The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Recollections Of Aunt Bertie Gravely

By Don Howlett © 1984

Issue: November, 1984

Aunt Bertie Gravely was my grandfather's (Norman Kelly Howlett) full sister. He had half sisters, but she was his full sister he would say. I only remember her when I was a child until about the age of 15. I don't really know the full story, I only relate what I think I remember and was told.

I never heard anything about Aunt Bertie's husband. I think he died before I was old enough to know him. I do know they had one son, an only child. His name was Willis Gravely and he went from the mountains into the Army to fight in the First World War. I have seen his picture many times. He was handsome in his khaki uniform and leather leggings. He survived the war but came home to be killed in an accident at a young age. This was the cause of much sadness for Aunt Bertie. She was now alone completely with one prize possession left and little else. She was truly a self sufficient mountain lady with all their wonderful traits and characteristics. The possession left was an Edison Upright Cylinder Record Player with lots of cylinders. It belonged to Willis. He had bought it and played it for them for entertainment. Nobody played it except Willis. Aunt Bertie kept it as good as new, covered with a cloth in the corner. She cherished it as it was the one thing she had of Willis’. Nobody played it but if you went to her house, she would uncover it and show you and then remember Willis very lovingly.

When I got to know her was when we visited, usually on a weekend. We would quite often have to hunt for her because quite often she had moved. She moved a lot because she was very poor, but self sufficient. However, she had to rely on others to let her live on their property, usually in a neglected house. The houses usually were unpainted wood, board and batten type houses. They had a few rooms, an outhouse and large porch, often stacked with firewood, hopefully near a spring. Now mountain people are good people and help each other. So, many good people let her live nearby and in fact took things to her from town.

Being self sufficient, she had sewed and always wore long dresses, an apron and a bonnet. She chopped her own wood, stacked it on the porch for the winter and for the cookstove in the kitchen. She had as large a garden as she could take care of and preserved everything. She dug a root cellar to save the apples and potatoes. She dried apples, peaches, and beans on the roof and behind the cookstove in the kitchen. There was not one thing that would go to waste. She also would have a small flock of chickens for fried chicken and eggs. Chickens was most of the meat she ate but occasionally some kind soul would give her some pork when they butchered or a ham or shoulder cured in the mountain way. That's with lots of salt and pepper or dried in the smokehouse. If she had pork she felt rich as far as she was concerned and could feed an army with it.

In the fall her place was truly wonderful, you would find her outside, by a fire under a copper kettle (usually borrowed) stirring her applebutter with the paddle, perspiring and persistently stirring. Her apple butter was a delight. She knew just how to do it. It had a spicy aroma, beautiful amber transparent color and put up beautifully. She would also go to a sorghum mill and get some cane crushed for juice to make molasses. It would be boiled down to supply her main sweetener.

Some people say she was as slow as molasses but I always questioned that. She did appear to be slow, but I never saw anybody accomplish any more than she did. She was undoubtedly organized and made it appear easy, but I know it wasn't. I don't know if she ever went to church or even if she was a religious lady. I do know this. If what it says in the Bible about loving others, serving others and doing for others, humbling yourself, then she truly reflected God. I am sure she is in Heaven preparing the meals there, because going to her house would delight your senses.

Typically you would go to visit, drive way back in the country, go to the end of the road, across a field, park, get out, crawl over a fence, usually split rail, and walk 1/4 to 1/2 mile and then be in her yard. The house would be unpainted wood, with firewood on the porch. The porch would also have a wash stand, wash pan, water bucket and cloth. Usually there was a piece of mirror on the wall to comb your hair by. Almost forgot, a washtub too. Smoke would be coming out of the chimney because Aunt Bertie was getting ready for company. She had been preparing for hours and maybe days. When she would hear the guineas screeching a warning, she would come outside to see what's going on. She would be wiping her hands on her apron as she came out to greet you with, "My how good you look." Plus, all the other greetings inquiring about everybody's health. "Come on in, make yourself at home." Inside the kitchen the ladies would gather. Outside the men would gather, talking about the weather and politics. We children ran around wild-like exploring the barn, creek, woods and all the wonderful places not familiar to us. If there were other kids there we would talk about how we were going to eat until we popped. "How many kinds of pie do you think she'll have?"

After awhile, everybody was called in and someone asked the blessing. Everyone grabbed a plate and lined up to go around the table. That table was a huge old plank table in the kitchen loaded with food. It will sound like childhood exaggeration to tell you what was on that table. She had prepared it all alone in huge portions - enough for harvesters. There would be fried chicken, ham, fresh pork, chicken and dumplings, maybe even some canned sausage. There were mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, half runner green beans, corn, peas, blackeyed peas, October beans, carrots, squash, relish items like radishes, tomatoes, cucumbers (brother Kelly says "Cucumbers ain't fit for hogs."), sometimes even watercress; homemade everything, pickles, relish, chow-chow, ketchup, applebutter, buttermilk, milk and cream for your coffee, breads, skillet corn bread and of course, biscuits - never store bread (“Wasn't fit fer nuthin.”) The homemade light bread and desserts were a delight. There were strawberries, huckleberries or blackberries with fresh cream. Sometimes there was peach cobbler and always about three or four cakes, a chocolate sour cream with chocolate icing, a white one with vanilla icing and of course an applebutter-molasses cake. There would be as many as eight or ten pies, including apple, cherry, pumpkin, blackberry, butterscotch and coconut (when she could get some). All of the above was typical when you went to visit.

When dinner was over most of us were ready to pop. The food was outstanding and we would try to eat it all. The kids would have secret contests to see who could eat the most pieces of pie or cake. Then we would feel guilty because we had eaten so much of Aunt Bertie's food when she was so poor, but Aunt Bertie knew kids and would say to our parents, "let them have another piece of pie." We had a friend.

Everybody would take up the leftover food, put clean cloths over what was left on the table, get the wash tub out and wash dishes. Aunt Bertie would protest all the while saying, "It ain't fair that you all should be doing that - you're company." And the ladies would go right on while she caught up on all the news.

When the cleaning up was done we headed for the parlor to see that wondrous machine and hear the story again. "That was Willis' record player...."

After that, it was starting to get dusk, she would light the lamps, ask if you didn't want a little more to eat before you go? We would retrace our steps to the fence, back to the car, starting on our way home, with her thanking us for coming and asking us to please hurry back.

As she got older we didn't go see her as much, not because we didn't want to, but because she would work herself to death a week before you were coming, getting ready. You could not go unless she fixed and you ate something.

This part I am a little hazy on, but one time we visited and she had taken two children, a brother and sister to raise, as is a mountain custom. I don't know the circumstances, but I think the boy's name was Aim (maybe short for Amos, I don't know). She did raise them and I am told very well, even though Aim and I got into all kinds of mischief. We even smoked rabbit tobacco.

I really do not know when Aunt Bertie died. I do know I was not there or I would have gone to her funeral. I do know I lost a treasure - Aunt Bertie. I also lost another treasure - Willis' Edison record player.

Not having been there at the end, she had told my grandfather, her brother, that she wanted me to have Willis' record player when she died because Don would take care of it. "He takes care of things," she would say. Unfortunately when she died it was in poverty and all her property was sold to settle her debts. She would have wanted it that way so she didn't owe anybody.

I hope whoever got Willis' Edison Cylinder Record Player loves and takes good care of it. It meant so much to Willis Gravely, Aunt Bertie Gravely and me, Don Howlett.