The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

Visit us on FaceBookGenerations of Memories
from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

A Virginia Lady

By J. Carlton Smith © 1996

Issue: Spring, 1996

It began in 1870 when an unusually pretty baby was born to Mr. and Mrs. Jack Dillon in Henry County, Virginia. She grew up to be a beauty and was known for beauty in several surrounding counties. Maybe her beauty was made more striking by the fact that her older sister and brother were quite plain. Her sister died fairly young, but I remember her brother quite well. This baby was named Elizabeth Morris Dillon.

Elizabeth Dillon was called Lizzie or Liz by friends and relatives until most of her acquaintances forgot her name was Elizabeth. She had an aunt that married a doctor. They were fairly wealthy by standards of the day and they were childless. They were so taken by Lizzie's beauty and charm that they persuaded her parents to let her come to live with them and they would launch her into society and help her make a good marriage. After all she was descended from prominent Virginia families and they would make her their heir.

Lizzie Dillon went to live with her aunt and uncle. I think they must have lived in Floyd County for I have heard her mention Floyd and Carroll County in telling events that took place. The aunt and uncle had servants to do the work. Lizzie had servants to comb her hair and help her dress. It seemed that all she had to do was look pretty and have a good time. It seemed that her life was filled with dances and fun things. Somewhere along the way she got a good education. She used the most correct English of anyone I know. I heard her say one time she pulled poison ivy and rubbed it on her legs in hope of not having to go to school. She said the poison ivy broke out so thick that by the time it disappeared, she was glad to go back to school.

Lizzie's life was filled with parties and dances. She would often tell of these events and what kind of dress she wore. At this time bustles were in style. At one dance there was a girl from a poor but nice family. She didn't have money to have a dress maker to make a dress for her with a bustle. She made her own and filled the bustle with shucks to make it stand out. When this girl walked or danced the shucks would rustle. Some of the people laughed at her and would make mooing noises when they were near her. The men would not ask the girl to dance and this made Lizzie mad. After all the girl was a pretty nice girl from a good family. Lizzie said she sent her beau to dance with the girl and tried to include the girl in conversation in her group. The girl was deeply hurt and soon left the dance.

Lizzie met prince charming and fell deeply in love. Soon they became engaged. It seemed that this story would have a storybook ending, but it did not. The man was a train engineer. He got killed in an accident. Lizzie never got over it for he was the romantic true love of her life. As long as she lived she kept a red plush vanity case and a locket that he gave her and when talking about him, her eyes would have a sad faraway look.

I am not sure what happened, but I think her aunt died before her uncle the doctor and the doctor died without making a will and what he had went to his relatives and all Lizzie had were those years of luxury and fun. It was a kind of Cinderella story in reverse. Somehow the one I felt sorry for was Lizzie's sister Annie. She had to stay home and work and never got to go to the ball and meet a prince charming.

Longfellow's Psalm of Life is a favorite poem for me. In it, it says, "Life is real, life is earnest." So it came to a time when Lizzie had to be practical. After grieving for a long time, she had to make a decision. I don't know whether her parents were still living and Lizzie had not been trained for work. So she married a widower with children, a Mr. Davis. Some of his children were almost as old as she. She said she didn't want children of her own so she married a widower with children. I don't know how long Mr. Davis lived after the marriage. He became an invalid and Lizzie had to do something to help make a living. Well, a lady is supposed to be able to sew a fine seam and somewhere along the way she became a seamstress and took in sewing. Mr. Davis died and Lizzie was left alone with her sewing machine. I think by this time all the children had left home.

One day sometime after Mr. Davis had died, and I don't know how long, an acquaintance informed her that Jack Smith was in town. She told him, "Send my Jackie to me." Jack Smith, my grandfather, had been one of Lizzie's many beaus before he married my grandmother, Laura Belle Martin. Grandma had been dead a short time. Grandpa said old coals are easy to rekindle. He courted Lizzie a short time and they got married. This kind gentle lady became our step-grandmother. She was good and kind and we thought as much of her as we did our real grandmother who was inclined to be bossy. My grandpa always called her Miss Lizzie and she addressed him as Mr. Smith.

My daddy went with grandpa to get married. He had been asked what he wanted for the wedding super and said possum. So two possums were fixed and I don't know what else. My oldest sister was four years old when Grandma Smith died. Grandma Smith had spoiled her as she was the oldest grandchild and lived in the house with the grandparents until shortly before Grandma died.

