Growing up in Norfolk, Virginia it was a rare treat to travel here to the mountains of North Carolina to visit the "country cousins." We'd spend most of our time visiting with my mother's family, eating Granny's biscuits, holding baby chicks and learning to shoot a BB gun. Granny didn't have much, but she'd give you her last dime if you asked. We'd usually stay a week and at some point during our stay, we'd venture across the mountain to visit my dad's family. Back then, the road across the mountain was pretty scarey, solid rock on one side and a sudden drop straight down on the other. In some places the road curved so sharp, it nearly turned back on itself.
It would take about forty five minutes to get to Mamaw and Papaw's house. The difference between their house and Granny's was like night and day. Granny's house kind of listed to one side and didn't have any paint left on it at all, but Mamaw and Papaw had a big, pretty white farm house, surrounded by pastures full of cows and horses. At that time, it was still a working dairy farm. In Granny's defense, I can say this. At least she had indoor plumbing. I remember my mom always bringing a paint can in from outside and sitting it in the hallway just outside the bedroom door whenever we spent the night with Mamaw. My mom was after all, a city girl.
At Mamaw's house there was always fresh green beans, mashed taters and biscuits at dinner. I used to help her in her garden when I'd stay with her, following her up and down the rows with a plastic bucket while she tossed the beans, cucumbers and squash in. I remember being amazed, as a city girl, I thought that stuff only came in cans. I thought her barn was like a 7-11 store because she'd walk out there and come back with eggs and milk. I didn't touch milk for a while after I saw where THAT came from. I wasn't to thrilled with what end of the chicken the eggs came from either. I remember one morning, waking to the smell of very strong coffee and the sound of boisterous laughter. I wandered into the kitchen where everyone was looking out the big double windows by the table. Sometime during the night, one of the calves had gotten out and Mamaw was out there, panting and out of breath leading it back up the dirt road and to the barn. The laughter was from everyone watching her chase it down, all of them to out of breath from laughing to go out and help. The best part was that you could hear her giving it a thorough talking to all the way up the road. "Now you cain't be a wanderin' all up and down the road all by yerself, what if a bar got after you?"
Mamaw Ethel married Papaw when she was quite young. He was about fifteen years her senior and needed a wife to raise his son and twin girls. His first wife had died, leaving him with three kids that needed a mother's love. If there was anyone with plenty of love to go around, it was Mamaw. She was barely five feet tall and had this pretty high pitched voice with a sing-song lilt to it, a lot like you hear in people from India. Her hair was dark, almost black and her eyes sparkled emerald green. I remember her hands the most, so small and delicate, olive tan with odd white spots. They were never still, she always had something in her hands, a dishtowel, the phone cord, her fingers always working diligently, nervously. When she greeted you, she'd turn her head to the side and look up to you and always reach out to touch your arm or pat your hand. I never heard her speak ill of a soul and rarely did you see her that she wasn't smiling.
Papaw was nothing like Mamaw. I don't remember him ever even speaking to me. He and my father would always end up in a fight when we'd visit, with my mom and Mamaw stepping in and trying to smooth things over. As I got older I was told the stories of how Papaw would leave to go buy a pack of cigarettes or a loaf of bread and not come back for weeks. During that time, Mamaw ran the whole farm by herself. Milking cows, making butter and raising not only the three kids he came into the marriage with, but four more of her own. When he'd decide to come home, he'd come strolling in at dinner time as if he'd really just left for a loaf of bread and he expected his dinner to be on the table, or else. When my parents were married, he expected them to live and work there on the farm. That's how they ended up in Norfolk. They went to visit my mother's sister and her husband and just never came back. Mama said she wasn't living under the same roof as that son of a you-know-what and she damned sure wasn't milkin' no cows.
Papaw died when I was about ten I think. We got the call when my dad was off somewhere on a hunting trip. Mom had to call the forest service to hunt him down and have him call home so that she could give him the news. Papaw got killed in a car accident, driving too fast on the "four lane" on the way to see one of his women. He was in his late sixties at the time.
As I look back now, seeing how much she went through, it's even more amazing that Mamaw never seemed to become bitter. The death of her husband, whom she loved a great deal, her middle son losing one of his legs in Vietnam, her youngest son battling stomach cancer and the death of the oldest, the boy that she raised and loved as her own, from cancer. The divorce of my parents some twenty seven years ago seemed to upset her almost as much as it did my mother. She and my mother were always close and she made a point of making sure Mom knew she would always be a daughter to her, regardless of what my father did.
Mamaw is, at this writing still with us, if only in body. The last few years have been hard, watching her mind come and go. The last few times I've gone to visit, my aunt has met me at the door and quietly warned me that she may not know who I am, worried that my feelings would be hurt. But she always made a liar out of her, looking into my eyes for a moment then smiling and saying my name like no one else ever has. "Is that my May-ree? Come here and look at her eyes, her eyes are just like mine."
It was just a few years ago that she showed me the pictures of her and her siblings when they were young. The pictures that lead me to ask if there was a lot of Indian or something in the family because, they didn't really look white. When I asked, she cast her eyes down and to the side, giggled a little and said, "Why yeah, there's some Indian and a little black too!" My aunt was embarrassed and told her to shoosh, that you just didn't talk about such things. That's how my Melungeon quest began. The downward spiral of dementia began shortly after that. It was as if she knew what was around the corner, as if she had to make sure I knew the truth, because I was the only one of her grand youngins who wasn't raised in the confines of these mountains. I was the only one who wouldn't be ashamed and keep digging until I found the truth.
Now she's confined to bed, consciousness coming and going. The doctors say it's only a matter of time. I hope she holds on until the weekend so I can get over there to see her. I need to ask her one more time why she's got a black rag doll sitting by her bed and see her toothless grin. If she looks into my eyes and I don't hear "My May-ree," I'll know she's already gone.
Author: Mahala Davis
Reprinted from September 13, 2005