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

Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore and More

I’m currently in the midst of a series of posts about our recent, long-awaited return to one of my favorite places, Nova Scotia. If you’d like to follow our adventures in words and photos from the beginning, click here.)

From Wolfville, we headed for Cape Breton Island by way of Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. The province is divided into seven geographical regions, and this one may be the least well-known. It’s surely the least visited by outsiders and maybe even other Nova Scotians. There are no towns to speak of, only communities—and small ones at that. Places with names like Ecum Secum. According to Wikipedia, the name comes from the M′ikmaq (aka Mi′kmaw) language and means ‘a red house,’ which suggests to me that may be about all that was there at the time. The nearest town of any size is Antigonish on the west coast, 45 miles away, with a population of 4,200.

As usual, we drove as close to the coast as we could get, this time on Trunk 7, also known as Marine Drive. Our Airbnb stop for the night was at Moser River, in what was billed as a former prospector’s cottage. It was an instant hit, and Gail, our Airbnb host, was simply delightful. (More about her in a future post.)

Our Moser River prospector’s cottage Airbnb and area images. (Click on individual photos for larger view.)

We were advised to stop for food or gas in the community of Sheet’s Harbor, about 30 miles away—that’s how unpopulated this place is. People here are mostly connected to either the fishing or gold mining industry.

The Eastern Shore is not a place to go if you depend on theme park style extravaganzas for entertainment (though if you time it right you can join in a sand sculpture competition, a parade, a cakewalk, or a Celtic jam session). But if you want a little solitude away from everyday hassles, it’s perfect. I can imagine hanging out here for a long weekend with a hammock and a good book or hiking boots and a walking stick. It’s the perfect retreat stop—as long as you bring your own meals. Unfortunately, we had only one night at this peaceful place.

And the next day we finally made it to the place that had held onto our hearts for so many decades, Cape Breton Island. We would be here for six days instead of the one of so long ago. It would still be too little.

But first, we made a little detour to the opposite side of the province. We kept having to remind ourselves how short a drive it is from one side to the other. This side trip was to Cape George, near the town of Antigonish. It was well worth the drive.

Our first Cape Breton stop was the town of Baddeck (pronounced Buh-DECK). We stayed at the historic Victorian-style Telegraph House, built in 1861, one of the few non-Airbnb places we stayed during our travels. At one time, the Telegraph Inn contained the office of the first Trans-Oceanic Cable Company. Some of the first telegraph messages in North America emanated from here.

Baddeck is famous for two things. It’s home to the Bras d’Or Lake (arm of gold), actually an inland sea. It’s roughly sixty miles long and thirty miles wide. Pretty darned big. And beautiful, surrounded as it is by low mountains. We could never get a photo that came near to doing it justice.

Baddeck is also where Mabel and Alexander Graham Bell lived for the latter half of their lives. It was here that Bell established a research laboratory—the first Bell Labs. He used the lake to test his huge kites, hydrofoil boats, and airplanes, just a few of his varied research projects.

Of course, there’s a museum, and since the Gnome is interested in anything having to do with inventiveness, we had to go.

Married as I am to someone who observes every little thing, I was especially drawn to this quote memorialized in the museum.

I was impressed to learn that Bell was much more interested in his work teaching deaf students (Mabel was deaf), and later with aviation, than with his best-known invention, the telephone. In fact, he was rarely interested in following through with any of his inventions after the initial creation; he was ready to move on to the next thing, leaving the details to others.

The highlight of our time in Baddeck had to be finding a ceilidh (KAY-lee), or kitchen party, where we got to listen to some lively traditional Cape Breton tunes by fiddler Mike Hall. Mike didn’t just play; he talked about the history of the music and how the Scottish Highlanders who were driven from their homelands with no instruments or written music managed to keep their musical tradition alive and true to its roots. It was mesmerizing—and quite different from the bluegrass jams we attend at home.

Cape Breton is where you might hear not only English and French, but also Gaelic and Mi′kmaq, an Algonquin language. It was fascinating to see multi-lingual signs everywhere. Appropriately, top billing usually matched the primary culture and language of a given area, as far as I could tell. Here’s a little Gaelic for you: Fàilte gu Cridhe Gàidhealach Albainn Ùr.  (Don’t bother trying to pronounce it—it sounds nothing like you’d think if English is your primary language.) As best I can determine, it translates to “welcome to the heart of New Highland Scotland.”

