The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

1925: Learning the Difference Between City and Country Smells

By Grace Cash © 1987

Issue: April, 1987

Editor's Note... The following is one of a series of articles written by Grace Cash. She lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Watch for more of her stories in future issues.

There was a severe drought in Georgia in 1925. We laid our crops by early, since not even the grass and weeds would grow, but withered punily and straggled hopelessly in the loose hot earth. On the last day of June, Mama didn't need us for chores because the drought had blighted the wild things too; the plums and berries crumbling and parching till they looked like potato bugs. Since she had nothing for us to do, and not wanting us underfoot all day, Mama sent us to visit Grandma, who lived a mile down the highway.

The incident promised unusual liberty for my oldest brother, Frank, would have never condescended to go with my two younger sisters and me. Mama sorted us, four to go, three to stay. It was a quiet decision, with no rankling of tempers. The day started gentle and still, like the dry burning sun and the parched land by the roadside.

We walked, accustomed to walking even further on Sundays when we went to the little white church around the bend from Grandma's house. Late honeysuckle bloomed along the road banks. Dead plant life mingled with the living and permeated the morning air with a rotting forest odor.

Frank stalked long leggedly through the crab apple thicket and brought back nubbins of bitter apples that needed yet several months' growing before they reached maturity. We ate the dwarfed, acrid fruit, our mouths contorting and our eyes watering. Every Fall Mama preserved the crab apples and the drought had left to her a good harvest, probably due to the tough peeling and because the trees grew in a damp valley.

Long before we came in sight of the small unpainted house where our grandparents lived, a long black car drew to a stop on the road curb. It was Mr. Harvey and Miss Bessie, come up from Augusta to look over their farm. Once it had been a plantation and even now it was dotted with rustic cabins and several untenanted larger houses. As long as Mr. Harvey's father lived, Negro tenants and the Hubbard house servants lived in these crudely built farm houses. Mr. Warren Hubbard died in 1903 and now the main house was occupied by a sharecropper. Grandpa rented one of the tenant houses. He owned a farm to the south but he moved every year or so, to satisfy a peculiar roving desire and this was his current residence.

Mr. Harvey was a pharmacist in Augusta and Miss Bessie had a millinery shop. She wore a black wide brimmed lace hat she made herself. Mr. Harvey's mouse brown hair was slicked back with drug store brilliantine. They greeted us in the way people condescend to children, friendly and yet maintaining a certain contented superiority. We stood a while and watched them, none of us speaking a word, for strangers to Chestnut Mountain wrought over us an impregnable awe.

Miss Bessie entranced me, fully and unequivocally. She had on a black crepe dress and lots of heavy jewelry that sort of weighted down her full sloping bosom. After smelling her perfume, mixed with the powder and rouge, dampened with small beads of perspiration, the wild flowers and the animal haunts I had known seemed puny when compared to her sickeningly sweet odor.

Even with all this to recommend them, Frank wouldn't let us get into the long expensive automobile until he exchanged several words with Mr. Harvey. He thought he knew them, he said, and he knew they lived in Augusta. We had all read their ancestors' inscriptions on tall weathered blackened tombstones in the Presbyterian graveyard and, of course, everybody knew they had been the richest people in our part of the county until they either died, or moved away. Mr. Harvey remarked that he went to school with our father at Chestnut Mountain before he went away to Harvard. After a time Frank derived sufficient information to convince him that it would not be foolhardy to accept a ride, that these strangers were not gangsters like we read about in our Tri Weekly Newspaper.

Then we all got in and rode as far as the main white house. As we walked on to Grandma's, Frank said, "They're so rich they smell like cankered money." That separated the clean wild smells from the smells of Augusta, so that now I knew the world had city smells and country smells. It intensified my desire to grow up and get to the city to become, like Miss Bessie, a part of its sickening sweet smells and its cankered part, too.