A Story About a Mountain
By Kelly Bembry Midura
Bobbie Jo was a friend of my mother’s, and a community organizer of sorts. She had tightly permed hair and crooked, tobacco-stained teeth. Bright green polyester pants hugged her ample behind. Friendly — and common as dirt, as my grandmother would say — she once surprised me while I was on the toilet in our house in Nashville by walking right into the bathroom to put on her lipstick and chat. Well, it was only ladies present, after all.
When I was about 11 years old, Bobbie Jo invited me and my brother, a couple of years younger than me, to come visit her up on Clinch Mountain in East Tennessee. This particular mountain (yes, the late Ralph Stanley’s backup band was named after it) overlooks the Holston River, a major route westward from Virginia and Pennsylvania during frontier times. Many of my own ancestors traveled this way, by pole barge and oxcart down the Tennessee River to the Cumberland River and smaller tributaries to claim former Indian lands in the Cumberland Territory. The people who now live on Clinch Mountain are the descendants of those who either decided to stay in the hollows — or simply got left behind. Many of them are likely kin to me.
I was too young to know or care about any of this history. In fact, I’m not entirely sure why my brother and I traveled willingly halfway across one of the longest states in the Union. With no electronic devices, yet! I guess we were just used to piling in the car to go see our country relatives and didn’t question being shooed into the back seat for another long drive.
But there’s country, and then there’s country. The relatives we visited most often were solidly blue collar workers and farmers in rural, red-dirt, West Tennessee. They lived in small, tidy, white clapboard houses with big kitchen gardens out back, worked hard, and went to Baptist churches and Bible studies every week. They had high school degrees, which was all they needed. They were all dedicated teetotalers. Though my great-grandmother dipped a little snuff, very few of my relatives even indulged in cigarettes, and none of the women did. In small-town terms, they were the diligently respectable middle class.
Sunday dinners were hearty — if a little heavy on the desserts — but loaded with healthy vegetables from the gardens. Corn, green beans and squash were just a start. What wouldn’t go in a pot was sliced up and served raw: There was always a dish of green peppers and tomatoes on the table. Waste not, want not, and maybe aim not to plant quite so many peppers next year. (As if!)
Bobbie Jo and her family on the mountain were country people, too, but they were also the rural poor. On that road trip, I learned that’s not at all the same thing.
We met Bobbie Jo in Rogersville where she left her car to ride with us in order to direct us up a winding gravel road to go visiting in her hollow. We stopped at her ramshackle house (yes, there was a couch on the porch) to talk to “Pappy.” He was her husband, though he looked a lot older than she did. It was hard to tell how old he actually was. A tough, leathery, former coal miner, he had a nasty cough due to “the black lung,” though that didn’t stop him from chain-smoking Marlboros.
Bobbie Jo wanted us to entertain us at her “homeplace,” further on up the road. All Southerners have a family homeplace. It is usually the first house or farm that anyone can remember owning. When I was a little kid, maybe 8 years old, I visited my grandmother’s grandparents’ home place in West Tennessee: an enormous (to me), two-story log cabin by then being used as a cow barn. Though no knew who built it, it certainly dated from well before the Civil War. A big loom was still there in the corner of the loft. I remember my great-aunt, Minnie Belle, who lived in the “new” 100-year-old house on the property at the time, gave me a stick and told me to bring the cows home. So, I did.
That log house was sold years ago, taken apart and shipped to a less remote location to be someone’s hobby cabin. But my grandmother still owns another home place in a tiny town in West Tennessee. It belonged to her parents and is a small, white clapboard structure that was originally just two rooms with an outhouse in the back and a well out front. One of the two side porches was later enclosed to create a kitchen and a bathroom with just a sink and a toilet. When we stayed there overnight as kids, we took baths in a big steel washtub on the porch.
My great-grandmother lived in that little house her entire adult life, raising four kids in it. We visited her there all the time when I was a kid. My parents keep up the place, visiting now and then from Nashville to putter around and gather apples and pears from the small orchard. My mother will inherit the house one day, though there is no longer anyone in the family left in the area to live in it.
Bobbie Jo’s home place was a plain, tin-roofed wooden house that could not remember the last time it had been painted. At least 100 years old, it had wide-plank pine floors that have probably since made their way to a designer reclaimed-wood warehouse. Cabbage-rose wallpaper peeled off the lath-and-plaster walls. There was no power, but there was well water in the kitchen sink if you used a hand pump to bring it up. We used a bucket to flush the toilet, and were thankful to have one.
We stayed the night there, in our sleeping bags on ancient couches. Supper was creamy Skippy peanut butter or store-brand hot dogs on white Wonder Bread with Lay’s potato chips and liters of Coke on the side. No vegetables to be seen. Mr. Gibbons, a tall, elderly neighbor with about three teeth in his head, came over to meet “you’uns” and sat on the porch with us for some time, smoking an endless chain of cigarettes. He was nice, I remember, and pleased to have city visitors in the hollow. His accent was so strong I didn’t entirely understand his stories, but he seemed to enjoy them, so I laughed along with him.
Bobbie Jo’s daughter was about 15 or 16, with a boyfriend not much older, and a fat, bottle-fed baby on her lap. She was pale, white-blonde, skinny, and smoked Virginia Slims. I had brought a pad and pencils along, being used to entertaining myself out in the country, and was drawing the sorts of things middle school girls like to draw, including fancy shoes, for some reason. I drew big stiletto heels with bows, and she asked me, with wide blue eyes, “Have you ever seen shoes like them? In a store in Nashville?”
We sat out on the porch in the cool mountain air until bedtime, catching fireflies in old jars retrieved from under the house, and reading by flashlight. (My mother could always be relied upon to remember the flashlights, bless her.) The next day, we took Bobbie Jo back to her car in Rogersville. She insisted on treating us to lunch at the Sonic drive-in. Since breakfast had consisted of more white bread and potato chips, that was a pretty darn good burger, as I recall.
I went back to my city home, my excellent school, and eventually to my fancy college education and life as the spouse of an American diplomat. Together, we lived in seven countries and traveled to many more. I have just turned 50, and have begun to reflect on my life, as one does. I realize that weekend trip was actually my first visit to a foreign country: a place like nothing I had ever seen before, with people I could barely understand. That kind of experience is still fascinating to me, 40 years later.
I know that I have very little in common with my distant Appalachian cousins. We are truly “foreign” to each to each other. I probably wouldn’t want to talk politics with them these days. But I still have clear memories of Clinch Mountain and how friendly and hospitable those people were. Thanks for the Wonder Bread and Coke, you’uns.