Friday, September 16, 2011


by Norma Medford Clayton

(Re-reading Norma's eulogy for her mother makes me want to pull out certain sections and share some of my own memories about Annie Lee and her sister Willa Mae.  I expect I'll be doing that over the next few months. Norma's remembrances are like a large colorful quilt, the pieces holding all sorts of connections and patterns for each one of us.  If I were still teaching creative writing, I'd use it to urge my students to pick a piece and stitch it into their own stories.  I invite you to do the same!)

I  remember the love that you gave to all the children you babysat.  You always took time to read to them, answer their questions and you let them participate in whatever you did - sweep the house, make a garden, make biscuits, and help in the kitchen.  You allowed them to play dress up, play beauty shop or whatever else their imagination thought up.  It didn't matter that they got flour all over the kitchen and dusting powder in the bedrooms.  It didn't matter that the house wasn't immaculate, what mattered was that each child was treated as an important person and allowed to develop their imagination and perfect their skills.  And of course you made them take the inevitable nap!  These children will never forget the love and care you gave them.  You helped form their personalities and shape their lives.  Through your love and care you have touched many lives.

As those children grew up and started school you began to work more and more with your crafts.  You were instrumental in founding Dogwood Crafters, you helped with Mountain Projects, and you began to teach your crafts to others.  Soon you were known as the "Cornshuck Doll Lady."  You have shared your knowledge with people of all ages.  In particular you have made a lasting impression on school children as you taught them heritage crafts.

I also remember how frugal and saving you were.  "Waste not, want not" was your favorite saying.  You were the original recycler when recycling wasn't even known.  You found a use for everything (you even made beautiful dresses for us out of feed sacks).  I think Ron Blackburn compared our house to Hoyt Roberson's store - "It's in there if you can find it!"  I know we girls drove you crazy because we weren't as saving as you were -- but we always knew you'd have it if we needed it!

I also remember the yards sales we loved to "hit."  We've gotten some REAL bargains at them and it was a wonderful opportunity to make new friends and visit with old ones.  When you got home you would meticulously label your new "treasures" with the name of the person, from whom you bought it and you would date it.  

I remember all the craft shows that we've helped you with.  You always worried that it was hard work for us girls… and it was, but I enjoyed them just as much as you did!  I enjoyed the hustle and bustle of setting up, and I always enjoyed visiting with people as they passed by.  I remember how you always gave discounts or "freebies" when someone bought something from you.  You've probably given away more than you have sold.  That was what made you so special - you cared more about others than yourself.  You made your crafts for other's enjoyment not for your financial gain.  You were always willing to share your knowledge, your time and your creations.

I remember all the times "we girls" (and you always considered yourself one of the girls) would go shopping.  You didn't like to shop and hated to try on clothes but you always went because it meant spending time with us.  

You always enjoyed visiting your friends, as did we.   Often you would say "it has been awhile since I've seen…." and you would name the person. That was great when we knew where they lived but often we'd start out on our journey and I'd ask, "Mama do you know where they live?" and you'd say, "No, but we can ask somebody."  And we would.

I remember the times that you and I visited with our friends at the nursing home.  They looked forward to your wonderful, secret recipe cornbread!  And they so loved visiting with you.  And I remember the chicken sandwiches you bought for your little dog, Cessie, on our way home.

Mama, I could go on remembering all day. Anna, Carolyn and I had a childhood filled with love, laughter and a few tears.  We may not have had much money, but you and Daddy gave us the more important things in life.  You taught us to care for each other, to be a true friend, to be a caring person, to help when we could, to love and care for animals, to enjoy learning, to appreciate the value of a good education, to be honest, to be truthful, and to make the best with what we have. 

 I have seen you perform miracles -- you were able to create good meals out of basic ingredients; you were able to make beautiful dresses out of feedsacks; you were able to create all kinds of things out of practically nothing (I remember the igloo you made for my class out of paper mache and the top of a toy silo), and you managed to raise three lovely (if I do say so myself) daughters!  You were never too busy or too tired for us.  I will never forget as a small child, calling for you in the middle of the night and you'd always come.  What a wonderful feeling it was to know that you were there to take care of us.  I am grateful for all the things you've done for us.  I look back and realize how lucky we were to be born to you and Daddy.  We could not have chosen two better parents.  The older I got the more precious you became to me.  You were a quiet, gentle, loving, caring person with a creative mind and busy hands.  I admired you and I do wish I could have been more like you.  You were an inspiration to me.  Mama, thank you for all you've done for us.  We love you and will always treasure your memory in our hearts.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Memories, Part One, by Norma Medford Clayton

Presented at Annie Lee Bryson's funeral last September.

