Myrtie

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Breakfast fare was always far better. Myrtie had a knack for baking crisp biscuits, perhaps because she used a generous portion of lard. They came from her oven hot, tough, and tasty, something I could get my teeth into, something that went well with thick gravy enriched by crumbled sausage, something that made a perfect companion for spicy apple butter, and something that held up well when cherry preserves were pressed onto their surfaces. Unlike Annie’s biscuit, which were light, fluffy, and baked to suit Lane’s demands for tender bread, Myrtie’s were crunchy, sturdy, and, no doubt, full of trans-fat. They may have had much to do with Myrtie’s rotund physique, but what concern was that to an energetic child who ate them with relish. Simply, they were delicious.” John Idol, Chapter Seven of Deep Gap Days: A Crazy-Quilt Narrative of My Boyhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the book from which these columns are excerpted.

Out to Pastoral

by John Idol

Myrtie Watson.

Myrtie Watson.

She wanted someone to be with her.

The solution came when a rotation system was worked out involving some of Ella’s daughters and a few of Annie’s sons. (There was a brief period when her companion was a young school girl from Elk, an isolated community with a one-room school. The young lass, whose name I can’t recall, needed room and board near Deep Gap Elementary). After school, the grandchild whose turn it was to stay with Myrtie reported in. Then there were chores to do, carrying in wood for the fireplace or cook-stove, helping to gather apples, fetching in pails of water from the spring-house, cleaning ashes from the hearth or cook-stove, or anything else that needed doing. We sometimes found ourselves picking cherries, rambling through distant fields in search of black- or blueberries, digging up potatoes, or slicing apples for drying. Myrtie kept us busy until suppertime.

Her suppers were never fancy. She often put canned green beans, creamed or mashed potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce in season, cornbread and milk before us. She sometimes had small portions of pork tenderloin and pieces of chicken left over from Sunday dinner. Sometimes, we had only cornbread and milk, which we ate by crumbling the bread into a glass of spring-cooled milk and mixing in, according to our tastes, black pepper or molasses. This mixture was filling but woefully short of body-building and strength-sustaining protein. Nonetheless, we ate it with gusto, especially during the times we sweetened the mixture with molasses.

Breakfast fare was always far better. Myrtie had a knack for baking crisp biscuits, perhaps because she used a generous portion of lard. They came from her oven hot, tough, and tasty, something I could get my teeth into, something that went well with thick gravy enriched by crumbled sausage, something that made a perfect companion for spicy apple butter, and something that held up well when cherry preserves were pressed onto their surfaces. Unlike Annie’s biscuit, which were light, fluffy, and baked to suit Lane’s demands for tender bread, Myrtie’s were crunchy, sturdy, and, no doubt, full of trans-fat. They may have had much to do with Myrtie’s rotund physique, but what concern was that to an energetic child who ate them with relish. Simply, they were delicious.

After supper dishes were cleared away and fresh logs placed on the hearth in cool or cold weather, I sat with Myrtie before a crackling fire and worked on my spelling lesson. She had excelled in spelling during the years of her formal schooling and loved “giving out” words to see how I was doing. She’d not been able to go to school beyond the fourth or fifth grade, but she had always done well in spelling, she said, and was eager to help me get the hang of it, fixing on sounds and syllables to show me how to take a word apart and put it back together. She taught me to listen, to think, and to use words in sentences.

And she was proud of me when I brought back papers with good or perfect scores. For my reading lessons, I turned to her for help with new or big words. She was a patient mentor. But lessons were only part of our activities before bedtime.

In the late afternoon, we gathered beside her radio to listen to a group called the Briarhoppers, country music singers featured on a program broadcast by WBT in Charlotte. Their talents and interests led to a mix of traditional English and American ballads—“Bonnie Barbara Allen,” “Froggy Went a-Courtin,’” “Old Joe Clark,” and “Buffalo Gals” along with favorites of the day, latest hits in country music. She also enjoyed listening to music programs coming out of WCKY in Cincinnati during weeknights and WSM from Nashville on Saturdays. Her small table-model radio, in the days before airways jammed with all sorts of local stations made tuning tough, pulled in these clear-channel stations with ease and filled our ears with country music—Ernie Tubbs, Eddie Arnold, Little Jimmy Dickens,Grandpa Jones, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, and Ernie Ford, among others. She sometimes grinned at the antics of Homer and Jethroe, but I never saw any sign of amused response to Minnie Pearl.

 

WBT’s Briarhoppers.

