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!)

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.

Little Things Mean A Lot

Little Things Mean A Lot

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

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

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

These books are well worn!

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

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

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

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

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

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

I kept the book.

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

I guess it shows.

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

 

Miscellany of Memories

In honor of my Dillard grandparents on the hundredth anniversary of their wedding day, June 2, 1918:

Miscellany of Memories

No typical grandmother, she,
playful as a kitten in clover,*
cheating at cards, giggling
behind cupped hands at her own subversions.

I gathered warm eggs from the nests
while she rounded up a hen to chop off its head.
Together we plucked pinfeathers
before the evening’s fried chicken dinner.

Gizzards she kept for herself alone
as if I might want such awful offal.
Or was she claiming
sacrifice as privilege?

She practically forced me to be creative.
Sometimes I balked, but I still have
my embroidered aprons and copper tooling
to share with another generation.

Taciturnity described him,
but I knew—I knew he adored me.
With his twinkling eyes and gruff nuzzle
against my cheek, no words were needed.

He teased me with his cow jokes:
Black cows give chocolate milk.
Mountain cows have two short legs
and two long—keeps ’em from falling.

It’s late! Time to get up, he bawled
when dawn had hardly cracked.
Why? I laughed and pulled the covers higher.
He couldn’t sleep—why should I?

Was he lonely, awake alone?
Or did he want to cram
every possible moment with me
into our too-short weekends?

Her father spent his last days
with them, mind long gone, bedridden.
Wasn’t Boston Blackie on the radio
when the final call came?

 

My grandparents, William Garland and Georgia Olive Stillwell Dillard at their fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration

 

(* With thanks to my cousin, Jan Lazurri, for this perfect line unrepentantly lifted from her poem honoring Georgia)

 

Mortality

January 27, 2011:

My cousin died today.

And so it begins. I’d already found myself wondering who among the twenty-two of us would be first. Figured it would be one us older ones. Hoped it wouldn’t be me.

Instead, it was one of the younger set—ten years my junior. Cancer’s what got him: unpredictable, ugly, indiscriminate disease. You never know about life’s twists and turns, how it will all end.  

Cousins 

 

March 20, 2016:

It’s happened again. This time on my mother’s side of the family. This time it was one of us older ones. Not oldest me but the next in line.

Life feels more precarious than it did yesterday. We’re all, we cousins, entering the danger zone, that time in life when a generation ago death was the norm at the age we are today. Now, we think we’re still too young. Clearly we’re not.

They say it’s when your last parent dies that you feel most vulnerable, when mortality becomes vividly real. But I’m not so sure. Cousins—we’re the same generation. We were toddlers together. We grew up together. We see ourselves in each other’s faces.

When it’s one of us, a different kind of light goes out.

Breakfast Traditions

BREAKFAST TRADITIONS (another in my Blowing on Embers series)

Breakfast: the most important meal of the day, they say.

Always the first one up in the mornings, Mother made sure we had a good breakfast to start our school days off right. In those days before frozen waffles, toaster pop-ups, or smoothies, breakfast was a pretty big deal. And we never rushed out of the house without it.

Our breakfasts were varied. There was that old standard: bacon, eggs, and toast or similar combinations of protein and carbohydrates. Sometimes we had oatmeal and cinnamon toast; other mornings it might be Cream of Wheat; occasionally pancakes or waffles were on the menu, though most likely on the weekends. And sometimes we went into the kitchen to nothing more than dry cereal and milk. I was never much fond of cereal days—those were the days when my stomach started growling by mid-morning.

By my calculation, while we children were living at home, Mother prepared nothing short of 10,000 breakfasts. When my youngest brother left the nest for good, Mother made an announcement to our father: she was retiring from breakfast duty. From that day forward, before he left for work, Daddy made his own breakfasts (willingly, I might add) before Mother gave a thought to getting out of bed. If not for the cat pawing at her face on the pillow every morning, Mother might have remained in bed for a sinfully, but well-deserved, long time.

But back to breakfast. In addition to all that typical morning fare, there were two dishes in our breakfast repertoire that were, I believe, unique.

One was reserved for one day and one day only each year—Christmas. No one was allowed in the living room where the tree and presents were until we’d all eaten breakfast, and that breakfast was always the same: strawberry shortcake. I loved strawberry shortcake as a dessert and thought it was even more special as Christmas breakfast. As I look back on it, I think there were two reasons we were served this delicacy on Christmas morning. The first, and maybe most important, was that it was quick and easy. For one day a year, Mother didn’t have to get up extra early to have breakfast on the table.

