First Love

His brown eyes, that shock of slightly uncontrollable dark sandy-colored hair, his deep tan, the shy smile. He was irresistible.

He was an outdoorsman, favoring construction work with his yellow dump truck and fire-engine-red shovel in the newly excavated plot of land across the road from his house and catty-corner from mine.

His name was Teddy, and we were pretty much inseparable the year I was five. I’d rather play with Teddy than any of the girls on our street.

How I looked forward to our starting school together the next fall.

Then, in early January, Teddy had a birthday. I went to the party. And cried my heart out. Teddy was six and I was still five. That could mean only one thing. Six-year-olds went to school. Five-year-olds did not. Teddy would start school without me. I was sure of it.

I couldn’t bear it.

No, Mother assured me. No, Daddy agreed. No, certainly not, chimed in Teddy’s mom. She was older—even wore her hair in a bun. Surely, she could be believed. It was hard to understand their logic, but finally I was convinced. Teddy and I would begin our school journey together, they promised. We could continue walking down life’s path side by side.

Teddy and I share a moment at his sixth birthday party.

And once again, all was right with the world.

(Post Script: Alas, our family moved out of state in late spring. Teddy and I did not start school together, after all. Life is so unpredictable!)

Garland

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

GARLAND

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

Garland was used to male company.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honoring the Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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.

Just Wondering

 

My grandfather, Joseph Bezzel Coates, b. 05/21/1895

My grampa was a fiend for learning.
Immediately he knew
radio’s potential
for education,
calling his boys
from their play
when “Music Appreciation Hour” aired.

Grampa was a fiend for hard work, too.
Too little of it
and the devil might
set up his workshop—
that’s the way Grampa saw it. Besides,
too much work needed doing
to trifle with idleness.

Hard work was like play for him
so he was known to say,
during an afternoon break from working in tobacco
or cotton or corn and the heat from the sun
blew the top off thermometers,
“Boys, while you’re resting,
let’s go shuck some corn.”

So, I wonder how Grampa would handle
the age of social media.
Surely he’d see the potential for good,
the opportunity for learning.
But day after day, hour upon hour
playing games on smartphones, scouring Facebook, or texting friends?
Would Grampa put up with that?

WWGD?
(What would Grampa do?)

Shattered Dream

(I was recently challenged to write about a real-life adversity, mine or a family member’s, and the response to it. This is my story. What about you? Care to share an adversity you or someone in your family experienced? You can do it in the comments section)

All Daddy ever wanted was to be a farmer. Knee high to a mosquito, he helped with farm chores. In grade school, his days began before dawn, milking cows and chopping wood.

After high school, Daddy continued to work the farm with his dad. Two years later, he met Mama.

Lovebirds

She was heading to Western Carolina Teachers College. He quickly enrolled at North Carolina State. His dreams of farming followed him; he would major in agricultural economics. In one of the many letters that flew between them, he wrote, “I aim to own a farm someday.”

World War II interrupted Daddy’s studies when his ROTC unit was activated. After only a few weeks at Fort Bragg, however, he was honorably discharged—the Army had too many new recruits. Daddy didn’t return to school. The military had taken over much of the campus. Besides, his patriotism demanded he find another way to help the war effort. First, he worked in the Newport News shipyard, then at Union Carbide in New Jersey.

That was too far from Mama. When Daddy was offered a transfer to the new “Secret City” of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, he leapt at the opportunity.

Daddy and Mama married. The war ended. I was born. A year later, Daddy’s farm-owning dream came true. With help from Mama’s parents, he and Mama purchased a mountain farm on the banks of the Tuckasegee River just a few miles from where she grew up.

View of the Webster farmhouse from the rear. The hillside beyond is on the other side of the Tuckasegee River. The original part of the house was built in the 1850s with the two-story addition added in the 1880s,

Disaster struck almost immediately. Daddy kept a hundred chicks in a brooder box on the back porch. One frigid morning, he found all of them frozen. He couldn’t afford more.

Daddy tried growing sweet potatoes at river’s edge. It worked back home. (Did I mention that Daddy grew up in eastern North Carolina?) The old man who came with the place told him it was no good. But Daddy, with the ignorant arrogance of youth, paid him no heed. After all, he knew farming. He’d studied the latest techniques.

The old man was right, of course. The soil, the rainfall, the temperature—they all were different here. The crop failed. The old-timer’s thoughts must have run along the lines of Olive Tilford Dargan’s neighbor in From My Highest Hill when he said about a certain “book-farmer” from Raleigh, “Maybe he knowed all about flat-land farmin’ but the world couldn’t hold what he didn’t know about raisin’ corn in this ‘jump-up’ country.”

Bryan, Daddy’s youngest brother, came to help out for a couple weeks after his freshman year at Mars Hill College. When Granddaddy came to pick him up, Bryan took another look around, recalled how desperately poor our little family was, knew how urgently Daddy needed help, turned to his father and said, “I can’t leave.” In exchange, Daddy offered to pay Bryan’s bus fare back to school come fall.

Daddy, Bryan, and Granddaddy finalizing summer plans from a hilltop on the Webster farm.

