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Have you heard about my newest book, Blackberries and Biscuits? It’s all about my mom’s life and times growing up in the Smokies of western North Carolina during the years of the Great Depression–and afterwards, too.  Here’s the opening scene:

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 a measly half-hour to divert the water supply from the house 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 cattle trough faucet 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?

Her name is Pansy (Pam) Dillard Coates, and I know this true-life episode because the four-year-old version of me was in the kitchen when it happened. Surely, the only reason this long-ago moment stands so clearly in my memory is that such a display of temper 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 where Daddy worked. My parents rented an old farmhouse from the Harwells who lived next door in “one of the finest examples of Greek Revival antebellum architecture in South Carolina.”

Built in 1857, the plantation house had been in the possession of Mrs. Harwell’s mother since 1902 and remains in the family today. 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, the open space under the house intended to keep things cooler in hot southern summers. A wide screened porch ran all the way across the front. In my recollection, a hall sliced the house’s length from front door to back with a living room, bedroom, tiny den (most of which was filled with an oil heater), and a kitchen on the left side and a couple of bedrooms and a bathroom along the right. The cavernous bathroom had a floor of hardwood, dark and shiny. Surely it was originally another bedroom, repurposed when indoor plumbing came along.

Perhaps the nearby presence of The Columns, as the Harwell home was known, made our house look shabby to the lady who came calling one day to welcome us to Florence’s First Baptist Church. Mother did not like the overwhelming sense that this matron “felt sorry for us,” maybe even looked down on us. It was a slight she found hard to forget, though they worked side by side at church functions for decades.

But our home wasn’t nearly as pathetic as the unpainted two-room shanty occupied by a sharecropping couple. On occasion, I walked across the farm fields to visit them. It was a tiny space, even by a four-year-old’s standards. To enter, I walked into a small area designated as the kitchen. There was room for a rough-sawn countertop on one side of the ill-fitting door and a wood-fired cookstove and old-fashioned icebox—I’d never seen one of those before—on the other. An open doorway led into their combination living-bedroom. The place was dismally spare. I wouldn’t be surprised if it had once been slave quarters.

At least our house had electricity. And running water—sometimes.

There are plenty of old photos in Blackberries and Biscuits–more than 100! This one shows Mom with me and my brother Alan on Easter Sunday when our family lived in Mars Bluff.

It’s not too late to order a copy of Blackberries and Biscuits for someone on your holiday gift list–or even as a treat for yourself. You can find it here. (Tip: If you’re local, I’ve got a deal for you—just give me a buzz or pm me on FB.)

Thanks Giving

“What is the best moment of your day?” she asked.

That turned out to be a question I couldn’t answer directly. Let me put it this way.

The best moment of my day is . . .

when a sun’s ray beams onto my face, wakes me, and bird songs welcome the day;

when I eat a breakfast of eggs from the happy chickens who live just down the road;

when the cacophonous chatter of crows having their morning “coffee klatch” interrupts the still of my morning;

when I sip a cup of honeyed herbal tea as my mind loosely organizes my day;

when I check on the latest thing to pop up in the vegetable garden on a sunny summer morning—or later in the season, when I harvest what I’ll eat that day and preserve more for chilly winter nights;

when the comfort of a snuggle under the covers overtakes me upon waking in the morning and again as I fall asleep each night;

when a few hours of dedicated writing time come my way;

The best part of my day is . . .

when the all-day antics of squirrels and chipmunks capture my attention as they battle each other’s wits over food intended for birds;

when I take a twilight summer stroll listening to the quiet, watching the synchronicity of fireflies light up our woods, and catching whiffs of honeysuckle;

when I gaze at the star-studded sky on a clear, crisp wintry night and maybe catch a meteor streaking through the atmosphere;

when I spy mountaintops peeking through a sea of clouds;

when the nighttime call of an owl seeps into my consciousness;

when the early springtime sounds of wood frogs and peepers shatter the otherwise quiet of my bedroom—all night long;

when I’m graced with the giggles and confidences of grandchildren;

when the season’s first wild daisy shows itself in our meadow.

The best—and sweetest—moment of my day is a spontaneous embrace anywhere, anytime as my sweetheart and I sway ever so slightly—the way young lovers move to a slow dance at the prom—for no particular reason and for minutes on end.

