This is the sixth installment of a series about my mother. The previous post is here.
We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. The old skin has to be shed before the new one can come.
The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide you’re not going to stay where you are.
~John Pierpont Morgan
The house sold for $20,000, and she cleared half of that. Colored glass all wrapped, toys and dishes packed away, house all swept out, and on December 2, 1978, with three dogs and one cat (Baby, Chopper, Ace, and feline Bandit, one of the best cats ever, who was born in a litter of three in August 1974), she started driving us out of Muncie just as the first snowflakes were falling.
Down through the southern half of Indiana, on I-75 through Cincinnati, then Kentucky (never heard so many “Sweetie”s and “Honey”s in all my life), and then on down into Tennessee to Knoxville which I believe is where we spent the first night. I think she had planned to go farther that first day, but at some point, she got the stomach flu. I remember her pulling over and throwing up by the side of the road. What timing, right?
Our possessions had left the day before in a big semi-truck. We had no place to live and she had only a letter from an agency in Black Mountain, North Carolina. She had sent out I don’t know how many (a lot of) resumes to agencies all along the Appalachians in West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and even northern Georgia. She almost got a job in West Virginia, but for some reason, that didn’t pan out.
In the morning of December 3rd, going southeast, we saw them. And they were amazing. Even she hadn’t been that far south. The Smokies. The Blue Ridge Mountains. They were breathtaking. They really were. That first time seeing them – no time since has compared to that one.
Wide-eyed children with their wide-eyed mama, and a bunch of crazy dogs. And Bandit, who was with us through so much.
We had to take these long tunnels through the mountains – through the mountains! It did not occur to me that the roads would not just go around the mountains. There was water running down from the mountain inside the tunnels. I felt at any second someone would turn on the mountain water spigot and we’d all get flooded. People honked their horns just for fun. I kinda remember partially holding my breath until we got to the other side.
Up, up, up we climbed! Rocks surrounding us. Water coming out of the rocks! Going from Knoxville to Candler, North Carolina, where I know we spent at least one night, perhaps two or three. Candler smelled. The paper mill in Canton saw to that. But, we weren’t going to stay on the west side of Asheville. We were going east to Black Mountain. She found us an efficiency motel, arranged for our belongings to be in storage, and contacted the agency from where she had received the response.
It was a form letter. It was not a job offer. She had no job. On the plus side, she did have some money. And her kids. And a roof over her head. And she was where she wanted to be. But, can you imagine the anxiety? Well, yes, today I can.
She was in luck, though. The agency offered her a one-year, subsidized, temporary position, which she snatched up. She found us a two-story apartment in east Asheville, which was too expensive for her, but it was the best she could locate.
Eventually, she had to work a second job on the weekend to help pay the bills. Guess what she was doing? Making biscuits, of course. I wonder how she managed that job? Did she go knocking on doors at breakfast restaurants and say, “Hello, I can make the best biscuits you’ve ever had. Can I show you?” I wouldn’t be surprised.
Parenting is hard. As if she didn’t have enough going on, I got pregnant that summer of 1979. She ended up with a wonderful little red-headed grand-baby, born two days before her 49th birthday in Asheville. So instead of having two kids to raise, she then had three. But she wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world. Another worry, but a lot of love. They spent many of their waking hours like this.
She had been unable to find another job after the Black Mountain one ended in December 1979. There was a temporary one that opened up in the spring of 1980 over in Hickory, North Carolina, while someone was on maternity leave, but she wasn’t going to risk another move for a temporary position. Especially since we had just had a baby. So she kept on applying and waiting. A couple months later, she got a call from that social services agency in Hickory. They had a permanent opening, and would she take it?
In June, 1980, we were all packed (except for two bicycles that we could not squish into the truck, which was too bad, because those were good bikes), and off we headed a little over an hour east to a four room house on top of a little hill in the country outside of Hickory that she had rented over the phone for $100 a month.
Down, down, down the mountains! The especially tricky one was going down Old Fort Mountain. That was just a tad scary. (It wasn’t as scary as the snake roads in the mountains, though. Those made me scream.)
