Bend of Slate: Granny’s House

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The Bottom is Route 686.

The Bend of Slate, as my cousin Scott described it in his guest post, is just outside the Grundy, Virginia, city limits, and “not too far upstream along Slate Creek where the highway hugs the base of a small, perfectly rounded mountain, making almost a complete circle before straightening out toward downtown Grundy. Slate Creek also bends around this small round mountain, and that section of the stream is called ‘Bend of Slate.’”

The locals call this little curve of land “the Bottom.” I’ve been told stories about the Bottom my entire life, some are so good that they are told regularly. But I am the only person in my immediate family who has never lived in the Bottom. While I don’t have many personal stories or memories of the Bottom, I feel like many of the stories of my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbors are mine because they include so many people and a place I love.

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Mommy at the restaurant,  a few houses down from Granny’s House

Daddy was born in the family homeplace in the Bottom, down near the restaurant. The small wood frame house sits right on the bank of Slate Creek. The creek was the community playground – a place to swim, skip rocks, or enjoy a cool breeze. It’s mostly clear and shallow, its floor covered with smooth stones. But, after a big rain the creek might visit the backyard or basement or sometimes the edges of the bridges leading to Big John Stacy Road or the High School. The house sat atop a basement with the kitchen and bathroom in the back that faced the river. The family room and a bedroom at the front of the house faced a small yard and the one-lane road that traversed the Bottom from east to west.

The small yard and one-lane road were framed from the living room by a picture window. It let the morning and evening sun peek in to brighten the brown wood paneling on the walls. And it was one of Granny’s prized possessions.

This little house was home to my grandparents and all my aunts, uncles and a few cousins. And as my cousin Scott would say, Granny’s house was the first place many of us ever saw Uncle I.D. laying on a couch, but that is a story for another day.

It was also where my family started.

On a fall afternoon, soon after Daddy returned from his two years in the Army, he and Granny sat in the little wood-paneled living room watching TV. The living room held a couch, a couple of chairs and a television. Sometime that afternoon my Aunt Martha came home with a friend she thought should meet my Daddy. My parents met in the front room of that little house.

Growing up it was clear that my Daddy and his siblings loved their Mommy dearly. Granny is often a topic of conversation, she has at least two namesakes, and she is universally, by male and female children, called Mommy.

My Mommy has always described my Daddy’s sweet relationship with Granny in the story of the first time she ever saw him that fall afternoon in the Bottom. She says, sometimes with a grin or an eye-roll that “the first time I met your father was in the living room your Granny’s house. Granny was sitting in a chair watching TV and your Daddy was sitting at her feet. That should tell you something.” This is a picture of our family, and maybe many similar Appalachian families – staying as close as you can.

I love this story and the mental picture it paints of Granny’s oldest boy sitting with her on a random afternoon. As I end my first month of marriage I hope that the same closeness and affection live on within and among my parents and me and my new family. I hope that we all stay as close as we can regardless of age or circumstances.

Many good things happened in the Bottom, including the beginning of the marriage that created me, in the crowded living room at Granny’s house.

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Bend of Slate: Top of the Bottom

Just outside the Grundy, Virginia, city limits, and not too far upstream along Slate Creek, the highway hugs the base of a small, perfectly rounded mountain, making almost a complete circle before straightening out toward downtown Grundy.

Slate Creek also bends around this small round mountain, and that section of the stream is called “Bend of Slate.”  The neighborhood on the narrow strip of land along the sandy banks at Bend of Slate–between the highway and the creek — is known locally as “the Bottom,” which I always took as “bottom of the mountain,” or “bottom of the holler,” or, for a while (before I could really read or write), some foreign word pronounced “boddum.”

I lived in and visited the Bottom throughout my childhood, and still drive through the old neighborhood whenever I’m in Grundy.  My memories include cousins, creeks, mountains, motorcycles, and walking down to the filling station to get a banana-flavored popsicle.

My fondest memories, however, cluster at the upstream end of Bend of Slate.  It was here, at the “top” of the Bottom, that Granny owned and operated Caudill’s Drive-In, with the creek on one side, a vegetable garden on the other, and a patch of trees out back casting shade over a gigantic natural sandbox, carried there by the creek, grain-by-grain over time.

I have sparse recollections of being inside Granny’s restaurant during its evening hours.  When the sun set and the small parking lot began filling up, I wasn’t allowed at the restaurant, I wasn’t allowed in the road, and sometimes I wasn’t even allowed outside of Granny’s house, which sat within sight of the restaurant a short distance “down” the Bottom.