All the family, tenants and neighbors were waiting for the married pair's arrival and to partake of the wedding super. I hope there was enough to go around. My sister said she could remember this. She said Grandma Lizzie had on a big black hat with curly black feathers. Everyone was being introduced and saying something to the married pair. When they came to her she didn't know what to say but she looked up at her and said, "You look like a buzzard." I feel sure someone told her to say that as some of the family were upset over Grandpa marrying so soon after the death of their Mother. I never heard my daddy criticize Miss Lizzie. He was very respectful to her and taught us to be also. We loved her on our own as she was good and kind to us.

Miss Lizzie wasn't cut out to be a farmer's wife as she had never done hard work. The same was true of housework. What she did was done thoroughly. I especially remember her habit of washing dishes. She would wash the dishes and put them into another dishpan and pour scalding water over them. It was a sight to see her make up the old high bedstead. She would take the bed clothes off and shake all the feathers in the feather tick to the middle of the bed. Then she would take the bed stick and attack the feather tick like she was trying to kill a snake. Then whacking and smoothing she would work the feathers to all corners to her liking. The bed looked so soft and inviting after she made it up.

Grandma didn't help much on the farm. She was very small and frail. Sometimes she would come to the barn and hand leaves when we were barning tobacco. I think it was in the fall of the year and very cold and we were putting in one of the last barns of the year. Miss Lizzie came to the barn to hand leaves. A small boy was laying on the ground. Suddenly he called out, "Miss Lizzie, Miss Lizzie, a spider is going up your britches leg." As it was quite cool Miss Lizzie had on long drawers. She flew into the barn shaking and looking for the spider. When she came out she gave the boy a piece of her mind and how ugly it was to look up a lady's dress.

Yes, Miss Lizzie was a product of the Victorian era and brought up as a lady. Now when I think about her I wonder what she would think of what can be said publicly today. I am sure she would be shocked. There were certain words a lady did not say. She never mentioned a person's legs. They were limbs. Never would she say breasts. They were bosoms. A woman wasn't pregnant, she was in the family way. A bull wasn't a bull, but a gentleman cow. A cow didn't have a tail, but a switch. Here I will add one of her favorite sayings, "Every cow needs a switch in fly time." Today people would say when you are hot, you are hot. Another saying I remember her saying when she thought someone made a poor marriage, "They sure took their ducks to a poor market."

Grandma was a lady on all occasions. She would sit in the old ladder back chairs with her back very straight. To her, posture was important. She did not slump or slouch. When she was asked what denomination she was, she would say, "I am a Methodist, I thank you." She would say this in a tone that implied that a Methodist was tops.

One event I recall with amusement and fondness. Grandma's brother had a mule or a cow and didn't have feed for it. Grandpa loaded up a wagon load of fodder just as high as he could load. He tied this on with ropes and we helped Grandma up with her bag. Off they went to her brother's who lived 15 to 20 miles away at Dillons Fork. Grandma looked as regal as a queen atop the wagon load of fodder behind the two mules. This was in the 40's. I imagine people did a double take seeing an old man and woman atop a load of fodder.

I guess the reason I remember this so well is that they asked me, my brother, and a neighbor boy to stay at night and look after the farm animals. We slept in their old high feather bed and listened to the old mantel pendulum clock tick-tock and strike the hour and half-hour. I don't think I slept much.

We were there to meet them when they came riding in late Sunday evening. They were sitting on bags of straw on the empty wagon when they came home. They came in at a brisk pace, I think Grandpa must have whipped up the mules. The wagon was bouncing and rattling. Grandma Lizzie was just as erect and royal as when she left. She was a true lady as she proved on all occasions. A Virginia lady and there are none finer.

Grandpa had a stroke and went to live with a daughter. Grandma's sister in law, Aunt Jennie Dillon took her and was so good to Grandma. I know if there are rewards and golden crowns given in the next life Aunt Jennie will have them.

Here at the old Dillon home at Dillons Fork where Grandma came into this world, she left it. I was there when she breathed her last. The room was full of people to help and ease her passing. When she had breathed her last and the undertaker called, Aunt Jennie said to my aunts, "You girls straighten up Lizzie's clothes. She was always so modest and lady like, she wouldn't want anyone to see her not dressed properly." A lady to the end. A Virginia lady.

Her funeral was at Mt. Bethel Methodist Church. The church was filled with friends and relatives. While they preached her funeral, I thought of what she said when asked about her religion, "I am a Methodist, I thank you."

Grandma Lizzie was the last of her line as neither she nor her brother had children. In my opinion, Grandma left some deep foot prints in the sands of time.