The house was olive green. Our little green house up on the hill. Four rooms meant two bedrooms, a living room, and an eat in kitchen. There were four of us. Each room was approximately the same size, with a small bathroom in the middle. It sat on five acres of wooded land, and we loved it. It had a well with the best tasting water I had (and have) ever had. It wasn’t like the water from the empty natural gas lines in Indiana (which was also good, but tasted like sulfur, and it was rusty). No, this water was pure and clean tasting – straight from the underground streams. It probably came out of some of those rocks in the mountains.
We’d laugh at how the Southerners defined cold. It was in the 50s when we first landed in North Carolina and they were all wearing coats. In Hickory, it rarely snowed, and if it did, it melted by the afternoon or next morning. It was kinda nice, though, to be able to be dismissed from school early for no reason. I think they did that for two reasons: 1) the curvy roads and hills; and, 2) so everyone could play in the snow.
My brother got the bedroom off the kitchen, and Mom, our baby boy, and I took the other bedroom. The only heat was a wood stove. Later, we added kerosene heaters, and eventually she asked the landlady if she could remove the wood stove altogether so we’d have more living room.
A couple of times there were crackles and smoke coming from the chimney. One time she called the fire department. We learned about keeping chimneys cleaned. The only fire we ever had from a kerosene heater was when our white cat Sam walked past one and rubbed up against it with his tail. There wasn’t a big “swoosh” of fire or anything, but you could definitely smell burnt hair. I think it was me who grabbed him and put it out. He got a reputation after that.
Mom had her shelves in the kitchen window which held her colored glass. She set up her record player and radio that looked like an old gramophone in the kitchen, covered the dining room table with a red and white checked tablecloth, turned off the lights, lit up two blue and white kerosene lamps, and we’d listen to “Saturday Night Bluegrass” on WSOC out of Charlotte. Seems like there was also another station that had a Bluegrass music show on Sunday, but I can’t remember the name or the station. I loved those times. So did she.
Those days “up on the hill” when my son was little, and we were living in our new state and having our joint adventure – I loved those days. It was ours, just ours. It was all ours.
At some point during those years, the water heater quit working. Mom had one or two huge canning pots that we would use to heat water on the stove for baths. We’d carry those pots of boiling water to the bathtub to get ourselves clean. When either Mom or I would get finished in the tub, we’d often say, “This water is still warm, do you want to use it?”
When things like the water heater would break, she didn’t want to tell the landlady for fear she’d raise the rent. She raised the rent anyway. That was about the only time she’d stop by. She was a nice lady. A handy thing about her was that she had no sense of smell, so she couldn’t smell the cat litter.
After working for a year or a little more in front line crisis intervention at the social services, frequently having to go with the police to rescue children and take them into custody, Mom switched to being the Day Care Coordinator at the agency. She loved that job. She worked it until she retired.
For the first time since “that wreck,” she had a permanent, long-term job. She had recovered. She always had pain, and it got worse as she got older, but getting out of Indiana, away from the cold, the judgments of her brother, the joblessness, and her past, was one of those decisions that she just knew to make. She was her own person now. She had chosen to do what she wanted to do. This was a significant fresh start.
After having been away from the church since her mother died, probably about 23 years, she was led to return. She began attending the West Hickory (North Carolina) church of Christ and found a fellowship there that had been missing in her life for a very long time. She made friends and found support when she needed it. Sometime in 1982, she wrote this, in her own handwriting.
I’ve been going through some of her things, and I have found these old journals. I think, “Oh, Boy! A window into her mind and heart!” And then there are two pages filled out with the rest blank. Funny. She kept a lot of herself inside. I would imagine had I asked her more, she would have shared more. There was a Margaret who I never knew. But I knew my mama, and I suppose that was what was to be. The church-going Margaret is the one I really didn’t know.
She quit smoking about the time she went back to church. After 25 years, she quit smoking.
My brother went off to college when he was 17. That left the three of us at home. Mom moved into what was my brother’s bedroom, and eventually, we set up a bed in the living room for our little one to have his own space (sort of). I don’t remember what year that was.
