Spring Time

(Note: In one of my delightful writing groups, we were challenged to write on the theme of spring. These prompts are much more wide open than they might appear at first glance. This was my offering. It’s a true story.)

Daddy grew up in the poorhouse.

It’s probably not what you think.

 

The former Johnston County (NC) poorhouse , aka County Farm and Home, is a private nursing home. The building stands as it did when it was first built in the early 1920s.

 

His father was hired to oversee the place during the years of the Great Depression, and the entire family of nine got to live and eat there, cost-free. Not that they weren’t owed that. Grampa’s salary was paltry to begin with and got cut as the Depression worsened. Not to mention that Gramma was expected to oversee the cooking, the laundry, the cleaning, and the nursing of the county home’s residents for no salary whatsoever.

Daddy said there was a lot of sickness at the poorhouse—and a lot of dying, too, what with the inmates, as they were called, being frail and elderly, developmentally disabled, or previously homeless—sometimes all of those things simultaneously.

Most people, Daddy said, when they came to live at the poorhouse, they also came to die there. And when that happened, unless a family member came to claim the body—and usually no one did, Grampa held a simple service, then the unembalmed body was placed in a plain pine casket and lowered into an unmarked grave which had been dug by Grampa, his sons, and the fittest of the inmates earlier in the day. It was a real potters’ field.

Well, with death always lurking around the corner, Grampa stored truckloads of pine boxes in a room of one of the old outbuildings on the property, where they sat waiting for the next person to die. Daddy and his brothers knew the darkened space as the coffin room.

It was one of their favorite play places.

It was where they hid when they thought a chore was about to be assigned, and it was a fine destination during a neighborhood game of hide and seek.

And Daddy, who once fancied he’d grow up to be a preacher, picked the coffin room to practice his oratory. For some reason, there was an old bed stored in the coffin room, too, and it was a springy thing. Daddy used the bed as his ‘pulpit.’

During his sermon sessions, he jumped up and down on that old bed. With its iron springs, it acted kind of like a pogo stick. Now, Daddy was a fiery orator, and as his fervor increased, so did his bouncing. He’d spring higher and higher until both he and his message finally fizzled out.

Well, Daddy never did get that call to be a minister. He reckoned the world just wasn’t ready for a preacher with so much spring in his step.

(P. S. You can find more stories about Daddy’s youth in my book, Boyhood Daze and Other Stories: Growing Up Happy During the Great Depression.)

 

Garland

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

GARLAND

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

Garland was used to male company.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honoring the Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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.

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