Proud Mountain Woman

(This essay was first published in the 2018 issue of Gateways Creative Arts Journal, themed Remembering and Forgetting.)

Not again!” she snapped. Until this moment, it had been a perfect morning. But when she turned on the tap to fill the coffee pot, nothing. Dadgum it! Preparing a hearty breakfast before seeing Braxton off to work was one of the many ways she strove to be the best wife she could possibly be. This thing with the water was getting to be a nuisance. All she asked of the Harwell boy was that he wait just a measly half-hour to divert the water supply to the cattle trough so Brack could get a pre-workday shower and she could fix his breakfast.

Today was one time too many. In a flash of huff, she trounced across the kitchen, slammed the screen door behind her, stomped across the sandy back yard in her pink and blue flowered pajamas, climbed over the barbed wire fence into the neighbors’ pasture, and turned off the cows’ water supply with a sharp wrist twist.

She marched triumphantly back to the kitchen, still mad, but smug. Today there would be coffee.

Who is this woman? What is her story? Her name is Pam Dillard Coates. I know this true life episode because the four-year-old me was in the kitchen when it happened. No doubt, the only reason this long-ago moment stands so clearly in my memory is that such a display of temper and venom was so unlike the quiet, gentle woman I knew as my mother.

That woman would never snap, never slam, and never, ever leave the house in her pajamas.

At the time, our young family of four was living in Mars Bluff, South Carolina, about eight miles east of Florence. My parents rented an old farmhouse from the Harwells who lived next door in what has been described as one of the finest examples of Greek Revival antebellum architecture in South Carolina. Even I knew it was pretty impressive encircled as it was with twenty-two Doric columns (not that I knew to call them that).

By contrast, our small wood frame house stood atop brick pillars, in the way of many houses of its era. The open space under the house was intended to keep things cooler in the hot southern summertime. Perhaps the nearby presence of “The Columns,” as the Harwell home was known, made our little house look shabby to the lady who came calling one day to welcome us to church. Mother did not like the sense she got that this matron felt sorry for us and that she looked down on us. It was a slight Mother never forgot.

But our home wasn’t nearly as pitiful as the two-room unpainted wooden shanty occupied by a tenant-farming couple. I walked across the fields to visit them on occasion. It was a tiny space, even by four-year-old standards. I walked into the small area designated as a kitchen with room for a wooden counter top on one side of the door and an old-fashioned icebox on the other. An open doorway led into the combination living-bedroom. The place was dismally spare. At least our house had electricity—and running water, sometimes.

We lived a couple hundred miles and a world apart from Mother’s hometown in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina. The people of sandy eastern South Carolina thought her mountain accent was quaint. By one means or another, someone was always calling attention to her differentness. She felt out of place, patronized, and she was rightly sensitive to any hint of disdain.

In the mountains, she was in her element. Her family was well-respected. Her parents were leaders in the small community. It was home.

She didn’t realize just how much. Though she was unaware of it, all of Mother’s ancestors had settled the area when it was first opened up via cession by the Cherokee. Every single one of them came to this country no later than the 1700s, some earlier. Like today’s immigrants, they were mostly poor folk who left their home countries in search of a better life. For the most part, they found it.

The Stillwells, Loves, Dillards, and Nortons were some of the first to move to western North Carolina as it opened up for settlement. The rest came not long after. Some made their way from Virginia through eastern Tennessee. A few moved from points further east in North Carolina, and more came from bordering counties in South Carolina and Georgia.

In other words, Mother’s mountain heritage included the very deepest roots among European settlers. And though she is still the sweet, gentle woman I remember from my childhood, I now understand that she is—and has always been—so much more. She shares many of the traits commonly attributed to Southern Highland mountaineers: self-reliance, persistence, and stoicism borne of necessity; reticence, independence, and individualism borne of isolation; and a hefty dose of mountain pride that demands to be treated with dignity.

Today she’s even more proud of her mountain heritage than she was as a twenty-something young mother. So am I.

The Heart of Dixie: A Holiday Story

(Originally published 12/21/2017)

A little preface may be called for here. Way back in the last century—in the mid-70s—our local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) established a number of consciousness-raising groups. Those of us who were interested were randomly assigned to one group or another.

C-R meetings were safe spaces where women could share our deepest secrets, questions, fears, and issues as women. Initially, C-R groups were meant to be a mass-organizing tool for broad political action, but consciousness raising quickly became a form of political action in its own right.

At C-R gatherings, our sense of isolation imploded as we each discovered our individual experiences were anything but unique, anything but small. As we discussed problems and events from our own lives, our stories became a tool for change. We gained strength and courage to take on systemic, structural sexism wherever it existed—sometimes in our own heads. It’s an on-going process, but one where we learned that indeed the personal is political, a truth we still see in today’s various human rights struggles. And though C-R groups were sometimes pooh-poohed as nothing more than group navel gazing, those who benefited from the institution of sexism soon found the results a power to be reckoned with.

