Granny found joy in the simple things. In a Ralph Stanley cassette tape playing while she swept the house. In a neighbor stopping by for a short visit. In helping a granddaughter get a new pet. She celebrated each moment that stood out against the backdrop of challenge and struggle.
Housework filled Granny's days. Without indoor plumbing, she had to travel back and forth to the well to get water for tasks like washing dishes and doing laundry. The wood-fired stove that she cooked on was cantankerous, and it was hard to keep it from getting too hot and burning the food. The house was heated by a single coal stove. In the winter, Granny sometimes woke up before four o'clock to stoke the fire.
By the early 1990s, hard work was the usual for Granny. From the time she was a child growing up on a farm, she was expected to help out in the fields and the house. There was little time for fun or rest. Granny never played a sport or went to a friend's house or the movies. She never watched television or had a doll or ate ice cream. Instead, she picked beans, made corn bread, and milked cows. She attended school on and off until she dropped out in the third grade.
Even with her brothers and sisters pitching in, resources were scarce. There were times when she and her six siblings went hungry. The house they lived in—a few miles from Cow Creek—was old, and the single fireplace couldn't keep it adequately heated in the winter. Some mornings she would wake up to find her blanket covered in frost.
Yet somehow she learned to find joy in it all. I know this because I saw it: the way joy always flowed so easily and freely through her. She hummed as she cooked. She danced as she cleaned. She laughed clearly and frequently.
Her joy hid the poverty. I didn't know that the walls of the farmhouse on Cow Creek were made out of cheap particleboard or that having walls made out of particleboard was anything to be ashamed of. I didn't understand that the tin roof was in desperate need of repair. I didn't realize that some kids would turn up their noses at the bologna sandwiches we had for lunch some days. Years later, I would learn that bologna sandwiches had been a rare and expensive treat when Ruth and my mother were growing up, and I would feel bad for taking them for granted.
But it also didn't feel as though we were poor. Granny was generous. She offered anyone passing through Cow Creek a meal or a piece of cake. Once, a man came electioneering, asking Granny for her vote. "Son, you know I can't vote for you," she said mirthfully, "'cause you's a Republican, and I don't mess with that foolishness. But if you come on up to the house I got a piece of pie that you're welcome to." Granny had spent all day working on that pie, a special treat for her family, but this man looked hungry, and Granny wouldn't abide hungry people walking around Cow Creek.
The evening after the frog capture we were watching the old television in the living room. It was finally working again, thanks to Granny's efforts. She had taken it apart and fixed it herself that afternoon. I had watched as she laid out the pieces carefully, her blue eyes squinting as she thought. I doubt a trained television repairman could've done a better job. In my mind, there was nothing Granny couldn't fix.
A few days later, I heard a car rumbling off in the distance, the sound of crunching gravel bouncing off the mountains. I ran down the hill from the house to the road, hoping to make out the color of the car as it rounded the bend. Before I knew it I could feel it: it was my mother. I ran to her as soon as the car stopped.
My mother, Wilma, is beautiful. At that time, she had permed blond hair; strong, tanned legs: and Granny's—her mother's—sparkling eyes. Her speech was fast, accented, carrying the tone and rhythm of the mountains.
In many ways, Wilma took after Granny. She had her same easy smile and her same fiery temper. It would flare quickly, burn brightly, then extinguish as fast as it had arrived. As a child, she fought ferociously with each of her four brothers. She once threw an empty gallon orange-juice container twenty yards while running, to bean her brother Dale in the back of the head. She whacked another brother with a fireplace poker when he messed with her pet cat. She wasn't afraid of a fight.
She was also incredibly kind. When our pet dog went blind, she made sure to keep everything in the house the same so that the dog could find her way around. She cried when the monster died in Godzilla because it pained her to see any living creature suffer. She always told me, "You get more files with honey than vinegar." I would come to see that Wilma embodied the delicate balance of so many mountain women: kind, gentle, firm, unyielding, capable of erupting into fire under the right circumstances.
This excerpt ends on page 12 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book The Shadow of Vesuvius by Daisy Dunn.