Norma Medford Clayton, or Norma Bryson as I knew her when she was my student during my first year of teaching English at Western Carolina University, composed a memorable tribute to her mother Annie Lee, which she read at her mother's funeral.  Norma's words brought Annie Lee back to life for all of us assembled there. As one of Norma's teachers,  I could claim some small credit, or so I like to think, for this beautifully constructed essay.The credit, however, is all Norma's.  And Annie Lee's.  I am grateful to Norma for allowing me to feature it on this blog.

All of my memories of you are about love for family and friends, love for the Lord, love for crafts, love for tradition, love for animals, and love for learning.  Your love for us was evident in all that you did.  The values and morals that you and Daddy taught us have stayed with us through the years.  Daddy did hard work on his job and he also worked hard when he got home - chopping wood and making a garden.  He was always content if he knew the light bill was paid, we had food to eat, and he had food for his dogs.  That left the rest up to you - you saw that the bills were paid, money was saved for our education and future, food was raised, preserved and cooked, our clothes were made, washed and ironed, quilts were quilted, and that we girls stayed out of trouble.  What a job!

I can remember how you used to milk morning and night in all kinds of weather.  I remember the pan you used to milk in and how the handle was warped from all the years you held it.  I can also remember you saying that being swished in the face with a cow's tail was the reason you had such beautiful, soft, unwrinkled skin.  The times you allowed us girls to go to the barn with you were a treat.  I can still smell the hay, the warm milk, and the pungent smell of cow manure.  I can also hear the sound of the milk as it hit the pan.  In my mind's eye I still see the "nests" of kittens in the barn loft; the feed room with all its barrels, buckets, and mice; Boyah, Dolly, and Dottie Sue in their stalls, and you patiently feeding and milking.

You instilled in us the love of animals.  You patiently nursed orphaned rabbits, skunks, and flying squirrels.  Your steadfast care and gentle nature saved many little lives.  You helped take care of our numerous dogs and cats.  Each one was named and loved.  And when they died, they joined their family and friends in the pet cemetery.  You taught us that all life, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, was important.

I can remember the suppers you fixed -- fried potatoes and gravy; killed lettuce and onions and new potatoes; hot potato soup; or pinto beans, which Ricky Blackburn called "chocolate beans," and cornbread.  These meals were always accompanied by homemade butter and buttermilk, or sweet milk fresh from our cows. 
That brings up another memory - the times you let us churn.  You would fill a gallon jar full of milk and we'd rock and sing "Come butter, come," and shake the jar until the "butter came."  We'd feel so important that we had made butter!  And it sure did taste good.

Mama, I remember the potatoes you would slice thin and fry on top of the wood cook stove in the old house.  They'd be almost burned on the outside and almost raw on the inside, but when they were sprinkled with salt they tasted wonderful.  I remember how you used to make pickles for your potato salad.  Those homemade pickles gave the potato salad the best flavor.

I remember the quilts you used to put up on the quilting frame in the living room and I remember how patient you were with each of us as you'd show us how to quilt.  But I'm afraid our stitches weren’t small and even. Some of your friends would ask if you were going to remove the stitches and you'd tell them no. The stitches didn't matter - you were passing down a tradition to us.   And of course we liked to hide beneath the quilting frame - it made a wonderful tent!  

