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.

 

One Life

What if someone were to curate a museum exhibit of your life? What objects would you want included? What would they say about who you are and what matters to you? How would the accompanying plaque interpret the exhibit?

Here are some vignettes I picture as part of my “One Life” exhibit:

A seed picture, a macramé wall hanging, and a handwoven basket depicting a childhood of craft-learning at my grandmother’s feet which morphed into my would-be-hippie-street-fair-vendor period and morphed again into a more nuanced appreciation of handiwork and an unending need to work with my hands;

A shelf filled with books by the likes of Annie Dillard, Mark Twain, Mary Oliver, Robert Fulghum and more, some of which prompted me to read more while others influenced who I became and still others led me to become a writer myself;

A table holding a pencil, eraser, and notebook symbolizing my love of writing, an urge  that visited me randomly and infrequently until recently, when it became a near obsession;

A collection of LPs and CDs: classical—Mozart, Chopin, Mussorgsky, Beethoven (there was a time when I fantasized about becoming a concert pianist. That time was sandwiched between my Debbie Reynolds period and delusions of being a race car driver); folk—philosophical storysingers the likes of the Kingston Trio, Christine Lavin, John McCutcheon, and Carrie Newcomer who prick our consciences and prod us to action with thought-provoking messages, sometimes with some quirky humor thrown in; the Gaelic melodies of Enya and kin which, through their sheer ethereal beauty, transport my mind to the shores of my heritage;

A hammer, a saw, and a scattering of nails on a 2 x 4 piece of lumber portraying our once-in-a-lifetime homebuilding adventure;

A grouping of family heirlooms—perhaps a chair, a plate, a crocheted doily: items that tell the story of my attachment to family and family history;

A tent, a canoe, and a campfire all in the midst of a small square of outdoor space, testaments to my love of camping, water, and nature;

A collection of photo albums—more proof of my strong sense of family as well as my love of photography, nature, and wildlife;

A corner filled with bumper stickers, protest posters, sit-in images, and a couple of rabble-rousing speeches representing my passion for human rights, all sorts, and my years as an activist and leader in social change movements;

A few fruit- and vegetable-filled canning jars next to some colorful seed packets resting atop a small mound of well-composted garden soil—evidence of my gardening and food preservation heritage and interest.

All of this would, of course, be displayed against a backdrop of the Blue Ridge mountains while the sounds of bird songs and a waterfall are piped into the exhibit space.

Looked at as a whole, such an exhibit speaks to me of eclecticism (or perhaps the inability to settle on any one thing). I like to think it also speaks of an enthusiasm for life, a certain joie de vivre. But I see what isn’t there, too—in some cases, things I wish I’d had a chance to experience or was passionate about, but in truth am not; in others, things that once mattered and have been cast aside. I see the absence of objects that are critically important to other people but don’t matter a whit to me.

(Conspicuously absent is anything about my family—other than the references to the photo album and family heirloom exhibits. Make no mistake: they are, every single one of them, central to my life. But with this kind of exercise, it’s all too tempting to focus on other people and to turn the whole thing into a cliché, so I resist the urge.)

Chances are, there are also things that have simply skipped my mind in the moment. If I were to write this piece next week or next year, an entirely different collection of objects might appear.

I wonder what my exhibit would say to the casual observer? What about yours?

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!

 

 

Bear Sighting

Have I told you about our late night bear visits? That’s right. We’ve had a bear in our front yard, on our wooded hillside, even on our deck. We named her Shadow. I tried to capture the tale in a rhyming story for the grandkids.

Okay, not the greatest shot, but hey, I was staring at a bear!

SHADOW

It was late, late one night—
I woke up to a crash!
A Kapow! And a Bang!
I jumped up in a dash!

I wandered outside
and what did I see?
A great big black bear
staring at me!

That bear was so black,
that bear was so big
with her cinnamon nose,
I just flipped my wig!

But why was she there
in my yard late at night?
She was eating my birdseed—
every single last bite!

What could she think
of seeing me now
peeking out in the dark
and watching her chow?

I thought she might run,
but I found that instead
she sat on her haunches
slowly turning her head

To give me a stare.
So I stared right back
till I suddenly thought
I ought to backtrack

Or she’ll give me a whack
with her giant bear paws,
or carry me off
in her great big bear jaws.

I tiptoed inside
and called Grampa Ron.
“Come here to the window!”
But the big bear was gone.

And so was the birdseed,
and the bird feeder, too!
We found it next day
at the edge of the wood.

Can you picture that bear,
feeder swinging from mouth
like a big picnic basket,
traveling south?

The next night and the next
she did not come back,
but the following night
what a thwack, whack, and crack!

A tree limb she broke.
Another bird feeder gone!
And where do you think
we picked up this one?

Right! Right you are—
at the edge of the woods
just where she left
the first of her goods!

She was so clever,
that great big old bear;
She gobbled her food
with nary a care.

She hasn’t returned.
I do not know why.
Maybe she’s patiently
waiting for pie!

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.)