(I always thought I might turn this into a book. After many years of trying, I see it’s not going to happen. I’m putting it here. If you read this, and you have memories of Flay to share, please feel free to add.)
A Letter to my Uncle Ted – My father’s only brother (16 years younger than my father)
September 23, 2006
I know that your birthday is sometime in September. Unfortunately, I have never been able to keep your birthdate and Daddy’s clear. I know one is the 13th and one is the 26th – or at least that is what I think. Likely not correct. But I do try. Regardless, I hope yours is or has been a happy one, surrounded with your grandchildren, your daughters, and son-in-law, and Sue. You have managed to have quite a successful life with your children, and I am sure you are all delighted with Teddi being back in close proximity. I was thrilled to learn of her return to North Carolina, and have recently received several wonderful emails from her. She sounds happy and that is quite important to us all. I hope to speak with her at length soon.
You crossed my mind this morning as I realized that we were in birthday range somewhere, so I decided to sit and write you about some memories, and to let you know how important Flay was to me. I find it interesting that when I think of my childhood, it is Flay that comes to mind. Almost a mythical place, although it was real, and it holds a major formative importance in my life.
I remember your dog, Danger, quite clearly. I almost think of her (she was a she, wasn’t she?) as my first pet, although I believe she belonged mostly to you. Her bark and her protection were important to me, although I don’t think she particularly liked having three new children show up in her home. I do think she adapted, and I can’t recall how she left us – what age she was and if she died from natural causes. I just remember her fierce determination to keep anyone from hurting any of us. Was she part Jack Russell? Did they have Jack Russell’s then? I don’t know the answer to that. Perhaps you do.
I remember meals in the kitchen at Flay quite clearly. The way you would mix your milk, pintos, onions, and cornbread and eat it all as a kind of cold soup. You probably still do that. It always looked gross to me, but that was part of what you enjoyed – creating some shock there for us. I think I have that need to shock as part of my personality from you!
And the tickling, Ted. I could beat you for the tickling! I think I have convinced myself that I am no longer ticklish because of you! How you would laugh. You do have a wonderful laugh. I think I laughed as much because of yours as I did from the tickling.
Remember how you loved to make me mad? People would say I should have been a redhead because of my temper. I have now been a redhead for many years. The temper is still there, but I have learned some measure of control. How much would depend on who you asked. Concerning the red hair, you knew something I didn’t. Cader (my brother-in-law) still calls me “Red.” Actually, many years ago, he set me up on a date with a friend of theirs in Cary, NC, and Cader told this guy in advance that I had red hair. I didn’t have red hair at the time, but the baby sitter did! So when the guy showed up at their house, he thought Cader had set him up with a teenager! Now the term “red” works, and I can’t imagine being anything else. I will likely be a redhead for the rest of my life.
I want you to know that Daddy and Grandma live strongly within me. I have such admiration for her now, and I deeply wish I could have known her better as an adult. She was a very strong woman, who cared deeply, and I could never see it. Teddi and Angel have been able to help me see what a great sense of humor she had, and it took me years to know how much she loved all of us. There is much I do wish I could change about that, but now I have to be satisfied that she knows how important she was to me from her heavenly perch. I wanted you to know it as well.
I know that you have held a grudge against those who hurt Daddy, and you have done so for years. I want you to know that I do believe Daddy would like for you to give that up. I do speak to him often, and I think he wants this from you. It is a heavy burden for you, and it isn’t necessary any longer. Even with his struggles (or perhaps because of them) he was a great man, an even greater father, and we all know how much he loved us. I am extremely grateful – more so than I could ever say – that I was sent to live with him and all of you at Flay. I think my life would have been severely damaged had that not been the case. I was surrounded by family and friends and love and food – and experiences that I carry in my heart every day.
The campus minister at Clemson (from where I graduated in December 2012) is from our neck of the woods. He is the younger brother of a class mate of mine. Unfortunately, I have no memory of him from that time – he is two years younger than me. But I got to meet with him (his name is Chris Heavner – brother of David in my class), and we sat and shared fond memories of Flay, North Brook, and West Lincoln. He filled me in on some things I didn’t know – outcomes of friends from high school. It was such a pleasure to have someone to talk to who knew what my life was like. He even said it must have been interesting to live in the hub of the area – that hub being Flay! I told him I had never quite thought about it like that, but I suppose we were the center of many things that happened there. Imagine that – we lived in the center of everyone’s world. He recalled going to the barber shop where Jim Wilson would chat with the customers with his friendly style. Also, as a Lutheran minister, he knew much about Daddy. That was intriguing to me.
On cold winter days, I can recall the fragrance of Grandma’s hot dog chili wafting out of the front doors of the store as I came in from getting off the bus. I so loved the aroma of her chili. Sometimes it would warm me from the inside out, and getting to it to have a bite was like a touch of heaven. I know I could try to recreate that taste (I believe Sue has the recipe) but it just wouldn’t be the same. I need the surroundings of Daddy, you, Boyt Baxter, FL Beam cussing loudly, Grandma, Poppop, and all the people who would be in and out of the store. I need the smell of the floor and the huge bags of flour in the back room, and Mrs. Gerald Baxter and her lip stuck out with snuff. I need to see Grandma with her folded papers or sitting at her sewing machine, pumping out quilts. I learned to sew because of her, and today I make quilts too. I need to sit at the piano in the house and drive everyone nuts with my repeated playing of chords over and over and over (why did someone not come and scream for me to stop??). I need to see my pinned up photos of the Monkees all over my bedroom wall.
Sometimes, I just need Flay. It lives on within me strongly, but if I could just walk into it for a moment, really walk in, close my eyes, and simply see all that took place, feel all that I felt, hear all the voices, smell all the aromas – it would do my heart such good. I think I would kill for a can of Grandma’s homemade sausage. How I use to gaze in admiration and desire at those cans lined up in the basement.
I have tried to write books about Flay. I have actually written several short stories. I do believe that if I am to be a writer, it is a story that will have to be written someday. But which one? The one about a broken hearted little girl living through her parent’s divorce? Or the one about a happy girl in a happy place, being loved and treated kindly? They are all one and the same, I suppose, and I am deeply grateful that I have them to draw upon. The memories of Flay have helped me to be a much stronger person than I would have been without them. You are part of those memories, and I wanted to tell you just how much I do appreciate you. Thank you for being part of my past that helped me to get to where I am today.
I do love you, Ted. Always have. Hope your birthday was (or will be) wonderful. Do something kind for yourself, and be in good health.
With deep love and appreciation,
I don’t remember the first time I saw Flay. My sister recalls going through the tiny town of Cherryville to get there, riding in an old ford (I don’t remember the car, but we always had old fords), underneath the walkover that extended from one side of a textile mill at the outskirts on Hwy 274. The walkover was the way I remember knowing we were close enough to Flay, that if I could keep from throwing up for about 15 more minutes, I would make it to my grandparents’ house. Sometimes I made it and sometimes I didn’t. The combination of motion sickness in the old Ford and the exhaust fumes of leaded gasoline, in addition to my father’s cigarette smoke usually did me in. But once we passed under the walkover, in which we never saw anyone walking, I was almost home free. More to the point, the other passengers in the car were.
I don’t truly remember those moments. Sometimes when your siblings describe a scene often enough, you think you remember. You can even see the memory, created by another person’s recollection. But it was never my memory. Much like I know I don’t remember sitting at the top of the stairs to the attic in our home in Brevard. Or was it Hendersonville? Regardless, I can see it in my mind’s eye as if I really do remember it. Trick is that I can’t. I saw a photograph once. The three of us – Mark, Noel, and I – sitting at the top of the stairs. So I think I remember that. I must have only been two or three years old.
I do remember some things in Walhalla, South Carolina. I was about 4 or 5. I had imaginary friends. Do children still have those? One of my friends was named Socky. No idea where the name came from. Another imaginary friend was a woman in the military. She wore a uniform. I don’t remember if she had a name. But she was there, just the same. There with Socky, and when things got too sad at my house, I could play with them. I could salute the military woman. And watch her march up and down the sidewalk in front of my house. I’m not sure if she did anything but that. I was impressed with her marching, I think. And her military bearing. My father was a captain chaplain in the army for a period. I don’t think the military woman has anything to do with that. Of course not.