I remember Christmas at our house.  I remember the cedar tree that Daddy always cut.  It would scratch us as we hung the decorations on it, but boy, did it ever smell good!  I can still see the wreath with the bell that always hung on the front door and the chain of glass beads that went on the tree.  I can remember your shopping trips to Bower's Department Store on Christmas Eve.  You always waited until the toys were marked down so we could get a little extra.  I can remember the years when we didn't have that much and you'd wash our dolls and dress them in new clothes you had made and put them under the tree.  I can remember the year that Santa knocked the clock down from the mantle and we found his whiskers nearby.  I can also remember the year that I got a ballerina doll -- I was so excited!  And later on I remember the homemade aprons and store-bought socks we would take around to our aunts and uncles (remember Uncle Lee and the red socks?) and to other people.  Those were wonderful Christmases!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


When I think of guiding spirits, I see Annie Lee and her sister 
Willa Mae in the back seat of the car in which we were riding to 
Asheville where we were to lead workshops in corn-shuck doll-making,
 lap quilting, and poetry writing, under the auspices
 of the WCU Extension Department, now called, or so I believe, 
Distance Learning. We'd never laid eyes on each other before, 
and I think we were all three a bit amused and amazed that 
we were going to be teaching our crafts at the Asheville Mall!  
We were not your typical mall-goers, believe me.  Who would
 have ever thought that somewhere over the rows and rows of fancy
 stores we rarely ever entered, there were classrooms where people 
could learn about mountain crafts and poetry writing?

 Over the weeks that we journeyed to Asheville from Cullowhee, we shared our stories, stitching them into 
a tapestry we took back home with us.  We became friends, but more than that, I like to think we 
became soul-sisters, so that no matter how long might go without seeing each other, we never had
 to try to re-acquaint ourselves with each other.  We made a connection that lasted through time.  
One of my favorite bluegrass songs by Bill Monroe is called, "The Walls of Time."  He sings of being
 able to hear his gone sweetheart through those walls.  I can hear Annie Lee and Willa Mae, too, 
through those walls that on some days seem as sheer as gauze curtains, especially this time of 
year when the leaves are barely hanging on and the light calls to us to look up and beyond our daily tasks.

I could say that Annie Lee left us last September 6,  but I don't think of her as gone,
 because I know she is not gone from my life nor the lives of her daughters and those who loved her.

The greatest honor I can claim to this day is being asked to read at her funeral a poem I'd written
 for her 80th birthday.  Her daughter Norma Medford Clayton asked me to helped them
celebrate the day with a poem, and so I cast back to my memory of our drives to Asheville.  


Annie Lee, I still remember you
and Willa Mae as being like two birds chirping
in the back seat as we drove to Asheville
and our classes at the Mall. Your stories 
kept me listening through the stops
and stalls of traffic.  Christmas oranges
and summer dabblings in the creek,
the  litany of family names that you recited
every trip.  Your talk of cornshuck dolls and quilts
 fell on my ears like some
endangered speech our daughters'
daughters might not ever know, the turn
and pull of thread that snaps too easily,
if we're not careful.  But your thread's
still going strong, it's made a life--
each year a perfect round
of stitches, eighty now, a shining wreath
of days that we all come to gather round and
celebrate:  Happy Birthday, Annie Lee!

 This poem became part of the Memory book that Norma and
 her sisters Carolyn and Anna compiled, and when Norma
 began to think about her remembrances of her mother before
 the funeral, she had to confess that" ..."Mama,
when I started to write down my favorite memory
about you I couldn't narrow it down to just
one…I had so many memories of you that I couldn't choose.
  So I wrote down all those that were dear to me.
 I was so pleased that you liked it and wanted it
to be read at your funeral.  I have revised it since
you are no longer with us but the memories are still the same."

That beautiful litany of memories will cover
several posts over the next few days, to give my visitors
time to savor and celebrate each portion.

Friday, September 9, 2011


As the year winds down to autumn , I can't think of a better novel to think about than Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies. Ivy Rowe, the young girl who begins this epistolary novel, matures into a woman who lives through love, loss, and many springs that her father taught her how to taste and feel. Ivy inhabits her place with, as one reviewer described it, the avidity of a child. At the end, an old woman facing down the bulldozers, she retains the vitality that has made her life resonate with our own.
This is a short piece I wrote for
Granny Younger came to visit me last night. Stepped right out of Lee Smith’s Oral History and sat down for a spell, trying make me listen again to her stories out of the hollers and hills of Lee’s mountains and mine. I lay awake with her in the dark, knowing I couldn’t make her leave. Being a granny-woman, she does what she wants. She knows how to birth a baby, tend a wound, tell if a man is cheating on you, or if he needs a woman. The woman he finds, face lit by wood fire, wild as a gypsy from some old mountain ballad, well, that’s the beginning of the story.
Granny Younger also knows how to stand up to the bulldozers turning our mountains into golf courses.
She didn’t know about bulldozers, of course, back when she was wandering the trails in Smith’s novel. She could prophesy, though, and she could have looked into the next century and seen what was going to happen, seen the mountaintop removal destroying the lifeblood of her hills.

