The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Heading For The Hills: A City Girl Goes Home

By Leah Fortson © 1988

Issue: January–February, 1988

At some point or other every January, once that the cold weather has shown that it really plans to stay for a while, my grandfather sends word that I can't wait to hear. It's hog–killin' time in Galax, Virginia, and my parents and I are heading south in a few days' time.

For me and my cousins also brought up in urban areas in the northern–most South, there is no greater joy than to hear that our parents are preparing to go home. Let college friends and co–workers sing of traipsing around Europe on $15 a day; take me down to the hills and let the wonder wash over me anew.

There are many reasons why my grandparents' home is such a haven to me. It's beautiful: the pine–covered dips and rises of the Blue Ridge always make me catch my breath. There are all of the joys of country life; the child in all of us likes to see cows and pigs, horses and chickens up close. Not as many creeks to play in up here in the city, nor trees to climb. And if you've ever had the pleasure of seeing a starry country sky, unclouded by pollution and artificial lights, you know you've seen yourself something.

Most of all, though, what pulls me back time and again is family. Family is not measured in one or two generations down there; three is the general rule, and it's not especially noteworthy to have four generations in one room. And hovering all around you, living in the memories of those present, are great–grandparents and great–great–grandparents, people who lived their entire lives right where you are. Their presence evokes a solid feeling of rootedness.

One also gets rooted in the past by the living continuation of what the folklorist like to call "folkways." Down at my grandparents' house (which is nearly 200 years old), they make apple butter and slop hogs and, until fairly recent years, they went to fetch water from the spring (which, despite its being one of my all–time favorite things to do, my aunt assures me is quite another smoke when you do it day after day). My grandfather lines out hymns and the rest of us chime in. There's usually some kind of work going on that city folks have for the most part been relieved of performing: picking beans, shelling peas, washing greens. There's never a television going on in the room where four or six or eight people are ranged around a table or bustling back and forth fixing meals. Conversation, about events that happened three generations ago and those transpiring yesterday, holds away.

The lines between who does what chore are no longer as stringently drawn by a person's sex as they were even a generation ago. There is still, though, some automatic segregation into groups of men and women, socially and in terms of work. (However, the line was as never un–crossable as people today, longing for a simpler time, often like to think. "Women's work," for example, often took them into the fields and into most, if not all, areas of animal husbandry.)

At any rate, we women tend to congregate in the kitchen. This is primarily because so much of the work that is never done is done there and also because it's where the food is and is always one of the warmest places to be in the wintertime. Many of my grandparent's most memorable statements have been uttered there – such as her reacting to one sanctimonious preacher's misdoings with the observation that she wasn't afraid of going to hell; there'd be too many preachers down there to leave room for her.

Twangs ricochet across the room, and stories become etched in my memory. I hope I will eventually acquire the common sense to pay more attention to the cooking process; lessons like that can not be taught anywhere.

Having always been a tomboy, though, I do not relegate myself completely to the women's quarters. My uncle Eric, not too many years older than I, is one of my greatest friends and running buddies. He was the one who taught me to shoot a shotgun (I stick to target practice); it was with him that I finally figured out how to skip a rock. Most of my horseback riding was done with him, including the time I fell off. I have also mended fences and picked berries with Eric, and he has taken me all around the boundaries of the land that has been in our family for generations.

Generations; my great–grandmother is still living down there, and many forbearers' peer out from daguerreotypes and ancient photos. Gravestones with Bryan and Edwards names (pronounced "Brynte" and "Eddards") stand in small church cemeteries there and in nearby North Carolina counties. History down home is not shadowy and distant; you can walk from here to there.

The mountains have another characteristic I love; they tend to breed good storytellers. All four of my uncles belong to that rare breed who can remember a series of jokes and keep them rolling, sometimes about people they work with but usually about folks in the family. Their sisters shake their heads and tell them they're a mess, but they keep listening.

As I sit listening, I wonder how I'll pass all of this down to my children. Their grandparents will probably all be city–dwellers. In my generation, and more so in each subsequent one, you have to make a personal effort to absorb what went on before. I've noticed that I seem to care more than my brother and cousins about who was related to whom and how, not to mention who did what. Can such a treasure trove of family history be lost from a single generation to the next, through a little simple neglect?

Of course, there will still be family gatherings, and their stories will be told, and no doubt a lot of heritage will come down to the next generation under its own momentum. I worry, though, that, away from the weather–beaten clapboard house, away from the chores and the pine trees and the cricks and the wood stove, something will be missing.