A Good Country Woman…a Short Story, but true.

North Carolina Stream, watercolor, Jane Kohut-Bartels, 2006

North Carolina Stream, watercolor, Jane Kohut-Bartels, 2006

I was born and raised in the North country. I came to the South after running away from home, and landed in a totally different culture. I was so ignorant of this region I didn’t bring a coat and the first week of October that first year, the temperature fell to 11 degrees.

I knew nothing about the south. I was fed on stories of the KKK, of lynching, of brutal police with billy clubs and water cannon during the years of integration. This was all we heard from TV news. I remember in the mid 60’s when a tall and exhausted black man came to our front door, quite a ways out into the countryside of New Jersey. He asked my mother to call the police. He had walked from Georgia. She immediately told me to go upstairs and hide in a closet. I was her only daughter and she was no racial liberal. I don’t remember whether she called the police or not, but I hope she did. He didn’t look like he would survive much longer as he sat quietly on the bottom front step. Blacks called Negroes then, were something we never saw much of out in the countryside. Those people were in the cities and this rural area hadn’t changed in over 300 years. Small dairy farmers, corn and soybeans, a river and a long Raritan canal built in the 1830’s was the staple environment of my childhood. The Dutch had moved over the land more than a century before the Revolution and any other color of skin was a rarity.

Years later I met a woman, an old white country woman in the mountains of North Carolina. She made quilts and lived in a three room shack in a pasture surrounded by rolling meadows and ringed by mountains. I remember the water barrel under a tin roof, and I remember her pointing a shotgun out of the door when two of us, a girlfriend and myself, came to see her. I don’t know whether it was proper to call her house a shack: The outsides were covered with tar paper and unskinned logs, the inside with tongue and groove boards. The entire structure rested on piled up stones and you could see through the bottom of the house down the valley. She had an old iron bedstead in one bedroom, with a red and white quilt covering the board wall behind it. She made quilts all around the year and women from Asheville and Atlanta would come and buy them for their boutiques. I doubt she ever got what they were worth, but it was a major part of her living.

Once she recognized my friend, she was friendly enough. It was rare she had visitors and Mary was hungry for news. Living up in the mountains, even if it was in an open meadow with spectacular views on all sides, was a pretty lonely existence for any woman. She had been to Asheville once, taken by her daughter, but she said it was too busy, too many people and she felt lost. There were beautiful mountains in Asheville, too, but she was glad to get home. Other than going down the mountain to the small town that sprung up against the banks of a river, she didn’t travel. Her needs were small, and those trips to the town below her mountain only happened a few times a year.

She boiled coffee in an old coffee pot on a small wood stove, got out canned milk and canned peaches. I had never met a woman like her and listening to her history, her stories, knew the Mary’s of the world were disappearing from the face of the mountains. She was welcoming, interested in what was going on in the world. Her hospitality was heart-felt, and I thought of other isolated cultures I had rubbed up against and recognized the pride she took in making us welcome. Whether the mountains or the deserts, the hospitality was the same.

She had been married, her children moving away for jobs into the cities that had nothing to do with mountain life. Her husband died one winter, there in the cabin with her. She rolled him outside in the deep snow and hiked down the mountain to ‘inform the authorities’. It took her two days to stumble down the mountain and another day for the police to get up to her cabin.
I asked to use her bathroom, not thinking. Mary was a bit embarrassed and said that she used a corner of the ‘barn’ for that business. The barn was an open shed, with a corn crib. Somewhere she had a few milk cows, but they were scattered down the cleared mountain side and would come home of their own accord when dusk fell.

I remember an ill-fitting back door, where she had an enameled basin and some yellow soap on a shelf above the basin. She saved cooking fat and ashes from the woodstove to make that soap. Money was scarce, in spite of her beautiful quilts, and making your own soap was easy enough. She showered under the gush of water from the eaves when it rained. In the winter I imagined she heated water on the woodstove.

