APPALACHIAN DAYS WRITING CONTEST
Once upon a time back in the fall of 1990, I came from Florida to Appalachia, where I had also been an immigrant, to teach at Prestonsburg Community College. In the most often used terms, I was “not from around here,” my wife was a “brought in,” and my son, well, time would tell.
We settled along a place called Little Paint and immediately were cautiously invited into a local clan known as the Howards. We had an adopted father and mother, a set of brothers, sisters, cousins, and all sorts of assorted other folk who had land that stretched quite a bit along each side and up into the mountains along the creek that ran right in front of our place and then through the center of the holler. This story tells the tale of one of the oldest of the Howards: Alta Mae, who was mother to our adopted father, Reuben Clay, and his brother Harold. Harold actually lived in Martin County, but he visited his momma daily, as did Reuben Clay. Reuben Clay lived next to his momma, with a large garden between them. On the other side of her house lived her older aunt who was also her sister-in-law.
The important part of this story is to share that Alta Mae was the teller of all the history of this family, shared from the time we arrived until we knew enough to be fluid in the family. We gardened, babysat, as well as being babysat, visited, went to funerals, weddings and all the things that families do together.
Now Alta Mae from the very beginning took a shine to my missus, and those two became right friendly and their relationship kinda followed the ways of grandmother and granddaughter. My wife would visit her often at her small and slowly dilapidating and collapsing house. When you visited that house, you felt like you had entered the beginning of all time and were careful where you stepped because at times you could almost feel it collapsing inward. It was small but basic. She had birthed her babies in that house and cared for her children and her grandchildren in that house. It was a place that always smelled of something cooking or being prepared to be cooked, and it seemed like every time you knocked on the back door she would come wiping her mouth on her sleeve or wiping her mouth with her hand while coming directly toward you with a hug as she said, “Where you been gone so long, child?” To her, everyone was a child, and she was the keeper of that title until she left the Paint to die years later, but that’s another story, that kinda starts with the story I’m settling in to tell you.
When she wasn’t in her house, she was mostly outside working with her flowers and roses or tending to something in her gardens. She grew everything and had grown everything at some time, and she would point to places all around the holler and tell you that that’s where the beans used to be or where the animals were kept; one thing or another of a time long ago and now beginning to pass from her and her memory as girl, bride, mother, and just Alta Mae.
I always enjoyed listening to her tell of going up and over the mountain to visit her mommy at her homeplace on the other side of the mountain, which she did on a daily basis. Arthur had been the mailman when they married and he rode a mule through the creek to distribute the mail to everyone along the Paint.
I also enjoyed hearing her stories about her childhood in a family that never stopped having babies, and she, being the oldest daughter, had the responsibility for helping to care for them. She said she always had a baby on one hip or the other and she would tell of begging her mommy to “please stop having any more babies.”
No matter what bit of history or story she would share with you, it was teaching the history of this place that I was slowly coming to know, enveloping me in the culture and ways of the mountains. It was as if I needed to know all this, sure as it might be on some as yet undelivered test, to see if we could belong, maybe even somehow succeed, since we were “not being from around here.” Once I even tried to calculate that if I survived that test and if my son married a local girl and they had kids, and their kids had kids and once more, that maybe then, my wife and I finally might be from around here; that would be as special as the ending of this story.
Anyway, this story is trying to get you back to Alta Mae’s house. It was about five years after we came to the Paint that Alta Mae’s aunt and sister-in-law passed, leaving available the doublewide trailer in which she had lived until the end. It was shortly after this that her sons decided to move Alta Mae into that trailer, as it was safer, cleaner, newer, and was not collapsing onto itself. I remember one time standing and talking with Alta Mae and swarms of termites were coming almost from everywhere in that old house, but she just kept talking about the beans being almost ready to pick and can. She was not at all interested in moving to that trailer and fought them as long as she could. Taking Alta Mae out of that house was like taking away a part of her. From the time she married Arthur, her life had been in that house, and she was not willing to give up all that was com forting to her. It was her past and it held her memories of her life with Arthur. With time, the brothers got her declaratively moved and settled into that trailer. She never complained, but you just knew that she had wanted to live the rest of her life and die in that house with all its memories and love and everything that she held important.
Anyway, we are getting closer to what happened when the boys decided to burn and bulldoze that house back into the earth, like a cremated and buried human being. Though neither mentioned it, somehow you knew that despite their rationalizations about safety and the like, a part of them was also dying that day. You could feel that unstated funeral take place, as from out our back door we saw smoke rising where Alta Mae’s house once stood. There had been no proclamation that the burning and dozing was coming; it just happened. My wife, son, and I bundled up on that early spring day, with a slight mist falling, to watch the smoke rising and billowing, the boys busy tending and containing the fire. Alta Mae was nowhere to be found — just the robins singing the funeral song and the budding of the apple blossoms on the tree down along the road in front of her house serving as roses on a casket. We stood and quietly reflected on a time and place slowly passing before our minds and through our lives, as immigrants within this family and holler. We were a mixture of anger and sadness, confusion and disbelief, and all the things that can’t be described in words but that make tears stream slowly down your cheek, into the falling mist and mingled with what came to embody Appalachia to us.
When the fire ceased and every memory of that house had been bull dozed even and smooth, the earth began to reclaim that human space and the strangest thing began to happen, as if Alta Mae had left something cooking on that old stove in her kitchen.
Amongst the early weeds that fought for space in that fresh and lonely patch of land, small flowers, mostly petunias and other small annuals, began to grow and populate that ground, growing higher and higher into the space where once stood that house. The perfect outline of her house held the wondrous site of flowers. We and others began to say that the angels had come and brought them as tribute to Alta Mae. People came to see the magical flowers, taking pictures, letting little children run in and among them.
Sometimes Alta Mae would just wander in them, with a beautiful smile upon her face.
I always believe it was angels that deposited those flower seeds on the grave of that house, repaying her for her sacred duties done day by day, month by month, and year by year in the holler called Little Paint, in the land of Appalachia. I still to this day have some of the seeds from those magical flowers that bloomed that summer, and my wife treasures a picture of Alta Mae dancing in her flowers on a beautiful warm afternoon.
What I got to experience as an immigrant to Appalachia was one of the mountains’ many magical and mystical happenings. Now in my 23rd year as an immigrant, I can set a person down beside me after saying in a Chicago accent, “Where you been gone so long, child,” and tell them a bit of what I have been privileged to have learned, that they have perhaps never seen, nor will see, or have just forgotten.
Alta Mae was born May 20, 1910, and died in a nursing home of old age and dementia at 12:20 a.m. on May 22, 2000, two days after her 90th birthday. That’s the day she went to heaven to be among the angels, and the day this year that I shall plant a few of those flower seeds in a pot in my yard so the angels come to see how my wife and I are doing in our immigrant life here in Appalachia.
I am sorry to say that time has also taken Reuben Clay and his brother, Harold. I’m sure they are with Alta Mae in heaven, stopping every day to visit with their momma, as she is with her mommy.