“Mountain Woman of North Carolina” from “Memories of a Rotten Childhood”

Kohut-Bartels-LS-3

“Dawn Mallards”, watercolor, Jane Kohut-Bartels, 2008

 

I was going to publish a collection of Short Stories this autumn, but decided to wait.  After publishing 8 books in 10 years, I am tired.  The short story collection would mean more work, and I decided to can it for now.  I want to take the next year to research and write “Tsuki” which is the title of the book that will follow “The Kimono”.  This is 10 years after “The Kimonoand relates the story of the characters and now the children of them.  But it’s only ideas and a few pages written.  But I feel that impulse to write it down over the course of a new year.

However, some do read short stories and I have written enough for a small collection. Most of them are my experiences in the South, and they reflect a life that was totally strange to me.  I have adjusted over the almost 50 years here.  I have met strange and wonderful people in the south and especially in the mountains.  They are definitely a specials breed.  And worth knowing

Jane…

 

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 early 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 the ‘modern’ history of the South and of Blacks. I didn’t know about the homegrown violence of the black community until years later, probably when the news channels reported children killed. Then they took notice..

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. Though I think she didn’t.   He didn’t look like he would survive much longer as he sat quietly on the bottom front step. She did send out a sandwich by my younger brother. 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 by Irish labor, whose graves lined the toll path,  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. She wasn’t being violent, just cautious. 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 in spots, down into 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 almost 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. I’ve done it, and the lye burned up a favorite wooden spoon. She showered under the gush of water from the eaves when it rained. In the winter I imagined she heated water on the woodstove, if she bothered. Up in those mountains of North Carolina, it would be too cold to take a layer of clothes off. Getting naked was another issue.

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 of poor people, 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. 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.

Stars in possession

Of an upturned bowl of night

Mountain valley sleeps.

 

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2018

 

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