Sunday, December 17, 2006

I'll Fly Away


The land her family used to own is now a wide, smooth lake that rolls up its shores each winter. In the summer, the TVA lets the water flow in and the banks of mud are once more serene stretches of liquid. You can still see the road that went through that once lovely farmland in the winter. They left the grain silos and only those peek out of the water during the summer. It's called Dutch Bottoms.

You have to be careful about waterfront property in Tennessee. Half the year, your lakefront home looks out onto vistas of mud.

Her grand daddy was advised to move "high up" for his health. It was just in time, for the TVA was taking over the land to make Douglas Lake. They bought most of Hall Top Mountain and the clan moved there. Most of that land is out of the family now, but they still have a huge reunion up there each year.

Her father met her mother while walking down the Old Fifteenth with his fiddle strapped on his back on his way to a revival meeting. She was doing the laundry on a big rock in the stream. That rock is still there. They began meeting there on a regular basis, but she was forbidden to see boys, so it was on the quiet. They decided to run away together and on the next laundry day, her mother wore her good clothes under her laundry smock and they ran off to Clayton, Georgia and got hitched.

Her family moved around a good bit, her father chasing jobs in the cotton mills of South Carolina, before coming back to the mountain. He was a stern and unforgiving man. He had spent his youth wildly, playing his fiddle at dances and frequenting gospel meetings. It was perhaps his youthful experiences that made him so very strict with his daughters. A hard man to love well. He was cruel at times. She wonders if he'll be there in the afterlife.

Once, she wore a new pair of shoes to church. It was a five mile walk and her feet were raw. She had been forbidden to accept rides from boys, but just this once she did, since she could barely walk. Her father beat her within an inch of her life for that transgression.

The last time he beat her, she swore she'd kill him if he touched her again. He didn't and she left her home to go out in the world.

When she was growing up in that stern household, they lived on a farm on what is now Coggins road. They just tore the old farmhouse down. Often she'd comment on what a pretty farm her daddy had over there with the land all cleared and whatnot. The new people hadn't kept the place up in her eyes. They had a penchant for saving old machinery and cars and the stretch of road that her family once lived on was now decorated with hundreds…maybe thousands…of junk automobiles.

That family has an interesting story. Their daddy was a scout for geological surveyors up here in these hills. It was said that he knew where all of the rich mineral deposits were, hidden beneath the shifting stone of the hills. He couldn't read but he could dowse for minerals with eerie proficiency. My neighbors told me that there was a story that when the old man died, he had stored all sorts of gem stones in the junk cars. So the boys had to be careful what they threw away since their inheritance was hidden in old engine blocks.

The men of this family have a curse. They all die young at exactly the same age. At least most of them. Enough to make the men nervous.

She remembers the nights spent in that old house. She remembered waking up in the middle of the night as a child screaming. Huge Norway rats infested the farmhouse when they first moved in and they'd often awaken to find rat bites on their faces and necks. She has an uneasy relationship with the wildlife up here. She is terrified of snakes after having come across a nest of them mating in the creek. She says there were hundreds of the things intertwined there in the water. She still has nightmares about them.

Life was hard here, but the memories are now softened with time. In deep winter her father would wrap all of the children's legs in burlap sacks for the three mile trudge through the snow, crossing frozen creeks, to the school house. They didn't have a way to take the burlap off and would have to wear the sacks all through the school day.

The delicious freedom she experienced when she left home to work in the Magnavox factory in Greeneville was short-lived, but she traded it for the life she has had all these years, with the man she loved. They raised five strong children and farmed. It was a good life.

Her husband died nine years ago. She recalls the winter night he passed with clarity and tears up as she speaks of it. She still keeps his name on her door and her phone listing still bears his name. It's very much like he is still living at times when she speaks of him.

They had a wood stove for heat at that time. The night was wickedly cold and bitter and he was loading the stove with firewood.

As he placed crammed too many "night logs" in the firebox, she chided him about it.

"You best not be doin' that," she said, "You're gonna drive us out of the house and then where would we go?"

He wisecracked at her as he often did, "Guess I'd better find another place to sleep, then."

"Shall I pack your bags fer you?" She cracked back at him.

Her eyes tear up and she says to me, "I weren't being mean, this was just what we always said to each other."

I could so see the easy nature of their relationship. The deep love and level of comfort they had reached with each other during their long lives together.

He had indeed overloaded the stove that night. The creosote jammed the flue and smoke began to billow through the house. He had already gone to bed, leaving her to deal with the mess. She went through the house closing off doorways in an attempt to contain the smoke billowing into the house.

"I guess I should have checked on him, but I didn't." She said, missing him with every breath. Loving him with every single piece of herself.

He died in his sleep during the night.

Sometimes I take her out for a drive and she points out to me the ghosts of the thriving community that once lived here. The mountains are jealous of the land we take for our use. Places that fifty years ago were homesteads are now forest. All that remains of her childhood and young adulthood here are in many cases a teetering stone chimney left on a spot where she once laughed and danced.

I can sense the sadness in her when she points out a stretch of forest and says, "Back whence I was young, that was the prettiest farm with all sorts of beautiful flowers."

Sometimes when we are driving about, she will break into song. Her voice is sweet and melodic and mixed with the dissonances that typify atonal singing up here.

We will wind around the mountain roads singing "I'll Fly Away".

1 Comment:

  1. Velociman said...
    A nice story, Rosie. I call those sentinel chimneys. Seems like they're standing watch over the past lest it be forgotten.

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