Amy Clark teaches at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise where she serves as founding Director of the Appalachian Writing Project. Her work appeared in Motif v2: Come What May, An Anthology of Writings about Chance, 2010. She has also published pieces in Blue Ridge Country Magazine, Now & Then and the Journal of the Virginia Writing Project. Her work has appeared on public radio and her editorials on Appalachia have been syndicated in such newspapers as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Tampa Tribune.
I have a photograph of my great-grandmother sitting on a wicker bench, one long leg tucked and her hands folded loosely into her lap, as if she is ready to catch up on old times. She is young and beautiful in her willowy body, those high cheekbones framed in dark curls. Her pale, sleeveless dress flatters slender arms and a high neck framed in an embroidered, V-neck collar. One long, shapely leg ends in a sexy pump. She has yet to grow into the confident skin and cast iron will that I remember; her shoulders are forward, her lips stubbornly set to hide the smile behind them, and I can imagine that glossy shoe tapping impatiently on the tiled floor as the photographer sets up his camera. This image of her, cast in the dipped-in-molasses tones of the 1920s, is one that I have never seen. I imagine it might have been taken during a visit to help one of her sisters with a new baby or to nurse someone in the family back to health. To venture out of the mountains of Dickenson County on a train away from the watchful eye of her father would have been rare, and caring for a sick family member was the best reason to do it. Maybe a photographer came through the area, as they were known to do back then, offering a photo in exchange for a few cents. Someone talked her into it, convinced her that she was pretty enough to be immortalized on film. Knowing her as I do, getting her to pose on that wicker bench could not have been easy.
Her nickname, after all, was “Buck.”
I am named for this unfamiliar, young, beautiful woman who looks as though she might have been plucked from the streets of a bustling city rather than the top of a ridge named for her grandfather. A winding road and a horse would take you there, past a one-room school and church, on into a thicket of woods until you reached a clearing and the Stanley farm appeared where it sat, literally on top of a mountain with a 360-degree view of the county. Edenic, rolling hills are blanketed with pasture where horses and cattle graze among flocks of wild turkey. On the left is the croquet ground where the brothers and sisters and cousins gathered on Sundays for picnics and games. Follow the winding road until it becomes a path, and it will take you back into the woods and down to the edge of the Raven Cliffs where Ethel Stanley earned her nickname among her nieces and nephews who heard the sisters tell the story over and over.
She and her preteen sisters had gotten into some trouble, enough that they met up with a hickory switch. Insulted, sister Eva (who would become a delicate, birdlike woman with cottony white hair, and fingers that knew sewing and crocheting like none I have seen) wove a scheme that would make their mother sorry. She decided they would fling themselves from the Raven Cliffs, landing hundreds of feet below in a romantic tangle of broken arms, legs and necks. They wouldn’t live to see it, but imagine Mother standing at the edge, overcome with grief at what she had done to her girls, tearing at her clothes, unable to cope. Why, she might even jump to join her poor daughters.
The idea was ripe, so good in fact the rest were jealous they hadn’t thought of it. They began a vengeful journey through the woods toward certain death. Somewhere between the house and the Raven Cliffs, the romanticism began to wear off for Buck. When they reached the edge of the cliffs, they stood poised for a swan dive toward eternity.
She crossed her arms and shook her head. “I ain’t doin’ it,” she announced. She was younger, but stubborn.
“Why?” Eva complained, stomping her little foot. “You promised you would back yonder.”
The rest of the sisters blinked and waited for someone to decide their fate.
“Well,” Buck said, standing her ground, “I’ve done changed my mind and I’m going home. I’ll see you back there if you don’t die in the next little bit.”
She turned on one heel and headed back, where ninety more years, two children, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren awaited her. The rest of the sisters followed, leaving Eva behind to pout. “Leave it to you to buck up on us!” she shouted, before running after them.
The longer I gaze at the picture, the more I remember those eyes, embedded deep at the top of cheekbones that must have melted hearts.
