The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Sunshine Tales

By Inez Hughes © 1986

Issue: October, 1986

About the first thing that we were taught was that certain rules and customs were family traditions and we were to stick to family customs. Mama's folks had been descendants of the "Monroes of Virginia" and while they were southerners, they were not from the deep south. However, they were not "Yankees." Didn't even like to be classed with them. Yankees seemed to us to be a selfish, plundering sort of people who trespassed on other people's property and who were sorely lacking in good manners, judging from the way they forced their way into peoples' homes and "made off" with their property during the Civil War (from the stories Ma told us that Grandpa Watson had told her).

Ma was Letitia Watson, one of Captain John Watson's daughters. Captain Watson was an officer in the Confederacy. Ma could tell us stories which would stir up our very young southern blood about the "marauders" or "guerrillas" who plundered and robbed long after the war was over.

The most touching one was, perhaps, the one told about the night they came to hang Grandpa Watson. Grandpa Watson was not the only soldier in his family. He had a son, Basil ("Baas") who was a lieutenant. After the war, independent bands, such as the guerrillas went on hunts for the confederate officers and severely punished them. On a winter night such a band came to the Watson home searching for Baas. Grandpa had taken the precaution to hide him under the floor. When they rode up, Grandpa told all the children and his wife to "speak not a word whatever happens."

They forced their way into the house and told him (Grandpa) what they'd come for. He said, "He's not here." They then cursed him and searched the house and couldn't find Baas. Then they told Grandpa, "Well string you up and you'll talk." They made him mount a horse, tied his hands behind him and made off with him to the woods leaving his wife and children crying. They took him to a tree, still mounted on the horse, and fastened a rope around his neck, then threw it over a limb hanging over his head. Someone would pull on the end of the rope and Granpa's neck would stretch as far as he could stand it. Then someone would ask, "Where is he?" No answer. After several futile attempts, they took the rope from around his neck and slapped his horse on the rump and said, "Let the old, gray headed so and so go," and the horse took him home. Needless to say, his wife and children were very grateful to have him back, but it created a bad feeling for the "Yankees."

Another story Ma told was about the day the soldiers took "Betsy Miller." Grandpa had slaves and farmland and plenty of stock when the war broke out. They, he and his sons, were tobacco farmers. After the slaves were freed, they went along as best as they could but the marauders kept taking his fine horses. At last, they had taken all but one. It seemed that the children had a young mare, "Betsy Miller," that was their very own. They looked after her and loved her and even the smallest one could ride her. One day, Grandpa saw the soldiers coming again. He told all the children to get back and the leader rode up and told him they wanted fresh horses. Grandpa told him he had no more, only the pet mare, Betsy Miller. He said, "I'll take her." Grandpa begged and the children cried out, but he took Betsy Miller. Ma said she could remember running down the lane crying, "Come back, Betsy Miller, come back Betsy Miller." The horse was taken away and for weeks they cried for her. Later, Grandpa traced her where they'd left her and got her back, but the children never forgot the incident. On and on these stories would go; stories of witchcraft, superstition, and ghost stories also.

One incident took place very near where Ma's home was near Sturgis, KY. One night a young, expectant mother was in labor in her home. She was attended only by two midwives and her husband, as was the custom many times in those days. A knock was heard at the door. The husband went to the door and a big voice said, "We want something to eat." He told the man that his wife was in labor and that he could not prepare anything for his crowd.

Without a word of apology, the man forced his way into the house and invited the whole crowd with him. He said to his followers, "Come on, fellers. How would you like to see a rebel born?" He ordered them to take the woman off the bed and lay her on the floor, which they did. He then caught up the feather bed she was lying on and took it to a window; opened the window and slashed the bed to pieces and shook out the feathers, then laughed and rode away. The husband tried to prevent it, but he was helpless. In spite of this ill treatment, the woman gave birth to a healthy baby boy on the floor. Of course, she was properly attended and suffered no injuries.

As the boy grew up, his father told him over and over of the incident. When the boy grew to be a young man, he began inquiring for a certain Mr. H----, the leader of the band of marauders. At last, one day at a public gathering of some kind, he was told that a certain very nice looking old man was the man. He approached him and asked, "Are you Mr. H----?" The old man said, "I am, what can I do for you?" The boy said, "I'm the boy that was born on the floor." He had always said he would whip him but the look on the old man's face and his embarrassed attitude was enough. The boy walked away without a word feeling that he had accomplished his task.

Ma's stories were told and retold. I love to remember all of them and I love to remember her manner of telling stories or of giving out a "receipt" for something she could cook well. She was called by her closer younger friends, "Aunt Tish" and by all of her grandchildren just, "Ma," all but Gladys, Aunt Belle's daughter, who always called her "Grandma."

I never remember of having been scolded by Ma and I never saw her work very hard. Aunt Effie, Mama's sister never married until she was in her middle age, and she did all the work. Ma cooked, sewed, patched, and mended grandchildren's clothes and shopped and visited, but never did any hard work. Aunt Effie would not let her work. She was something special!