With all these best moments, I’m reminded of these words from an old hymn: “How can I keep from singing?”

And I give thanks.

 

 

Family History as a Civics Lesson

Once upon a time, I thought it was decidedly macabre for people to wander around cemeteries randomly looking for names on tombstones. Then I turned into one of them—long before I qualified as the kind of person (OLD) who seemed most fascinated by this hobby. 

The Gnome and I found ourselves immersed in genealogy in our earliest forties. At first, it was nothing more than wanting to find the names and origins of our ancestors, but it quickly became so much more. I wanted to know about these people who came before me. And the more I learned, the more I wanted to know: who they were, what they did, how they ended up where they were, what their world looked like. I wanted to round out their stories.

That’s when I realized that, at least for the intellectually curious, one’s family history is really a massive civics and history lesson.

Do you know how roads in the United States were maintained in the early days? If not for genealogy, I wouldn’t. Each locality required all ‘able-bodied’ men to spend a designated number of days on road work. Imagine that today. Fines—maybe worse—were imposed on shirkers. I suspect most of us are happier paying a fuel tax than putting aside our normal work to build roads on demand with pickaxes and shovels in hand. I understand the quality of those roads was somewhat (!) unreliable. It was a serendipitous lesson to discover that history because it helped me understand the nature and evolution of mutual responsibility for public works.

As for my own story, I lucked out when I came upon the account of a pair of ancestors, Jimmie and Jerutha Holland, written by Nellie Holland Russell for her pre-teen nephews. The somewhat fictionalized version of these early Scots-Irish settlers nonetheless told me how desperate things were in the ‘old country,’ how dangerous it was for two teenagers to cross the Atlantic on a rickety boat (‘ship’ is much too generous a word), how their vessel turned out to be run by pirates, how their naiveté in a strange land made them easy marks. In short, it told me I’m darned lucky to be here today.

This historical marker in Wayne County, NC, celebrates my fourth-great-grandparents. Who knew?

Surely it was much the same for millions more immigrants whenever and however they made their own journeys. It’s a piece of our collective history we would all do well to understand.

As the Gnome and I became more involved in learning about our family histories, we found ourselves engrossed in their times. I have precious few details about a great-grandfather and another great-great grandfather who fought in the Civil War. When I came across a book of letters from Confederate soldiers to their families back home, I wildly hoped I’d luck across one signed by one of my ancestors.

 

 

My great-great-grandfather, John Holden, and my great-grandfather William Holland Thomas Dillard were soldiers in the US Civil War.

Of course, I didn’t, but that didn’t make the stories any less compelling—stories of boredom mingled with bloody horror, near starvation, worry about a son or other family member in another unit, prison conditions, anxiety about the women and children back home. In that moment, it didn’t matter whose signature was on a letter or which side of the conflict he was on. I suspect the story was much the same for every soldier.

I read about soldiers returning home to western North Carolina from the prison in Petersburg, Virginia, after the war had ended. I pictured what it would have been like to be in their shoes. Or their bare feet, for some were without shoes. My grandpas weren’t part of that group, but reading about the odyssey told me a lot about how it must feel to return home after war, defeated, carrying the wounded, hungry, walking most of the several hundred miles to reach home, not knowing what one will find upon arriving. Seeing the desolation along the way. No parades, no hordes cheering from the roadsides.

It’s a story that’s been repeated through the ages and still is today in too many corners of the world. Looking through this lens, without the judgment of who’s right or wrong, but simply seeing the human heart, gives a person new perspective.

When I traveled to the heritage center in my dad’s hometown, I was hoping to learn more about my grandparents. What was education all about then? Why did Granddaddy only go to school through the seventh grade? He was eighteen when he finished, and within days he married his teacher, only a few months older than he. What a treat when the center’s director pulled out an old survey which included my great-grandparents’ farm. A little square on the edge of their property designated a school. They donated that bit of land to the county. It’s where Granddaddy went to school and most likely where he met my grandmother. With that tidbit of new knowledge. I felt closer to them.

I learned that school wasn’t compulsory, that children who did attend often started at age eight.

In those days, a three-person committee ran each school independently. In some cases, when they needed money to build a new school house, rather than raising taxes as the committee had the authority to do, they chose instead to close the school for a year and divert the teacher’s salary to purchase building materials. Hmm—no wonder a person didn’t finish seventh grade at age twelve.

