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.

Best Laid Plans

(This year marks the 250th anniversary of Daniel Boone’s first trip to Kentucky from North Carolina. The trip was filled with adversity. It reminded me of our own journey—especially since our path was similar to Boone’s except in reverse.)

Two hundred and twelve years after Daniel Boone left western North Carolina for his first foray into Kentucky, our family of two adults and two young children made its way from Kentucky to a new life in western North Carolina. Our adventures weren’t nearly such a hardship as the Boone band’s, but plenty hard, nonetheless.

Our plan was simple: camp out on our newly purchased land while we hand built—all by ourselves—our forever home. Reality was a little more complicated. For one thing, we had no jobs. For another, we had almost no money. Our budget was shoestring for sure.

For the younger campers, the best part of our earliest days of adventure revolved around the campfire.

 

The excitement of tent-camping in the wild far outweighed the inconvenience of having neither water nor electricity. We cooked over a campfire. A rhododendron thicket was the perfect spot for a pit toilet. We drove to a roadside spring to collect water. We hiked to a creek in the woods when we were desperate for an all-over, if frigid, bath. The return hike uphill sweated off our clean.

Daily thunderstorms sent us to the relative safety of our steamy car. Soppy sleeping bags regularly sent us to a laundromat in town. The effort of camping precluded any progress on building. We had to make alternative plans.

Instead of building our house, we built a very temporary shelter. It was all of 8′x12′, barely large enough to hold two cots and a double sleeping bag. The plywood floor kept us off the ground. We wrapped the lumber framework with inexpensive clear plastic for make-do walls and roof. Instead of a door, we had an opening covered with a tarp.

Our “kitchen” is outside on left end of shed. The doorway is also on the left end. Look carefully and you can see a suitcase and canned goods lined up along our front “wall.”

During the day our shed, as we called our new quarters, was a stifling greenhouse. Mountain nights were a different matter. We wrapped ourselves in sweaters under our blankets. Then the rains came, and the winds, in the form of an inland hurricane. Our  “walls” were decimated. The black plastic “roof” caved in. We were forced to invest in slightly sturdier materials.

It was a mess!

Finally, we could complete our building plans, which meant we could have a temporary power pole installed. Electricity made it ever so much easier to build, though the only power tools we had were a drill and a couple of circular saws. Nonetheless, progress was slow with two novices working on our first significant building project, learning as we went.

As the nights turned colder, we used a space heater to keep relatively warm, but with no door, much of the heat escaped. December’s bitter cold found us huddled over the heater more often than pounding nails.

Finally, it became too much. At 1:00 pm on December 20th, when the temperature dipped to five degrees and was heading lower and our water containers and canned goods were frozen solid, we faced the inevitable and moved into a one-bedroom apartment in town until warmer weather descended.

The state of things when the weather got the better of us.

In spite of the cold, we managed to get some work done on the house throughout the winter. Four months later when we returned to our mountain place, we moved into our home, a structure that barely qualified as a shell. Loose plywood covered the floor joists. Blackboard sheathing was the extent of our walls—no siding, no insulation, no drywall. Our plan called for lots of south-facing windows, but we had no windows. Once again, we used plastic to protect us from critters and the elements. A construction site heater warmed us during our morning bathing and dressing routines. We still had no running water and what little electricity we had access to still came from the temporary pole. Of course, we didn’t have a phone.

Except for the plastic we installed over the window openings, this is how the house looked when we moved in.

It would be another year before we got those modern conveniences and many more until our house was what most folks would consider properly finished. But we persevered.

Other than a coat of paint on the window trim (see where we’d started, upper right) and vent openings below windows, this was as finished as our house got until thirty or so years later when it got a total facelift–standard windows, horizontal siding, awnings, and more.

Almost forty years later, our daughter says our years of living in the wild brought our family closer together and notes that her somewhat unusual childhood always makes for a good conversation starter. Our son, wanting his own children to experience the kind of life he had as a kid, has begun a homebuilding venture of his own. The Gnome and I are still here, still working on our dream home. We are here to stay.It was an undertaking of our own choosing, born of youthful enthusiasm and sheer ignorance. Had we known what we were getting into, we might still be in Kentucky today. But we’d have missed out on the adventure of a lifetime.

(To read more about our homebuilding adventure, check out the nine-part series beginning here. Unrelated posts are interspersed, but you can scroll past those if you choose.)

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

Yes, It Snows In North Carolina

Yes, It Snows in North Carolina   

(On the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Blizzard of ’93)

When the Michigander I’d just met learned that our family lives in North Carolina, he said, “Well then, you don’t have to worry about snow.” It’s a comment I frequently hear from people who “aren’t from around here,” as if they think all Tar Heels live at the beach. Little do they know. In a state that stretches 600 miles inland, my home is on the same longitudinal plane as Cleveland, Ohio. The meridian actually skims Michigan’s mitten thumb and lines up with eastern Ontario. Pretty far inland.