I remember planting a quarter behind the church in Walhalla. My father was the Lutheran minister there. I must have been feeling the pinch of poverty because right there between the church and the graveyard – right in front of the storage building – right in front of God and everybody, I planted that quarter. I checked it occasionally. At least I remember checking it once. To see if money would grow. I knew about roots. I wondered if that quarter could grow roots and I would no longer be afraid of being poor. Funny, I don’t remember being poor. That came later, when I realized that I had less than others did. But in Walhalla, I had a family and there were lots of little kids who lived in my neighborhood. I don’t remember being lonely then. That came later too.
I remember cutting my hair. I have always liked to cut my own hair. I suppose that my hair needed to be cut and it was bothering me. I decided to cut a tiny piece from one side. Not noticeable to anyone, I was certain of that. Except it was noticeable to my mother and probably not tiny. Whack. Wasn’t a good idea to cut my hair. I would have to wait to grow up before I could do that again. I would also have to wait to grow up until I could cuss. My mother cussed like a sailor. Do sailors cuss that much? I had to wash my mouth out once when I was four. Going to kindergarten in Walhalla. Someone else cussed, and we all had to wash our mouths out. I remember being held up to the sink by one of the boys, who was a good deal bigger than I was. That thrilled me. To be held by a boy much bigger. The soap wasn’t so thrilling.
Walhalla was a turning point in my life. Probably because it was here that my mother met my stepfather. Where she taught him in high school. Where she may have become his lover. I have never learned when that point was reached. I’m not sure I really want to know. Walhalla was also where my father became ill. Depressed. Which one came first? The lover or the illness. I want to believe it was the illness. My father’s manic depression and his schizophrenia drove my mother into the arms of another man. My dad is not here to ask. I’m not convinced I would ask. But I could ask him about life in Walhalla. I could ask him what his favorite memories were. I could ask him about the people who came to his much-too-early funeral from this little town in South Carolina. I wonder what he would say. Would he tell me about the family who had a cabin on a lake with canoes? Would he tell me about the women of the congregation who thought he could do no wrong? Would he remember that I had a terrible nightmare there, one I can still recall, with a witch and Frankenstein? Or would he only remember the very sad things that happened here. I don’t know the answers to these questions.
I waited a very long time to write about this. I don’t want to hurt people who are still living. I don’t want to cause my mother deep and difficult pain. Her life has been hard enough. She had a mother who chose to disengage from her life because my mother divorced my father. My grandmother divorced my grandfather. What right had she to judge my mother? My mother, who took her in, who cared for her brother when my grandmother couldn’t do it, who stayed with her brother when my grandfather could find no work and the two of them (my mother and her brother) were put into a home while my grandparents sought employment. What right has she to judge? What right have I? None at all. We all do the best we can at the time. I have to believe that.
One’s background can be so convoluted. So filled with anguish and confusion. I have said that anyone who claims to have had a wonderful childhood is in denial. Is it just me who is in denial? I think mine was no harder and no easier than most but it was mine.
Confusion seems to be the feeling which I experienced most in my childhood. I have likely told my children too much because I was confused and uninformed as a child. I never wanted my children to wonder what in the hell was going on. I have no idea how successful I was or if I failed miserably. Based on my oldest sons and their responses to life, I both succeeded and failed. My youngest and third son has the distinct childhood advantage of having two involved parents. From my perspective, this son has been allowed to become who he was meant to be. That comes with the territory of being a secure child. Nature vs. nurture. I think my personality developed because of a huge nurture – or lack of – in response to my nature. I will elaborate as I go along. Essentially, I believe both are very important, but one side can weigh heavily depending on the environment and the care given to a child. Warning: My philosophical side will show up on occasion.
I raised myself. Not a good thing in the best of situations. But there it is. When my parents split – wait…I don’t actually know when they split. My father was in Walter Reed hospital in DC after having tried to kill himself by jumping from a jeep. Or so I’m told. That was in Korea. I have no documentation to prove that. My mother once told me that he was there for two and a half years. I don’t quite see how that is possible. She’s 88 now. I’m not sure I trust the information she shares. But the fact remains that I’m not sure when they split up. We were living in Columbia, SC. I don’t think my father was there, although I have vague memories of a tall dark man in our home. Didn’t have to be my dad. I was six years old. There were moments of great happiness there. Andy, my younger brother was born there. Turns out Andy is not my full brother. I’ve never understood that half sibling thing. Either they are or they aren’t. But neither is my stepfather tall and dark. Andy is my beloved brother. My first child, in a sense. I love him to pieces.
When I was a teenager, my father told me that his grandmother and aunt (my beloved Aunt Edna) punished him by putting him in a closet in which they had hung knives. As a teenager, I believed these stories. I thought that those evil women who were in charge of my father had damaged him deeply. It was years before I questioned my father’s memories. He chose to share some of these appalling experiences with me. Scissors and knives were always a part of those stories. When I later heard about the letters with daggers and blood, I didn’t doubt them. My mother didn’t keep the letters. Why would anyone keep such awful things? Of course not to share with the children you had born to such a man.
When I went to Flay to live, I was in the second half of the third grade. I don’t think my dad was even there. He may have been in Walter Reed. I just don’t know. At some point, I became aware that he had been given shock therapy. Maybe I didn’t know this until I was much older. But I recall going to the airport to get him. My grandparents along with my sister and brother. We walked out on the tarmac. No one does that anymore. But we did. We walked out on the runway, and he came out of the plane. I didn’t recognize him at first. I’m not sure he knew us. The shock therapy had done its work. The depression was not immediately evident but nor was he evident. Was he in there somewhere? Somewhere hidden to stay safe? I have never been able to watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with any modicum of objectivity. I’m not sure which character invades me most. Same with A Beautiful Mind. When other people mention these movies, I shut down. Not a place I really want to go. The memories are too stark, too confusing, too much trauma. Yet, I’ve watched both. Several times. I’m drawn to Cuckoo repeatedly. I’m a huge Nicholson fan. Is that the real reason? Do I head down that road so that I can feel the continued confusion that comes forward when I think of my childhood?
I’m not writing this because I need to relive these times. I know that sometimes people tackle their memoirs out of the desire to leave something of importance to their family. To allow those who come later to have some understanding of what their parents and grandparents experienced. To leave a legacy.
I want to stop the cycle. The cycle of mental illness that can pervade a family, especially through secrets. Through addictions and continued repetition of the past. I also want to remember Flay. This amazing environment which still pervades my very being. The essence of Flay fills my veins. In so many ways, I am Flay. I don’t even know what that means. I will take this walk and see if I can come up with a definition of what that is, who that made me, how a “place” parented me more than any people ever did, and how that home became so ingrained in who I understand I am that it makes me say I am the place.
Is it always looking back at the past that makes one think their present isn’t so very good? The rosy glasses we like to apply to our “moments” mean that they really weren’t so rosy. They just look that way in retrospect.
When I first got to Flay, my grandmother wasn’t thrilled that I was there. Of course she wasn’t. Her life had been deeply interrupted by the arrival of a troubled son and three of his children. At that time, we all thought the fourth child of my parents union still resided with our mother. It wouldn’t be until years later that we would discover Andy wasn’t the son of my father. If our father was so paternal, why wouldn’t he want his youngest son with him? I assumed in my eight year old brain that he didn’t feel equipped to care for such a small child. Didn’t love him, perhaps. It didn’t occur to me that he wasn’t equipped to care for me. I could bathe, if I chose to. Wash my own hair. Go to the bathroom. Get into bed. Do some chores. But a three year old, as Andy was at the time, wouldn’t have those minimal capabilities. So our routine was that we would, on occasional weekends, get on the Trailways bus from Lincolnton, and travel the great distance of 30 miles to Charlotte, spend the weekend with my mother and little brother, and then get back on that diesel smelling bus and head back to Lincolnton. I don’t have much memory of those trips. My mother has told me that many nights she would prowl the house and look into beds, crying and missing her children. I never really got the feeling that was true. Seemed like she had taken the easy way out, and eventually headed south to Florida with her new Navy husband, the father of my wee brother who felt like my first child. Eventually my mother and stepfather had another child, my younger sister.
