternoon. Even that doesn’t bother me too much.

But fresh skunk spray up close and personal—say on my deck—is another matter. My eyes are attacked by a burning sensation that makes them water uncontrollably. My nostrils close up from the stench. I can neither see nor breathe. I choke.

It is the smell of diesel fuel, cigarette smoke, burning meat, and cat urine all rolled into one, as if all those smells are simultaneously stuffed up my nose and down my throat.

Bottle it and that scent would make as powerful and effective a weapon of war as it is a protection from skunk dangers in the wild.