We left Baddeck by way of Iona, traveling ever so briefly on a cable ferry to Grand Narrows, then on to Sydney and the Cabot Trail, the subject of my next blog post.

Here comes the ferry. Short crossing—very short.

(Check back next week for more of our Nova Scotia travels as we head to the famed Cabot Trail and Cape Breton Highlands National Park.)

Remembering the Forgotten

I’ve been participating in a social media challenge called 52 ancestors in 52 weeks. It’s an effort to encourage learning about and sharing our various family histories in small, doable chunks. Participants are given a weekly prompt to start them on their way. Earlier in the year, one of the prompts was “census.” This is what I wrote.

(Disclaimer: I am not descended from Hardy Watkins. In fact, it’s unlikely he had any descendants. That’s why I want to tell his story. When Granddaddy became the superintendent of the Johnston County, NC, County Home (aka poorhouse) in 1930, Hardy was already there.)

If Hardy was like most folks who were relegated to the poorhouse, no one ever came to see him. Maybe he had no family at all. But neither the absence of visitors from the outside world nor his developmental disability did anything to dampen his enthusiasm for life. He was a good-natured, cheerful sort—until he was pushed too far. Then he’d curse a blue streak. He never missed a service at the nearby church—always sat in the front row. He couldn’t carry a tune in the proverbial bucket, but he sang his heart out on every hymn, always with hymnal in hand, even though he couldn’t read the words.

I grew up hearing tales about Hardy from my dad and his brothers, who lived in the poorhouse during Granddaddy’s tenure there. Whenever our family gathered for reunions, Hardy’s name inevitably came up. He was discussed with animated affection.

This is the tale they shared most frequently. On the rare occasion the boys could scrape a few coins together, they thought it was a hoot to offer Hardy a choice between a penny and a dime. He always chose the penny because it was bigger. At least that’s what they thought. They were grown before they figured out what he surely had understood all along: if he’d ever taken the dime, they’d have stopped playing the game. Instead, he maintained a growing collection of their pennies. It took a while, but with that realization, the brothers finally got their comeuppance.

I got curious about Hardy. I asked my genealogy-savvy husband to check the poorhouse census records. All these years I had thought Hardy was a kid near my dad’s age. But we discovered that when my then nine-year-old dad showed up at the County Home with the rest of his family, Hardy was forty-seven. He was born in 1883. Why, Hardy was even older than Granddaddy! We also learned that Hardy had arrived at the poorhouse long ago—sometime between 1900 and 1910. So, he had been there at least twenty years, perhaps closer to thirty, when Daddy’s family moved in.

According to newspaper reports, poor nutrition marked poorhouse fare in the early years of the twentieth century. Before Granddaddy took over management of Johnston County’s poorhouse, fruits, eggs, milk, and other dairy products were a rarity for the residents. Surely, such a diet would have a negative effect on one’s longevity. I already knew that for the average person born in the late 1800s, like Hardy, the average life expectancy was only forty-two or forty-three years. That got me to wondering what happened to Hardy.

Census records from 1940, the most recent available, showed Hardy was still living at the County Home. He would have been fifty-seven at that time. He had already defied the odds. Further exploration led to the discovery that, in spite of all the cards stacked against him, Hardy lived to the ripe old age of eighty-nine.

At the time of his death, Hardy was still in an institution. The poorhouse was no more. But the building was still there, having transitioned to a privately-operated care home for the aged and infirm in the mid-1950s. So, though the operation of the facility changed hands, it’s quite possible that Hardy stayed put. My bet is he lived all his days since arriving at the poorhouse in the same place, maybe even the same room. (Well, not quite. A new building had been constructed in the early 1920s so he would have moved at least once, though only a few hundred feet.)

Over time, poorhouse records seem to have disappeared. Only the rare newspaper article and a few official reports remain to provide any poorhouse history at all. Hardly anyone is left to tell the stories of the people who lived there.

If he’d had a chance, I wonder what Hardy might have told me about his life at the poorhouse, about his family, about his relationship with my dad and his brothers. About how he defied the odds. What was the rest of his story? Just like the rest of us, Hardy—and everyone else who lived at the poorhouse—had stories to tell. We’ll never know what they were. But they deserve to be honored.

The former County Home in Johnston County, NC, is currently an assisted living facility. You can learn more about Hardy, other poorhouse residents, and the County Home itself in my book, Boyhood Daze and Other Stories: Growing Up Happy During the Great Depression.

