I spent all of my early childhood living everywhere but the South. My father was a Master Sargent in the Air Force, so we traveled all over Europe and up America’s east coast. To this day, I am sure it was these years of exposure to diversity that shaped my appreciation for Dixie. When I came ‘home’ to Georgia to live with Granny—my maternal grandmother—at the age of ten (1967), I was greeted with recent stories about the surrounding area. The high school—directly across from Granny’s little house, where my mother graduated—burned to the ground one night, filling Granny’s bedroom with orange light, scaring her to death. And I was soon to find out my granny didn’t scare easily. And, only months before the fire, a jet pilot from the nearby Air Force Base flew into a two-story Victorian owned by two old maid sisters at the end of the road. One of the sisters and the pilot died. The only survivor was the sister who was wheelchair bound. Granny said the hand of fate sometime had a sick sense of humor. She was no stranger to a hardscrabble life.
Granny was very proper in her speech, the ways she dressed, and her choice of company. She was what was known in the South at that time as a white-glove lady. Meaning, if white gloves were appropriate for the occasion, she wore them. The year I came to live with her she had been a widow for thirty-eight years. My grandfather died during the Great Depression when my mother was six. Yet, Mother had no memory of him. This should have been a hint, a sneak peek into Granny’s past.
Twice a month Granny pulled her car out of the driveway and drove us into the mountains. Later I would learn this area was part of Appalachia, but at the time it seemed like as far away from Atlanta life as we could get. The four-lane highway became barely two lanes and twisted up into the thick woods with only the occasional house tittering on stacked field stones instead of a solid foundation. Sometimes there would be kids playing in the yard, who would stop and stare at us as we drove by in Granny’s brand new baby blue Oldsmobile.
My great aunts lived in a cluster of similarly described houses close to each other while the grown cousins were within walking distance. We always went to Aunt Stella’s (pronounced Stellar) house. None of them had an indoor bathroom to my horror. Instead outhouses dotted the woods in back of the homes. On the first visit, I swore I would never go into such a place. Mother’s answer was a hard pinch to my inner arm. My first lesson in Southern manners.
Granny’s visits brought all the cousins and second cousins to visit. We gathered in Aunt Stella’s high-ceiling front room. Granny, when offered snuff, smiled and dipped the brown powder into her front lip. I thought I would die on the spot. This was the equivalent of witnessing the Queen of England smoke a cigarette. Each of us were given a jelly jar of thickly sweetened tea and a large wedge of homemade cake. My favorite was Aunt Stella’s orange cake. I always sat in the far corner of the room, seen but not heard. When the younger cousins went out to play in the bright sunshine, I stayed behind, blending into the rose covered wallpaper. Quiet. Listening. And the real stories were told. Tales of haints—in case you don’t know, that means ghosts—moonshine, and conjures were my lessons at the feet of these strong women. They taught me two important things: one catches a story and throws a spell.
My favorite ghost story was how my great uncle—dead for ten years—sat in the little straight back chair on the wide front porch each evening and watched the sun fade into that gray in-between place before pitch dark, and there was the one about the scent of lavender scooting through the room when the great aunts were talking—my long dead great grandmother had come to join in on the gossip. She died when Granny was five.
But the one story that made the biggest impact on my work was how my great grandmother’s death tainted the family’s life for generations. Great Grandmother Hawkins’s whole head turned black a few days after a little fall. The granny woman was called to no avail. She died. Folks in the area believed Great Grandfather Hawkins had a spell conjured on her. After all he married less than three months later. People were so convinced of his guilt they shunned him and the family was never the same. Of course the part left out of the story is the eight children, ranging from 6 months to 16 years, he was left to raise. In this time of history his quick marriage seemed normal, a business decision, seeing how his second wife had just become a widow with two boys.
One of my last visits to Great Stella’s still remains a poignant memory. Upon arrival we were ushered through the house to the kitchen where a bathroom had been added onto the house. Everything was stomach medicine pink, toilet, sink, and tub. We each were allowed one turn to flush the toilet. It was in that moment I understood we all have a unique story to tell, and we owe it to the next generations.
Out of all those visits, I never heard the story of how Granny came to leave Appalachia for Atlanta. Then one day on our way back home, Mother pointed to a shed perched on the side of an embankment. “I slept in that barn. I could see the stars through the holes in the roof. Your granny took us away from the mountains. We left on foot and walked for days. And just when I thought we would starve to death a big dump truck pulled up beside us. The man picked us up, fed us, and help us get a room. Your granny found a job at Bell Bomber making plane parts for World War II. From that day forward she saved every paycheck she had until she bought us the little house we live in now. “
Later I would find out Granny had a twenty-five year relationship with the married dump truck driver. That day she had only one thing to say and subject never came up again. “Annie, you do what you have to do to survive. That’s what I learned growing up in the mountains. I’m not always proud of the choices I made, but I put a roof over your mama’s head and food on the table.”
These family roots turned me into a writer. I grew up with haints, conjures, and a brave risk-taking family. This gives me a wealth of material to keep me coming back to the page for as long as I want. Visit the website www.annhite.com