It hit me this year that someday I’ll be one of the elders in my family. My parents are ageing gracefully, and both are still in fairly good health. However, I realized that in the not too distant future my sister and I will be responsible for passing on our family lore. We’ve heard many stories and cherished bits of wisdom from both my parents, but to be honest, the details tend to blur. I’ve often ignored information about who is related to whom and simply taken for granted that I’ll have someone else to ask should I want to know more. When I’ve tried to tell my children about their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ history, I’ve wished that I’d paid more attention to my elders. I’m starting to realize that perhaps it’s time for my sister and me to become keepers of this information.
It’s in this vein that my sister and I recently took a road trip with my mother into the mountains of western North Carolina to return to our mountain grandmothers’ stomping grounds. My mother often told us stories about her remarkable great-grandmother Cackie, and it’s strong women such as Cackie, her grandmother, mother, and daughters who particularly interest me. Throughout our family history, the men have had a series of misfortunes, either through loss of work, illness, or injury. In almost every generation there’s a story of a woman who supported her family either by taking on menial jobs or by caring for children and families of invalid sons or grandsons.
Our route took us from lowlands of North and South Carolina Piedmont to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Hendersonville, N.C. We drove past groves of peaches with branches so laden with fruit they had to be tied to the trunks. As we ascended into the hills, apple orchards became more common. Although we passed lush wooded hillsides and roadside stands with an abundance of fruit and vegetables, the subsistence farming and woodcutting from which my ancestors earned their living made for a difficult life. My mother was reminded of some of the homegrown remedies her grandmothers taught her. On a short walk in the woods, we found a sassafras shrub, and my mother remembered that Cackie used to gather sassafras twigs to chew as toothbrushes.
In the pouring rain we pulled into the driveway of a church and cemetery in the tiny town of East Flat Rock. While my mother held a big umbrella and lightening flashed in the distance, I traced the letters on the headstone that bore my great-great-great-great-grandmother’s name: Milley Fortune (despite her name, she was not a woman of wealth). Next to hers was a grave bearing a large unlabeled stone we believed to mark the grave of Milley’s son Richard. Family legend has it that her son worked as a tree cutter or in a mill in what is now the Pisgah National Forest. After he was severely injured, his wife and children, including my mother’s great-grandmother Cackie, brought him out of the mountains in the back of a wagon to his mother’s house. Milley helped support her invalid son’s family. In later years Cackie, her daughter, and her granddaughter also played important roles in keeping their families together and providing financial support when their husbands or sons-in-law became incapacitated.
Something about being in the mountains struck a chord in me, beyond the sheer beauty of the scenery. I’d like to think I was feeling more than just the familiarity of childhood trips to the mountains. Somehow I want to tap into the strength of the mountain women from whom I’m descended. I love the idea that I’ve inherited some of their resilience and that part of me can call the hills home, even though I’ve never done more than pass through.