I was in my small, local public library browsing some North Carolina history books when I came upon a small volume about tobacco-growing in the state. My dad’s father was a tobacco farmer. Working in tobacco—and cotton—was how Daddy and his brothers grew up. Maybe I’d find something useful in the pages of my book discovery. I did, but not what I was expecting. There was something about mules—how important they were to farm life in earlier days—so important they were considered part of the family. I asked my Uncle Edwin about that. “Noooo! They were never part of the family. I’d chop cotton [one of the most dreaded farm chores] before I’d plow a mule!” Now, that told me something about my dad’s life growing up. And I never would have known it if the only place I’d searched was the genealogy shelf. 

Daddy’s relationships with the family mules were as varied as their personalities. Rhodie was one of his favorites.

Random gleanings from random places. And each one a jewel that deepens my understanding. Our human story is so much more than the bare bones of begats. It’s a broader story, a deeply-textured one. Everyone’s story is different. Whatever yours is, if you let your curiosity guide you, it will teach you civics and history which will inform your knowledge about the world around you, give you an appreciation for where we are now as a society and what our forebears lived through to get us here. You might even discover a new passion.

Because there is a story to tell. You just have to find it.

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!)

Three Little Words

(I wrote the following a little more than two years ago, knowing it wasn’t yet time to post it. Now the time has come. It may be a little disjointed since it was more or less stream of consciousness. I thought it better to leave it as it was, only adding an update.)

Three little words. Thirteen letters. Words that will dramatically change your life.

You hope not to hear them. But you have that feeling in your gut. You wait for them.

He has your fate in his hands. Why is he keeping you waiting? Doesn’t he know you’re anxious?

Finally, you hear the light tap on the door before it opens and he walks in.

And there they are. Those three little words. Laid bare.

“You have cancer.”

You’re different now.

Except that you aren’t. The truth was already there. The cancer was already there. You are the same today as you were yesterday. Your fate wasn’t in the doctor’s hands. What he said didn’t change a single fact. It just changed what you know.

Today you know a thing you didn’t know yesterday, or even a moment ago. You suspected it. Maybe you feared it. But you didn’t know it. Yet, it was there.

You have cancer.

You had it yesterday.

You had it last week.

Nothing is different today except that you know it. And you’ll know it tomorrow. And the day after that. And the next day. Forever.

If you hadn’t made that appointment, you wouldn’t know it today, either. But you’d still have it. Nothing can change that truth.

* * * * *

For the few weeks we were waiting for the biopsy and then the results, we made a conscious decision: we weren’t going to worry about it. It either was or wasn’t. Nothing we could do, say, think, or get worked up about would change a thing. We could hope for the best and prepare for the worst, but nothing would change what was. We went on about our daily lives.

And now we know. The question now is what to do about it. Here’s what.

Get informed. Listen to the doc. Take notes; review them. Ask questions. Read the literature. Research.
Get a second opinion or consultation, if we want. (We didn’t. It was pretty straightforward.)
Make a treatment decision.
Tell the family.
Make plans.
Do what it takes: schedule surgery, get radiation, take meds—whatever the regimen is.

But most of all, meanwhile and forever, live life.

You can’t change what is, but you can decide to continue doing what matters. You can make the best of what you have. Cancer may change you. It may not. It may shorten your life or it may not. So may or may not any number of other things. With or without a cancer diagnosis, your decision should be the same: live whatever life you have the best you can. On your own terms.

I’ve heard it said everyone will get cancer if they live long enough. Some people get it sooner, but eventually, if something else doesn’t do you in first, it will be cancer. It is part of life itself. At a certain point, your body starts to turn on you. Metabolism slows. Bones get brittle. Joints creak. Age spots and wrinkles appear. Hair thins. Minds become less elastic, less quick. And maybe your cells get all out of whack. It is all part of the end. The end starts at the beginning.

We won’t forget those three words, those thirteen letters. Certainly not that one, loaded, six letter word. We’ll do what it takes. But we won’t stop living. Tonight we’ll sleep snuggled together (maybe a little closer). Tomorrow we’ll get up, dress, make and eat breakfast, check e-mail, harvest vegetables, mow the grass. We’ll plan our upcoming trip. We’ll laugh.

