Monday, December 11, 2006

Cat Fur Jelly

I fall in love with dead people. It's an unfortunate habit of mine.

Last spring, I made a pilgrimage to visit the graves of two women who had captured my affections, though I'd never met them. If I had only come here a few years earlier, I could have actually met them and spoken with them. To me, this is like visiting the ruins of the great library of Alexandria. I have no idea what treasures they took with them, but I'm sure they had stories to tell me. Almost two hundred years of life experience on these hills lay buried here.

It was early spring and the trilliums were coming up and the water was high in the creek. I wandered around their barn and checked out the ramps patch they had planted. Pulling one up, I tasted the garlicky sweetness of the leaves before starting the long hike up the mountain, with ramps on my breath. The smell of spring here is green, damp and cool. It smells like snow melting up in the Gulf.

I first heard of Martha and Lizie from the Busbee family. They were long-time neighbors of the girls and even the youngsters remember the two fondly. They were twin sisters, spinsters, who lived with each other their entire lives. They were born in 1906, which would have put them at the right age to have attended the mission school where Catherine Marshall's mother, Leonora, taught. I don't know if they actually went to that school, but the conditions here were in keeping to that time period.

This is a harsh environment for a woman to live alone in now. I can only imagine what it must have been like for them, but at least they had each other.

Mrs. Busbee remembers the girls in their prime. They were quite the two beauties. They had long blue-black hair, caramel-colored skin and the light colored eyes that may have pointed to a Melungeon ancestry. She remembers seeing them sitting out on the rocks in the middle of the creek singing and washing their long black hair. I'm reminded of the siren's scene from Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou when I think of them in their youth.

I asked her why they never married. Evidently one of them almost did, but it didn't work out. Neither could stand to leave the other. They were both very devoted to their parents and gave up their lives to care for them. By the time their Daddy died at 102 years of age, the girls were 56 years old. Their mother died six years later at the age of 103. By then the girls were 61 and the days of wine and roses were long past. From what I know of Martha and Lizie, they never considered this a sacrifice.

Their lives were long, but hard. They farmed burley tobacco and their barn still stands on the property. Growing tobacco is brutal work that involves suckering the plants, tying it up on sticks and hanging the crop to dry in a well ventilated barn. The nicotine can enter your bloodstream from your hands as you handle the plants making you sick and headachey. Most everyone here has the experience of working tobacco.

The remnants of their life were still there, scattered about the floor of their cabin. No one had been here in the six years since they died so it had been broken into and animals were using it as shelter. But here and there were little vestiges of their lives. An unwashed tea cup sat by the sink and unwashed dishes were waiting for someone to come along and tidy up. Sun blasted canning jars waiting for summer. And most poignantly, a rack of clothes hanging, waiting for someone to get dressed for church. Untouched. Six years.

Needlework was their passion. They constructed some of the most beautiful quilts known to these parts. In a dreadful miscommunication, some distant relatives in Georgia bragged to their delinquent sons about how there was a fortune in those quilts. The boys thought that meant there was actual money sewed into the skilfully designed and executed quilts. So they made a road trip to rob the old women.

The girls were beaten within an inch of their lives and left for dead by the nephews. The boys ransacked the cabin and stole everything of value. Most tragically, they ripped apart all of Martha and Lizie's quilts looking for the "fortune". The fortune they left shredded in a million pieces all over the floorboards of the cabin.

Luckily, neighbors found the girls and got them to the hospital. The nephews were caught and sent to jail. How betrayed they must have felt by this.

But, by far my favorite remembrance of the girls is the story of the Cat Fur Jelly.

Martha and Lizie were overly fond of cats. No one is really sure how many cats they had. I believe it was over 50 though it's hard to tell here since cats tend to form feral colonies easily. It's possible that even Martha and Lizie didn't know how many cats they had. In their later years, it was said that the girls even smelled of cats. No one said anything since they were so beloved in the community.

A relative from Florida gifted the girls with several crates of citrus fruit one year. It was way too much for the two of them to eat without it going bad. Like everyone in the mountain community, Lizie and Martha canned fruits, vegetables and jams and jellies for the winter months. So, the girls decided to make a big ol' batch of marmalade with all of that beautiful fruit. They put up a gang of jars of the stuff with the fruit in their tiny little kitchen.

Come Christmas, they went around giving gifts of the beautiful orange jam. Everyone was ever so pleased.

Mrs. Busbee was one of the recipients. She held that jar of jam up to the light and it was fairly swimming in cat hair.

I'm sure the girls were never told. Mountain folk are just too kindly to make such a thing known.

It was a long hike up the mountain to their grave site. They were buried in one of those little family graveyards so common here. It seemed that no one had visited here since they were buried in 1999. This made me sad. Everyone is so concerned about keeping the graves tended here. They put "fresh" artificial flowers on the graves each season and think kindly of their dead relatives. Even the graves of the forgotten are tended as long as they are in one of these small cemeteries. But Martha and Lizie were the last of their branch, I suppose.

They even had their own gravestones made before they died. They knew this would be their fate. And I suppose it will be my own one day.

Someone had placed a huge, beautiful conch shell on top of their headstone. I wondered who had done that and what it must have meant. Did they take a trip to the beach once and play in the ocean? Was there some happy memory shared between who left this and the two?

I don't think they mind that in six years, only some stranger has made the trek up the mountain to see them. I hope they know that I only had the best intentions. I need them to be remembered because they truly are beautiful to me.

Sleep tight, sweet girls. I will remember you.


  1. Melanie said...
    What a beautiful, beautiful story.
    Anonymous said...
    Truly, deeply beautiful. Your scholarship, your exquisite taste, and a most delightful introduction to your blog. Where am I? How did I get here?

    Ah well, I shall know as soon as I'm gone: bye now.

    Rosie said...
    What a nice thing to say, JohnieB. Thank you.
    Anonymous said...
    Well shoot, I meant it; you're a good writer. I'm just over here checking on blinkli from TGW; lookin forward to the pictures.

    Rosie said...
    Well, I just realized who you are and I take that as high praise indeed. I love TGW. I've been checking in there since before South Knox Bubba took all his toys and went home. I know I should probably visit other blogs that don't mirror my own leanings as TGW does so that I can at least speak intelligently about them now that I'm no longer tethered to the AP wire. But it's hard for me during this administration to not put my fingers in my ears and scream loudly.

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