Mammaw is on the right of the featured image above. She is snapping beans, no doubt to dry them and make her famous shucky beans.
“Every gray hair she had looked like a corn silk” -Mom.
Every couple weeks, I go out to the balcony, sit back with some red wine, watch the absolutely great shimmering cedars wave in the wind nearby, and call Mom. I like talking with my mother, not only to keep in touch but to learn more about our history. I’ve learned a great number of things from her and keep encouraging her to write it all down. At one point, she had started a memoir. I found it in when I was a teenager, and was engrossed. I said, “Mom! What happened next?” And she said she would write more, but never did.
The memoir started with how her mother and daddy met in the Appalachian Mountains, long ago. Both my mammaw and pappaw died young. I think they were only in their sixties when they passed away. Pappaw worked in the coal mines all his life, and smoked. He had a heart attack, but then quit smoking and had to cut salt from his diet. I still remember him complaining about the unsalted cornbread. He got a cleaner bill of health, but then Mammaw developed breast cancer and eventually died. He died one month later–we think from heartbreak.
I remember some things about Mammaw. I was so young, and she had a warm voice but was not as good as Pappaw at sitting down with us children. She was always cooking or cleaning or sipping sweet tea with our moms. I was Pappaw’s shadow. I liked being outside, and he did too. I’d sit with him out on their old-timey front porch as he told my stories about the mountains, trees, rivers, animals, and plants. These thoughts crowd my memory, but fickly, like winds rushing by.
I credit Pappaw to my early learning and subsequent awe of nature. He knew all there was about his landscape. He and Mammaw lived off the land, and raised their own chickens and crops. He also helped to build their house and do the plumbing and electrical work. They never had a car, and got to town by hitching rides, walking, or on horse. I don’t believe either of them had educations past the sixth grade. They had different a different kind of wisdom that was wholly connected to the mountains, and I always admired that. They also taught themselves the way of the world, and Mom told me that Pappaw helped one of his other daughters in calculus while in college. I was only twelve or so when they died, but it’s odd how they last in memory so strongly. We spent every holiday there and a portion of every summer. It’s where my cousins and I developed life-long relationships and where I got a real sense of southern culture, the best being food of course. I have never since tasted apple cake, shucky beans, or fried chicken the way my mammaw did it. And, trust me, the younger generation is always trying to perfect these dishes.
In a recent conversation with Mom, she told me about her mother: “Every gray hair she had looked like a corn silk.” And I will never forget that phrase. Mammaw’s hair started falling out after chemo, and she wore a wig then. Mom said at her funeral, she had a wig and some of the old ladies thought it was too modern and crude. One of her uncles told those hens to shut up if they knew what was good for them.
Mom says Mammaw had not a wrinkle in her face, and that’s why my own mother looks so young too. Though Mammaw was a bigger woman, Pappaw was thin, muscular, and had deep olive skin. Both their relatives hailed from Ireland and Scotland. Mammaw’s ancestry began in northern Ireland, and someone at ancestry.com created a tree with my pappaw’s patrilineal side, going back to Donegal, Ireland in the sixteenth century. Kudos to someone for finding that info. I thought it was fascinating. The Irish either went to England then to the states, or straight to the states starting about in the 18th century. Generally they settled in Virginia, and in the case of my relatives moved to Kentucky.
You’ll find my grandparents in two of my novels: Back to the Garden and Up the River. Note that Garden is in the process of being republished and Up the River is not out yet. I like planting memories in stories and paying homage to folks I loved and who loved me.
I write about people who have passed on in the same way I write, in fiction, about the world changing and how things become lost in time. I’m reading Marian Womack’s Lost Objects, and wow, I’m in love with yet another story. It’s true though. Every one of us gets to a point in life that we miss people who are gone. Doesn’t matter if we’re young or old, most of us have experienced death. To zoom out and look at the bigger picture, the world itself–on a planetary scale–we’re experiencing more losses than ever before. I feel like sometimes I just float through time, seeing people and things and places rush past me like ghosts. I feel that Womack’s new book is a beautiful eulogy to our world. It’s got some weird fiction too, which isn’t just fiction to me, it’s the way I make sense of things sometimes, the way I think.
When my pappaw and mammaw died, the back hills Appalachian tradition was to have an all-night wake to honor the dead. The adults would stay up all night and make food and have the body laid out among them. I never could stay up the whole night–neither could my cousins. I have dreams about smoothing a damp washcloth across Mammaw’s body, to clean it, at her wake. Maybe I saw my mother or one of my aunts doing this at one point. The dream is haunting. It speaks of respectful good byes and lingering one last moment to honor a person.
As we eulogize people we love, memories, this planet Earth, life goes on and we whisper by. I have been hiking more and even getting some jogs in. I am totally looking forward to the autumn when I run near whirling leaves and imagine them as spirits of loves gone by.