In the summer of 2006, I was in North Carolina, and took a stop in Hickory. The house was vacant (was not rented), and unlocked. I went in just to see it, and I was shocked when I cried. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t realize how much that little house was a part of my life. It hadn’t occurred to me how much it meant to me, and how much it would remind me of my mother. As I write this, I have a nostalgic feeling that I wish we were back there. The days of Mama singing “Mr. Frisk” and “Little Bobby Shaftoe” to us had been over, but the days of raising a little red-head and spending time with my Mama in the country were not. What is it about young adults that makes us think we have to spread our wings and go, when we can just spread our wings and stay? Why can’t we be doves instead of hummingbirds?
Well, like Indiana, North Carolina is a state swarming with higher education institutions. There were two colleges in Hickory, and I went to both of them, eventually getting a B.S. in Computer Science, and in 1992, I moved to Connecticut for a job. I mention this because a year later, I was alone, overwhelmed, and falling apart.
I had a conversation with her once, while we still lived in Hickory and I was in college, where I told her that I wouldn’t be able to live with her forever.
I take it back. I take it all back.
That summer of 1993, I asked Mom to move up to Connecticut to help and to be with me. I needed her and my son needed her. So she retired at 62 and moved north. My first winter there included the 1993 Storm of the Century. (Yeah, Baptism by – snow?) Her first winter included the 1994 Blizzard. Sorry, Ma. Welcome to New England. I had no way of predicting that. I think we should have stayed south.
She had built her life in North Carolina. It had become what she wanted it to be. I didn’t realize what a sacrifice it was for her to leave the world she had chosen for the world I had chosen.
She stayed in Connecticut until 1996, at which time conflicts with her son-in-law (my then husband) and the pull of wanting to be near her young granddaughter and my brother made her choose to moved on to west Tennessee to be where they lived. It was a good move for her. There was a huge church of Christ community out there. She had support in her move from the congregation that she was leaving, as well. She had love surrounding her everywhere she went.
In 1997, I drove down to visit, and she surprised me and gave me this – her ring. She had the ring made when I was a kid. The larger diamond and four of the small diamonds were her mother’s. She added two more small diamonds and designed this pattern herself.
She felt deeply, like I have shown, but she was also sometimes a tad melodramatic. She always said she didn’t think she would live past the age that her mother did – age 57. (Well, she said it until she turned 58.) Where that came from, I don’t know. I got a sense that she was beginning to think about wrapping up some things, though. In 1997, when she gave me the ring, she was 66, well past the age that her mother died.
The three children of Roy and Carol (Van Duyn) Wilson had split apart. It started in the 1950s. The two brothers became estranged; then at some point, Brother Roy and my mother became estranged; and even though Brother Bill and my mother were in the same town again by the time I was a baby, they were estranged. As I had said before, family judgments can be brutal, and to be quite frank, his were.
But family reconciliations can occur. As the siblings got older, they started putting their pasts behind them. The next generation, which couldn’t care less about the family battles, started getting involved. Roy’s adult kids wanted contact, and I was doing genealogy, so I knew about the family and wanted contact. I also wanted to share it, because that’s the way we genealogists are.
In the 1990s, her brothers started communicating with each other, and she started communicating with them. We’d go visit. It felt good to be in Indiana after all that time. Actually, the first time back was in 1986. But even prior to that, Roy had contacted Mom saying that they were going to be in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, at a doll show, if she wanted to come up there and visit. I think that was either 1982 or 1983. So we went.
When we would go to Indiana, of course my mom loved going back to Wilkinson to see her grandma and granddaddy’s house, and to remember. She’d tell me the stories over and over. “I’d roller skate up and down that road.” “You roller skated?” “I sure did!” By that time, I had been studying our genealogy for several years. Going back to Indiana was exciting for me, too.
After another couple of years in Connecticut, my husband (still the first one) and I realized that there was no way we would get ahead there. It was just too expensive. He and my mother had reconciled (sigh of relief for me) after we had gotten together a couple of times in Indiana. And in late 1998 or early 1999, my mother said she was ready to move again. She knew she needed to spend the rest of her life in Indiana. She knew she needed to die there. She was 67.
I felt the pull, too. I wanted to be near her. I wanted to be near extended family. I wanted to settle in. There is a joke that if you’re from Muncie, you end up returning to Muncie. It sucks you back in. Or maybe I made that up, I don’t know.
All we knew is that in 1999, it was time to go home.