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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Memories of Grandma

All quiet on the blog front in the last week, I know. Where my motivation went, I’ll never know.

I do know that if I don’t plant my butt in front of a computer more often and actually start typing, I won’t be getting to the Asheville part of my road trip until December! Geez.

And yet, this post has little to do with my road trip and everything to do with missing my Grandma, whose grave and old home I visited while back. I realize this blog is mostly about food, but I was going through three years worth of papers stuffed into boxes last Sunday and found a copy of an interview my mother did with my grandma shortly before she died.

Let me testify: if you don’t do something like this (an interview) with your own family, you might regret it. I simply wasn’t around my grandmother enough to learn the things mentioned in this interview on my own. And, unfortunately, she died during a period of my youth where I busy trying to get away from my family. I rarely spoke to her by phone since she was hard of hearing, and most of our conversations had to be done face to face.

So, this interview means a lot to me. It’s one of the few pieces of my grandmother’s life I have left, and I cherish it more than anyone could ever know. No amount on earth could ever be worth what these few paragraphs mean to me.

Note: The following is written the way my grandma spoke, as transcribed by my mother. Since she was speaking to my mother, “your grandpa” and “your daddy” refers to my great-grandpa and grandpa respectively. Last names have been replaced with initials...just because. Translation of uncommon terms provided in parentheses.

A little more background: My grandmother, Nellie, was born up in a holler in
Relief, North Carolina, in an area of the Blue Ridge Mountains her family had lived in for several generations. Despite being unable to read or write, she provided for her large family and worked hard all her life, growing and preserving food, cooking, sewing, cleaning, and raising young’uns.

Some, ahem, interesting things you might notice in the interview: drunkenness, marriage between cousins, race mixing, bootlegging, wild game hunting, and child labor. It is likely that a few folks reading this today will frown upon some of these things, much as people did back then. It is also likely that my grandparents didn’t give a shit what those people thought, so long as they minded their own damn business. I’m comfortable in saying that I’m of the same mind.


I can remember back when I was 3 years old. The way we played, we’d go to the branch (creek), get rocks and build play houses. We’d travel the mountains...we’d go for miles back in the mountains, a playin’, pick up chestnuts, and I’d lay on the hillside in the brush...make grasshopper cages (you do this with grass needles), and I’d look far away, playin’ alone and think, someday, how I’d want to be in those places…go places. And the first train I’d seen, I was up on a hill where my daddy worked in the corn and I’d watch the train as it passed by. When we left the mountains, the first river I’d ever seen we’d moved to Erwin. I was 9. My daddy bought a T-Model car, so he’d take us to a movie. The first show I’d seen was scary. It scared us all...about a woman with big eyes. Yeah, we’d make trips. My Daddy worked in a shop making parts for trains. He made $4.50 an hour. That was good money back then.

The way we washed clothes, we’d boil water, drop some clothes in, take ‘em out and put ‘em on a stump from a sawed off tree. We’d use boat paddles, they called ‘em bats, and we’d bat our clothes. You could hear everyone down at the branch batting their clothes. We’d make our own soap out of lye and meat skin, hog meat skin. People would bathe in it, too. We’d put it in a big iron kettle and cook it until it became thick. We’d have to wait ‘till it cooked, then cut it in blocks.

When I was 12, we moved to Elizabethton where my daddy worked in a silk factory. I took care of Bob. (Her nephew.) He was a baby.

They wouldn’t let me go to school. The truant officer would come around and they’d tell him that I was older...didn’t have to go. I worked in the house. They always used me as a slave. Well, I used to sew and make my own clothes by the time I was 13. You can imagine what my clothes looked like!

Thirteen, that’s how old I was when I’d stay with people…I’d take care of those who were sick. I’d cook for them, clean their house, dust, wash clothes. They paid me $2.50 a week. After awhile, we moved to Johnson City...I was 14. Well, I done the same thing there. I’d wash their clothes on a wash board. I’d take care of 4 or 5 young’uns. And you know the kind of pleasure I’d see? Me and a bunch of girls would start walking the road. There wasn’t many cars back then. We’d walk for miles, and we’d laugh and carry on. Every so often, there’d be a T-Model pass and we’d holler at them. And next we’d, ’bout 4 or 5 of us, walk to the country church hoping to find a handsome boy...never could find any. We’d stay at church and walk home in the dark. We were never afraid.

Your grandma always stayed at home. She went to church a lot. Her and my daddy argued all the time. That was back in the Hoover days. We liked to starved to death. When my daddy got the job at the Foundry, we lived a little better. They made steel parts for trains, cars. I’m trying to remember how old I was when I met your daddy...about 16. I met him at King Springs. There was a spring and there was a dance hall built over it. We’d go there on Sundays and sit. The way we dated, we’d go for walks...to friends houses. We’d go to the cow pasture and practice football. I was 22 when we got married. He went into the Army about 17...served 3 years the first time. We had 3 young’uns when he had to go in again. Jane was about 2 years old. He stayed in one year...he went overseas. That was when he got his leg broke.

Back when we lived in the mountains, my daddy got mad at my mother...said he’d just kill himself. And they had a place where they hung hogs over at the house. We looked over there, us kids. My daddy had his legs over that pole and his head hangin’ down and his arms just a-shakin’...had us kids cryin’. Then another time he said my mammy didn’t love him…he got drunk. He said he’d just leave. He went up in the holler. My mammy got his brother and they went up on the hillside where they could see up that holler where those legs was, and they saw his heels. He had his head hung down in the branch. He was drunk...cussing. They dragged him out, carried him to the house. They put him to bed to sober up.

