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 redroom.com.
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.