WBT’s Briarhoppers.

Myrtie was one of the most solemn persons I’ve ever known, a match in that demeanor to my other grandmother, Nancy. Minnie was too cornpone for Myrtie, too flamboyant, too loud. Myrtie always appeared glad when Minnie’s monologue ended. I can’t say that I was, for I found Minnie’s cast of characters a crackpot lot, capable of ludicrous behavior. Her country  bumpkins were, I now know, a clownishly portrayed cross-section of rural America, but they seemed vividly alive and close kin to a few people I knew in Deep Gap.

Soon after breakfast was over, Myrtie took up her can of snuff. Unlike Nancy, also a snuff user, Myrtie didn’t use a brush for dipping. Nancy took twigs of birch, chewed the ends of them into small brushes, and then dipped the brush into her snuff. Myrtie used her right thumb and index finger to lift pinches of snuff to the inside of her lower lip. Her lips and teeth grew dark as she filled the oral cavity reserved for her nicotine rush. She kept a spittoon nearby, using it discreetly and often, for she didn’t like an ugly brown stain to run from her lip down her chin. Except at mealtime or for church services, she dipped snuff all day, putting away her jar of snuff when she went to bed.

Getting ready for bed meant more than stashing away her jar of snuff and turning off the radio. The fire in the hearth had to be banked, all the doors locked, all curtains closed. These parts of her ritual over, she took up her bible and read passages of scripture, her favorite books being Ecclesiastes or

Psalms. Then she closed her bible and stepped to the side of her bed, where she knelt and prayed, an unvoiced prayer, a short prayer, a communion that seemed to nourish her soul.

She believed in spiritual nourishment and encouraged me, and doubtless my brothers and cousins, to pray before seeking the warmth and comfort of a single bed set up for her companion grandchild in the lean-to behind her combination living room/ bedroom. Pray I did, the earliest one being the familiar “Now I lay me down to sleep.” Later, she had the tact to let me utter an unvoiced prayer, one that usually urged God to let Uncle Alfred return safely.

She wrote Alfred frequently and, one night, suggested that he would enjoy a letter from me. I’m sure my letter began in the way childish epistles often start: How are you? Fine, I hope. I am OK. What are you doing? I am going to school. Do you like the army? Grandmother is doing good. Mother and my brothers are doing good, too. Write soon. Your nephew, Johnny. 

I was delighted, some weeks later, to get a letter from Alfred. He was stationed in Hawaii at the time and sent me a dollar bill, with the word “Hawaii” stamped in black upon it. Seeing the dollar, I felt as rich as King Midas, for I’d never had that much money to call my own. Reality soon shoved excitement aside as I pondered whether the bill would be accepted by stores in Deep Gap. I both wanted to save the bill and to spend it, to put it away for safekeeping or splurge, treating my brothers to sodas and ice cream, buying up a stash of candy bars that I could nibble on secretly.

The author as a sixth-grader.

The author as a sixth-grader.

At this distant date, I honestly can’t remember when, where, or how I spent my fortune. It may well have gone for two books I ordered from the Sears Roebuck catalogue—a book by Zane Grey and one by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I was pretty big on Westerns and Tarzan at the time. I do recall that the first book I ever bought was a Zane Grey Western. Meanwhile, back at Myrtie’s . . . .

On Sundays, after returning from services at Laurel Springs Baptist Church and eating a Spartan lunch, Myrtie took a chair on her front porch (or sometimes sat on a blanket or quilt closer to US 421) and invited her grandchildren, singly or jointly, to help her count the cars passing by. This game was never one played in winter, but in spring, summer, and fall, we kept tallies almost religiously. The game was not simply one of numbers, though we knew exactly how many passed on a particular Sunday: rather, we noted make and model, what state the car was from, and whether the car had a foreign tag.

Keeping up with the flow of traffic in summer was a challenge, since cars poured off the Blue Ridge Parkway east of where we were posted and drove to a point near Boone before leaving a long stretch of 421 to get back on the Parkway. (It would be many years before the stretch of the Parkway ending in Deep Gap would join the stretch already completed in Bamboo.) Thus, we could hope to log cars from New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, or other states as we studied tags on each passing car. If there was a lesson to be learned from all this counting, it surely was that Myrtie invited us to envision a world larger than North Carolina, to imagine a nation made up of people who found joy in seeking out a quiet, lovely, and lonely part of backwoods America. We counted many cars from

neighboring states, Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia, but very few from states west of the Mississippi. When we spotted a car from a far-off state, We’d cry out, “Oh, here’s one from Kansas!” or “”Here’s one from Arizona!” We filled many a Sunday afternoon with Myrtie spotting and counting.