I want to talk into the past, into this picture, to ask her why she doesn’t stand up and let those fancy shoes take her to nursing school, which is what she always wanted to do.
Buck shadowed a doctor for a while, prepping patients, administering their medication, comforting them with a maternal bedside manner. He urged her to get her degree, to be paid what she was worth for skills that seemed to come naturally but in reality she had nearly earned a degree based on hard work alone. She had helped to take care of her sick mother before she died, was there for the births of nieces and nephews, cooled the faces of those with wasting diseases and sudden sicknesses that swept through central Appalachia. She had seen birth and death and everything in-between, all before the age of thirty. She would be a nurse for the rest of her life until she herself required one, but she would never get a degree, nor would she be paid. I once asked her why she didn’t go to nursing school.
“My dad wouldn’t let me go,” she told me.
The woman in this picture could have packed up her belongings and left her beloved ridge anyway, and boarded with a brother or sister in another state. She could have defied a man with old-fashioned notions about women and their place, who didn’t necessarily need her there for housekeeping as he had remarried a woman named Ellen after their mother died, and the children were mostly grown. She could have pointed out that when you had already looked death in the face, seeing one or two men naked now and again would not turn her into a trollop or send her on a path to eternal damnation.
These are things I would like to think I would have said back then. Like her, like my grandmother and my mother, I have a tendency to speak my mind.
Instead, Buck got up from the wicker bench and went home to Ramsey Ridge, where she put those fancy shoes and dress back in a box, and I’ll never know why. She honored her father’s wishes and years later waited to see if her children and grandchildren would do what she had not, all the while nursing sick folks with no degree and therefore no pay.
Buck heard bells when someone close to the family was about to die. As the dying passed over, they sometimes appeared at the foot of her bed along the way. She anticipated the news before the phone rang, and put on casseroles to take to the family.
Some call this phenomenon the Sight.
She described one of her visions to me when I was younger. Wide-eyed, I sat corpse-still as she told me about a relative who appeared at the foot of her bed the night before he died.
“What are you coming to tell me?” she asked. He just stood and gazed, she said, a hazy figure in slacks and a button-up shirt. He looked sad as he faded from sight. He wasn’t that old when he passed away.
She described these visions as casually as dreams, like she had an extra eye for seeing things that other people couldn’t. She didn’t understand it, but she accepted it. She was one of the last links to a way of life in Appalachia that will soon be gone. People don’t seem to trust intuition, anymore.
It was a miracle that I even knew her.
Few people can say they knew their great-grandparents for thirty years but that’s how long four living generations of women on my mother’s side had each other. In central Appalachia, people tend to put down roots close to family and take jobs in the mines that still promise coal from deep in the mountains or in sprawling maximum security prisons that perch on what is left after the innards and top have been removed. They have children young, and teen pregnancy is still a widely cited statistic here.
Fewer of us—even those of us born and raised in central Appalachia—can say that we knew our great-great grandparents. My great-great grandfather died when I was nine and he was 92, born in the late nineteenth century. In his younger years, he was a rascal who enjoyed an occasional marriage. He had been a tall man before one leg was amputated at the knee, which explained the wheelchair and one folded pant leg. By the time I grew to know him, he had lost his teeth so his cheeks had collapsed and the top of his head hung on to a few wiry wisps of hair. My memories of him are vague, at best, arranged as grainy snapshots of me crawling on his hospital bed, his smile full of gums and sweetness. He slept as if he were already dead, with the sheet pulled over his head and tightly tucked. I remember my grandmother covering him this way at the end of every visit to the nursing home.
I am a product of teenaged parents who met in the late sixties. Ironically, being born of these kids would mean a happy childhood with a trinity of mothers (my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.)
It meant that I would not be a statistic because I would be one of the lucky people who knew a woman nicknamed “Buck.”