*****

We were eight or nine in number, almost all strangers when our Consciousness-Raising group had been formed. In our short time together, we’d tackled all manner of topics, from workplace discrimination to deeply personal and painful issues to women’s health care to daily gender-based slights. It didn’t take long to bond. We were tight.

Dixie volunteered to host our December meeting, more a holiday celebration than a discussion of feminist politics. We had agreed in advance that, in lieu of tangible gifts, we’d each read a favored poem or essay—any subject. I chose Rod McKuen’s “A Cat Named Sloopy.”

It was an appropriate selection on several levels. I’d always been a cat lover and was owned by two of them at the time. And at our very first group meeting, one of the members observed that I reminded her of a cat with my easy movements and my quiet, sensitive manner.

After the rest of us had read our pieces, it was Dixie’s turn. Instead of pulling out a book, she asked to be excused for a minute. When she returned, she was wearing a big grin and carrying a basket full of small, white gift boxes. Cries of “Oh, Dixie” and the like filled the room. The rest of us had followed our mutual agreement—why was she giving out presents?

But, for reasons of her own, Dixie needed to bring an offering. And it was obvious from the pleased exclamations and laughter as we opened our little boxes and pulled out identical items that what she chose was perfect.

Dixie gave us each an egg. More accurately stated, she gave us each an eggshell, an egg whose contents had been carefully blown out. With red ink, Dixie had drawn facial features on each egg and encircled each one with a fat piece of red yarn tied into a bow at its narrowed top. An ornament hook was stuck into the bow’s knot. My name was written on the back of my egg.

It had to have been a tedious, time-consuming process, likely with more than a few failed attempts. It was a gift of thoughtfulness and love. Dixie found a clever, personal expression of our shared womanhood—the very essence of our relationship.

That was almost forty-five years ago. I still have my egg. The ink has faded, yet it’s an unrivaled possession, safely stored with other treasured holiday ornaments and always ready to play a starring role when it’s brought out for special occasions. In the intervening years, I’ve given a few of my own.

dixie egg

My prized vintage egg from Dixie

My egg reminds me of more than that heady time and those extraordinary women. It reminds me of change, of the unexpected. My egg has traveled with me across two states; through a wild adventure of leaving behind almost everything I knew to hand-build a home with my soulmate; it’s been with me through child-rearing, a career, and now my life’s vintage chapter.

My fragile, yet enduring, egg is a symbol of the strength of perseverance, courage, and tenacity. It symbolizes the power of knowledge and community of spirit. It symbolizes friendship and freedom of thought. It symbolizes time and all the experience that accompanies it. And it epitomizes the exquisite purity of giving from the heart.

Wherever you are today, dear Dixie, thank you for breaking the rules, thank you for your generous heart, and thank you for opening mine a little wider.

So Beautiful It Changed My Life

What an amazing concept—something so beautiful it could change a life. Most of us, if we’ve lived long enough, have had at least a couple of life-changing experiences. But by nothing more than beauty? That was the writing challenge I was presented recently: a time when something was so beautiful it changed your life. It took me aback for a moment. But only for a moment. As I scoured my memory, it came to me.

Driving from Kentucky to the mountains of North Carolina in 1979, after the Gnome and I had made the mental decision to move but before we had actually taken action to make it happen (in other words, it would be easy enough to back out), I looked at the mountains on the horizon with new eyes. It was as if they were cloaked in blue-green velvet.

Their apparent softness overwhelmed me. Though I didn’t have words to articulate it, I sensed something magnificent. Those ancient rocks, some of the oldest in the world, had been worn down by eons of rain and wind; in the process, they had been reshaped from the haughty cragginess of youth into the gentle wisdom of age. Their strength lay in their graceful endurance. I didn’t want to back out.

We spent a week searching for a spot to call home Discouraged by all the not-right-for-us places we’d been shown, we were about to head back to Louisville with unfulfilled dreams. At the last minute, our realtor recalled a secluded piece of land tucked away on a mountainside, and our decision was made. In early April, things were still pretty barren; still, we were confident we’d found what we were looking for. We signed some papers and went back to Louisville to prepare for the big move.

When we returned to our mountain with all our worldly goods not quite three months later, my heart stopped as we drove into a meadow bursting with daisies. (How did the universe know to greet me with this outsize bouquet of my favorite flower?) 

It stopped again the first time I looked over a cloud-filled valley, mountaintops peeking out like islands in a sea of snowy foam.

I knew I’d never leave.

pict0068

(To read more about our adventure of moving and building a home with our bare hands while living in the wild, begin here.)

Here’s to What We Don’t Know

Another quick assignment in my Wednesday writing group—you’ll find the prompt in the last nine words of this post. (Unh-uh! No skipping to the end!)

Living in a tent on ten acres of land in a strange place with no water, no electricity, no phone access, no knowledge of local weather conditions—like that severe thunderstorms could and would pop up daily with no warning, no jobs, and no money but with two elementary-aged children, two neurotic cats, and a notion we could live this way for as long as it took to design our own house, get planning approval, and build the entire thing with nothing more than our own four hands and a few hand tools . . . well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

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