At more than 4,000 feet in elevation, we’re also a bit higher than coastal areas. So, yes, we have some weather, and it’s not usually fit for swimsuits. Our thermometer has read as low as -32º. Our most wintry weather has a tendency to come after many folks have long since said goodbye to winter. During our first year here, we were surprised by several inches of snow on Memorial Day. Just a few years later, four-foot drifts covered our gravel road in the middle of April.

Snowfall near our house, 2010: everything is covered.

Then, there was that other time . . .

In mid-March, 1993, I had a business meeting a couple hours from here. I decided to add a quick overnight visit with my parents, who lived nearby. Snow was again in the forecast, but it wasn’t expected to begin falling until sometime the following day. I’d surely return home ahead of any significant precipitation.

Even so, I parked my little Geo Metro at the bottom of the mountain road that led to their home. Just in case. If the snow came earlier and/or heavier than expected, it would have been treacherous trying to drive out from my parents’ mountainside perch.

The next morning, we woke to a world of white outside and darkness indoors. The snow was deep and heavy. Power lines had snapped for miles around. Snow poured down for three days. Hundred-mile-an- hour winds created monstrous drifts. The governor issued a two-day long, twenty-four-hour curfew. Even wwhen the curfew was lifted, it was clear I wasn’t going anywhere.

Not only could I not retrieve my little car from the snowbank created by a snow plow—I couldn’t even see it under its huge snow mountain. My seventy-something-year-old father, who had suffered a massive heart attack several months prior, was in no shape to shovel snow. And I wasn’t willing to risk the same fate myself.

Back at home, the Gnome and our college-aged son who was getting ready to return to school after spring break were confronted by drifts up to four feet deep once the snow finally stopped falling. They were trapped, too. We usually hire someone to plow out our gravel road when it’s impassable, but no one could get up there. With school beckoning, they felt compelled to begin the daunting task of digging themselves out by hand.

Worried about not one but two potential heart attacks, I insisted on sworn promises that they’d take breaks a minimum of every two hours and call me on the nose at each break. I couldn’t get to them, but if I didn’t hear from them on time, I’d be calling 911 stat!

There was nothing more I could do except wait it out. My parents and I got by with a roaring fire in the fireplace and a lot of canned soups heated on a camp stove. We entertained ourselves with conversation and reading.

Enjoying my snow exile in a hammock

My mother had recently acquired a book published by the genealogical society of her home county. Residents had been invited to send in family stories and histories. Some were straightforward with lots of begats. Some people heaped praises on themselves—in the third person, clearly not realizing their own name would appear as author of their submission. Some were pious, some irreverent, some lavishly embellished.

Other entries were laugh-out-loud funny. Like the one about the grandpa who never cut his toenails and walked around his log cabin barefoot, his nails clicking loudly on the wood floor with each step. Or the one about the family whose children decided to outfit their mother with a football helmet and hang her upside down in a homemade traction device to cure her aching back. Or the story about the man who kept a skull in his closet. Then again, maybe we were just punch drunk. It was good medicine to read and share those stories while we were cooped up.

The book presented another opportunity, one to learn about my own family history. When I’d previously asked Mother how long her family had lived in her home county, she couldn’t tell me. She knew nothing about her family beyond her grandparents. Even then, the information was sometimes scanty.

Each article, it seemed, provided a clue about yet another previously unknown branch in my family tree, which in turn led me to still another and another. My paternal grandfather died years before my grandparents met. Mother knew hardly anything about him. With the help of the heritage book, I discovered that he had been in the Civil War, that my great-grandmother was thirty years his junior and was his second wife. I learned that my grandfather’s ancestors were some of the first European settlers in the area. My grandmother had deep local roots, too. I discovered that while most of my ancestors hailed from the British Isles, some came from Germany. It was fascinating stuff, even if not quite all of it was verifiable.

I was stuck in place for almost a week, much of it with my nose buried in the heritage book. By the time I finally left for home, I had a sheaf of papers summarizing family stories and diagramming potential genealogical connections for further research.

That week was the beginning of an enduring passion for family history, one that’s even led to a couple of books. All because of the Blizzard of ’93, otherwise known all along the East Coast as the Storm of the Century. On this occasion of the storm’s twenty-fifth anniversary, we’re in the midst of another great snowstorm. It’s not expected to be as big an event as the Blizzard of ’93, but then that one caught us off guard, too. 

Taking a bite out of snow

For a recap of the Blizzard of 1993, click here:   https://www.wataugademocrat.com/watauga/the-blizzard-of/article_13899f70-3c38-5153-8e92-10c2da17e884.html

The Gift that Wouldn’t Die

The Gift that Wouldn’t Die

What do hair curlers, a canary funeral, and a burn pile have in common? They’re all connected to a childhood Christmas present.