My great-grandmother could talk to anyone. She wasn’t formally trained to be a lady; she was simply born of an era when girls came up knowing how to say just the right thing, write in cursive as decorative as embroidery and put together a meal that embodied the four food groups. She could have had tea and crumpets with the Queen or lunched at the White House without tripping over words or pausing for lack what to say next. We never worried when we took someone to meet her, never fidgeted nervously over what she might say or do. She’d smooth her dress, offer them coffee, lean forward with her hands clasped in her lap and ask just the right questions. By the time her company left, they were well fed, happy, and thinking about accepting Jesus as their Savior. They’d want her for their own.
But she was ours, and we would have fought tooth and nail to keep her.
Buck was an anchor to which the family was tethered. Children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren knew that no matter how far they ventured from the homeplace, that little farm in Lee County not far from the Powell River, they could find their way back. Her house was humble, a few rooms with a porch, but to us—to many who weren’t even related to us—it was an embassy. She helped raise some grandchildren, took in wayward nephews, and even fed a couple of escaped convicts before sending them on their way. She kept a .38 special in her pocket, and would have shot you yeller-dog dead if she caught you breaking into her house. She won that pistol by shooting a chicken hawk off the back of a chicken from 300 yards away, so she wouldn’t have missed.
Women who work their entire lives on farms don’t get monuments erected in their honor. Golden statues and crystal plaques will never be seen on their mantles or walls. Their names won’t go down in history for raising children and grandchildren, grading tobacco with fingers numbed by the cold, nursing the dying and preparing the dead.
Grown men who couldn’t lay claim to her bloodline clung to her casket and wept.
It wasn’t that she did extraordinary things; it was the extraordinary way that she did them.
Yet she was never able to fulfill one wish, which was to become a nurse.
I was fortunate to have been born to a girl who turned sixteen two days before my birthday in a hardscrabble, central Appalachian town where family values meant you took care of your own from birth to death and the most precious family heirloom you could pass down was a little bit of land. I grew up clinging to my mother’s jeans, my grandmother’s slacks, and my great-grandmother’s apron. I spent the week at the log house my parents built themselves until Friday, when Granny picked me up in her Toyota—always a Toyota whether it was a car or truck—and carried me a mile into the holler by way of a dirt road. (I’m told that I was taught to call my grandmother Granny as a joke because she was only in her mid-thirties when I was born. It stuck.) The woods parted when we turned into her driveway and folded back together behind us in a kind of unspoiled Eden where deer and raccoons roamed freely to drink at the spring that snaked its way down the hillside. I learned to ride a bicycle there, perching myself on a hillside and wobbling down until I lost my balance in the grass, cussed and kicked the bike a bit once I got up, asked God to forgive me for cussing and walked it back up the hill. I spent Friday nights in her doublewide trailer, watching The Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas, and eating Lipton Onion Soup Burgers followed by buttered popcorn. On Saturday mornings, after spending an hour or two on a grapevine that swept me fifty feet into the air, my brother and I would climb one of the hills that flanked Granny’s house, following an animal path up the steep embankment through a thick carpet of leaves that were like ice when it rained, cleared the top, then breathing hard ran past my great-uncle’s double-wide where gnomes and all manner of flowers graced the yard, down past the molasses shed, barn, past the rose bush where Buck would later bury her dog in a bona-fide casket because it was her money and she would by God bury her dog in a casket if she wanted to, past the henhouse and smokehouse to Buck’s front door.
I could smell the soup beans and cornbread long before I got there, and I knew when I opened the screen door and let it bang behind me that she would turn—whether she was at the sink or the stove—and her smile would light up the place.
Of everything, I miss her kitchen the most.
Her kitchen was the one place you wanted to be if you were hungry, looking to celebrate, or in trouble. It was humble, yet holy: a shrine to country cooking where a healthy side of evangelism came with every plate of soup beans and cornbread. At any given time during the day, a pot of soup beans simmered on the back burner and a pone of cornbread warmed under a cast iron skillet. The corner cupboard held the glassware, an entire set collected from boxes of dish detergent, back when you could get a free glass with every box. Instant tea with a spoonful of sugar from the heavy cobalt crystal bowl in the middle of the table complemented your helping of beans, and God help you if you weren’t hungry.