Another time, he and my mammy got into a fuss. He wasn’t drunk then. He told her he’d just leave. Well, when he went outside, he took his gun off the rack...said he’d just kill himself. The moon was full that night and the cows had been feeding out in the yard that day. We heard a shot go off. My mammy took out, running. My daddy hadn’t shaved in 2-3 days. He shot up between his hat. He fell in a cow pile. My brother ran out to him...he ran his hand up underneath my daddy’s head. He said, “Yeah, mom he shot himself. Here’s his brains under his head.” So my mom passed out and my brother had to carry her in. My daddy got up and walked in with him.

My Grandpa M came from Cherokee. He was raised there…he was Indian. He was in the Civil war. He died when my oldest sister was born. Grandpa H was 104 when he died. He was Dutch. My grandma M and Joe H were brother and sister. Grandpa H was a preacher. My mother was 12 when they married.

Grandma M...when they moved to the mountains, they had to sleep in the woods at night. They had to hide their personal belongings in the bushes because the Rebels came through. They’d (the Rebels) take cows and anything away. There was a woman who lived there and always knew when the Rebels were about to invade. She’d let everyone know so they could hide their things. The Rebels found out about her, and she was shot in the chest. She had a little girl.

My grandpa got shot. They threw him up in a wagon, and they drove through a thicket, and he worked his way off the wagon and escaped. He crawled to a haystack and stayed there for 3 weeks. He got well enough to go home. They came and got him…took him back. A drove of them went through again, back to the river. They shot the democrats and buried them in the river bottom. That was the end of them.

My grandma thought he was coming in one night. She had a bullet that had come out of one of the soldiers who had been killed. She looked out the window and saw a white horse coming. There was a man on it. She ran to meet him. The horse reared back. The dogs were barking...her little sister was clinging to her. She went back to the house. She sat at the chimney corner and watched the man on the horse. When grandpa got home, he took the bullet and threw it away. She didn’t see the man on the white horse again. He was dead. It was his bullet...the one that killed him.

My daddy and mother used to make moonshine. They’d sprout the corn to make the beer. They kept it hid from us young’uns. Between 2 bedrooms, there was a wood stove. Somehow, they dug a place in the floor that led to the basement. They had a stove pipe that leg through. We didn’t suspect anything...the stove pipe would never get hot. In one bedroom that had canned food, and behind those is where they stored the jugs of moonshine.

There was a sawmill near the house. They’d haul out lumber and had toe sacks (potato sacks) filled with straw for the workers to sit. They’d throw them in the yard. My mother would put half gallons of moonshine in those sacks. The workers would haul the sacks on the trucks with the lumber. She’d get the money from the sacks. That’s how they made a living in the mountains.

They got tired makin’ moonshine in the basement, so they’d put us kids to bed early and decided to make it upstairs using the fireplace. It blew up! My mother was burnt. She went to the doctor the next day. He told her the sparks from the fireplace caused it. She didn’t tell him what they were doing. We didn’t know this until we were much older. We never knew while they were doing this. That’s why my daddy was getting drunk. When your daddy was living we went up toward Relief, but couldn’t get to the back roads that would lead us there.

At Christmastime my daddy would ride the horse to Bakersville to buy Christmas. He’d buy stick candy, fruit. That was one Christmas. I can remember one time my daddy bought my sister and I a doll. We went barefoot in the wintertime. We were happy to get shoes for Christmas. When we wanted a doll, we’d make our own with tied rags and charcoal for eyes. We didn’t have toys.

They’d grow late cabbage. They’d dig a ridge and bury the cabbage heads leaving the roots sticking up. We’d have cabbage all winter. They’d dig holes with straw in them and keep potatoes that way. We’d have Hanover potatoes for all winter. We’d eat birds. My daddy would catch them in a trap, and my mother would cook them in a big iron pot over the wood stove. We’d have gravy from that. They called them snowbirds. We ate a lot of wild meat...like groundhogs, squirrels, rabbits. There were none of the disease back then in those animals. They’d kill sheep, too. They called it “Mutton” meat.

Love Always,



Blogger denzylle said...

Fascinating, as always, Kevin.

I'm very fond of oral history, much more so than of history as taught in schools, altho' I guess you have to have the context to set behind the social history.

It's also interesting that rural life in the US was not that different to rural life in the UK at that time, which I'm more familiar with. Different ancestry, different 'wild game', but, essentially, the same hard life that is so alien to what we know now even tho' it's only two generations back.

3:21 AM  
Anonymous joe positive said...

Thank you.


3:59 AM  
Blogger Columbus Foodie said...

So cool that you have that to remember your grandmother by. I was thinking a while ago about how so much of our family dies with them - family history, recipes, life experiences, etc. And too often, people forget to stop passing it down. Even now, I see family pictures where I have no idea who half the people are and will never know. I think that's part of the reason that I write so much about my great-grandmother, too - so if I were to die, at least part of her would live on through my blog. If it's any consolation, I miss my grandmother too. She died about the same time yours did.

10:44 AM  
Blogger Heather said...

Hi Kevin,

I found that really moving and I like the photos of your grandmother.

1:14 PM  
Anonymous Sean said...

Touching, sweet and poignant. I'm forwarding this on to DPaul; I think he will find it interesting and find similarities with his own grandparents and extended kin.

2:24 PM  
Blogger corkdork said...

Stunning, Kevin. Thanks for giving us a glimpse of the true deep South. Corkdork

4:26 PM  
Blogger Molly said...

Thanks for sharing that.

1:02 PM  

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