It was beautiful out there, looking at the huge sky that would be unhindered by city lights: the stars would be in full possession of the night. Everywhere I looked was the complete isolation only possible in the mountains, now mostly abandoned by people. Land was sold off, or remained unused for generations. I wondered how long Mary would be able to live up there by herself. She looked to be in her early seventies, but it was hard to tell with mountain people. She was a thin old woman, and the winters were rough. I wondered how she managed to heat that woodstove. She said neighbors, men from around the area, would drop off fresh split wood, and this was how it was done up there. People took care of each other when they could. She had some aging chickens and though they were what we now call ‘free range’, she had found their nests and was able to get most of their eggs. I noticed a couple of rabbit skins hanging from the roof. Mary was a pretty good with her old shotgun, but picking the pellets out of the rabbit was a bother. Rabbits and some venison dropped off periodically by far flung neighbors was the meat she ate, but cans of spam were what she liked most. She suffered from the usual lack of dental care so spam didn’t bother her as much as tough meat. It was hard to grow many vegetables as the deer came right up to the cabin and cleaned out her patch. She bartered her quilts and eggs for vegetables and spent the summer months canning on that old wood stove. Years later I canned one summer on an electric stove, but with no air conditioning in the kitchen. You can go faint from the heat.

Mary had no electricity, so she had no refrigeration, except in the winter when she could put food in burlap sacks suspended on the roof. Raccoons were pests and would raid whatever stores she had. She could hear them in the night, climbing the water barrel to get to the sacks, their nails tapping a raccoon Morse code on the tin roof. She said she didn’t mind much, as over the years she had gotten to know generations of them. She would take her broom and go out there and argue with them, they chattering and cursing in raccoon talk. She didn’t mind, because the raccoons sometimes were the only things that talked to her for a month at a time.

It’s been three decades since I visited Mary on her mountain. I’m sure she’s long gone, and I wondered how a woman could survive the isolation of her existence. Her beautiful quilts, patterns passed down from generations of mountain women must have sustained her in the dark and lonely months of winter. She proudly listed the patterns she used: “Wedding Ring”, “Harvest Home”, “Grandma’s Flower Garden” were some of those I remember. But she was an artist, though she wouldn’t have called herself such a pompous name. She delighted in taking those patterns and sewing them with her own variations, as she shyly said. That red and white quilt behind the head stead of her iron bed is what I remember most. Although it was on a white, cotton background, the red swirls and leaves and birds were thickly patterned over its surface. It was a labor of love and must have taken a long time to sew; of course the sewing was all by hand and stuffed with boles of cotton, piece by piece. And done by kerosene light.

Her shotgun gave her a certain security I would imagine, but she faced bears and puma, mountain lions, rattle snakes, copperheads and water moccasins, those thieving raccoons, beasties we have no heart to contemplate, let alone face off.

We are overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of our modern days. Her life was full enough with the struggle just to survive in that cleared mountain meadow. When I think of how overwhelmed Mary would be today, I think of how overwhelmed I am also. Perhaps the solution is far from us, but I like to think that the lessons and memory of Mary gives a peace and an alternative to our existence. It’s out there, and is possible to touch.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2014

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8 Responses to “A Good Country Woman…a Short Story, but true.”

  1. TR Says:

    Hi Jane,
    I enjoy reading your story. I feel like I am there in her ‘shack’. I think Mary’s life illustrates how we come to understand what the essentials are in life. That enough is enough and that is good enough for a peaceful life. What I drew from her life is that she lived with essentials that are not so far from this time. Outside of food and shelter, she maintained human contact, a sense of community with nature and the people she bartered with – knowing that life requires a certain level of interdependency, not total isolation. She also required a level of security and safety – self-protection, she wasn’t naive in her isolation – she was smart to harm herself if harm came her way. The other wonderful aspect of the essentials is that she needed something she loved – quilting. It could be argued that it isn’t essential, however, I would argue that is essential to truly living.

    Thank you for sharing this story, it is inspiring. xxTR

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  2. ladynyo Says:

    Hi TR!

    You expanded my own story into realms that gave me the essence of what Mary’s life was really about: peace and satisfaction and doing something (the quilting) that gave great joy to her life.

    Her quilts stand as examples of true creativity. And she could make a quilt out of any scrape of material, things we would throw away.

    Thank you, TR….for reading this and your comment..I am glad you liked this short story. I wish I knew more Mary’s in todays life. Though Aunt Jean was a wealthy woman, she exhibited some of these same values over the course of her long, long life.

    Love, Jane

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  3. TR Says:

    Hi Jane,
    I believe that, even if we are born/inherited into a situation where we have abundance (i.e. money) we can still have a mindset on living essentially. I think in so many ways connecting with nature helps remind us of that.

    I love the watercolor, you are a beautiful painter. xxTR

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  4. ladynyo Says:

    Dear TR!

    Thank you! That painting was done in NC mountains a couple of years ago…maybe 10 even! LOL! I thought it would go well with the short story.