 

 

Little Deeds, Big Impact

Little Deeds, Big Impact

Some occupations will get you daily thanks for doing a good job. Many more rarely result in expressions of appreciation. Sanitation workers, for instance. Custodians. Government professionals who collect taxes, process unemployment benefits, and so on.

Teachers rarely get a “Thank you” from their students, either. And if they do, it may be years later. It’s hard to stay positive, to believe you’re accomplishing something important when it’s not acknowledged by the very people on whom you focus your professional passion.

But I’m here to tell you that your influence spreads like ripples in a pond when skipping stones. Whether it’s positive or negative. Whether it’s part of your job or a kindness to a stranger. It may be something truly magnanimous or seemingly insignificant. And it may make a difference in ways you’d never imagine. Let me give you some random (and in no way equal) real-life examples.

The first is a story about Fred. Fred came into our family by marriage to a cousin more than forty years ago. In all that time, I’d never met him. But I heard a lot about him over the years from my mom. She’d heard about him from her sister, his mother-in-law. Sometimes, she was in his presence and picked up a bit of his philosophy in person. A long time ago, she shared a tidbit with me. Fred held a strong position on the use of brand names as generic, she said. You know, the way people used to refer to all refrigerators as Frigidaires. Unless you’re of a certain age, you may not remember that example, but what about Kleenex for tissue?

It’s a real marketing coup when a brand becomes so iconic that it becomes part of the lexicon—you want a cola type soda and without thinking you ask  for a Coke, you’ll get a Coke instead of a Pepsi or an RC.

It’s not so great, though, if you’re a small business owner like Fred was. It’s hard enough to break into the public’s attention without having a built-in bias all because some multi-national corporation managed to hire a particularly clever PR person. Small businesses need a fair shot. So Fred thought people should say “tissue” or “cola” or “refrigerator.” Period.

Like I said, I’d never met the guy, but I took that lesson to heart. It made sense to me. Overnight, I changed my vocabulary. Never again did I use the word Kleenex unless I was talking specifically about that brand of tissue. I began asking  for “diet soda” in restaurants, which caused me no end of grief. Almost inevitably, my request got this response from the waitstaff: “Is diet Coke (or whatever brand they happened to sell) okay?” They just didn’t get it. But I persisted. When I had business lunches with colleagues, they learned to anticipate the scene and started chuckling at me before the word cola was out of my mouth. They thought I should just give up and go with the flow.

I finally met Fred. Thought I’d tell him how much he’d influenced me even though we’d never before laid eyes on each other. His response was a surprised, “I said that?”. It took his wife, her mother, and my mother simultaneously exclaiming things like, “You sure did,” or “Yes, there was a time . . . ”.

I thought it was hilarious. Decades ago, Fred expressed an opinion. Over the years, his memory of that principle dimmed to the point of nothingness. But someone—me—heard the message loud and clear (even though second-hand). And I not only put it into practice but passed on the sentiment with a kind of missionary zeal.

* * *

Kirk is a friend from way back in college days. After graduation, our families lived in the same town and socialized regularly. Then his family moved to another state. Fate brought us together sporadically and rarely after that. About five years ago, our paths crossed again. It had been more than thirty years since we’d last spent time together. Kirk told the Gnome and me that our names had come up in a sermon he’d recently preached. It had something to do with what he remembered as all our furniture-building back when we were newlyweds—the creativity, necessity mothering invention, that sort of thing.

The Gnome and I looked at each other in bewilderment. We’d sold weaving and macramé items at craft fairs and street festivals for a time in those days, but furniture-building? We were stumped. As we drove home, we puzzled over the discrepancy between Kirk’s memory and ours. Finally, we remembered that when we’d lived in a small World War II-era apartment with one lilliputian closet, we’d built a wardrobe of plywood with pine molding. We painted it a memorable aqua and yellow—it was psychedelic 1969, after all.

That must have been what Kirk remembered. But in his imagination, our one-time building experience had mushroomed. So much so that our “ingenuity” became the substance of a lesson used in a sermon more than four decades later.

* * *

Many years before either of these events, a different kind of moment occurred. I must have been in my early teens the day Mrs. Truluck, a volunteer youth leader in our church, stopped me in the aisle after one Sunday service to compliment me on something she had observed. I don’t remember what exactly, maybe for sitting next to another girl who might otherwise have been ignored. Whatever it was, I didn’t think it was a big deal. However, Mrs. Truluck taking about sixty seconds to tell me she’d noticed was a very big deal. A big deal that’s stayed with me for close to sixty years now.