What she did see was “blood on the moon,” as she called it, the start of a family tragedy that haunts, literally, the descendants of one Almarine Cantrell, a young man whose story she has followed since he was a boy. When she finds him as a young man sitting by the creek, in the sally grass, for the first time in her life she fails to see what lies ahead.
I stole that sally grass from Granny Younger. Put it into a poem one cold January morning while I was working on the collection that became Wildwood Flower. Maybe that’s why she was messing with my mind last night, but I don’t think so. I don’t think she ever minded that I took a smidgeon of her story to kickass a stuck poem back into life again. Especially one about an old woman singing through the night to her granddaughter who listens and remembers. No, Granny Younger came to haunt me because I’d forgotten how mountain women ought to fight for what they love and need.
Like Ivy Rowe. She’s the character who begins Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies by writing letters and spends the rest of the novel writing her life onto its pages. After I’d finished my poem, thanks to Granny Younger’s intervention, I sent it to Lee, who was just beginning a new novel.

“We’re writing about the same thing,” she wrote back by return mail, “ only my character doesn’t sing through the night, she writes letters! “

I didn’t get to meet Ivy Rowe till Fair and Tender Ladies was published. There in the front of the novel was my poem “Weep-Willow. “ That’s not the reason why it’s my favorite novel, though. I love the voice of Ivy, love how she writes her way through joy and loss, and into old age where, on her beloved mountain, she stands down the bulldozers coming to force her out of her home.

I love Ivy for loving so hard, despite the long nights, the sad stories, old songs that flit like ghosts through the coves. Granny Younger brought Ivy with her last night, you see. And Ivy curled up on the sally grass in my poem. She rested her eyes on the mountains beyond my house, just as her daddy liked to do in Virginia, the man who eloped with her mother clinging to him on the back of his horse, riding all night through the dark woods with a pine knot flaring. Ivy meant for me to know that I should do the same, to rest and to ride hard. To stand in the road barring entry, if need be, to what threatened what I love.

Two mountain women came together last night to tell me that. Xanax couldn’t make them go away. Finally at three a.m. I got up, walked to the kitchen, found some leftover wine in a bottle. I walked to the door and looked out at the dark. I could hear some drunk frat boy driving his car too fast around the curve below my house. Soon the little frogs down below in the pasture would begin singing. The green shoots would sprout overnight from the naked limbs. I could hear Ivy’s daddy telling me, as he told her in this novel I carry inside me like my own story, to slow down, to taste each season as it comes, to trust the taste it brings, no matter how bitter it might be, as we struggle to live our lives.  Spring does push through the sod again and again.  But now as September begins to its shift to letting go, letting go, we can find the fire in that, as well.

The lasting fire for me contains those guiding spirits who gather around my kitchen counter--Granny Younger, Lee, Willa Mae Pressley, Annie Lee Bryson, and at the table Emma Bell Miles sketching the humming bird hovering just outside the window.   In the days to come I will be letting them speak, watching the leaves on the hardwoods begin loosening bit by bit, spiraling into the earth where a few months from now they will let the first forsythia and wildflowers begin to push through.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


 Remember the swimming hole?  I do.  We simply called ours "the creek." Do you wanna go to the creek, my mother, or aunt, or grandmother would ask, and we would gather up food, blankets, towels and head to the creek, just off from the Flint River.   Lots of sand and minnows.  Scummy bottom in which we'd squish our toes.  An old diving board on which I stood and stood (there's even a photo of me...) until I climbed down.  I never learned how to dive.

Julia Nunnally Duncan remembers her creek and what she learned there.  She's offered photographs, too.