I do remember the bus trips to Florida. Being carsick in my father’s car on the way to visit my grandparents does not compare to the horrid retching smell of a Trailways bus for a little girl who was easily and regularly carsick. Mark and Noel learned early to give me a paper bag, install me in the front of the bus, and sprint to the back where they could claim no kinship. Let the bus driver take care of my queasy stomach. Seems like that actually helped. Perhaps looking out of that large window in the front helped me to keep from being sick.
However, the trip that stands out most in my mind was the time we went with my uncle Jimmy, my mother’s only sibling. He had an old green Chevy, I think, with no air conditioning. The old car held Jimmy, his wife (girlfriend?), Diane, and the three of us. While we were in Florida, my mother gave Noel a parakeet. I think it was for her birthday. Parakeets are generally small birds, but like small humans, they come with “stuff.” This bird came with a cage. The trip home from Jacksonville, Florida, with no air conditioning, a regularly carsick girl, and a parakeet in a cage, two other kids and two adults was not what one would call roomy. At that time, there were no interstates where we were headed. The trip was arduous with many stops and turns. We spent a week in that car on a trip that was actually only one day and one night. My stomach felt like there were days upon days stuck in that green Chevy with a chirping bird and sticky skin. Sometimes memories like those are fun. This one doesn’t bring back fun memories.
Flay itself was a fascinating place for my curious mind. I don’t think of it so much as a home than an adventure. At some point, I believe the original structure had been a 4-room house. I don’t think this house had “indoor plumbing” but I’m not completely sure about that. The original four rooms were a dining room, kitchen and two bedrooms. The back porch may have been part of the original structure. I do not recall ever dining in the dining room. The kitchen held the kitchen table, of course. Here was the spot where those who were employed on the farm sat to eat their dinners. Dinner was at 11:00 AM. Or thereabouts. This was my first experience with “turns.” We had to turn the table three times during the height of farming. Which meant, sit down, eat, and get up. Someone else was waiting for your spot.
My grandmother and Mrs. Bolick – and probably other women of country cooking abilities – would preside at the stove, where they spent the majority of the morning getting pintos cooked, biscuits made, turnip greens stewed, chicken tenders fried, country steak floured and cooked, and other sundry carb-heavy dishes prepared, dished out, and cleaned up. Whole milk which had been milked from our one cow that morning was poured into glasses waiting, butter which had been churned from the fat of that milk sat on the table, waiting for hot biscuits and sometimes molasses. On regular occasions, cornbread would accompany the meals that spread lavishly and were devoured quickly on my grandmother’s table. Mrs. Bolick complained regularly about the men who came in, scarfed up their food, with no, “thank you, ma’am’s” to be heard. Mrs. Bolick loved to complain, with her own sons bearing the majority of complaints in her life. She moaned about Snuffy’s shiftlessness, Robert’s poor grades, Dan’s womanizing. I can no longer remember the names of all of her sons. It seems there were seven or eight. There must have been a husband or man in her life somewhere, but he eludes me if I ever met him.
The Bolicks lived in a barely standing two-story house that had some connection to my family background. Perhaps my great grandfather on my grandfather’s side grew up there. All the homes that had held relatives of mine were in close proximity to Flay. With the exception of the Old Home, in which my grandmother was reared. As I recall, that house had burned to the ground while the Bolicks lived there. I never heard what caused the fire, but some of those old homes were tender boxes waiting for a small spark. In most cases, the kitchens of these houses were built a short distance from the home, in order to preserve the rest of the house if the kitchen went up in flames. But these homes were also built without electricity and heat, and once electric lines were brought inside, so were space heaters which were left on during the night, and could easily spark by themselves or a light a fire on a shirt that was left too close, or some newspaper thrown too close to the heat. Usually, the fire department made no need to attempt to find out what caused these fires. What did it really matter? There was little if any fire insurance, and the people who lived in these burned out homes had to try to gather enough household things from neighbors to move onto the next wood home, carrying with them the same easy attitude toward fire and the possibility of being burned out again. That was part of life and people dealt with it. Those were the days of neighbors helping neighbors. But then discussing their neighbors’ flaws with other neighbors. Ahhh, the south.
Flay had an old oil burner which was in the middle room of the house, along with various space heaters and not much insulation. The middle room, which was the room I shared with my sister when I first moved to Flay, had so many layers of wallpaper on it that one could almost refer to it as insulation. I recall lying on my bed and peeling back layer after layer, wondering who put this wallpaper up in a house that no one seemed to care about when it came to decorating. Flay was about convenience and need when it came to furniture and knick-knacks. Dressers lined the walls wherever there was an open spot, and the middle of the room was kept open for passersby. No hallways were ever implemented in the construction of the house. One door opened onto the next room. Each room had at least two doors – some had three – so that you could move from room to room without need of halls. There was no wasted space in a world in which utility was the main decision for life.
As a young girl, the lack of privacy was hard. I was not used to having lots of space, but I was used to closing doors, and keeping people out. There was no such thing as privacy here unless you headed to the local pasture with your puppy and ran as far as you could go. There you could lie down under a tree and watch the clouds move and change and become the most fascinating and bizarre creatures. And your puppy would play in your hair, teasing it, and licking and nipping at your face, and making you feel loved like no other in the world because she loved you best. But then the puppy would not know that the parking lot next to Flay was for cars, and falling asleep under a wheel was a sure death sentence, and your father would have to come tell you that Sha-sha, that most beloved and protective of all puppies, had gone over the rainbow bridge, and you were left here without her. Again, you were left without someone or something that you loved deeply and desperately, and was all yours. Andy lived in Florida, and now Sha-sha was gone. And you discovered that it might be a lot safer not to love. But still you would try. Rabbits, kittens, and other dogs. They wouldn’t stay with you, however. Loving just wasn’t for animals or people who chose to leave you over and over and over. But you could love a building. A place that kept you warm and where there was plenty of food, and your brother and sister lived there too. Flay protected me.
The room next to my sister’s and mine was my father’s room. By the time we arrived at Flay, the first house addition had taken place. Perhaps the second. My uncle had a room that was back off of the dining room. The floor in this room angled downward, which suggested it may have early been a porch. But the best surprise was in my uncle’s closet. There was an opening for a dumb waiter, which for us was a secret trap door that led down into an old basement room that had been long forgotten by my grandparents. I suppose there may have been a washing machine of sorts, the kind with a ringer on it, where someone did the wash. Our washing machine, and eventually a dryer, sat in the kitchen, where the steam from the cooking and the dryer would create the most delicious warmth on a chilly winter day. But the trap door in my Uncle Ted’s closet was a dream for a little girl who thought she had been Pippy Longstocking in a former life. Many spend-the-night guests slipped through that door into the cobwebbed and spooky basement below my uncle’s room. I never quite figured out my fascination, because I descended into a room that terrified me. But I can recall slipping into that closet – strictly forbidden by my grandparents, and moving clothes so that I could raise the trap door, and begin fitting myself into a tiny opening. I was a skinny girl but the maneuverings of getting into that small square was a huge part of the fun of slipping into oblivion. I think that I always believed that once I descended, I would find myself in a world of James Bond like beauty, with spies and guns and secrets that would capture me with their mystery. Oddly, I can only remember one time in which I came up through the trap door. That time, I was following other kids, and as I leaned to go into the door in the basement, I accidentally stuck my hand into an open door in our water heater. The shock taught me a lesson that I have never forgotten. Between me and electricity, electricity will always win. I don’t think I burned myself but the abruptness of the shock stunned me, and I have been very careful with electricity since then. Perhaps it isn’t so odd that I remembered that.