During the day, and from as early as I can remember, I roamed the Bottom as I pleased. I spent most days chasing my older cousins, John and Jim, on their adventures; I went along on many of their outings, but got ditched on others when I was “too little” or otherwise bothersome (I spent an equal amount of time running swiftly away from John and Jim, but those are stories for a later day).  Another playmate, Harley, was closer to my own age. It seems to me now that everything Harley and I did back then resulted in one or both of us getting chased off the creek bank and switched into the house.

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Granny and 8 of her 13 grandchildren.

So, whenever John and Jim ditched me for the day (or I had escaped them, as the case may be), and poor, slow Harley couldn’t outrun his chasing, switching mother, I found myself alone, still free to roam the Bottom on my own whim and leisure. I invariably found my way to the restaurant, where I knew Granny would be back in the kitchen, cooking and cleaning, getting set for that evening’s crowd.

Granny’s restaurant was a small brick building with a sign hanging on the corner which read “Caudill’s Drive-In.”  I don’t remember whether the sign lit up (I was never there at night, remember?), but I think “Caudill’s” was spelled out vertically from top to bottom, and “Drive-In” was lettered horizontally along the bottom of the sign.

A small door led into the front room; there was a pool table and a countertop bar across the room.  I’m sure there were booths and/or tables, but the front room usually was dark when I visited.  Beyond the front room and counter was a door to the kitchen, with a service window opening up behind the counter.  Somewhere in there was a snack rack, with chips, nuts, candy, and the ever-popular Slim Jim “smoked meat stick” on display.  I loved me some Slim Jims, and Granny knew it.

What I knew was that I stood a much better chance of getting a Slim Jim from Granny if I was alone.  I don’t remember how I stumbled upon this notion, and it only occurred to me years later that she probably didn’t want to hand out whole boxes of Slim Jims to a gaggle of Bottom boys every day.  Thus, on most visits to Granny at the restaurant, I was actually sneaking up there by myself.

Sometimes I’d get straight to the point and ask Granny for a Slim Jim, sometimes I even grabbed one on the way to the kitchen, then asked if I could have it while poised to rip open the package. Most times, however, I hung at the counter and beat around the bush while Granny worked and talked to me from the kitchen; at some point, she would stop what she was doing and come out to the counter, grabbing a Slim Jim on her way. She would open the package and toss the wrapper, and I would eat the whole thing right there while we chatted.

I don’t recall ever discussing with anyone my solo visits to Granny’s restaurant, until many years later, after everybody was all grown up and could go get their own Slim Jims.

Scott Caudill

The Bend of Slate

The Slate Creek winds down from Bradshaw Mountain along State Route 83 to Grundy, Virginia where it converges with the Levisa River and heads on into Kentucky to become the Big Sandy and then the Ohio River.

Screenshot 2018-04-06 14.33.05Just a few miles east of Grundy, situated along the shallow banks of the Slate Creek is the Bend of Slate, or as it is known to those who are from there, “The Bottom.” Between the 1940s and 1970s my father and his siblings were born and grew up in wide curve between a two-lane state road and the creek.

The curve was lined with small box houses, some of which were built onto and others that were later torn down and replaced with single or double wide trailers. Across the creek from the bottom was a one-lane road dotted with houses of a few families, some of whom you can still find there. At one end of The Bottom was “the restaurant,” official known as the Caudill’s Drive-In. My grandmother ran it for years – best hamburgers in the world I’m told.

The creek was not quite a stream or river. It could easily become swollen and forceful, quickly filling up backyards and basements. But most often it was the site of rock-skipping and swimming. Like the mountains, the river was part of the family.

The Bottom was home to a cast of unforgettable characters and the scene of a number of unbelievable stories of family, friendship, love, nonsense, and survival deep in the mountains of Central Appalachia.

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Martha, W.J., Fred, Omalee, and I.D.

In the last few years, we have lost 2 of the 5 siblings my father’s family, Omalee and Fred. In an effort to hold on to and celebrate those memories I will be posting stories from time to time about the Bend of Slate. I will start with an essay by my first cousin Scott about our Granny. His daddy Fred, who left us last month, once said that Scott and Granny had a “special understanding.” Now I know what Fred meant.

Why I am Changing My Name

I spent several years writing about the odd and sometimes rude questions I was asked about being single. For instance, I often heard – why aren’t you married? Now, I am a little less than 100 days from getting married and I continue to be intrigued by the personal questions directed to me. People are funny.

