Up in the Country Dec09

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Up in the Country

I was raised in a small town in the South.

“I was born in the Blue Ridge mountains, at the foot of the Appalachia Trail.”

I grew up in the Sixties, with my mother, step-father and two younger brothers. My mother had “Help” when I was growing up, not live-in help, but help a few days a week who cleaned the bathrooms and mopped floors and ironed.

Juanita, Marie, Jessee.

They were soft, sweet-smelling Black women and they made my house smell fresh and clean. They made me feel like a person instead of a ghost in my mother’s house.

This is our story. All the way back to Appalachia, up in the country.

 

Her parents were as mismatched as ever a couple was. He was a cocky kid from Copperhill, child of abusive parents and a broken home in the 40’s. She from a union still together in name: her father an alcoholic womanizer and her mother afraid of everything, her husband and 7 children included.

He, Carl, at 17, had pronounced to his friends that he was marrying the prettiest girl in Blue Ridge.

Dan, not a close friend, but someone to drink with, and brag to, responded with a snort. “You don’t even know the prettiest girl in Blue Ridge.”

“Yes, by damn, I do.  Marilyn Hunt.”

“Not even close, you dumbass. The prettiest girls in Blue Ridge are the Mashburn girls. Four of em,”

“Yeah? Who’s the prettiest of the four?”

“That’d be Miss Amurica. “

“Thought you said they was Mashburns?”

“They are, you dumb redneck, we call her that cos she’s a beauty queen.  One a these days she’ll be in the Miss America contest. And she’ll win it too.”

“Which’n is that? The one you call Miss Amurica?”

“That’d be Rubee. She’s the third one.”

“Rubee? Then that’s who I’m marryin’.”

“You ain’t even met her. You just heard about her. How you aim to marry her, Carl?

~~~

Carl’s parents had gotten by for 9 years when Joe, their first born, caught pneumonia and died in the spring of ’38. They were not attentive at their best, and even a child that sick didn’t bring out the parental concern that should have been available to most people.

His mother, Beulah, always one to sip the shine, took to staying drunk as often as possible.  If that meant sex with the man who was holding the bottle, she was willing to oblige.

Carl, Sr. sorry at 25 that he’d married and had a family so fast was angry and bitter.  Angry about the wife and kids. Angry that young Joe had died. Joe had been his favorite, if there were any favorites in that miserable house, and he took every opportunity to let young Carl know  it should have been him, not Joe who died.

While it beat him down to hear his father would rather have Joe, Carl worked to make it up to both Carl and Beulah and developed a pleasing personality trying to convince them of his worth. He was polite and helpful to everyone who crossed his path: his one  teacher, then even the men he found his mother with.

His drive to please didn’t make a difference in his home life, his father continued to debase him about ‘Joe being gone and Carl still walkin’ about this earth’.

Beulah, in her drunken spells would resort to name calling and cursing whenever Carl showed up to get her drunk ass home, but she’d let him lead her home, and put her to bed, and that was his job for many years.

The chaos he was immersed in left him to his own devices in filling his days.  He managed to finish the second grade, and decided that was enough for him. He’d gotten up alone, before dawn, in the cold mornings and pulled sweet potatoes out of the ashes from the night before, stuffing them in his jacket pockets. They’d warm his hands on the walk to school and serve as his lunch at noon.  One morning he decided there were better ways to spend his days, slipped off the road and into the woods to explore and that was the end of his formal education.

When he approached manhood he found that the charm he’d mastered for his parents served him mightily with the girls and women in town and he managed to not only meet the Mashburns (the prettiest girls in Blue Ridge) but to marry the one they called Miss Amurica.

It didn’t last of course. Neither of them had an inking of how to get along once they were out of bed and Carl at 17 had no skill to sell and no chance at a real job. He drove big trucks and dreamed big dreams and spent his paychecks impulsively on gifts for Rubee and Tessa or a night with some shine, as the mood struck him.

Moving from his parents’ house to her parents’ house and back again, and sometimes his grandfather’s house, they managed to stay alive and together for one miserable year.

Carl was productive only in that he managed to impregnate Rubee the first month they were married and while they both insisted they were crazy about the girl who they named Tessa, she was one more mouth to feed and more messes to clean.

Rubee became rail thin (not having been much to start with) and the bigger the baby got, the smaller she seemed until it looked as if she was shrinking in upon herself.

The first divorce came before Tessa’s first birthday. The second divorce before her fourth.

The last time she saw Carl she had just turned 5 and he had brought her mother 2 live chickens as child support.

Tessa loved him like she loved no-one else and his absence changed her and changed Rubee.

Desperate to get out of that mountain town after the second divorce and away from her family (all of them, brothers, sisters too) she’d left Tessa with her mother and gone to Atlanta to find work. She came home every weekend on the Trailways  bus bringing the cash from her pay to take care of the bills and buy food for her Mother’s household for the next week.

She lived a meager existence  in a rooming house in Atlanta where she got bed and board for $4 a week. Most of the rest went to her Mama Mae for food and rent because Mae had 2 grandchildren and a son living with her and had never worked a day in her life. Well, she’d never worked for pay.

Mae had grown up the daughter of a moonshiner, her own mama dead when she was two and taking on a woman’s chores before she was 5. Married to a sawyer at 14, she thought traveling with the sawmill crew would be exciting and fun. It was at the first camp in White, GA, that she learned she would be cooking for the crew.  That meant she got up hours before they started work to build a fire, knead biscuits and make huge pots of coffee and skillets of red eye gravy.

When they set up to the woods she hauled the dishes to the creek and scrubbed them with sand to get ready to cook the noon meal.

Her excitement wore off quickly and in just a few months she’d started getting up even earlier because the morning sickness slowed her down and if every one of those sawmillers wasn’t fed and on the job at 7 they were all mad about working hungry or losing out on wages.

Mae stayed with the sawyer almost 20 years, and probably would have stayed forever, not knowing anything else, but he took a notion to go to North Carolina  for work because the sawmill owners there didn’t know his habits.

They moved like gypsies, when the owners wanted to work a new spot, every crewman moved on, either to that one or to a competing saw miller.  The accommodations changed with every move – the worst was a tent with a  dirt floor where five of them shared the space, the best a house in White Rock that had no electricity or running water.

The babies kept coming and the diapers piled up. By the time their first child, Buelah Mae, was five she was washing diapers in the creek behind the White Rock house every day and hanging them in the branches to dry.  Summers that was not a bad chore, she could waste hours at the creek.  But those babies born in February and March earned her resentment.  Having to wash their clothes in icy waters was akin to abuse, but her mother remembered having the same chores when she had been five and no mother to teach her how.

The first camp lasted about six months and he decided to try a different saw mill, one that would give him a house and more pay. They were at the last one in Morganton a little over two years til he got drunk one Friday night and took the paycheck of every man who worked for him and traded it for hooch and a woman.

Mae knew something bad was happening when he didn’t show up for two days and the crew was walking the streets in Morganton looking for him and their pay.

But when the sawmill owner, Mr. Kiker, showed up to tell her where her man had been, it got much worse. He gave her a week to move out of the house and told her that her girls could get work cleaning houses in town if she’d move to Blue Ridge. She’d never made a decision in her short life, so it didn’t seem time to start now. She did everything just like Mr. Kiker told her to, including sending her girls to clean his house.

 

Next in the series: My Mother Was a Beauty Queen

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