Mrs. Truluck no doubt knew the importance of offering a pat of congratulations or a word of encouragement to young people. But I’ll bet she fairly quickly forgot that particular exchange. I never did. I learned two important lessons that day. One, that people notice what you do, even things that seem insignificant. I also learned how far a thoughtful comment can go. For the decades since that Sunday afternoon, I’ve tried to make it a point to let people know when I notice the nice things they do.

So, to all the Mrs. Trulucks out there, thank you—you make a difference.

And so do you.  

By Ashashyou (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Coming ‘Round the Mountain

Coming ‘Round the Mountain

Coming ‘Round the Mountain (part of my Blowing on Embers series)

Public domain photos retrieved from Wikimedia Commons titled Winning horse and buggy with driver at the Wynnum Show, Brisbane

Is there anything quite like the sweet scent of a dew-kissed early morning—especially in our green southern mountains? Every time—every single time—I catch a whiff of it, I’m transported back to those too-rare childhood trips to visit my maternal grandparents.

It was an excruciatingly long drive from the South Carolina flatlands to North Carolina’s southwestern mountains, even longer for the three children relegated to the back seat.

We claimed our territory before the first hand ever touched a door handle. No one wanted to be stuck in the middle, surrounded by sibling arms, legs, and torsos. We knew we’d have to take turns, but hope sprang eternal.

The window-seat sitters were intolerant, and arguments began almost immediately: your feet are on my side . . . I don’t have anywhere to put them . . . keep ’em on the hump . . . Mama, he’s touching me. And so on.

Our trips usually began late on a Friday afternoon so Daddy could get in most of a day’s work and we’d still have all day Saturday for visiting—and resting up before we had to make our return trip on Sunday afternoon. In the days before interstate highways, the drive lasted more than six hours—an eternity to us children. A couple hours in and we were miserably fidgety. That’s when the questions began. When will we get there? How much longer? Are we there yet?

Mother tried diverting our attention with car games. We looked for license plates from other states; we searched for words on billboards that started with the next letter of the alphabet; we tried to be first to spot whatever animal or object one of our parents called out to us.

Once our brown, two-tone Ford Fairlane began climbing and winding, we knew we were getting close, which only made us more restless. That’s when Mother began leading us in all the verses of She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain, with its ever longer refrain. In my mind’s eye we were singing about Mother in an earlier era. I imagined her in a bonnet riding on the front seat of our song’s buggy, maybe even wearing scratchy red pajamas.

For Dad, navigating those ever steeper, narrow, curvy roads in the dark after an already long day at the office was harrowing enough without being distracted by the fussing and whining emanating from the back seat. No wonder Mother was so desperate to keep us occupied.

Everyone knew what was coming when we inevitably got on Dad’s last nerve, and we didn’t want to hear it any more than he wanted to say it: “Ask me that one more time, and I’ll turn this car around right here.” Not likely. Returning home would have made for an even longer trip, and no one wanted that. Occasionally, the threat was, “One more argument and I’ll stop this car and give everyone a spanking.” We rarely got spanked and never on a car trip, so why pull out that old chestnut? Sheer exhaustion, most likely.

Somehow, we always reached our destination in one piece and not too awfully frazzled. A few hugs, kisses, and a midnight snack later, we were hustled off to bed and bundled under the covers.

And then it was morning. This was the moment I’d been looking forward to since we first got in the car. I woke under a pile of Grandmother’s homemade quilts, fog drifting through the windows I’d opened the night before so I could feel the kiss of the deliciously crisp mountain air on my face.

Before anyone else stirred, even my early-rising grandfather, I stole outside to walk barefoot in the cool, damp grass. I breathed in the clean scent of a world washed in dew, nibbled on a green apple that had fallen from its tree, and slipped under the graceful, draping branches of the giant weeping willow on the edge of the yard—my sacred hideaway. It was the perfect spot for a little girl to daydream, think private thoughts, and grow.

And worth every minute I was stuck in the middle.

Any hour of the day, any season of the year, every time I see sights like these I know the mountains are my meant-to-be home.

 

 

 

Needles and Thread, Part III: Grandmother’s Quilts

Needles and Thread, Part III: Grandmother’s Quilts (part of my Blowing on Embers series)

My maternal grandmother, like most rural mountain women of her generation, was a prolific quilter. Her quilting frame was hung from the dining room ceiling where it could be raised and lowered by pulleys. It made her home the perfect place for a quilt-making gathering, but she would have been worried to pieces having outsiders in the way, so quilting bees were limited to family members.