IMG_4207When people learn that I am engaged they immediately ask about the wedding date and location. Interestingly, this started within 2 hours of our actual engagement, to which, of course, I had no answer. The next question is often some version of  “so, will you change your name?” This seems innocent enough, but it is almost always asked in a tone that suggests they think that they know the answer and have already decided how they feel about it.

I am a wildly independent and self-sufficient person. So much so that I have been described as “independent to a fault.” I, of course, don’t think that is possible (or something anyone would say to a man, but I digress). I have also had the same name for 40 years. All this leads people to assume that I would not change my name. They are also pretty sure that they know the answer because for years, literally years, I have said that I would never change my name. Yes, I said never. In the words of a former law professor, I long asserted that I would not want to be with a man who needs to “tag his property.”

Needless to say, I now get a lot of raised eyebrows and big eyes when I answer people with yes, I am going to change my name. People are genuinely shocked. Then they awkwardly ask why or I, feeling the need to justify, explain without prompting.

The truth is that I am just as surprised as anyone. At a time when the number of women in the U.S. who choose not to change their name when they marry is up 20%, I decide to change my name. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

The idea of keeping my name felt very different when I had to answer the question for real. When I considered being part of a family beyond my family of origin, I thought about what I want my family to look/feel/be like. After carefully thinking about the consequences of changing my name, I realized that for me part of being a family is sharing a name. I grew up in a small town and we were one of the few families with my name. It was just ours and made it clear to everyone that we belong to each other.

I also realized that for me changing my name is more about developing the culture within my little family and less about the politics of patriarchy and male oppression.

When I think about what family is to me – it is a deep and clear connection to one another. Having the same name is a strong symbol of that connection. That belonging. Turns out, I am willing and happy to adopt a tradition that many, including my former self, disagree with to make this happen.

Of course, for many the debate about women taking their husband’s name is a feminist issue. It may seem that changing my last name isn’t very feminist of me. Especially after all those years of insisting I’d never do it. But, I think that the fact that I can choose makes it very much a feminist decision. And I’m a grown @$% woman and I do what I want.

 

Note: My fiancé is supportive of me keeping my name. He was clear that he would not consider changing his name, but he understood if I felt strongly about keeping mine. Neither of us is progressive enough for our family to take my last name.

Appalachia Natives: The Mountains Do Not Limit Us, We Do

I recently met with a former coal and gas executive from the Midwest. He used to travel to Central Appalachia – Eastern Kentucky – to supervise mining operations. This is same section of Central Appalachia where I was raised; in fact the mines he visited were within an hour or so from my childhood home.

He shared a couple of great Central Appalachia tales with me – gun-wielding grannies and copper thieves. But the most interesting description he gave was about how he felt in the mountains. He had never been in mountains so steep or been in a place where the sun comes up before you can see it and it disappears behind a mountain before it gets dark.

He said, “I felt claustrophobic.”

This made me think about how those mountains make me feel. To me those mountains are like a warm blanket surrounding, nurturing, and protecting all who walk under them. Keeping the good in and the bad out.

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Then I thought about how the landscape of the Midwest, where I live now, made me feel when I first arrived. The word that immediately came to mind was exposed. I felt exposed by the size of the sky, the distance of vision, and the constant wind. I have never been exposed to this much sky for this length of time (thus my fixation with sunrises and sunsets). In the mountains of Central Appalachia the sky is always framed with the jagged edges of tree limbs and mountaintops like a giant living, real-time painting.

This discussion reminded me of a quote from a book I read in college – Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington. Mr. Covington writes about his drive from Alabama to and through these very mountains and my hometown of Grundy, Virginia.

All along the highways through Tennessee and southwest Virginia, the signs were everywhere: Crazy Joe’s Fireworks, Jack Daniel’s whiskey, drag racing, turkey shoots, and barbecue. The South they suggested was straight out of the movies – idiosyncratic, lazy, restless, and self-absorbed. And that was what Jim and Melissa and I talked about on the drive, the discrepancy between the South of the popular imagination and the one we lived and worked in every day. But once the road narrowed and entered the mountains, the signs disappeared, replaced by mine tipples, mantrips, and long lines of train cars filled with coal that steamed in the rain. The last motels and hospital were at Grundy, Virginia, a mining town on the lip of a winding river between mountains so steep and irrational, they must have blocked most of the sun most of the day. It is difficult to imagine how children can grow up in such a place without carrying narrowed horizons into the rest of their lives.

But Grundy was an oasis compared with the country between it and Jolo.

He, like my friend, saw the mountains as hard – hard to adjust to, hard to live in, and hard to understand. They immediately saw the limitations of the mountains.