The second reason was perhaps a little more wily. What kid wouldn’t be thrilled to have dessert for breakfast? If we were just as eager (or almost) for breakfast as for presents, and if breakfast was just as much a part of our holiday tradition as the rest of that big day, then there wouldn’t be any peeking under the tree before the parents were ready. There wouldn’t be any whining (well, not much, anyway) for everyone to hurry up so we could finally open the door to the living room. Whatever the reason, that strawberry shortcake breakfast was always a success.

The other unusual breakfast we had on occasion had a regional basis. Mother grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains of southwestern North Carolina, a place where blackberries grow profusely on the mountainsides. Along with her mother and three sisters, she spent many afternoons picking blackberries, so many that they were able to can plenty of jars for use in the winter. And one of the ways blackberries were served in her home was stewed with a little sugar and poured over homemade buttered biscuits. It was a breakfast treat summer or winter.

Mother kept this breakfast tradition alive in our South Carolina home. We didn’t have access to fresh blackberries and frozen blackberries weren’t to be found in the freezer aisles in grocery stores, but stores did carry canned blackberries. Not the blackberries in gooey thick syrup for pies, but just plain old blackberries packed in water. All Mother had to do was put them in a pot on the stove, add a bit of sugar and a little more water, and heat them until the berries were warm and the sugar dissolved. In my opinion, there’s just nothing better than a plateful of biscuits, halved and buttered, smothered in blackberries, and swimming in that purple liquid. Mm-mmm good!

Needless to say, we’ve maintained both of these breakfast traditions in our home. And nothing has tickled me more than to discover that our now grown children have done the same in theirs. No doubt, one day some child in generations hence will look up to a parent and ask, “Why do we eat blackberries on biscuits?” or, “Why do we eat strawberry shortcake on Christmas morning?” and the parent will have no better answer than, “I don’t know. We just always have. It’s tradition.”

And that’s just fine with me.

The List, Part III: The Bra and I

The List, Part III: The Bra and I

(If you’re just tuning in, you’ll want to catch up on Parts I and II of The List. You can find them here and here.)

Actually, I had written a hundred and one items on my hundred-things-I-want-to-do-when-I-retire list. One, though, was something I simply didn’t feel comfortable broadcasting to professional colleagues. Yet, if my list had been in priority order, this one item would have been at the very top. The number one thing I wanted to do when I retired was to take off my bra.

It was the number one thing I did, too. For awhile. Then I remembered something Maya Angelou once said about her aging experience: “My breasts are in a race to see which one gets to my bellybutton first.” I’d seen that effect first hand at Asheville’s Go Topless Day, and I really didn’t want to speed things up for myself.

Funny thing about bras. Back in the sixth grade, we girls could barely wait to get our first bras, whether we needed them or not. (We didn’t.) We huddled together during recess whispering about them—who had one, who needed one, how embarrassing it would be wearing one to school for the first time. My two best friends and I coordinated our bra-buying plans so we’d arrive at school wearing our first bra on the same day. We reasoned no one of us would feel quite so conspicuous that way. Proud and conspiratorial, maybe, but inconspicuous.

Pretty sure my first bra was this very style! (But smaller—much, much smaller) 

 

At a church youth retreat a few years later, my friend George said to a bunch of us girls that he couldn’t comprehend how we could bear to be so confined. He thought wearing a bra would feel incredibly constricting, like being in a straitjacket. We were a tad scandalized by his brazen discussion of such an intimate subject, but we tried not to show it. We assured him it wasn’t like that at all, that bras were perfectly comfortable. Frankly, we couldn’t imagine life without a bra.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been excited about a bra. The more I’ve needed one, the less comfortable I’ve been wearing one. George had it right, after all. Constricting is exactly the right word.

In the end, my bra and I came to a compromise. That is to say, I compromised. Pretty soon I started wearing my bra again. Still do. These days, I free my breasts from their bra prison a little earlier in the evenings, though, hoping my body doesn’t notice I’m cheating.

Bras—there’s the Double Support, the Sexy Plunge, the Elegant Lift, the Magic Lift, the Convertible, the Vacationer, the Glamorise, the Wonderwire. Seamed, seamless, lined, unlined, foam lined. Sheer, padded, molded. Strapless, t-strap, gel strap. Wirefree or underwire. Front closure, back closure, pullover. Leisure, sports, nursing, active lifestyle. Extra lift, minimizer, slimming, back smoothing. Push-up, shelf, bandeau, bustier, demi-cup, long line. Cotton, nylon, silk, microfiber, jersey knit, lace, satin.

The most common theme in bra advertising is comfort: original comfort, smooth comfort, pure comfort, moving comfort, 18-hour comfort, super cool comfort, comfort flex, comfort revolution, passion for comfort. HA!

I have a passion for comfort. It’s why I wanted to dispense with my bra in the first place. But gravity is a law. And I’m a law abider, so I’m sticking with my bra.

(Photo images in this post are public domain photos via Creative Commons.)