I'm happy to share them with you.  And if you have your own memories of swimming holes and creeks, send them to me.

Buck Creek

My father taught me to dog paddle in Buck Creek,
in the mountain stream’s deep pool 
where generations of children had swum.
There a concrete slab—
a broken piece of a long-gone bridge—
was embedded in the creek bed and jutted out
just above the water’s surface.
Algae-slick and a trick to climb upon,
this slab served as a diving board
from which we jumped into the tepid, fishy water.
I recall my tenth summer in ‘66
when my father hauled the neighborhood kids and me
in his Chevrolet truck
to our favorite swimming hole. 
We sang “Li’l Red Riding Hood,”
howling as loud as we could from the bumpy truck bed
into the quiet neighborhood we passed through.
Once we arrived at Buck Creek, 
my father trod downstream,
a bar of Zest soap in his hand.
Standing in his bathing trunks,
he lathered himself 
while we frolicked like Flipper,
no fear of snakes or mud turtles
shadowing our pleasure.
Only a baptism might impede us;
if we saw people dressed in Sunday clothes
gathering at the water’s edge,
we waited unseen on the steep bank,
hushed by my father,
whose own father had baptized believers
in a Tennessee river.
We peered through trees to see
something we’d all experienced already
in our church’s baptismal pool.
Soon as that ritual was past,
we ran down the bank and jumped 
into  the sanctified water—
more like pagans ourselves—
laughing, splashing, and squirting Crazy Foam
on each other’s heads.

Julia Nunnally Duncan enjoys writing about her 1960's childhood in McDowell County, NC, which was predominantly a textile and agricultural area at that time.  Her parents were hosiery mill workers, and her family lived in a close knit neighborhood where folks raised gardens, kept livestock, and watched over each other's children.
Julia still lives in McDowell County with her husband Steve and daughter Annie. Her latest book is a rerelease of her 2006 novel Drops of the Night (March Street Press, 2011).

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


Like Charles Frazier's Inman in Cold Mountain, I believe that repeating the names of loved places can fend off terror and grief. This week, I need such names to comfort me, as we all do at times of loss. Nancy Dilllingham's lovely poem sings the mountains back to me and breathes spirit into the places we love. If ever we doubt the power of poetry, we should go to Nancy's poems. As guest blogger today, she brings an authentic music of place to the history and culture of the southern mountains. And how resonant the conclusion, the names sounding away into the distance! 


Once you dip your toe in Big Ivy, you never want to leave.

eloped with his fifteen-year-old sweetheart
swam the Swannanoa
with his bride-to-be on his back
bought the first Big Ivy tract

built a home
in the mountain valley
out of hand-hewn logs
a chimney of native stone
and a hearthstone of flint

planted an apple orchard
a grape arbor
and a garden
part vegetable
part old-fashioned flower

and stinging nettles
around his natural spring

It stood for one hundred years
Its razing marked the end of an era

Big Ivy
named for mountain laurel
or ivy that grew 
along its banks

Big Ivy
Big Creek
Haw Branch
Sugar Creek

There is a landscape 
of the heart
that sets us apart
the spill and dark sparkle
of water
that runs deep
cuts to the core
through six generations and more

There is a landscape 
of the heart
that sets us apart

the Corner Rock
the Snake Den
the Coleman Boundary

the Pinnacle
Balsam Gap
Mount Mitchell

Monday, September 5, 2011


After days of keeping vigil at my father-in-law's bedside, today we are keeping vigil by the television, watching the doppler graphs as rain moves closer and closer. During our absence, our garden burned to a crisp. We came home to morning glory vines shriveled as if thely'd been zapped by frost.
Because we live well above Cullowhee Creek and the Tuckasegee river , we are in no danger of being swept away by floods! But we have been cut off from the main road by floods in years past.
This may be a day for napping to the sound of rain. Or doing some baking in the kitchen, if we don't lose power. The dogs seem happy about spending the day inside. Forget about dog fur on carpet and sofas. For today we'll have to live with it.
Maybe a good day to be grateful for the few jars of pickles and tomatoes I was able to put aside before family issues demanded my attention.
I hope to come back to my Mountain Woman's kitchen soon, with some guests who give voice to the place where we live.