But we didn’t always count and spot with her. Sometimes we joined forces with Brook and Kent Greer on the embankment where we’d conversed with army troops and counted, but in a little more sophisticated way. We tried to be more exacting in identifying model years, no easy task since changes in trimming, shape, and equipment were minor in those from year to year, after a major stylistic change had taken place. Identifications could be challenged. “That’s not a ’46 Hudson,” Brook might say. “I know because hubcaps were larger in ’46.” We prided ourselves in knowing what marked the differences in model years.

Such minor details had no appeal for Myrtie. Her main concern was getting the number right.

Myrtie had no car of her own. Unless she was lucky to catch a ride with a neighbor, she walked nearly everywhere she went. She did most of her shopping at Deep Gap Cash Store. Fruits, vegetables, meat she didn’t have to buy, her garden providing the first two and her work during hog-killing time helping to trim fat for lard and sliced pieces to be ground into sausage earned her a few cans of pork or a bucket of lard. During the cherry season, she joined in picking, seeding, and making jellies and preserves. When apples were ready to harvest, she helped peel, slice, and ready the slices for drying. These dried apples proved to be good snacks or the prime source of apple cobblers or pies when winter came.

Behind her kitchen stove, she hung onions and peppers to dry, removing one or more when a recipe called for such a vegetable. Her trips to the store thus meant the purchase of such staples as salt, pepper, and sugar, unless she was in the midst of canning and preserving season. And, of course, she couldn’t come away from the store without a new jar of snuff.

The Christmas season added another item to her shopping list—chocolate-covered cherries. She loved them, so much so in fact that she willingly spat out her snuff and ate one herself as she shared this Christmas treat. Her sweet-tooth was a match for any her grandchildren sported.

To make sure we had goodies to munch on, she baked sugar-coated cookies, sometimes serving them hot from the oven, sometimes reaching for her cookie jar and pulling one out. They were crunchy, cracker-like in their firmness, probably from her use of lard rather than Crisco or something like it. Ours was not to reason why but simply to enjoy and say “Thank you.”

If I took my turn of staying with her on a Saturday night, I did my “bird-bath” before the hearth as she bathed behind a closed door in the kitchen. She emerged from her bath wearing a long, white flannel nightgown, the knot of hair she wore at the back of her head unwound and falling, in streaks of salt and pepper, to her waist. When she arose on Sunday morning, she rolled her hair into a knot again, securing it with long hairpins. It remained in a knot all week. Seeing her with her hair down, still curling from her recent shampoo of it, seemed to transform her into a character from an earlier time, perhaps as early as the Middle Ages. The solemn matron seemed younger, more likely to have a lovelorn knight rap at her chamber door. Had she been aware of my flights of fancy, I’m sure she would have told me to cut out all that foolish fantasizing. But such was the imaginative life of a grandson as mesmerized by Walter Scott as Zane Grey. In her pragmatic, solemn approach to life, chores had to be done, bread must be earned, and daydreaming given the boot.

In short, she was a no-nonsense kind of woman, schooled in hard knocks, resilient, embarrassed that she had so little to call her own, sad that she held no title to a house, reduced in her final years, before being placed in a rest home in Blowing Rock, to the status of a wandering gypsy, going from the home of one child to another, finding refuge in a house that a child or kinsman no longer occupied. But she endured, she prevailed, and she repeatedly showed that she had a vein of iron.

That vein of iron quickly turned to jelly when strong winds roared down US 421 from Boone and points west. Myrtie was scared of high winds, beginning to fret at the first whistle of wind through the unpainted clapboard of Jerry’s house. If she could, she would leave the house and head for Annie’s home, which sat beneath a knoll and featured a windbreak of a double row of white pines that Lane set out on the leeward side of his house. Protected as it was from the strongest gusts of wind, Annie’s house was largely free of the swaying, creaking, and popping that went on in Jerry’s house when gusts swept into it.

Fret turned to action if winds began to howl. “Come, Johnny,” Myrtie said, “we must get over to your mother’s place before these winds get stronger.” I’m sure she must have spoken the same words to my siblings or cousins if strong winds came up during their turns of being her companion. Why she was so afraid of high winds we never learned. We only knew that she cowered before them, growing sick with worry if she couldn’t find a safe haven.