Next to Ted’s room was the original bathroom for Flay. There was a small sink, a small toilet, and a very small tub. The tub had a perpetual rust stain that ran from the faucet down to the drain at the other end of the tub. I fought that stain for years, believing that there must be something that would remove this dreadful red stain from the tub. Countless amounts of comet were sprinkled and scrubbed on that horrid clay-colored stain. I poured Clorox and filled the tub with hot water. Sitting there, I could see a slight change in color, which would only prove to be false. The water drained, and the stain remained.
The toilet was another whole matter. I do not want to become incredibly disgusting, so I will say that my grandmother’s digestive system was not what one would want for oneself. As memory serves me, she lived on Ex-Lax every night. And she didn’t feel the need to polish the toilet. Perhaps she was simply tired of the battle. Perhaps she didn’t notice. Sometimes we get so used to our own personal smells, that we are no longer aware of those odors which can offensively assault the noses of others. My payback is that I have inherited my grandmother’s digestive system. Perhaps that is my come-uppance, as she would say, for being the snob I was. I could have, after all, cleaned the toilet for her. Ummmm, I don’t think so.
Next to the bathroom was my grandparent’s bedroom. There were two double beds here. I don’t recall thinking that being in the least bit odd. They slept in separate beds but in the same room. My grandmother slept with a rag wrapped around her head. To keep out the noise and the light. I don’t know if my grandfather had any particular sleep habits. Other than that they both went to bed at dark. If it was dark at 6 PM, they went to bed. 8 PM, time for bed. Sometimes in their later years, it was light outside when they settled in for the night. I know that farmers did that prior to electricity because – well, because of many reasons. Exhaustion, no light by which to work, their own upbringing, but I could never quite adjust to this fact. Yet, it did give us as a family some privacy time.
Next to the kitchen, which had two walls full of cabinets stuffed with junk that was often filled with bugs, was a large screen porch. We had two huge freezers on this porch, where the left over dinner from the day before was stored. Other things were here, including frozen vegetables, meat, and fruit. The canned sausage was kept downstairs in the basement, where it needed no chill. The hams were hung in the salt house at the edge of the backyard. On occasion, I would sleep on this back porch. I recall one time I lost a tooth. I was sleeping on a roll-away, and I awoke to find that the tooth fairy had not come that night. I knew there was no real tooth fairy, but I desperately needed to believe that there was one. My father came out to find me in tears. He told me to hold on, reached under the bed, and came back with two quarters in his hand. The tooth fairy must have dropped the money under the bed. Or perhaps I moved so much that I had knocked it out from under my pillow. The tooth was still there, and I knew full well that the tooth fairy does not leave money without taking the tooth. But I played the game because I knew it would hurt my father badly if I let him know I knew he had forgotten to be the tooth fairy. There are many times in our lives, when we children are called on to be the parent and, our parents, the child. I think this was one of the first times it happened with my father. It may have been the point at which I switched places almost permanently. I didn’t believe in Santa, the Easter Bunny, happy endings, or family safety. I knew what was real, I was ten years old, and life looked uphill from there. In so many ways, it was, but in so many other ways, it became a battle because of my own choices. But at the age of ten, realizing I was now in charge of me and that if I wanted a father-daughter relationship, I was going to have to be in charge of it, was a heavy load for a young girl.
The basement was a whole different world at Flay. The size as I remember was huge, but it couldn’t have been. Not when I now look at the land where it stood. The room where the dumb waiter emptied was a separate room from the rest of the basement. The most used entry came through the store. At the back wall where the store and the house were connected, there was a trap door. The door was surrounded by a handrail that kept people from falling in. There was a string with a hook. The way to open the door was to lift it with the string and then hook the string to the side rail, leaving the door open while you descended into the darkness. Leaving the door open meant getting yelled at. Now that I look back, I wonder why the yelling. Leaving the door up simply meant the door was open. I can’t remember anyone falling down those stairs because the door was open. What you had to do was open the door, prop it with your hand over your head, and close it as you went down if you weren’t coming back up anytime soon. The light bulb below was operated by a string to pull it on – or pull it off. The pitch blackness into which you descended was bone deep. I can remember praying to Jesus that I would be safe as I descended into the depths of this black hole. I tend to only pray when I’m scared or worried.
A bowl sat at the bottom of the stairs, and here the feral cats that lived in the basement gathered suspiciously, flitting in and out as someone poured leftovers into their bowl. I don’t quite know why we kept this family of cats in the basement unless it was strictly for vermin control. It worked quite well. Rats were not a problem at Flay. I tried constantly to tame a kitten, any kitten. Often, I came close but the wildness would creep back in, either because the mother wouldn’t allow me close to her kittens or because the inbred nature of these cats was to mistrust humans. I believed at the birth of each litter that this group would have the kitten which I could tame. I was forever disappointed.
At first, the cats were the only reason for descending into this part of Flay. On occasion, my grandmother sent me there for the rare privilege of choosing one of her cans of homemade sausage, the stuff of heaven. Of all the things which my grandmother made, there were only three whose praises I sang. Her chili, her blackberry pie, and her sausage. I have no idea what was in the sausage, and I venture to guess that at this point in my life, I would rather not know. But during those days of fried chicken and biscuits made with lard, the homemade sausage would send my stomach soaring. And would also allow me the ability to overcome my pervasive fear of the blackness of the basement, and send me carefully into its depths.
The steps into the basement did nothing to assuage my fear. Rickety and narrow, they were built from single slabs of wood with no backing and no handrail. As I grew taller, I could grip the frame of the trapdoor for most of the trip down, but while I was still short, I had to trust that Jesus would hold my hand as I trusted him to keep me safe in my descent. Once I made it to the bottom of the steps and took three steps forward, I could feel the door that led into the lit part of the basement. Here, I could grab the door handle and quickly enter into the one room which felt safe. This room would be eventually become the living room for our four bedroom apartment, which was later built for my sister, brother, father and me. This would be my party room when I reached 13, the room of my first drinking binge after we had moved back onto the ground level of Flay. This was also once the barber shop for Jim Wilson, who showed up on Wednesday nights to service the old farmers and some of the young men who came from several miles around to get their hair cut. It would eventually house my aunt’s beauty salon, Sue-Flay so named for my aunt Sue and the obvious location. Too cute, I know you are saying.
I am left to wonder where the other three rooms had come from that comprised the apartment. The stairs down to the living room were old concrete blocks, and the outside entrance into this apartment felt more like a sinkhole. On occasion, I threw wildflower seeds around, hoping to create some loveliness amid the old decrepit stairs and a bit of a concrete wall. I don’t think it ever worked. The windows were part of the original structure, with old iron separations between each pane. Once you stepped into the room, the entrance to the next room was to your right. In that room, there was one closet on the left, and two twin beds for Noel and I on the right. Our bedroom was dark with the only natural light in the living room. The next room was my father’s and brother’s. From there, you went into the bathroom, armed with a single standing shower, one toilet, and one sink. The water was often freezing, as was the temperature in the bathroom. But it gave us privacy. Waking up was tough enough in our room. Once you entered the next room, my father and brother’s bedroom, natural light could not penetrate at all. Some Saturdays, Noel and Mark would sleep into the afternoon. I could rarely make it past ten, but they could sleep away hours of the day in the depths of Flay.
I once found a bottle of grape wine in that closet that belonged to Noel and I. I cried for hours believing that my father was an alcoholic. Now that I’ve had my own battles with alcohol, I wonder where this fit in his life. Did he drink on occasion? Did he need it with all the medicines that were his for depression, blood pressure, heart disease, and who knew what else? Did he need it? I was so hard on him.
I won’t ever know the answer to any of these questions. He died when I was 18 a year after I left Flay. A year and a few months. He left me. I’m 62 years old now. I know he didn’t leave me. I know that his health was bad, and his self-care non-existent. I know that I had little to do with his leaving. My grandmother thought he left her. My grandfather was clueless. I think my brother felt abandoned . But he was married to his high school sweetheart and her family who offered him unconditional support. My sister was on her way into a college career that seemed impossible for me. I had chosen the path of being a new mother with a new marriage to a man I hardly knew. But I was out. I was out of Flay, and the loneliness that had invaded what had once been a lively and alive world. I had escaped into my own misery and poor choices, and I was terrified when he died. The three of us wrote him letters that we put in the pocket of his suit while in his casket. I wish I could rewrite the note I left in his pocket. Anger and fear and recriminations. How could you leave me? What happens when/if I fail? Where will I go, who will save me, who will rescue me from this terrible choice I have made? I won’t always be the angry disillusioned teenager who seeks her own path. Someday I will understand that I can and will learn from others. Someday I will need you and now what do I do? My sad little note was all about me. Not about my father, or missing him or feeling badly because I left him to be so alone at Flay. Just about me. I wonder what Mark and Noel’s notes said.
