The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Mountain Mama

By Barbara Taylor Woodall © 2015

Online: May, 2015

Cleo McConnell Taylor 1918-2003Cleo McConnell Taylor
(Editor's Note: Barbara Taylor Woodall was born and reared in the Appalachian Mountains of North Georgia. She is a veteran of the phenomenal Foxfire Books.

She is the author of "It's Not My Mountain Anymore" that was featured on worldwide television offering first-hand accounts of profound experiences and mountain living. The book is balanced and satisfying, merging moving stories that will moisten eyes and bring laughter.

For information about ordering this wonderful book visit

Mama was born October 23, 1918 in the Skeenah community of Macon County, North Carolina. "Skeenah" is a Cherokee Indian word. According to several sources, it means "ghost" or "the abode of Satan." I doubt Mama knew the meaning but often said, "The farther you went up Skeenah th' meaner they got. We lived at th' end of the road."

She was one of eleven children destined to work rugged mountain land for survival. At a young age, she walked ten miles to a tiny store to get lamp oil carrying a small metal jug. Just before she reached the store, she removed the small screw-type lid on purpose because the storekeeper would plug the filled jug with a slice of orange candy. Once out of sight, she popped the candy in her mouth and replaced the lid.

She was eighteen years old when she caught The Tallulah Falls Railroad to Georgia to visit Aunt Inus. The train was so slow you could walk and keep up. She jested about a man who gave up waiting on the train and laid down on the track to commit suicide. He starved to death before the train arrived. She met and later married Dad in Georgia, on April Fools Day, 1937. They jested that they both got fooled. They hatched out half a dozen young'uns in their quiver.

Laughing Irish eyes made it hard to tell when Mama was mad. They looked like clear pools of blue water where fairies danced and pipers played. We thought she had eyes in the back of her head, hidden by short curly hair. Without ever losing focus from inside chores, she knew exactly what we were up to. Nothing escaped her sharp attention. Rebukes filtered from the house like, "All right, young'uns; I am gonna help ye out with that scrabble," or "Get out of that copperhead-infested wood pile! If one bites ye, it will die," or "Ya'll been in th' garden trompin' in th' beans; guess you'll eat snowballs this winter." Probably my favorite warning was, "I'm gonna whip y' all till ye pee like a polecat, then whip ye for peeing."

She never took a switch to me. I can't say the same about Bea, my younger sister who slipped down the road without permission. Mama slipped after her with a peach tree switch, dosing her all the way back home. Then she rubbed lotion on Bea's striped legs lamenting over hurting her. Dad said, "It don't do any good to whip, then pet her. During Dad's woodshed corrections she was always in the shadows. I could hear her say, "All right, Jim, that's enough. Th' next lick will be mine."

Each morning after Dad left for the sawmill, Mama pulled on black galoshes en route to the log barn. Shuffling her feet over pegged floorboard in the kitchen, she reached for the metal bucket hanging over the sink. Mama said, "If that cow had a motor in her rear end, you could not keep your daddy away from the barn."

Mama entered the feed room to pour generous portions of crushed corn and cottonseed meal into a short hewn log through a hole cut in the stable wall. She then took her place on "the udder side of life." Four plump teats had to be washed with water carried in the milk bucket from the spring. If Mama didn't get kicked by Ole Heif, she was sure to get a whipping from a cocklebur-infested tail. My job was to hold the tail out of the way. The phrase, "Hold the tail out of the way" became a figure of speech depicting small jobs.

Sometime a commotion broke out in the stable. She would yell, "SAW! SAWWW! That is cow talk to calm the situation. Things would only get worse, and Ole Heif would begin to kick and spin around, pinning Mama into a corner.

Size did not matter in a ruckus with Mama. She would fight a saber saw. "If you judged victory by size, this cow could catch a rabbit." The scuffle continued. Soon a shiny, dented milk bucket come flying out the door, followed by the cow wearing a boot imprint on her butt. One especially unpleasant morning, an exasperated Mama said, "I wish that Baptist preacher owned this cow; he'd beat th' hell out of her."

Years rolled by as her dark hair turned a shiny silver. Her young'uns had all flown the coop. She spent most of her time caring for Dad and working around the house. She enjoyed running the push mower, but one day she filled the fuel tank with water. That was a red flag that something was wrong. Alzheimer's was sucking her into a dark tunnel where nobody could pull her out.

We hired day care; at night, we took turns keeping her comfortable as the disease stole her away. She was becoming an empty shell. Very early one morning I heard movements in the kitchen, then tapping sounds. She was attempting to break a ceramic egg on a cold frying pan. I asked, "Mama, are you all right?" She answered, "Yeah, but there is sure as hell something wrong with that hen!" I rolled in the floor laughing.

The day arrived when we could do no more. Nursing home discussion divided the family. We knew if the tables were turned, she would never commit our care to someone else. That made the decision much tougher. I reasoned that special care was an act of love. Christ sets our example. HE committed his mother to the care of another at the cross.

Mama was never religious, but she was a believer. The preacher made visits to the nursing home. He talked across the table at Mama about Heaven's golden streets and pearly gates. "Cleo, you wanna go to Heaven don't you?" She answered, "Are you going?" The preacher said, "O Hallelujah! Yes!" Mama paused. "Well, if you are going, I believe I'll just stay here, and if you intend to drive that car, it won't make it." I laughed until my sides hurt.

In January 2003, she had an aneurism. Time was short. With heavy hearts, we gathered around a sad bedside. Bending low, I took her hand and softly sang her favorite hymn in her ear.

"O precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow
No other fount I know
Nothing but the blood of Jesus"

Her chest rose and fell its final time in this realm. Tear ducks opened from a severely dehydrated body. Our tears mixed with hers. Sister Bea dried Mama's last tears with her hand and closed her once lively eyes, January 17th 2003. Seventeen means victory.

We drove home through glistening snow before daybreak. Frozen flakes sparkled like diamonds hanging on trees. A moving object in the sky seized my attention. I pointed it out to a very skeptical family. The object was too compelling to dismiss and keep driving. We pulled off the road to get a better view. We watched the bright form ascend the mountain range, drifting eastward. I knew Heaven is in the Appalachian Mountains. She entered the land of milk and honey without spinning, kicking cows, or stinging bees.