I have only very pleasant memories of Ma. She was of the Catholic faith, having been brought up that way. She was kind, forgiving, and had a great sense of humor. She never scolded and many times would wrap her big apron around us when Mama was chasing us with a switch. She had to defend Jimmy, Aunt Bell's third son, a lot. Jim was an adventure seeker. He very often just walked away ("just downtown" where the population was all of 300) or "down the hill" to his Uncle Bill Reed's store. Aunt Belle would call and call but Jim didn't hear until he was ready to come home. Then he'd "mosey" back up the hill and Aunt Belle would yell out, "Bring along a switch, young man, I'm going to set yore stern afire! Then he'd look at her with his dark brown eyes and drawl, "D'yuh think I'm a dang fool?" She usually had one in the house and would shake it at him and give him "another chance" with a word of warning. He always said he "left word" that he was going because if he asked her beforehand, she'd never let him go. He was telling the truth, too! I've seen it happen.

One day we three, Alberta, Dick and I, were spending the day there (at Aunt Belle's) and he came in the kitchen where she was mixing bread. Gladys and I were sitting at the kitchen table watching and Aunt Belle was standing mixing bread. Jim came in and said, "Mama, can I go down to Uncle Bill's?" She promptly said "No." He began whining and pleading and tried so hard for sympathy, but she was firm and said, "No, and if I didn't have my hands in this dough I'd give you a back handed lick," whatever that was.

I kept standing and waiting to see which one was going to win out and Gladys sat still, saying nothing but noisily eating a very large and very juicy green apple. Just as Jim raised his eyes to Aunt Belle to make one more appeal, Gladys took another big bite of the green apple. The skin of that apple popped and a stream of sour apple juice shot across that table and right into Jimmy's eye!! He screamed, "Oh Mama, oh help me, Mama, Mama! Oh, it hurts! It's put my eye out." He stomped, screamed, and then the snot and tears began to flow! Aunt Belle never even took her hands out of the dough, just calmly said, "It's good enough for you; now you've got something to cry for."

He went outside wiping his eyes and his nose and we went out with him to find something else to do. Jim was a sort of a "business man" too. He worked on Kerner Jackson's farm when he could and every wheat threshing crew around there remembered him as their water boy. He tried other business deals too. One day, a few days before Christmas, he came down the hill with a big rooster under his arm. He came to his "Aunt Liz" (that was Mama) and said, "Aunt Liz, can I sell you this rooster for fifty cents, I need some "tristmas' money." Mama said, "Jim, that rooster is one eyed and, besides, I'm broke myself." (Which was true.) He took it to Bill Reed's store and sold it. He was never a bully, a fighter, or a stubborn, hard head about anything. He was rather quiet and very thoughtful, mostly trying to figure out how he could go somewhere or earn some money.

Aunt Belle kept her brood on the hill, literally speaking. They never did hang out down town or visit anyone but their kinfolk's. That was plenty, though, for they had Aunts, Uncles, and Cousins all over town. So Jim, needing understanding a great part of the time, was Ma's pet. Jim looked like Uncle Tom, too. Uncle Tom was Ma's son who had been killed by a train. I can truthfully say that I do not believe that there was ever any jealousy or enmity between Mama's and Aunt Belle's children. Aunt Belle and Uncle Fred were "better fixed" than Papa and Mama, financially speaking. They owned their home and had a cow and sometimes two, "Old Heart" and "Old Daisy" and a few hogs and chickens and fruit trees, such things that can add a lot to raising a family. Their house was "up on the hill," meaning that it was on one of the hills surrounding DeKoven, about a mile from the downtown section.

Aunt Belle had two other sons older than Jim and a daughter, Gladys, who was a little older than Alberta. Then, later on, she, too, had another son who was much younger than these. Her children were Gladys, Paul ("Buck," as we called him, who was very good at making things "go," like machinery and mechanical things). John, her second son, was "the brains" of all of us. He'd think up things to do like "'es go get some green apples" or "'es go down in the bank lot, 'es play I sfy (spy). They sometimes didn't speak their words plain when they were little. Sometimes he'd drag out things and "play show."

Gladys played by herself. She monopolized the big lawn swing. That was all she wanted to do, swing and sing. She very often pretended it was a train and she was going on a trip. Mama's three that played with them were Alberta, Dick, and I, Inez. Alberta and I were older than Dick. Alberta was very cautious. She was afraid of everything, afraid she'd get dirty, afraid she'd get hurt, afraid she'd make one of our playmates mad and they'd go home, afraid she wouldn't mind Mama....! Her "feelings" were easily hurt. She was sympathetic and sensitive to the point that she'd cry over the least thing. I've seen her hold a little chicken who everyone would give up for dead, but she'd drop water on its mouth and rub its head to try to revive it.

Dick was the most humble little boy I ever saw. He just went along with everybody good naturedly, and he was a little boy with the biggest imagination possible. He, many times, "saw things" that were never there. He listened to the stories told by older folks of ghosts, wild animals in the woods, or many fantastic tales and then when he'd start home from playing all day at Aunt Belle's, he was terrified at the call of a whippoorwill or a screech owl or acorns dropping in the dry leaves, thinking that it was the lynx that caused so much talk among we children. It seems that Buck saw it and proved it by Ray (you could prove anything by him, he was very agreeable). Dick and John "heard" it every time they played down in the bank lot, they talked about it sitting on the porch in the cool of the evening. It made good conversation.

Read The Bank Lot by Inez Hughes.