Cancer is now a part of us. But cancer will not define us. Cancer will not control us.

P.S. The cancer diagnosis was not for my body. It was for his. But it somehow feels the same. At least for me. He agrees, but there’s surely a difference when it’s actually your body. Nonetheless, from the first moment we heard the three word pronouncement, both of us have thought in terms of “we.” The surgery, the treatment, the decisions, the life we lead—they’re ours together. And we aim to make the best of it.

Update: The diagnosis was prostate cancer. For eighteen months after the surgery, there was no evidence any cancer cells remained. Then, just like that, it was back. (If you’re so inclined, you can read Ron’s version of this story and journey here and here.)

The very good news is there is no indication that it has spread beyond the prostate bed, and a combination of hormone and radiation therapy seems like a winning strategy. For now, we’re waiting for the radiation oncologist and his team to complete mapping a therapy plan so radiation treatments can begin.

Off and on, I’ll likely use this blog space to share more thoughts and experiences about how we’re navigating this new territory in our lives. Stay tuned.

Country Living

It’s taken a long time for me to realize it, but I must live in Hooterville. I did love watching Petticoat Junction and Green Acres back in the day. (If you’re too young to understand those references, or if you just feel like a little nostalgic break from reality, click here and here.)

It’s no wonder we landed up here on the diagonal.

But it was only recently that I noticed the signs for the side roads off of the steep, dusty, barely-two-lane road I often take when I’m heading down into the valley a couple of miles away. To give myself credit, there were no green signs to identify them until our county developed its 911 system, but that’s been a long time now, so any credit due me is minuscule.

Indeed, one of those roads is Green Acres Trail. Loafer’s Joy Drive sounds like it would be perfect for Petticoat Junction’s Uncle Joe. Bugtussle Lane is just down the road a piece. And, honest-to-goodness, I drive right by Feuders’ Hill. There’s got to be a story there! The road I’m driving on is no different—Tater Hill. Yep, I’m way out in the country.

Looking into the valley from Tater Hill Road

I like it here. We may not always see eye-to-eye with our neighbors on a few important socio-political issues, but this is the kind of place where an attentive person—and they’re all attentive—will run out in the rain to pick up a package hanging on the arm of our rural mailbox so it won’t get drenched.

And if a strange vehicle turns onto our half-mile, private, gravel drive, someone’s almost sure to follow, insist on learning the driver’s name and business, and proclaim, “We’re all family here [though not quite all of us are], and we watch out for each other.” Fair warning.

It’s a comfort. And you gotta appreciate the history of the place. The folks who live in the two-story frame house down the road a piece include the great-great-great grandchildren of the ones who built it. Imagine that—a six-generation farm!

So, yes, most folks around these parts are family. But not us; we’re the interlopers—we’ve only lived here forty years. It may have taken a long time, but knowing a neighbor includes us in the informal neighborhood watch creates the kind of reassurance that only comes where folks grow their own vegetables and still hang their wash on the line.

It’s home.

Country Roads

Alongside the country road I drive most days, I’m sure to find—depending on the time of year—trillium, wild irises, fire pinks, flame azaleas, rhododendron, mountain laurel, Japanese meadowsweet, bee balm, daisies, evening primrose, black-eyed Susans, Turk’s cap lilies, Queen Anne’s lace, wild blackberries, Joe-Pye weed, touch-me-nots, ironweed, snow, and ice. All strikingly beautiful and all worth slowing down for.

 

On a cool but sunny day, I’m as likely as not to find a lazy dog dozing on the asphalt, in no hurry to get out of my way.

It isn’t rare to find myself behind a farmer driving his slow-moving tractor from one field to another. Other times it may be a load of Christmas trees or a flatbed groaning under the weight of too many rolls of hay puttering along in front of me.

A deer, raccoon, possum, chipmunk, squirrel, rabbit, or even a fox or bobcat might scamper—or mosey—across the road any time of day or night.

I often come upon a car or truck at a dead standstill, the driver having stopped to catch up on the latest community ‘news’ with a neighbor. Usually, they’ll look ahead and wave me around; they’re nowhere near ready to move on themselves.

It’s only right to roll down the window for a “Howdy” when couples are out for a morning jog or an evening stroll. Those moments, too, may turn into drawn-out conversations.

One should never be in a hurry on a country road.