    You are right: Nature is the foundation of many people’s morals, objectives in life, aspirations for simplicity. And I think it so important that we have a mindset as you said: to live essentially…to see and embrace the things that are truly with substance, and positive.

    Thank you, TR. I’m going to your blog right now. I have missed you marvelous writings over the past few weeks.

    Love, Jane

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  5. czbz Says:

    Wonderful story! I love this story, Jane! What is the meaning of a life? We all experience the frenetic pace of life driven by people striving to make a name for themselves…to leave their mark on the world. And here is Mary who didn’t want to be famous, yet created a life worth remembering. You’ve captured her so perfectly in your story that I can see her in my mind and i can feel the way you must have felt sitting in her home.

    Women’s quilts are precious in my family and I’m pleased to see quilts defined as “art” today, even hanging in museums. In the past, women stitched scraps of fabric together to meet a family’s physical needs for warmth. That was practical. That was expected of her. But some women were driven to add a piece of themselves, a part of her personality in the way she arranged those scraps—achieving a form of elegance and beauty “warming” people’s hearts. It is amazing the beauty women achieved with limited resources!

    I will read this story again. Write some more, please.

    Love
    CZ

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  6. ladynyo Says:

    Hi CZ! Mary was a simple yet compelling woman (with a shotgun and one who knew where to aim).

    You are right; these women made, (kept every scrap of fabric, regardless of size, color or condition) quilts for first practical reasons. Mary’s quilts were beautiful…mostly white cotton as I remember and she added small pieces of fabric to ‘blossom’ the pattern. I remember her using that word. LOL!

    She also embroidered her quilts with colored yarn, and this was also beautiful. She went beyond the common practical to true artistry.

    Rolly May talks about where this creativity comes from: He says it is born in the encounter of opposition (and want, poverty) Mary certainly embraced this wholeheartedly.

    Matthew Fox, in his book “Creativity” says that this is our bond with the Universe…our creativity. It comes naturally from our link with the Divine. I think it comes from our observations of both human behavior and Nature. Regardless, it’s obtainable to all of us when we center down.

    Quilts weren’t a part of our family. My mother claimed that she didn’t know how to sew, didn’t know how to thread a needle. But I think this was an excuse. She never was still enough to enjoy the peace of such an activity…and centering down evokes some of the deepest responses we can manage.

    I am glad that your family honors the work, the artistry of women in their quilts, CZ. This is good and healthy.

    The only problem for Mary was that boutique owners, designers would come and buy her quilts for maybe fifty dollars….and resell them in their stores for thousands. They were truly works of art, but Mary scraped by.

    Love, Jane…and I will write more about the people around me…the ones who aren’t pathologically maimed.

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  7. Caliban's Sister Says:

    Hi Jane, what a wonderful and oddly soothing story (aside from the part about the injured “Negro” and your ever-noncompassionate mother). Mary knew what life was about without the endless complexities of people’s egos. Survival, simplicity, creative work. It does bother me that she sold her quilts for $50 and they were resold for thousands. Capitalism at its truest. But she did it b/c she had to do creative work. Like you. This is a tribute to a woman who lived and probably by now died alone without feeling abandoned by life. How does one live in isolation w/o feeling abandoned by life I wonder? this story helps, it soothes, although it doesn’t really answer the question. A good story should never quite answer the question. xo CS

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  8. ladynyo Says:

    Hi CS….you raise some important questions. Yes, Mary knew what life was about. She lived it at a steady pace, and I think how we live today. We have so much more disruption, inside and outside…and our ‘creativity’ is interrupted by so many things…usually trivial stuff.

    And as to: how does one live in isolation without feeling abandoned by life? Good question. But I think probably that Mary, as she came to the end of her life, was not frantic: perhaps her far flung neighbors were there to ease her into death? That is what happens with mountain people…someone will take on that intimate responsibility because living in isolation, people realize the importance of these things: the issue of hospice, resthomes, hospitalization, just isn’t a factor of life up there. People do for each other because that is what is expected.

    Yes, it’s troublesome that Mary sold her quilts for so little. But money was for survival in ways we wouldn’t understand today.

    I can’t answer any of these questions because my life is so different: isolation is something that we have to carve out of our lives today for that creative impulse. Mary didn’t have a choice…we do.

    Thank you, dear friend of my heart….for reading this and your insightful questions/comment.

    Hugs, Jane

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