The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Summer At Piney Ridge

By Frances T. Craig © 1986

Issue: January, 1986

I was absolutely enchanted with the idea of spending the summer in the famous Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Our family doctor had ordered this to help me recuperate from rheumatic fever and my mother from pneumonia.

My brother Charles was furious. He disliked change as much as my mother, while I, like my Irish father was always anxious to see what lay around the next bend in the road.

Father had already arranged to have a favorite nephew and his young wife to move into our house. He would operate our mill and she would assist my older sister with all the summer canning and preserving. Father had rented a small corn and feed mill and a fully furnished cabin, right in the very heart of the mountains.

He only gave mother one day's notice to prevent her from worrying over packing. "We will travel light. Take only one Sunday outfit, outing sleeping garments and sweaters, for the nights are real chilly," he ordered.

"I have to take my record player and books," I protested.

"I ain't going without my B.B. gun and fishing stuff," Charles vowed.

"Well you'all know it's close to four hundred miles and we can't load up the car too heavy.

We lived in the Tide Water area near Richmond. All our traveling had been in that area. Our parents were from Gretna in the Piedmont section. The only mountains which we had seen were the small White Oak Mountains of Chatham, on the one visit we had made to relatives.

We must have been a strange sight, when the old Dodge two seated car pulled out. The wind would blow hard in your face for it was open. In the winter you had curtains that snapped on.

We left on an early morning in May, which is the equivalent to heaven in Virginia. The clean air of those days was heavily scented with the odor of honeysuckle. The birds usually began their morning concert about four A.M. which was the time of our departure.

Three suitcases of clothes, my record player and records, books, Charles' B.B. gun and fishing gear, and father's rifle were strapped on top. In the back seat was a bed of soft quilts and pillows for Charles and me to rest on. A huge picnic basket of food, and half-gallon jars of coffee, water and lemonade sat in the bottom. There were no fast-eating places along the road then.

My older sister ran out to the car for a final goodbye. She pushed my favorite records into my hands. They were "Charleston," "Balling The Jack," and the new fox-trot, "Whispering."

"You may not have anyone to play with, so you can dance to these." My whole family were expert dancers. Then she gave me her doll house, and all her paper dolls which I had always coveted. I hugged her, wiped away the tears and lay down. It was the first family separation.

Charles and I slept until we reached Martinsville. We stopped by a rushing little creek to eat our breakfast. I was spell-bound by the sight of those towering blue hills.

"These are nothing to what we will see later on," my father said.

"Oh! I love them," I cried out. "I wish I could climb all the way to the top and touch the sky."

"You are so silly," Charles remarked in disgust. "I hate them and I want to go back home."

My mother looked pale and tired as the day went on. We stopped often to eat, wade in the cool little creeks, and watch the little chipmunks and birds we had never seen before.

The sun was setting in all its glory as we turned off the main highway onto a narrow, winding dirt road on the last lap of our journey. We began to descend so low that when the full moon came up, you could barely see it for the tall trees almost shut out the sky.

We finally stopped in front of a small log cabin. It was deathly still. Across the narrow little road sat the old mill. You could see the water dripping from the huge wheel, and hear the gentle murmur of the water coming over the dam.

We crawled out, went in and literally fell into our beds. Charles cried himself to sleep. The strangest feeling came over me. I loved the sound of the water, the gentle moan of the wind up the cove and the eerie cry of the screech owl. "I've been here before," I thought, "I'm never going to leave here!"

Charles was still sulky and cross the next morning. He was rude to the big cheerful girl mother introduced to us. She was to work for us so that mother might rest.

"Ain't he a caution?" she giggled when mother made him apologize for telling her that she talked funny, and her clothes were funny too.

We were sitting out on the porch when we caught sight of this tall lady coming up the road. She had her arms loaded down with packages. I ran to help her and Charles called Mother.

"I brung you'ins a few little things," she remarked. She began to unload jars of pickles, preserves and apple butter and a huge pan of gingerbread still hot from the oven. She called it, "molasses puddin."