The store itself was the main focus of Flay. My grandparents had purchased this store from a previous owner, and interestingly, it was already named Flay. My grandparent’s names were Mae and Ray. Too many rhymes. But it worked. And the store worked. In the countryside, many small general stores sprang up. Some stayed. Some didn’t. Some were known for different functions. Once my father recovered enough to begin to work at the store, he started a credit system. I can remember it now, the drawers with the alphabetic listings on the outside, and the individual names on the 4 x 6 index cards. With dates of purchase, amounts, and the occasional payment. I don’t know what inspired him to begin such a system. I assume it was his general social conscience that drove him to become a minister. He wanted to help those who had no money and needed to feed their families. Or needed seeds to plant. I don’t think we sold alcohol. Based on my response concerning the purple wine I found, I believe I would have remembered that. I also wonder why it didn’t happen. The farmers had a tough go of it some years, and white lightning had to have been part of their defense mechanism against drought and bad crops and disappointing children and sick parents. But to their credit, I never saw it. I only knew of one man who came in drunk regularly, and I don’t think that I knew then that he was drunk. I knew I was afraid of him; I would leave the store and disappear into the house when he came in, but I never realized he was a drunk. His son has not fallen far from the tree, if he still lives. Drug dealing and selling illegal alcohol became his son’s life. What a tragic legacy.
Some of my favorite times were while I was working in the store. The store. It had its own sound. Another part of the growing building of Flay. When we first moved there, it was just a large room with a cash register island, and one row of shelves for the canned goods. Vienna sausages, crackers, sardines, baked beans. My father initiated the enlargement of Flay by one room in the front. The original doors were heavy blue metal. They slammed closed on my hand one day. I look at my fingers with surprise. That should have chopped several fingers off.
We sold cold cuts and hoop cheese. The cold cuts consisted of baloney and luncheon meat. To cut it, we had to turn on the slicer. It could be called a slicer for many reasons. My father admonished me regularly to be very careful. Every time I turned it on, and the whirr of the spinning blade started, I would hear him if he was in earshot. I wonder how many people cut their fingers off with this blade. I was always careful and have the finger prints to prove it. The hoop cheese was another thing. It was delivered in a huge circle, with the smell accompanying. I couldn’t quite get into the hoop cheese phenomenon. But there were regularly customers came who wanted 1/4th a pound, or 1/3rd.
In the fall, my grandmother made hot dogs and chili for sale. I can remember getting off of the school bus on a cold autumn afternoon and being lured into the doorway with the alluring fragrance of Grandma’s chili. In the years hence, my aunt has told me that she has the recipe. I have no need for it. If my grandmother didn’t make it, I don’t want it. If I can’t walk into Flay, listen to the rook players in the back, and take a whiff of the cotton seeds in the flour room, I don’t want it. If I can’t hide behind the cold cut case and peer into the pot teeming with tomatoes and beans and ground beef (was it roast?), I don’t want it. If I can’t sit beside the register, and grin at the customers who have come to sit in the store because they have nothing else to do, I really don’t want it. Flay is a bygone era. Much like Tara of Gone with the Wind has disappeared along with the speakeasies of the prohibition period. Those moments in time that brought forth an environment which shaped a child merely through its physical presence probably exist today. But not in the world of Flay. Those now live in my memory and imagination as well as the others who walked their way through it. These worlds both damaged and saved us. The parts of me that are Flay are both good and bad. I don’t hold with people who can only see the positive in their world. Nor do I hold with those who only see the negative. I look for something in between. Sometimes I get caught more in one area than another. Sometimes the bad and the dark grab me and hold me too long. I’ve been there too long now. But sometimes it forces me to delve deeper. To become more compassionate, more understanding of the struggles which capture many of us. Then it’s time to climb up. To grab the root that sticks out of the ground in front of me, and to haul myself up inch by inch, and to know that deep inside me, Flay holds me together. Holds me strong, and loved, and part of something that lives deeply inside of me.
Flay eventually was bulldozed down. For some reason, for years I believed it had burned. Much like the other homes around it before, it was a tender box. What kept it from going years before, I’ve no idea. Perhaps the space heaters, the oil based heater that stunk to high heaven, the fires in the slaughter pen that came in the fall made me think that was what happened. But it lasted for years. Until someone else moved there and tried to make it what it had been before. Flay is gone. I have a brick that I took when I once visited. I have a piece of the foundation of my world. In so many ways.
The men who visited Flay came for many reasons. Some came to purchase items for their family. Some came to gossip with the other men. Some came to play Rook. To partner with other men in a random game of cards that gave them friendship and connection. Some came to sit out the rain or the snow or the lousy weather that kept them from farming. Some came because they had nothing else to do. Wives and women always had something to do. Wash to hang out. Beans to cook. Children to raise. The men came in groups and they came alone. My grandfather was one of those men. I understand that he drank a lot when I was young. Before I was born. My mother tells me stories of my grandmother calling my father wherever they were living and begging my father to come home and put him in bed. My father went. I suppose my parents never lived that far away. Brevard, Walhalla, Burlington. A couple of hours at most. My dad would get in the car, whatever time of night it was, and head towards Flay. To put him to bed, to help his mother, to leave his family. How difficult those choices are when one must choose between his parents and his wife and children.
My grandfather did not interact with me much. I never liked him, and I didn’t feel safe around him. I recall that my father and he had an argument when I was a teenager. I had disagreed with something that my grandfather had said or done. Perhaps he criticized me. It was the only time I saw my father stand up for me against him. He was of course quite solicitous to my dad at that point. I didn’t believe it or buy it. I think at best he accepted that we were there because of my father. My grandmother eventually loved us to pieces. I don’t think he ever made it over that hump. My uncle and my grandfather had more in common, and my dad and my grandmother were more alike. I once had a therapist suggest that I had recreated the situation of my father and uncle with my own older two sons. Before the third one was born. I never quite got her analysis. My father and his brother were 16 years apart. Two only children. My two older sons are two years and ten months apart. Some therapists grasp at any theory.
Aspects of Flay that caught my imagination were not part of the actual physical presence of the building. One of those aspects was the fields that lay behind and beyond. The road next to Flay, not the one in front, had no name that I knew of at the time I lived there. It was simply the road that went past Bess Chapel Church. It may be called Bess Chapel Road now. But taking a walk along that road took me past three houses, and up a small hill. Before reaching the crest of that hill, I would climb the fence, and take off in the pasture that Greer Beam owned. He also owned Carolina Freight Lines in Cherryville, and happened to be the first man my grandmother ever kissed. As a Beam myself, I questioned her sanity in not pursuing that relationship longer.
“Lucy, he was crazy.” That was her response, with a long drawn out “a” in the word, crazy. I laughed, and asked her what was different about that. “He shot out televisions.” Apparently, a story circled that when Greer was a teenager, he got very angry and shot a TV. No idea if it was ever true. But that was her defense. Forget the money, he was nuts. I wanted to say, and “what was Poppop?” But I remained respectful for once. I’m sorry, Grandma. Maybe you loved Poppop.