Typical of the lot of women in the early part of the 20th century, Myrtie had had mostly on-the-job training as mother and housekeeper. Jerry’s untimely death left her unprepared to manage the country store that provided the family with a steady, reliable income. At Jerry’s death, she had nine children to support and nourish, the oldest, Zella, 16, the youngest, Alfred, a babe in arms. She turned the operation of the store over to a younger brother, Herman, no better trained in running

a store than she, and the business soon utterly collapsed. The doors of the store were closed and eventually the building became the property of Raleigh Greer, who turned it into a dwelling place

for him and his family.

Lacking means to support her large family, Myrtie was forced to accept its splintering. Zella and

Mary went to Kansas to live with Alice, a daughter from Jerry’s first marriage. Sons Joseph and Max went to Ohio to live with kin who’d settled in Coshocton. Ella, Annie, Ted, Josephine, and Alfred remained with her. Myrtie’s marriage to Armfield Waters, who had a large family without a mother, put additional pressure on her to care for his younger children.

Armfield’s death split apart her second family. An older daughter, Hazel, had married and settled in the mill town of Kannapolis. She was able to provide a home for her brother Herman and sister, Rose. Vernon struck out on his own for California. The youngest child, John, ended up in an orphanage in Winston-Salem after living for a time with Rufus and Nancy.

In my infancy, I was taken for visits in a house Armfield had rented some 500 yards west of Jerry’s place on US 421. Those visits brought some anxiety into my life when, upon being tested for TB in the first grade, I learned that the results were positive. That meant I’d undergo chest X-rays for many years, until around age 15, when the Watauga County Health Department deemed my case unworrisome. Over the years, the small red spot marking me as a potential victim of TB faded, and my anxiety along with it. (Surprisingly, when I had to undergo a test for admission to a retirement center, I tested positive again—in 2010. My doctor decided that I was at low risk for an outbreak.)

On one of the nights when radio reception was poor, probably during while a thunderstorm banged and boomed its way across Deep Gap, Myrtie told me about what folks did before radios entered their lives. “We liked to set around and tell ghos’ stories,’’ she said, “to entertain ourselves. We made them as scary as we could, and mos’ of us took ‘em with a grain of salt, and chuckled over ‘em. But there was one man amongst us that was afraid of ghos’s. He really believed in ‘em. Some of the younguns knowed of his fear and decided to play a trick on ‘im. Before he lef’ the house and headed home, three of ‘em plotted their trick. They’d space theirselves along his path home and scream like painters (panthers) as he went by. Well, they done as they planned. He walked a short distance and then he heard a painter roar. He sped up and hurried toward home, only to hear a second painter roar at ‘im. Then he broke into a run, or close to one, for he was too old to get around fas’. When he was almost home, the third painter let out a scream. And when them tricksters come back to report on his fright, they said he’d cried out, “‘Come git me, painter, I ain’t runnin’ no more!’”

She chuckled as she ended the tale. “We did talk in those days, mos’ly on the porch as evening turned to night or Sundays left us without work to do in fields. It wasn’t jus’ ghos’ stories, either. It was a time to tell who was kin to who in Deep Gap or Stoney Fork, or who could do this that or the other, like your Great Granddad Miller, who wove baskets and shod horses.

Sometimes, it was news about somethin’ happenin’ in the state or nation. Sometimes, it was about the new preacher and how he was a-doin’. I really forgit what all we talked about, but it was always worth listenin’ to, a time of bein’ together, I reckon. Oh, for sure we talked about the weather and the crops, hot spells, dry spells, early frosts, and who we could git to plow the garden. Usually, your Papa Idol, Rufus, plowed it.”

To be continued . . . .

Deep Gap Days: A Crazy-Quilt Narrative of My Boyhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains

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About John Idol

John Idol grew up in the Blue Ridge, attended Appalachian State University, served as an electronics technician in the United States Air Force, and took his advanced degrees in English at the University of Arkansas. He spent most of his years as a teacher at Clemson University, and held positions as president of the Thomas Wolfe Society, the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society (for which he served as editor of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Review), and the Society for the Study of Southern Literature. His books include studies of Wolfe, Hawthorne, and a family history, Blue Ridge Heritage. In retirement in Hillsborough, North Carolina, he takes delight in raising daffodils and ferns, and in promoting libraries. Idol hopes one day to awake to find that all parasitic deer and squirrels have wandered off with Dr. Doolittle. Author Photo: Lindsay K. Apple
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