When I was about nine years old, I was the recipient of one of those quilts. It featured the Little Dutch Girl pattern: a little girl in profile with her flared dress, a big sunbonnet hiding her face from view, and equally big shoes—wooden clogs, no doubt. In each square, the girl’s outfit was multi-hued, each square’s color combination different from the ones around it.

The colorful quilt served as my bedspread for several years, on the same antique cherry bed that had been my mother’s. She had restored it when she was a teen as part of a 4-H Room Improvement project which earned her a blue ribbon at the North Carolina State Fair. That same bed was used by my daughter when she was a girl and then by her own daughter.

Unfortunately, the quilt was not quite so long-lived as the bed, now more than 150 years old. While not exactly ephemera, quilts were made to be used. My Little Dutch Girl quilt was well-used, first by me and later by my daughter. It wore out.

By the time I learned to appreciate my quilt for both its personal and cultural heritage, it was too threadbare, stained, and torn to save it. But I couldn’t toss it. A few years ago, I cut the quilt into its squares and framed the few that weren’t too stained or frayed. One I gave to my mother, one I kept for myself; others I stashed away for children and grandchildren.

Now I’ve inherited a few more of Grandmother’s quilts. Unlike my girlhood quilt, I treat these with great respect. I don’t tuck them away where they can’t be appreciated, but I’ve learned not to expose them to daily use and abuse atop beds, either. These quilts hang side by side over a bedroom railing. Like MaMa’s Civil War bedspread, they are always on view and always available to provide extra cover on chilly nights—when they warm both body and soul.

I love these old quilts made by my grandmother, and I’m fascinated by the study of them. Her stitches were exquisite and her squares, large or tiny, were precise. But Grandmother didn’t exercise the same kind of care in other aspects of her quilt making. (Mother was right.)

Precision was not what you’d expect to find within Grandmother’s squares. One little Dutch girl’s profile, for instance, might vary from those around it. One’s shoes may be a little larger or smaller, while another’s might drop off the square entirely. Grandmother carelessly arranged colors. With Grandmother’s quilts, it’s not unusual to spot an aqua square somewhere in a row of royal blue ones. Or, you may find a wool or satin piece of fabric mixed in a row of cotton squares.

This quilt contains 148 border squares. 146 of them are black. The other two look like this.

Notice the random color placement of the “petals” in this quilt square. Can you spot the petal that was pieced together?

Whether it was plain old sloppiness, a preference for form over function, poor planning, or the “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without” philosophy stated on one of her many cross-stitched pieces, these little details simply didn’t seem to matter to Grandmother. And one thing’s for sure—her quilts are unique; they’ll never be mistaken for anyone else’s.

Among other fabrics, Grandmother used a red-checkered tablecloth, printed flour sacks, and old children’s pajamas to make this quilt.

Grandmother was a giggler and she kept me in stitches. Even now, looking at her quilts makes me chuckle. I think she’d have wanted it that way.

Avon Calling

(Part of my Blowing on Embers series)

Smell: the sense that triggers our strongest childhood memories.

While it’s the aroma of sauteed onions or fried chicken or vanilla and cinnamon wafting from the kitchen that conjures up distant memories for most people, my strongest scent memory comes from an altogether different place.

For as long as I can remember, my mother has used Avon’s moisturizing cream on her face. Today’s “new and improved” product no longer comes in that familiar green jar, and these days the contents don’t have much of a scent at all, but back in the old days the aroma was distinctive.

avon jar

As a girl, I often found myself slipping into my parents’ bedroom on the sly and heading straight towards Mother’s dresser. I could count on finding the ubiquitous green jar in one of two places—either in the top middle drawer or, more often, front and center on the dresser top. I stood there, furtively unscrewing the lid to take in a deep whiff. The scent brought me comfort and a profound sense of closeness to my mom—even though she was only two or three rooms away.

As far as I know, no one in our family ever knew about my fixation, and to this day, I can’t for the life of me explain why I didn’t just walk down the hall to wherever Mother happened to be and give her a hug. She was certainly huggable—and she was always there. But for some reason I found something alluring about surreptitiously getting my “Mom fix” from that little green jar. Maybe it was the concentration of the fragrance, somehow making my sense of Mother an even stronger presence than the real thing.

But what made this secret habit so funny, so bizarre, is this: I never liked how that cream smelled!

These days I keep an old empty Avon jar in my own dresser, just for the memories. I call it “Mom, Distilled.” I do miss that old scent, though.