The pasture held all kinds of freedom for me. Lush and green, and full of cattle, I would go there when I was too full of people at Flay. Or too lonely for my mother. Or too angry to deal with those who told me I should have been a redhead. I headed first to the top of the hill. There a huge tree offered me shelter and the grass underneath was as soft as feathers. I would lie there and watch the clouds overhead, as they shape shifted and floated. Sometimes I felt as if I was the one floating, and the clouds were watching me. Other times, I lay there with my eyes closed, while Sha-sha, or the dog of the moment, nudged my head and teased my hair. I would open my eyes and watch the cattle close by, wondering what I would do if I was charged by one. It never happened, but it remained part of my watchful look as I eyed the cows and they occasionally eyed me back. I could walk through the tall grass to the bottom of the hill, and peered into the creek that was sometimes there and sometimes not. If a drought existed, I would search through the rocks that lay on the creek banks. If recent rain had filled the creek, I searched for crawdads, jumping in fear when I discovered one. Sometimes I sat quietly by the creek bed and contemplated the light that flickered through the trees. This was a haven for me.
I was never afraid of being alone in the pasture. For one thing, I never went there without my dog. Sha-sha was an attack Chihuahua. At least in her own mind. Part taco dog and part something else, she took it as her personal mission to keep everyone away from me. At least, if they appeared to threaten me. One of my favorite games was to have a friend smack me – hit me on the arm – and then watch Sha-sha do her stuff. I wasn’t afraid to be alone in the pasture because I believed that she would protect me.
My aunt changed that for me. I didn’t understand fear of my fellow man. Even though I had been through a difficult childhood, no one had ever threatened me physically. I don’t think my aunt had that safe feeling of the out of doors. One day she came after me. Expressing her great concern that someone – a man – could find me and hurt me, I never looked at that pasture the same way again. Perhaps she was right. Perhaps she was expressing her honest fear of what could happen to a young girl in the 60’s in the countryside of North Carolina. Perhaps it was an indication of the abuse she had experienced herself. I lost that haven. I lost my location of safety and freedom that had given me the sky and the clouds and a connection with my dog that I felt nowhere else. I likely would have done the same if I saw a young girl I loved headed off to a field where there was no one to look over her. I can’t really say what I would have done. Maybe I would have offered to walk with her. Hold her hand. Find out why she needed to disappear into a 30 acre pasture which may be seen to be unsafe to an outside onlooker. Whatever the reason for her reaction, my safe world on the hill was lost. Where could I go then?
Earlier, I mentioned the parking lot that was outside of the stairs that descended into the doorway of our basement apartment. I need to elaborate on the “parking lot.” That would be an exaggeration. The lot was a mismatch of cracked concrete, tar, rocks and gravel. There was no attempt to draw lines to determine where the cars were to be placed. It would have been a joke to do so. Cars pulled in close, backwards, side to side, lengthwise, sideways. Trucks, tractors, combines would be randomly parked there as well. Wagons, broken down equipment, and trash. Every so often, I would get the cleaning mood going, and try to arrange things in the lot to be more aesthetically pleasing. It was a thankless and mostly impossible job. Getting the litter picked up was not difficult, but getting the cans of paint, fertilizer, old pieces of tractors, car parts, tires, left over seed pails, and ever more “stuff” created a constant battle for storage, and who needed what when. There was nothing like pissing my uncle off because he couldn’t locate his newest car battery. I learned that cleaning was akin to death, and I began to focus on other aspects of organization.
Each of the three of us had to work in the store. Here I use the word “work” sparingly. Working in the store consisted of helping customers, sweeping the floor, refilling the shelves and the coke boxes, and generally hanging out. Daddy paid me 50 cents an hour. On my best week, I think I made $8.00. I have so many memories from the store. Originally, the store was a large room with one side to the right that housed the bags of flour. Which meant bugs. I hated that side. Our Aunt Edna used the cotton bags that housed the flour to make pajamas for us. That was also a popular spot for the card table and the endless Rook games played by many bored and worried farmers. On Saturdays, rainy days, and off-crop periods, the men would gather in that room and take their frustrations out on each other by battling to win the game of Rook. Generally, this was a sweet group of men who were kind to me. However, there was one who, as he entered the store entered the store, I exited it.
F.L. Beam was a large (read – fat), red-faced man with a loud voice and offending language. He would come barreling into the front door, cursing loudly and blaming everyone else for his problems. He terrified me. When I heard that voice, I was out the connecting screen door in a flash. I did not hang around to hear the language that must have terribly embarrassed my father. I have no idea what my grandmother thought. She had a great chuckle that she would emit when anything happened that she felt was unorthodox. When I remember my grandmother, I realize how badly I missed out on knowing her well. I was too busy resenting her. She had a great sense of humor. I even missed her funeral because I was out of town visiting my middle son in Rome, Italy. I didn’t know she was dead until I returned. My husband told me after I landed in DC. That was a difficult afternoon. I would have come home early. She had so much influence in my life and I was so ungrateful. Too late now. I’ve done my best to tell her. I hope she knows.
When my father returned to live with his parents, he made changes in the store. To the left of entering the store from the house was a long, high shelf. I see that in my memory and I know that created a great place for shop lifting – you couldn’t see the other side. I wonder if that was a problem we experienced. I have no way of knowing. I did my own shoplifting – mostly candy, for which I was caught several times. The worst part was grabbing a candy bar and sneaking it outside. Then opening it to find white mold or bugs. I guess that was what I deserved. My father added a front room to the store, which was located right on the side of Highway 274. When he added the front room, we were then literally on the edge of the highway. Three gas tanks outside provided a place for cars to pull in and fuel. Once the addition was made, there was just enough room for one car. We were a full service gas station. I loved to smell the gas and wash the windows for the customers. There was something reassuring about giving them the ability to see out of their grimy front windows. Sometimes I would clean the back window as well. I recall when gas went from .29 a gallon to .34. Wow, you would have thought the world was coming to an end. I didn’t understand exactly how poor many of these people were.
There was a transitional period in my mother’s life when she was moving from Columbia, SC, to Charlotte, NC. I went to Flay for two weeks in the second grade. I suppose that was when she was moving. I met some kids who I would later know my whole life. One, with whom I’m still connected, returned home to tell her family that my accent needed to be countrified. It has never happened. My memory of those two weeks is fleeting. I sat in a desk that was for a left handed student. I guess that was all that was available because of my late attendance. I don’t remember Flay at all from that visit. What I do recall is the smell of the school, the oldness of it. The oily dark floors, the red brick walls, the concrete steps. The kindness of the teacher who would only have me long enough to know my name. I was related to many of the teachers there. I don’t think she was one of them. I recently learned that she is having her 100th birthday. She was a kind woman who made a lonely little girl feel accepted.
After those two weeks, the three of us went to live with our mother in Charlotte. I don’t know where my father was at the time. Perhaps he was in Walter Reed Hospital. What I do know is that we went to Charlotte, where my mother rented a small house from her father. It was a two bedroom house. My sister and I had one room with twin beds and built in cabinets. My brother slept on the back porch. I don’t know where my baby brother was. Perhaps he slept in the room with my mother. It was a tiny house. My sister and I began school at an elementary school close by. My brother attended the local junior high, where he once tried to bite his tongue off in a basketball injury. I think a shorter player came up under his chin and forced his mouth to close on what must have been a protruding tongue. The blood was awful.
It was here that my sister made her first sugar cookies – out of corn meal. I didn’t know I could spit that far. It was here that my mother threw an iron at me. It was here that I got my second beloved stuffed animal – a large black cat with ruby eyes, which my mother surprised me with on the morning of my 8th birthday. I loved that cat. It was here that I slipped children’s aspirins out of a little gold box because they tasted like candy. It was here that I feared my uncle, my mother’s brother, who was rather greasy and showed up at unusual times to hang out with us. I didn’t like him then, or when I grew up. There was just something about him that made my hackles rise, and I found that I would go into another room to avoid him.
Other memories of this little house include the assassination of President Kennedy. We were sent home from school, Noel and I, walking along and having no idea of the reason for being sent home. Perhaps she knew, but I was in the second grade and simply knew I was getting out of school. Yet, there was darkness and eeriness about the day that let me know we weren’t out for a good reason.
The first summer we were in Charlotte, Mark went to live at Flay. Noel and I were home and we fought a lot. I don’t recall if we kept Andy during the day or not. But we were bored to tears and fighting and getting on each other’s nerves which was likely a normal thing. Especially unsupervised. I recall one time calling our mother because I was tired of getting beat up. She told us to clean the house and continue working. That way we wouldn’t have time to fight. Didn’t work at all.
