the southern life

My husband is from Western North Carolina. That part of the state is kind of like one of those remote places along the Amazon where the natives live in isolation from the modern world and have their own customs and language. I am positive that it is the only place in the world where the word “They” is an exclamation of surprise or disbelief. Rather like the all too common “Fuck” is used today, “They” can be tailored to a custom response. Said very slowly, while shaking the head, “TTHHEEEEEYY”, means agreement. Tacking Lord on the end signifies extreme amazement, “They Lord!” Western Carolinians also eat a strange tribal diet. Liver mush is a culinary stand out. Liver mush is similar to many other regional delicacies like scrapple or liver pudding. But it stands proudly alone in having the most disgusting name among disgusting meat products. The local drive-in once offered a breakfast special consisting of a liver mush biscuit and a cappuccino. So exotic, one might imagine themselves in a European capital, rather than the foothills of the Blue Ridge. It also should be noted that babies are referred to as “it” for at least the first year of life. Questions are posed like, “Does it sleep good?” or “Does it eat good?” or statements like “It looks like daddy.”

The picture is the home of the mule trader's woman. The children are her grandchildren.
The picture is the home of the mule trader’s woman. The children are her grandchildren.

The families in the region between Charlotte and Asheville are descendants of the Scotch Irish who settled the area. Fair skinned, hardworking, God fearing, and stoic. They stay close to home and doubt the sanity of those who travel for pleasure. Those who settle elsewhere are thought to have a wild streak. Meals out are for special occasions and divorces are a rarity. They take pride in their work and stay on the job as long as they can. My mother-in-law reluctantly retired at 84. Her father was on the roof of the house cleaning gutters at 97. Those who retire in their 60’s or 70’s are either slackers or sickly.

Imagine our surprise when we learned in passing conversation that great grandmother had run off with a mule trader. The family never heard from her again. And that was all that her survivors knew. She left her children, her husband, her home, and church behind. What a charmer this mule trader must have been. Or was it the glamorous lifestyle of a mule trader that lured her away? Perhaps it was an act of desperation. As best we can determine she would have left in the late 1890’s when her children were babies. With no internet or telephone and probably unable to write, the lack of communication is somewhat understandable. The farm kids did not usually attend school with any regularity once they were big enough to work. So even if great grandmother and her children had writing materials they most likely did not know how to write enough to fill a letter.

In researching mule traders I found a surprising amount of information. Great Grandmother would have run off in the heyday of mule trading. Southern farmers were far away from adopting the tractor. The tractor did not come into wide use until the 1920’s, right in the midst of the Great Depression. Most of what I read implied that the farmers during that time were mistrustful of the tractor as substitute for a dependable mule. I suspect it was a combination of factors. Cost would have been one reason. While a mule was very expensive at around $200, a tractor was advertised at a scandalous $875. The mule was known to be dependable and fairly easy to maintain and both would have rightfully been suspect in a tractor. But great grandmother made her choice before tractors or depression.

So the mule trader likely had a pocket full of cash. Cash was rare in those days. People traded what they had for what they needed. Farm produce, eggs, chickens, a pig, or a cow was used to get new shoes or seeds for planting. Great Grandmother’s life was one in which she had a couple of dresses made from feed sacks and precious few fancy goods. She worked in that hot kitchen putting together meager meals for her brood and no doubt, felt herself growing old before her time. She washed their clothes over an open fire in the yard. The harsh lye soap would have reddened and scorched her hands and arms and made the worn, thin clothes even thinner. She would lie down at night in that hotter than hell house and wait for a breeze, just a tiny breeze to cool her enough to sleep. She laid in that heat and mourned that her days would continue to be so hard. She surely was afraid to acknowledge her heavy fear that her children faced a hard, bleak future.

I imagine that it happened in the hot, humid North Carolina summer. The windows are open and unscreened. Flies are buzzing in the house. The unpainted farm house is not visible from the nearest dirt road but there is a rutted path through the fields that leads him to her door.

The mule trader must have driven his wagon up that rutted path to their house. There were probably some bells or clanging pans hanging from his wagon that warned of his approach. Then the yard dogs barked and the children started to run in all directions. Some ran for the wagon and a few ran to hide. Strangers were scarce in those days. The mule trader pulled up to house and asked after the man and then asked for water for himself and his animals. He might have been the finest thing she had ever seen. He surely smelled of mules and sweat and maybe coffee or liquor. And even if she smelled him, and hated him at first sight here was her way out. I imagine it dawned on her slowly, that she could get in that wagon and leave the endless work behind. If she left those children behind she would be free to imagine that they all grew up to have wonderful lives rather than witnessing the stark reality. Maybe the children would forget all about her. And if the man married again the bride would come from their church community. Certainly a good woman would love her babies sufficiently.

The quirky folks in Western NC accepted this legacy and found it hardly worth talking about. I hope the mule trader’s woman had a long luxurious life, but she probably did not. I hope her children did not feel the deep pain of the abandoned, but they probably did. I hope the mule trader treated her like a princess, buying her pretty things and making her laugh, but he probably did not. I hope her arms never ached to hold her babies one more time, but it probably happened often.

The one thing I am sure of is that sometimes she would lay awake at night and remember the feeling of a tiny cheek against her own, or a sweet smile, or a tiny perfect hand reaching for her.

Image: the image was provided by the author.
Nancy Melton

Nancy Melton

Nancy Melton has recently added "writer" to her biography. She works in the health insurance industry which has somehow become public enemy number one these days. She is proudest of her role as a wife, mother and grandmother (although writer comes dang close) and wishes she could still claim to be someone's daughter.

  1. Will Cantrell

    Nancy, sometmes good prose is as good as good poetry. Methinks we have a poet among us. Bravo. Will

    1. Thanks Will. Great grandmother’s story needed telling. There is only one survivor in the group pictured and she can’t even recall great grandmother’s name. Some comments on Facebook suggest that great father may have done away with her and hid her body in the tobacco fields. I prefer my more romanticized version.

  2. Eileen Dight

    This is Southern Culture recounted at its best. I pictured the clanking pans as the mule trader approached the cabin. Great Grandmother had probably spotted him earlier and marked him for a prospect. Hard to believe she would have spontaneously eloped with a stranger.

    I enjoyed your speculations, regrets she may have felt for her babies, hopes that it turned out well. Perhaps she had a new set of babies, suspecting the trader’s fidelity while she waited at home, having traded one set of anxieties for another. I hope you will write a novel about this, perhaps suggesting alternative outcomes. I will certainly read it; put me down for a copy.

    1. Thank you Ellen! I come from a long line of speculators. We usually preface our speculations with ” I may have made this up…..” I appreciate you reading and your comments.

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