Daddy grew rye and wheat. The previous owner had left an old combine behind. None of the nearby farmers had such a machine. With a lot of elbow grease and some baling wire (a farmer’s best friend), Daddy and Bryan got the combine in working order. Bryan hired out to cut the neighbors’ fields. But there was no demand for grain that year. All the farmers could offer in payment was the one thing Daddy didn’t need—more grain. He didn’t have two nickels for Bryan’s return trip.

It took only a year for Daddy to figure out his farming dream had died, and ever after, it pained him to talk about that year. But without another source of income, we’d soon be homeless. Daddy found a non-farm job that led to another and another until he retired years later as vice-president of the insurance subsidiaries of what had become, through a series of mergers, Bank of America.

Daddy never lost his love of the land, though. Wherever my parents lived, he grew a garden. He gave away more food than he and Mama kept for themselves. He couldn’t help himself. Only one home couldn’t accommodate a garden. That was when Daddy experienced a near-fatal heart attack. The prognosis gave him only a couple more years. Daddy and Mama moved again, this time to a place with an extra lot. Daddy was back to gardening, giving it up only shortly before his death from congestive heart failure thirteen years later.

I believe Daddy was happiest when he had dirt under his fingernails. I guess you can take the farmer off the farm but you can’t take the farm out of the farmer.

The Webster farmhouse today,  having been lovingly restored by Lacy and Dottie Thornburg

(By the way, I’m happy to say a version of this article has recently been published in the anthology, Bearing Up, a series of essays about overcoming hardships.)

 

Dear Lula

My grandmother, Lula Smith Coats,  11/25/1894-4/14/1942

(I was recently challenged to issue a dinner invitation to one of my ancestors. I chose my paternal grandmother, who died four years before my birth.)

Dear Lula, (you don’t mind if I call you that, do you?)

Will you please join me for dinner on Saturday evening? There’s so much I want to ask you. You’re the grandmother I never got to meet, having died just after my parents met. As a child, I didn’t know enough to ask about you, and once I had the good sense to get interested, some of the details had begun to fade from the memories of your children.

I want to know what it was like raising seven boys. They talked about some of their mischief, but I’ll bet they left out a few juicy details. I’d love to hear their mom’s perspective. You probably have stories of precious moments with each of them, too. I’d like to hear them. What made you proudest of them? (And did you secretly long for a daughter? Wouldn’t it have been nice to have some female companionship in that household! Did you dote on nieces? Seek feminine refuge with your sisters?)

Would you describe your typical day—if there was such a thing? I know you washed clothes in a pot over an outdoor fire and that between preparing breakfast, dinner, and supper you worked in the fields along with the rest of the family. And that you cleaned, ironed, made everyone’s clothes. What other chores filled your days? Did you ever have a moment to yourself?

What were your favorite activities? Daddy told me you gardened, played the piano, sang, and told stories. Were there more? What did you love to do above all else?

What would you have said and done with the twenty-two grandchildren you never got to know? Could you ever have imagined that after having seven sons, the first five grands would be girls—and that of the first eight grandchildren, seven would be girls? Would you have sewed up some frilly dresses for us? Would you have oohed and cooed over us? What advice would you have given us as we grew up?

And what about your experiences as matron at the Poor House? I never heard much about that. It must have been quite the experience raising those boys while overseeing all the domestic chores of the County Home when its seams were bursting during the Great Depression. Did you ever worry about the boys being exposed to the TB patients? To their being around convicts assigned to work on the farm? To their being around so much sickness and dying? Or did you even have time to think about it while you were overseeing the cooking, housekeeping, laundry, medications, clothing and personal needs, and more? Maybe you were just glad your boys had a roof over their heads during those tough years.

You were twenty-five, mother of four children, and pregnant with your fifth when our country finally recognized that women have an inherent right to vote. Did you take advantage of it? Your husband and father were on opposite political sides, almost rabidly so. Where did you fall? Did you ever share your political leanings with either or both of them or did you keep quiet about the whole thing? What was it like, in general, to be a woman in rural North Carolina in the early twentieth century? Would you have supported my feminist activism in the second half of the century?

I want to know about your strokes and your migraines, too. I used to suffer from migraines, too, so I have an inkling how you must have felt. But by my time, they’d at least discovered some medications that helped a little. It must have been devastating being in such pain and cooped up in a dark room so much of the time while life was swirling outside your door. Is it true that the doctor bled you when your blood pressure spiked? Did he use leeches? They say that after your first stroke, you were bedridden for a year or two and had to learn to walk and talk all over again. Is that right? What got you through those days and nights? Were your sons attentive to your needs? When you were up to it, did they fill you in on their days? Did they confide their fears and dreams?

And the little things—what was your favorite color? Your favorite song? Your favorite radio program? Did you have a favorite food? Book? Movie? Holiday? What were your pet peeves? Most dreaded chore?

Then there’s Granddaddy. The story goes that you were his seventh-grade teacher and that’s when you met. You married as soon as the school year was over. (He was old for a seventh-grader.) Is that the way it all happened? How did your romance evolve? What kind of student was he? Where was the school? I understand you only taught that one year. Did you give up a longed-for career to marry and start a family or was teaching simply the most logical job available to a young, single woman in those days?

You see, I have so many questions! Please come early. I’ll invite all the cousins and we’ll have a good old-fashioned pajama party catching up on each other’s lives all night long. You’d better believe I’ll be recording the whole thing, too. I can’t wait!

With love and anticipation,

Your (4th) granddaughter Carole