I saw myself grow up in the oval mirror that hung above the sink, where I stood to wash dishes and drank from the dimpled aluminum dipper that hung on a nail by the window. I wrote my first newspaper column about that dipper that served so many back when “antibacterial” was just a word with too many syllables. Whether you were washing or drying, you had a good view of the cherry tree by the smokehouse, the driveway, and the giant pine tree that stored thousands of fat colorful Christmas tree lights year round. The garage was straight ahead, where we graded tobacco on crisp October nights with fingers numbed by the cold.
These are things I remember, but my memories were forged during her golden years. I know nothing, for example, about this picture from the 1920s, where she sits so stylishly in her pageboy haircut and black pumps. I wasn’t there when she won a shooting contest, her prize the pearl-handled pistol that stayed in her side pocket or under her pillow. (My great-grandfather bet her she couldn’t shoot a chicken hawk off a chicken that was a couple of hundred yards away.) But I do remember following her to the barn, where the cow waited patiently outside the door and a three-pronged milking stool sat just inside a quiet, musty warmth insulated by straw, old wood, and dirt. Fingers of morning sun reached through the gaps in the barn walls to feel dust dancing in the light as she situated herself near the udder. She’d let me wrap my tiny hand around the teat, soft and warm as a kitten’s belly, and showed me how to squeeze and pull until a thin stream of milk rattled the hollow pail. My attempts were feeble at best, my grip weak. The cow stomped restlessly, impatient, which was met with a push and stern warning to be still. Eventually, the milk would come, followed by all the praise a little girl could want.
Her barn, her farm, was a magical place. I believed, as I sat beside her, that I could do anything. Most importantly, she believed it, too.
I wish she had believed it about herself.
Though we granted Buck sainthood long before she was gone, we knew she wasn’t perfect. As mothers and grandmothers will, she overlooked the careless ways and words of some in her family while holding others to a higher standard, and refused to believe—in spite of the newspaper she read daily—that her FDR Democrats had a developed a liberal agenda. She wouldn’t trust a salesman at her door and double-dog dared him to step one foot forward as her hand rested on that pocket with the pistol, but when her memory failed her she trusted with all of her might that money sent with a sweepstakes entry and an order for costume jewelry would make her rich enough to retire us all.
Still, we envied her limitless energy, the magic of her hands wrapped in bread dough, a faith that could go the distance, and a tongue that could put a man (or a cow) in place. For each of us, she was that special place you go when you need peace, or comfort, idealism, escape, yet she never told us that she needed that for herself. Until her mind betrayed her, she watched, one by one, her brothers, sisters, and husband die and prepaid her funeral and burial expenses for both her and her dog, Bubbles, so no one would have to be bothered with it.
Holding her hand as she died, I wondered whether her life was a dream unrealized.
She spent it all on us.
And while that will be easy to explain to my children, what her life was about and what it could have been will not. I want to forgive her for going back when everything in her—and the doctor she worked for—wanted her to go forward. I want to blame the patriarchal mountain culture she grew up in for holding her back, but I know how strong-willed she could be. I may never know just why she stayed on that ridge until a young man from Lee County who worked for the Ritter Lumber Company took her away, except that she always called it her “little piece of heaven.”
I am going to her house for the first time since she died eight years ago, and carrying my infant son with me. My great-uncle—her son—lives there now, and I have come to ask for old family pictures. I tell the baby stories as we walk, pointing to the big pine tree where we made apple butter in the shade, the smokehouse and dairy where dusty jars of canned beans, pickles, and tomatoes sat in the cool darkness and turned into bejeweled wonders when held up to sunlight. I climb the porch steps, and it is as if time stood still twenty years ago and I’m coming to visit. I’ll see her sitting at the kitchen table, her hair drying under a balloon of plastic attached to a coiled hose. She’ll be writing letters to her sisters and she won’t hear me come in, which could be dangerous with that little pistol sitting in her pocket. But something—that intuition, maybe—will cause her to pause look up and she’ll smile, wave me in, and point to the stove where I’m to help myself to whatever she has cooked that day.