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A Place I’ve Never Lived Before

By Ann Hite

GlacierNP-View of aGlacierWhen I take that curvy part of Interstate 40 between Asheville and Hickory, North Carolina, deep breathes come easily. The stiffness in my neck releases and relaxes. The ‘important’ issues in my life lose their power. The mighty spruce trees reaching for the sky quiet my racing thoughts. The land all around belongs to me, beckons me. I’m home in a place I’ve never lived.

Granny, if she were alive today, would tell you she escaped Appalachia, walking, holding  my mother’s small hand. It was 1935 and Granny was twenty-five, a widow, and grieving mother, who had just lost her two-year-old daughter. Her small farm was taken from her. She felt she had nothing to lose. Her sheer determination landed her in Atlanta, a city she loved until she died in 1993. When World War II began, Granny went to work for Bell Bomber and built B-29s, a Rosie the Riveter. Out of each weekly pay check, she paid a house payment on her small house, so she would never be homeless again.

I came to live with Granny in early 1967 at the age of ten after living most of my grade school years in Germany. Granny’s house was smaller than the air force base housing and had no hall. In my mind, this meant that Granny was poor. A hall was essential to privacy. But Granny was the stabilizer in my chaotic childhood. She harnessed Mother’s crazy moods brought on by what we now call bi-polar. Granny gave my brother and me a safety net.

Each month, always on Sunday, my mother, brother, and me piled into Granny’s brand new baby blue Oldsmobile and rode into the mountains to visit my great aunts. These trips taught me to pay attention to detail, to my surroundings. From the backseat, I watched the busy streets turn into green fields and rolling hills. The further north we went the more something sharp stirred in my chest, an electric charge that spread down my arms.

My great aunts lived in a cluster of houses off a long lonely two lane road. Each house looked much the same: no underpinning, pillars built of field stones piled in such a way they looked as if they’d topple over. Tar paper siding, and a wide front porch cluttered with chairs of all shapes and sizes. My Great Aunt Stella (pronounced Stellar) even had an old arm chair on hers. This always, always made Granny click her tongue and shake her head. Personally I loved the thought until I found out one of my great uncles–dead of course–came every evening to sit in the chair and watch the sunset.

The great aunts gathered in the front room of Stella’s house on cold days. The wood burning stove glowed with heat. Mix-matched mugs of strong coffee were passed around to the adults. Kids got jelly glasses of chocolate milk. Always there was a cake made from scratch. We sat together, careful not to drop crumbs on the rose pattern rug. It was in this room I listened to the best ghost–or as my aunts called them, haint–stories and family legends. I learned it was Uncle Doogun who came each evening and sat in the old chair on the porch. He stayed until the gray light of night slid around the mountains into the holler. He died only a year before I came and Stella, his wife, still mourned him terribly.

Haints were very much a part of my life once I came to know my great aunts. These ghosts were as much a part of the large family as the cousins running in and out the doors in the summer. You never knew when a slamming screen door was a haint or a child. At the feet of my great aunts I learned to be a writer. The stories they told brought a tingling thrill walking up my backbone. I couldn’t get enough. In these storytelling afternoons, I watched Granny and Mother transform. Mother’s face would become younger, almost carefree. Granny shed her junior league white gloves and took off her heels. The first time I saw her take a dip of snuff offered by Aunt Stella my mouth dropped open. She gave me a look that could kill, a look warning what we did in Appalachia was not to be talked about after we left.

Granny always told the story of walking off the mountain and how she built a new life. The aunts and cousins would sit quiet, listening with awe if not envy.

Like most kids do, I became a teenager and outgrew the monthly visits to see my great aunts. Friends, a mother slowly losing her grip on sanity, and books swallowed my time. I grew into a woman who aspired to write. There was no encouragement from Granny. She saw my passion as a hobby. Real work involved receiving a lot of money that gave a woman security. But I wrote anyway. Wonderfully bland, grammatically correct, short stories that were actually published in many small literary journals. The great aunts died off one by one. Granny grew frail and became blind. Still I sat beside her, listening to her stories.

On the day of Granny’s funeral, she came to me, standing at the foot of my bed. Some would say my desperate grief made me invent her. Maybe. I’m not sure it even matters. This experience flung open a creative door, allowing me to tap into the storytelling that took place so many years before. The language filled my thoughts. Characters like Nellie Pritchard from Ghost On Black Mountain, my first novel, and Shelly Parker from The Storycatcher, my second, were born.

Granny would never have approved of my novels. She was not partial to telling the family secrets, even if they were hidden in fiction. Her life in Appalachia was a source of pain, grief, and obligation. If not for the aunts, she wouldn’t have gone back. But those stories told on Sunday afternoons in the holler infected me, drove me to be a different kind of writer, one that embraced her history and celebrated her cultural folklore.

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