"Oh, how sweet of you!" my mother exclaimed. "It will be a fine treat for us. Sit down, Mrs.....?"

"Oh, I plum forgot to tell you who I am. I'm Lou Ella Simpkins. Thank the Lord it's still Miss and I don't have to fool with no contrary old man."

Mother laughed and called for some cake and coffee for her visitor.

"You'ins shore come a fur piece!" she remarked as she sat down.

"You talk as funny as that girl in the kitchen," remarked Charles, with a cool stare.

"Charles!" mother was embarrassed. "He's tired and homesick," she excused.

"I'm not, I love it here!," I said.

She smiled kindly at me.

"We'll have to feed you up and put some roses in them pale little cheeks."

"Do you live near by?" Mother inquired.

"Yeah. I got about three acres down the road a little piece. I raise all my eatings. I got hogs, chickens, geese and a cow. I gotta garden. I raise beets and pick ginseng and sell it. That pays for the few clothes I need."

"I love your pretty dress and bonnet," I put in. "I wish that I had one just like it."

"Laws, Honey. I'll run you one up in no time a tall. They are made out of feed-sacks."

"Does your family live around here too?" My mother asked.

"I ain't got nobody but my poor foolish sister that lives way off over yonder in Lonesome Cove. Mind you, she had good sense till she married that Old Puke Harvey Lester."

"Old Puke, that's a good one," Charles grinned for the first time in three days.

"How did he make her lose her senses?" I curiously inquired.

"The sorry ole devil half-starved her, and beat her. He beat her when she was in the family way and both her poor boys are strange."

"Strange how?" Charles asked. He had forgotten his sulks and was completely fascinated with this unusual lady.

"Well, Rufus, the oldest one won't hunt or fish, or even help out in the garden. He'll whine and say, 'Rufus has got a headache.' Every time anybody comes he lays down on the floor, listens to everything they say, goes down to the store and tells it all! It makes a lot of trouble."

Charles said, "Frankie and me ought to do that."

"Ain't he a caution?" She shook her head and continued... "Sammy, the youngest one is about eight years old and cries more than any baby I know. He's afraid of everything. He won't go to the out-house at night. He'll squall and yell, 'Sammy ain't going out there.' Both of them call their selves by their name. 'A panther cat or a big bear might eat me all up." Then he uses the fireplace." Charles rolled over laughing.

"They'uns would have starved long ago if I hadn't fed them. They are getting on a lot better now, since Sister killed the Old Puke," she casually remarked.

Mother spilled her coffee as we stared in shock.

"How did she do it?" Charles finally asked.

"With the iron poker by the fire place. He was beating poor silly Rufus half to death when she finally got up nerve to do it."

"Good for her!" I cried.

"Is she in prison now?" my mother asked.

"Naw, the Sheriff said self defense and let it pass."

She arose to leave. "Y'all come to church tomorrow. It's the one at the head of the valley."

"I noticed that lovely little white church as we drove in," mother said.

"What denomination is it?"

"Hard Side Baptist. Does it make any never mind to you?"

"Not at all," my mother assured.

"We will be there if Frankie feels well enough."

"Which means we'll be there. Little Goodie Good would go to church if she was dying," Charles remarked.

I pushed him down the steps.

"Ain't he a real caution?", she asked as she left.

Charles and I were dressed in our favorite matching sailor suits when we went to church the next morning. My long hair was brushed and shining and hung below my waist. Charles' mop of yellow curls hung out from his cap.

A group of poorly dressed, bare-foot children were watching us as we started up the steps. One boy said loud enough for us to hear, "Wonder which one is the girl?" Charles started after him, but mother grabbed him. I stared coldly at him.

"She's sure a stuck-up little Snot, but right purty, ain't she?"

"Aw, shut up Jimmy. You ain't funny!" a little boy with the bluest eyes I'd ever seen, ordered.

We could not have felt more out of place in a Hindu Temple.

There was no Sunday School, no one preacher, no piano or organ. Several elderly men spoke saying Ah! Ah! at the end of each sentence. They read out a line of a hymn and then sang it. I looked around and the little blue-eyed boy smiled at me. I smiled back.