A nice memory in Charlotte was our Saturday lunches. All the leftovers of the week were spread out on the table and we ate our fill. How I loved that lunch. Then Sundays, brutal Sundays, when were beaten into submission to get us ready for church. The only time I recall my mother touching me affectionately was when we went to church. She would drape her arm around the back of the pew and massage our backs. It seemed so fake. I flinched and pulled away. Love me at home first and then love me in public. I still feel that way.
My mother’s father also lived in Charlotte. I refer to him that way because I never knew him. He was a tall white haired man who would rarely appear at our house. Looking back now, I wonder if he only came to get the rent. He later committed suicide because he was fearful that he had cancer. He shot himself in the second story bedroom of the house he lived in, which I don’t recall ever visiting. His second wife found his body. By that time, I had gone to live at Flay. I recall coming back to Charlotte and staying in a hotel for the funeral. My brother, sister, and I were enjoying ourselves. Laughing and picking at each other because we had rarely stayed in hotels. Our mother got angry with us and admonished us to respect the dead. How could we care when we had no relationship with him? It was no different than attending the funeral of a friend’s grandfather.
There is nothing I can say about my mother’s mother. I never knew her. She disowned my mother when my parents were divorced. Interesting since she divorced my grandfather. I once tried to contact her via letters, but her first letter in response to my initiating letter was to put my mother down as a loser. I was then nineteen and had not seen her since I was two. Again, interesting that she had no contact with her grandchildren. I threw in the towel rather quickly.
There is little else I recall about my time in Charlotte. I also have little memory of when I first arrived at Flay. I do vaguely recall going to an airport to pick up my father. I have no awareness from where he was arriving. I only remember seeing him emerge from the airplane, and having little to say when he got in the car. My grandmother was crying, but she was always crying. I didn’t understand what was happening there. I still don’t know. Odd that we can grow up and still have little knowledge of what happened in our childhood.
I was ten when I went to Flay to live fulltime. That was 1964, the last half of my third grade year. At that time, there were seven people living in our house. I attended North Brook Elementary school. My brother was already there, but my sister had not yet arrived. I don’t think she came until the beginning of the next school year, although I’m not completely sure. I was unaware that my father had been diagnosed with manic-depressive schizophrenia. He returned from being a captain-chaplain in the army in Korea as the last remnants of the US Army were leaving Korea. I think it was my mother who told me he tried to jump out of a jeep while he was in Korea. I once tried to find his records through Walter Reed Hospital but it was a futile search. I have no idea what the truth really is. I can only respond to what I saw and experienced.
In the fourth grade, he came to talk to my class about his time in Korea. He stood to the side of the room and had a long conversation with someone who wasn’t there. Shame filled me. I am now filled with shame because I felt that way. But I was eleven years old – not old enough to know or understand the mental illness of my beloved father. I didn’t ask him to come to school again. It was simply too terrifying for me to consider.
In the first days of living at Flay, Noel and I shared bunk beds in the middle bedroom. The corner of the room had built in shelves and on these were my grandmother’s porcelain dolls as well as my father’s hand carved figures. The dolls were elusive. I was afraid I would break them. The carved figures fascinated me. An Army Captain, a minister, and a number of other carvings which I have forgotten now. My father whittled away his troubles and produced the most amazing little people. What I would give to have one of those now. They spoke to me with their tiny eyes and their flat bases foreshadowing the toy story movies. I was convinced that each night, after I slept, they rose and played around our room. Occasionally, in the morning, I would glance suspiciously toward the shelf where they stood to see if they had moved during the night. I could never tell but it looked possible.
This room held an ancient oil heater that still functioned. I deeply hated the smell and the fact that the heat only stayed close to the heater. I woke at night with grease oozing off of my face. The corners of the room and the next room were always freezing. Oil heat did not penetrate the house. Consequently, we had many free standing electric heaters that were equally ineffective. I either felt cold from a foot away or smothered in damp heat because I was too close. Many homes burned there because of faulty electric space heaters. With the ancient parchment layers of wallpaper, I’m amazed that we never found ourselves blazing in the middle of the night.
My father’s room was next door – there was a door leading right to it. At some point, bunk beds were placed in his room right next to that door. They may have actually been there when Noel arrived, and Mark was in the room I earlier described. That makes more sense logically. Later, three rooms were added onto Flay. One was a living room next to the room with the oil heater. The second room was a bedroom, in which Noel and I eventually slept, until she left and it became mine. The last room was a very small bathroom with a shower. The shower eked with black mold and rust. I recall sliding into the opening without touching anything except the knobs for water. Squeezing my body into a straight line, I emerged from the shower, again without touching anything. That was a relatively easy task – I was skinny. The toilet sat on the right as you entered the bathroom. This toilet was relatively responsive to cleaning, not that it happened a lot. Unlike the one in my grandmother’s bathroom, which reeked of body waste and rust, this one would actually become somewhat white with enough effort. The sink was small, and counter top even smaller. A mirrored box sat above the sink, with black scratches. Our toiletries littered the top of the small counter. Towels were thin and damp. I never knew any of this. It was life at Flay. I recall, at the age of eleven, my sister asked me to come to the bathroom. I sat on the toilet while she began to tell me about how a woman’s body changes. Stopping her, I held my hand up.
“I know all about this,” I stated calmly. I was an aficionado of the teen magazines.
“How could you?” She stared me in disbelief.
“I’ve already ordered samples of kotex and the size and style I want. Along with the belt.” In those days, we wore the elastic belts that hooked to the end of the napkins. The magazines had ads that sent the samples out in brown packaging. Shameful what the female body goes through. Noel sat on the counter, looking at me suspiciously.
“Nobody told you any of this, did they?” At that point, several girlfriends had started their periods. This was a common discussion in our late night sleep overs. I think I knew more than Noel, but I’ve always been noisy and asked as many questions as I could think of.
We sat there in uncomfortable silence, she staring at me and me staring at the floor. I couldn’t quite figure out what I had done wrong. But jumping ahead was not a good thing. Noel had been thrust into the role of being a mother figure. I didn’t envy her that job because my natural rebellious state had to make it quite difficult. Also, we were siblings who fought a lot. How do you become someone’s surrogate mother when she’s your little sister and a real pain in the ass? There was so much teenage angst that we simply did the best that we could. She did much better than me. I wish I had been nicer and more able to see her as the loving sister she was trying to be. We fought over clothes, food, chores, grades, school. You name it. I don’t think we were much different than other sisters, but I know now just how loving she was and I regret not being kinder.
From the moment I arrived at Flay, I felt as though I was raising myself. I don’t mean this as an insult to my father, grandparents, or Noel. But it simply was the nature of what was going on. I had no one to whom I felt I could go and get instructions. Nor was I willing to be instructed. I also learned early that a quick temper and a cutting word kept people from bothering me. My uncle said I should have been born a redhead. The quick temper may have kept me safe in my preteen years, but the same temper years later kept people far away from me. The biting words hurt those I love, and I’ve lived long enough to regret that and to try to modify the response. Additionally, every person in that house had their own demons with which to deal. I’m sure that is true of most houses. But I didn’t live in other places. My father was drowning in mental illness with the ineffective and incapacitating drugs of the day. He slept a lot, as he continued to do for the rest of his life. My grandmother was dealing with the added stress of three new children, and what in the world do you do with them? My grandfather didn’t deal – he just lived his life of rook, farming, and hanging out with the guys. My uncle tried his best but he lived in his world as well. We truly must have put a huge crack in their otherwise regular life.
Descriptions here would be helpful. How do I describe my grandfather? He was Poppop to us. As I mentioned, he drank a lot as a young and middle aged man. I’m not sure if I ever saw him drinking or not. I must have, but that memory eludes me. He was about 5’8” with a head full of silver hair. The one existing picture I have is a man with suspenders, with a beer gut and that lush head of hair with eyes of piercing blue. He mostly stayed away from me, and I mostly stayed away from him.