My grandmother—my amazing, funny, creative, exuberant grandmother—sent a replica of an oak sugar bucket for Christmas when I was eight years old.

It was the same year a black cocker spaniel puppy quietly sat in a basket under the tree, waiting to be discovered and fussed over. But Blackie wasn’t the first thing I spotted. The sugar bucket was—a small wood-stave bucket, slightly smaller at the top than the bottom, held in place by two circular wooden bands, one near the bottom and one near the top. It had a wooden lid and a curved handle for carrying. To make it uniquely hers, Grandmother had added decorative touches with crayon.

As was typical, her designs didn’t match. On the lid, in all the primary colors, was a depiction of a female Mexican hat dancer, while red apples and green leaves ringed the bucket’s bands. A strange combination.

That was sixty-three years ago. As unlikely a gift as a wooden bucket is for an eight-year-old, I still have it. It’s traveled with me through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood in all its stages. It’s traveled from South Carolina to Kentucky to North Carolina. It’s been with me through teen angst, first love, first heartbreak, college, marriage, motherhood, and empty nest. It has seen me through girly girlhood to feminist maturity. It’ was part of my greatest life adventure—moving to a strange place and hand-building our home.

My bucket played a role in the funeral of our canary, Gene, who died unexpectedly not long after that Christmas. I’d had no experience with human death at that time, but Gene’s was the second pet death in my life; it was hard on me. I gathered my brothers and neighbors in our backyard where we dug a small hole. I placed Gene in an aluminum-foil-lined shoe box, and we lowered him into the ground with a eulogy, a hymn, and tears. But I didn’t have a monument. So, to memorialize Gene’s life and death, I wrote the details—name, dates, and how beloved he was—on the underside of my bucket’s lid.

For the most part, my bucket was where I stored my hair curlers, curlers that changed over the years as hairstyles and curling techniques evolved. First, there were small-diameter metal rods with attached clips, rubberized on the closure end. Those were followed by spongy, pink, foam curlers with matching attached plastic clips. At some point, self-gripping velcro curlers filled my bucket, as did snap-ons.

When bouffant hairstyles became all the rage, my old curlers were replaced with large, brown, mesh cylinders, supported by wire spirals and held in place with bobby pins, which were in turn succeeded by similar mesh curlers that surrounded hard, stiff bristles to lock the hair in place. Plastic “pins” were stuck through the curlers to hold them in place. Those curlers were painful to sleep in, and if you didn’t curl and uncurl just right, those curlers grabbed your hair and wouldn’t let go. Even more painful.

The way we were–a typical late night dorm party

 

Probably the last curlers to make my bucket their home were the so-called magnetic curlers. They were made of hard plastic punched with holes for air circulation and came in various pastel shades and multiple sizes from half-inch to two or three inches in diameter. Those were the days of serious hair teasing, gels, and sprays. Again, bobby pins held the curlers to my head.

Primping for the prom

 

Then, electricity entered the world of home hair care. Heated hard plastic electric hair rollers with nubs to catch hair, steam curlers using a combination of hot water and salt to create some kind of molecular curling magic, and ultimately curling and flat irons took the place of loose curlers. A mish-mash of curlers sat unused in my bucket—just in case they needed to be called into service.

When a more natural look came into style, curlers of any sort were irrelevant to my life. My bucket no longer served a practical purpose. But it was a gift of love from a person dear to my heart, so I kept it, as I do so many things. It became part of our eclectic “decor,” if you will, wherever we lived.

A few years ago, the Gnome and I were on yet another of our simplifying kicks. (They come upon us every now and again, only to be replaced by some other collecting kick.) I decided the time had finally come to say goodbye to my sugar bucket. The rim of the lid was broken and the lid wouldn’t stay in place. The bucket’s bands kept slipping off, turning the whole thing into little more than a pile of sticks. I’d gotten tired of piecing it back together every time something bumped into it.

But it was a conflicted moment. I had to thrash out my mixed emotions with my husband, hoping he’d weigh in and give me justification for either keeping or throwing. He wisely left the decision entirely in my hands. I threw the bucket on our burn pile. Sixty years seemed plenty long enough to hold onto a childhood gift, regardless of its source.

Some time later, suffering from tosser’s remorse, I couldn’t take it anymore. Wracked with guilt, I had to check on my bucket. Even though it had sat through weeks of sun, rain, and snow, the bucket was somehow still intact, not much the worse for wear. I retrieved it.

The lid was too far gone for reincarnation so I bid a final farewell to Gene’s memorial. But the bucket is safely back inside, where it sits as a fine memorial of its own—a lidless monument to perseverance, to my ultimate inability to simplify, and to my inimitable grandmother.

The sugar bucket in tatters

Reclaimed sugar bucket