When we started to eat dinner, father asked how we liked it. Mother said it was strange. Charles vowed that he would never go back, even if they beat him with the iron poker. He laughed and said there were plenty of switches around.

"Frankie, how about you?" he asked.

"Oh," I shrugged, "Sometimes a change is nice."

"She spent the whole time grinning at a little old boy," Charles put in.

I threw a biscuit across the table at him and Mother promptly sent us out on the porch. I could hear my father defending me and mother answering that I couldn't continue to get away with that kind of behavior just because I was sick.

In a few minutes we were called back in. I refused to go and sat on daydreaming. I was counting the drops of water as they slowly dripped from the water wheel.

A shy voice said, "Hey! Whatcha doin?" It was the blue-eyed little boy from church.

I smiled and answered, "Nothing, just watching the water. My name is Frankie."

"Mine's Johnnie." We giggled.

Miss Lou Ella really sailed into Jimmy for picking on you'uns. He just wanted you to notice him. He thinks you're real purty. I do too," he shyly grinned.

"Thank you."

"Miss Lou Ella said you and your mama had been real sick and you'uns come up here to get well. Is that rite?"

"Yeah," I answered, "I'm not much sick now. They just didn't want me to stay where it gets so hot and mosquitoes bite."

"I hope y'all like it so much you'll stay on all the time."

"Me too, but just this summer is all."

Charles returned. He looked curiously at Johnnie and handed a chicken leg and biscuit to me. "Here, eat this," he ordered. I refused it.

"You had better eat it, or Mother will make you lay down all the evening." he warned.

"I don't care. I'll just look at all my new pictures in my View Master."

"What's that?" asked Johnnie.

"Wait a minute and I'll show you," I said. I ran in to get them. When I returned Johnnie was eating the chicken and Charles was asking him about all the fishing places.

Johnnie was spell-bound by the View Master.

I ain't never seed nothing like it, in all my born days," he marveled.

My parents came out on the porch with three saucers of apple pie. Johnnie ate his and most of mine that I had shyly pushed at him. Again he gave me that blue-eyed smile. "It's shore lickin' good, Mam." he told Mother. I caught the odd thoughtful look Charles gave me.

Johnnie spent the entire afternoon with us. We played records for him and he loved it. He showed us the nest of a wood thrush on the ground. "Her eggs are speckled like her breast," he whispered as he parted the bushes for us to see. In return for our record music, he took a huge harmonica from his faded little blue overall pocket and began to play.

The haunting sweet sounds brought my parents to the door.

"Johnnie, that is perfectly beautiful!" my mother exclaimed. "Where did you learn to play like that?"

"I dunno," he grinned shyly.

"That's a fine harp," Father remarked examining it.

"Miss Lou Ella give it to me."

"What is that song? I love it!" I put in.

"Shenandoah." Again he looked at me with that blue-eyed smile.

"Sing it, and let Father play it," I ordered him.

His voice was even sweeter than the harp. I felt an odd desire to weep. (After fifty years the same feeling comes over me each time that I hear it.)

Johnnie became our constant friend and spent every day with us. Miss Lou Ella became Mother's. I once heard her discussing Johnnie with her, and I shamelessly listened.

"His Mammy died when he was born. That old puke of a husband just took off. Nobody ever heard of him since. His Grandma and Grandpa raised him. He's the best young'un in these hills. He's getting so wrapped up in little Frankie I don't know what he'll do when you'uns leave. I worry about it."

"Why, they are only eight years old," my mother impatiently exclaimed. "They will soon forget this summer," she comforted Miss Lou Ella.

The wonderful golden days flew by. Charles and I taught Johnnie to dance the "Charleston," "Balling The Jack," and how to foxtrot to "Whispering." He was a very skilled pupil.

"Do you'uns know how to square dance and polka?" he asked once.

"Sure," Charles answered. "Father plays all kinds of string music. He taught us those dances by the time we could walk. Frankie can do "The Heel and Toe." Do it for him!" he ordered.