My grandmother typified the southern farmer’s wife. Each day, she wore a dress with a rounded collar. Pinned to that dress was an apron that existed to protect her dress, although thin and unlikely to guard against spills. Her shoes were practical and brown, with stockings rolled down to the top of her knees. She wore glasses, dipped snuff, and sewed some, making mostly quilts. She also crocheted, and would sit in the store creating doilies out of tiny thread and tinier needles. The other habit she had that nearly drove me in the ground was folding paper into tiny fans. While she sat, her fingers were moving. Her fans littered the counter top at the cash register, and the trash cans. I used to watch her and then get up and run out of the store in complete and utter frustration. I have since caught myself making tiny fans. It must be genetic. I recently saw my niece making fans during the reading of my first play. I laughed out loud and pointed it out to my loving first cousin, Teddi. She laughed too. I’m amazed. We don’t fall too far from the tree.
Around the store and the house, old coffee cans were placed as spittoons. For the time that my great grandmother lived with us, both she and my grandmother would take a tiny twig, dip it into the snuff can, and place a twig of snuff in their cheek. Every so often, I heard a ping, as they aimed and spit into the cans. You can imagine the area around the can. They weren’t expert shots. Truly, that and tobacco chewing are two of the nastiest habits I have ever known.
There were many around Flay, including my uncle, who stuck wads of “backer” in their cheeks. Since then, I have heard the horror stories of throat cancer that many of these men received. What a horrible way to die. Smoking was bad enough. Because my dad smoked (at one time) three packs of Winston’s a day, I learned early to hate any habit that had to do with tobacco. My father (wisely) let me smoke a cigarette when I was six. I have never been sicker, and I’ve been pretty sick. That did it. He eventually quit, then gained 60 pounds. I don’t know which would have killed him quicker – the tobacco or the weight.
At Flay, we were farmers in addition to being merchants at the store. We grew cotton and tomatoes. That’s what I recall. I know I burned tires around tomatoes, hoed tomato plants, pulled “suckers” from the stalks, and picked tomatoes. I hated tomatoes until I was about 40.
Below is a memory from my brother about the tomato harvest.
My (brother’s) recollections (true or not – disclaimer is his):
We had about 3 acres of tomatoes, about 20k plants. The seeds were planted in cups and put in a hothouse (usually plastic over a wooden frame) in the spring. I believe the cups were made of grass and fertilizer. When the seeds became small plants each cup was planted in the field. A wooden or metal stake was driven in the ground beside each plant (staked). As the plant grew it was tied to the stake (about 4 times) so the tomatoes would be easier to see, picked easier and you did not step on the plant while picking. Each plant had to be pruned numerous times. That is, the smaller branches were cut off so the larger branches could produce larger better tomatoes. The plants had to be watered. The fields were always very close to a creek. The creek was dammed and a pump was installed. The water was pumped from the dammed water through metal pipes onto the plants. The pipes had tall sprinklers installed so the water could get to the plants, like a rather large yard sprinkler. Each pipe was 10′ to 20′ long. The dam had enough water so the pump would run out of gas before the water ran out. Seems like it would take about 2 hours for the pump to stop.
Every couple hours or so we returned to the field, moved the pipes from the watered to the unwatered and repeated the process. You picked up each pipe over your head and carried it. Pretty good exercise. So in a 12 hour day we would do this 6 times. The pipes were pretty heavy (the longer the heavier). I will always remember sitting in the store and Ted saying “Ok boys, let’s go.” What a downer. But we usually raced to see who could get their pipes moved first. Then it was picking time. Every other day was picking day. Each day in between was watering day. The crew of 10 to 15 people picked. We wore some kind of a sack around our shoulder, walking down the rows, picking the ones that were approaching ripening. The best ones were just turning pink so they would not be overripe when sold at market. If they were the right size and had no blotches, they were “number 1s”. These were the most valuable. You didn’t want to get caught messing up a 1.
Usually someone (Ted) would go to the store and bring back sandwiches and drinks for lunch. Ted was the straw boss and would get us started and then kind of disappear. He would do this after lunch as well but would show up a little before quitting time to take us home. He will deny this. We would gather in the shade to eat. Once we had gathered in the shade at the top to the field. The rows were laid out below us with the creek at the bottom. It was a fairly steep hill. Ted had a new black fastback Ford Galaxy 500 with red interior and a record player. It played the records upside down. (Can’t believe I remember this.) As we sat there (I was trying to come up with any reason to leave) little Tommy Martin (he will deny this) got into the driver’s seat just to look the car. He got out and as he walked away the car started to move. He had played with the gear shift and left it in neutral and no parking brake set. He will deny this. Some of the pickers had already started down the hill to begin picking. Luckily they had not entered the rows directly below the car. As we began to shout and point the car slowly began picking up speed. Remember no one was in it. I can still see the steering wheel spinning back and forth as it smashed through the plants and stakes. I am sure we were all standing, laughing (carefully) and pointing where the car disappeared into the honey suckle bushes at the bottom. Luckily it did not go into the creek. We all ran down and pulled it out. It was okay but for many scratches.
After picking, the tomatoes were taken to Flay and graded in the car shed. The tomatoes were packed into bushel baskets according to grade and then loaded onto a pickup truck and taken to Asheville and/or Black Mountain to the market. I never made this trip. Buyers bought the tomatoes for restaurants, etc. I remember one time Ted returned saying the market price was very high and we quickly graded more to take back.
The tomato business was very labor intensive and I believe this was one of the major reasons we got out of that business. It was hard to find people for the hard work and pay. Also, the market may have dropped due to competition. I remember one Saturday we were caught up and Glen Eaker asked a couple of us to help grade his tomatoes. I really didn’t want to. He paid us $5 for about a half day’s work and I thought I was rich.
I was one of the few football players who looked forward to 2 a day football practices beginning in the middle of August. Buck was the other one. When practice started I basically was no longer a farmer. Actually I did not like 2 a days much either. I would help out some on Saturdays but not much. I found a place to hide and/or be.
Once we attempted to fertilize by building a small tower of wood (about 10′ feet or so), put the fertilizer on top with a stick of dynamite, lit the dynamite, blew the fertilizer into the air and let the wind blow it around. I only remember trying this a of couple of times. Don’t think it worked to well.
The earlier you planted and picked, the higher the market price. Problem was if you planted too early a late frost could wipe out your crop. Same thing with late tomatoes. A couple of times we burned tires to keep the frost away. This involved getting hundreds of tires, taking them to the field, stacking in appropriate places all through the field and all through the night, staying up til dawn, and lighting the tires so the smoke covered the field just before the frost came. Ted had to constantly call us back to our work because we were constantly running through the field playing one stupid game or another in the dark. But when dawn came you really felt you had accomplished something. Then the whole crew went to Flay to have one great breakfast. Wow that was a dirty job. I’ll send more as I think of it (end of my brother’s recollections).
I’m delighted that I have my brother writing memories. He generally doesn’t – at least to my knowledge. But that helps stir the pot for me.
This is what I recall about picking cotton. I did. At the age of nine. I would go with the whole group to pick cotton. There was a woman named Mildred – a large, loving African American mother of 11 children. I would work hard to pick, but as a skinny little kid, it was quite difficult for me. If you didn’t pick 50 pounds, you didn’t get paid. If I almost made it – but not quite – Mildred (the mother of eleven) would give me enough to get to 50 pounds. I didn’t understand then just what that meant. She may have been taking food out of her children’s mouth, but she was such a compassionate woman that she couldn’t stand to see me work that hard and not get paid. How amazing. How loving. How giving. I never knew anyone quite like her. All of her children went to college, and graduated. I wish I had a picture of the clapboard shack in which they all lived. What a truly heroic woman. I don’t even know her last name. On occasion, she worked at Flay, cooking and cleaning.
We had other women work there. The one I truly disliked was Mrs. Bolick. Fat, with a stuck out lip, she complained nonstop about her sons and worthless husband. Wonder who taught her sons how to behave like they did. There were several who were very kind and helpful – and quite intelligent. That didn’t include Snuffy, one of my uncle’s best friends. He was well nick-named. He dipped snuff a lot.