The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Cabin of Edna Harville

By Rebecca Butcher © 1988

Issue: January-February, 1988

Edna Harville's CabinEdna Harville's CabinEdna was a lovely, old-fashioned name, humble, sturdy and sincere. It was a good name for the tall, thin, wiry woman who lived in a cabin across the creek and up the hill from my family.

We lived in a two-story, white framed farmhouse that stood in a grove of red oaks amidst the fertile farmland. Hers was an authentic pioneer cabin, built as the settlers from the tidewater region moved westward. It had lasted 175 years, at least, at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This land was once the frontier but now had become a modern progressive community.

Edna and her cabin had had a love affair with each other since her birth in the early 1890's. She loved every log, field stone, and rough hewn board which gave her coolness on a summer's day, warmth during a winter's storm, and security during time of trouble. In return, the cabin showed the love of its resident. While other buildings around it faded with the passing time, Edna's cabin, as it was known by the neighbors, sparkled on the hill, sheltering its lady-love.

Edna wasn't its owner, never had been. She was born there, lived most of her ninety years there, yet it was never hers. Their relationship was like a forbidden love affair; perhaps it was a sweeter love because it was never quite consummated with ownership. Edna sometimes had to struggle to hold on to the thing she loved the most. Her family had served on the big farms in the neighborhood as share-croppers, day laborers, and tenants on other people's land. She followed the traditions set by her forefathers with one stipulation she would declare with every move away from her cabin, "I'm gonna' come back. I was born in this here cabin, and I'm gonna die here." Several times Edna and her family were forced by economical reasons to move to the nearby farm, but she would always manage to come home.

The years passed, and Edna was left alone. She never married but had mothered a brother, sister, and later the child born to her unwed sister. They all lived in the cabin. It's hard to tell what measure of happiness they shared, but they were a family, loyal and true to each other. When all were gone through marriage or death, Edna latched her doors at night and stayed.

Pulling in its belt during the Thirties, the surrounding community moved with the times; its inhabitants living off the land with only the lucky ones finding jobs in the nearby city. During the bleak wartime Forties, the community suffered with the nation and mourned the deaths of several young servicemen. The Fifties brought new life, prosperity, and modernization to every household, except to Edna and her cabin. The "flower children" of the Seventies were of little concern to this little lady of an era of the past. She remained as she had always been, sturdy, unchanging.

Edna never knew the convenience of indoor plumbing, the magic of an electric stove, or the warmth of central heat. She did enjoy the luxury of a brightly painted pasteboard funeral home fan and a tiny battery powered radio, a gift from a relative. Her mode of dress was that of a true pioneer woman, long ankle-length dresses, checkered aprons, and a poke bonnet. None of her apparel ever matched in color or design, but they were always crisp and clean.

It was only as an adult that I noticed Edna's style of dress. As a child, I never looked beyond the man-sized white handkerchief waded into a ball and stuffed into her apron pocket. This handkerchief was a necessary item, used frequently by its owner to wipe the drippings of snuff before they trickled from her lips. Through my childhood eyes, her habit of dipping snuff with the stick broken from the nearby blackgum tree was an unexplainable ritual which offended my insatiable need for cleanliness. Through more mature eyes this habit completes the total image of this woman left over from another time.

The years went by; those around her aged. She did too. The community changed. Brick houses, TV antennas, two-car garages, and swing sets in the backyards replaced the fertile fields of corn and tobacco. Roads were paved, and a swimming pool was opened a mile down the road. Everything was different except Edna's cabin.

For more than eighty years Edna worked for others, accepting this station in life. She was not a religious person and seldom, if ever, went to church. She did own a "Good Book," and her deeds were examples of its teachings. She helped her fellow man without expectations. But her good deeds were repaid as age slowed her pace. She could no longer serve others and earn the right to live in her cabin, but the kind and understanding owners let her stay. When she became unable to tend them, they looked after her as tenderly and lovingly as a family member. They split her wood, built her fires, and brought her meals, proving that family is not always blood-related.

When Edna was ninety years old, we had a celebration. It was her first birthday party. She was feeble and her mind dim, but there was a twinkle in her eyes as she greeted guests in the stately and beautiful living room of a neighbor's house. It was a big day, a joyous time, and Edna was happy. Later, she took her gifts and the best wishes of loving friends and returned to her cabin. It had been a good party, her first and her last. She suffered a stroke that night.

Her cabin still stands on top of the gentle hill. Nobody has lived in it in the decade she has been away. It's as if the cabin is standing as a memorial to its owner, and no one else wishes to disturb its privacy.