"Naw, let her rest. We've walked a fur piece today. I gotta go. See you tomorrow." He gave me that special smile and ran down the road.

Charles watched him and turned to me with devilish grin. "I think he kinda likes you."

"You hateful Old Puke!" I yelled and ran in the house.

I simply lapped up ,Johnnie's whole hearted devotion that wonderful summer. The best berries and the loveliest flowers were mine. He watched closely to see that I didn't get over tired. I played the role of the helpless "Southern Lady," that was born in me, to the hilt.

Mother really liked Miss Lou Ella and missed her sorely when she went for several days to visit her sister in Lonesome Cove.

She came out at once to see us when she returned. Taking her seat in her favorite rocking chair, she began to relate her experiences. Mother sent for coffee and Charles, Johnnie and I sat down on the steps. There was never anything dull about her conversation.

"I'll vow I don't know what I'm gonna do with that poor foolish soul," she began.

"The last time I went over there I carried a passel of yard goods to make them ragged young'uns some clothes. I asked her about it for they were still ragged as buzzards. I had even cut them out for her. She said she was aiming to sew them, and then thought of going to the spring for water. Down there she heard a little owl hollering and went to hunt for its nest. Every time I get after her for her crazy doings, that's what she says...'I was aiming to, but I had to go hunt for the little owls' nest'."

"That's what we can tell everybody, Charles," I gleefully remarked. (Our family still hands down those excuses, "Hunting for the little owls' nest"...Having Rufus' headaches....and being afraid of "Billy's panther cats" are traditional jokes.)

A few nights before we left, a dance was held at the one room school house. After everyone was exhausted with square dancing and the polka, my father picked up his banjo and began playing "Charleston" and "Balling The Jack." Charles, Johnnie and I danced for the crowd. They clapped wildly. Poor little Johnnie blushed, but Charles and I were used to performing publicly.

Suddenly, Father picked up his violin and began the haunting "Whispering." The guitar players joined in, and Johnnie and I danced.

You sure smell good," he whispered. "What you got on?"

"Mother's 'Three Flower' perfume and 'Coty' face powder. I borrowed it off her dresser."

We giggled and danced on. The memory of that night haunts my sleepless nights.

If I should live to be a hundred, I shall never forget the morning we left our summer paradise. They hadn't told us that we were leaving until they began to pack up the old Dodge. I felt cold and sick all over and my legs were trembling. Charles looked stunned. Suddenly. Johnnie came flying up the road. He was white as death.

"You'uns ain't really going, are you?"

"Yeah," Charles answered. I couldn't speak.

"I left all my fishing stuff on the back porch for you," Charles told him.

I couldn't speak! I pushed my View Master and all the pictures into his hands. He handed Charles his favorite whistle, and put a lovely little handmade basket into my hands. He suddenly kissed my cold cheek and with his blue eyes filled with tears, ran swiftly down the road.

In a sad daze, Charles and I crawled into the back seat and we started the long trip. I pulled the blanket over my head and let the bitter tears roll. Don't ever let anyone tell you that the heart of a little eight year old can't break.

Finally Charles asked, "Are you gonna tell Albert (our friend at home) about Johnnie?"

"No!" I sobbed, "Don't ever talk about him! I know I'll never see him again! If you ever do, I'll stomp your guts out."

I was in my early thirties before I ever visited the mountains again. I was taking my children to travel the Blue Ridge Parkway. With the first glance of those unchanging blue hills, that old strange feeling caught at my heart..."I'm Coming Home!" and I wanted to weep for all the lost years.

Since then I've traveled every mile of the Blue Ridge, the Great Smokys and the Cumberlands. I always want to cry when. I leave. Once I was at the out-door drama, "The Long Way Home." The organist began to play "Shenandoah." To the total amazement of my family, I wept. I didn't tell why. I just said, "I am tired, that's all."

Old age brings strange dreams and memories. I often sit in my back yard and watch the sun go down in the Dan River. Was it real or only a dream? Everyone is entitled to the one perfect dream to atone for a lifetime of shattered ones.