As a child of those mountains it never occurred to me that the mountains were limiting, restrictive, or negative. It never occurred to me that the mountains were preventing me from seeing something more. When I lived in the mountains I never missed the orange and pink glow of the sun as it came up and went down along the horizon. Rather, I enjoyed the light as it slowly lowered down the hillside in the morning and as it retreated up the hillside in the evening. Neither one is limiting, only different.

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The mountains were a vast playground of trees, moss, creeks, and rocks – where the only rule was to be back before dark. All of those hills, rocks, crevices, streams, and hollers were a big classroom for learning life skills. These are a few of my favorite lessons :

  • In order to walk down the side of a hill without falling adjust your stance, turn your feet horizontally and descend slowly.
  • If you want to create an extra source of water for yard work then you dam up a section of the creek, gravity feed the water down the holler, then pump it up the hillside.
  • Always make sure your walking stick is sturdy.
  • Never kill a black snake, because it eats the rodents.
  • Be careful what you do at the head of the holler because it will show up at the mouth – it all runs downhill.
  • Respect everyone and things that are bigger, stronger, and/or more powerful than you – the mountain, weather, a loaded coal truck, bears, and water.
  • Never kill a mama bear or a deer that isn’t big enough and throw the fish back. If you kill it, then you eat it. No waste.
  • Don’t be a wimp. Play when you are hurt, work when you are tired.
  • Never forget where you came from or deny your family.

All those lessons live on and color the life we make in and out of the mountains. Just like the mountains, those lessons are timeless. And what we learned from and in the mountains can carry us far beyond and right back to where we started, if we choose to wander.

The mountains don’t narrow our horizons, only we do that.

The Oldest Thing I Own

What is the oldest thing you own and why?

I was at a dinner party recently where the hosts used a question game to keep dinner conversation moving. Everyone at the table drew a question from a basket and shared their answer with the group. My question was something about what I do on my days off. But this question – what is the oldest thing you own and why? – has stuck with me.

I thought about it on the drive home and woke up thinking about it the next morning.

I first thought of my grandmother’s ring that I wear everyday. It is old. Then I thought about my Uncle Jim’s turquoise bracelet, it is old too. On my way into the garage to leave for work I saw the oldest thing I own. It was sitting in the garage waiting to be moved into the house.

At the end of summer, my Daddy delivered a cabinet to my house that belonged to my grandmother. For as long as I can remember it lived in her bedroom. She kept lots of things in it – VHS tapes, trinkets, or blankets in the windowed shelves. In the drawers were cancelled checks, mementos from trips, scarves, and gloves. I remember waking up as a child in her bedroom and seeing that cabinet first thing in the morning. I know the feeling of the cabinet doors catching as I opened and closed them because the door frames are no longer even. This cabinet was part of her house, part of the experience of living there. It was a fixture. I used this cabinet when I moved into her house in 2006, after she was gone. I used it in the same room and in same ways, minus the cancelled checks, for the next five years.

On the way to work, I called Daddy and asked him about the age of the cabinet? It was older than I thought. It originally belonged to my great-grandmother and according to Daddy it could date back to the 1920s or 1930s.

We talked about what it is made of and whether the glass was original. It is likely that the glass has been replaced and that it wouldn’t stand up to much stress. The back is particle board and it has been stained and painted and repainted many times. He said, “That is why that cabinet is only valuable to you.”

So true.

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The cabinet’s current home in Indiana.

I thought about the why, why do I have it. It wasn’t that it was given to me, I asked for it. I wanted it more than I wanted the darkly stained regal-looking claw-foot cabinet that my sister has in her home. Comparing the two this one is not much. It is the same green color it has been for the last 40 years and lined with the same floral paper my grandmother put in it 20 years ago. And until its arrival in Indiana it probably had never left Buchanan County, Virginia.

It has stood watch in her house for many years and if it talked it could tell many stories – births, deaths, holidays, and everything in between. For many years it was positioned against the wall across from where she knelt every night to pray and was the first thing she saw every morning. It was something she touched nearly everyday and when you open the drawers today it still smells like her house. I can’t look at it and not think of her or her house on the mountain that at one time or another was home to every member of my immediate family. You can’t buy that.

I own it because it is a tangible memory – something to rekindle the memories that fade with time. A precious heirloom. Because, in the words of Hazel Dickens, “there are some things memories can’t bring home.”

Reminder: Most People Are Good (Save Watkins the Dog)

Most people are good.

I was reminded of this by my friend Lisa. I met Lisa when we were tweens, I think. She came on the family beach trip (the one most of us fondly remember as “the beach trip from hell”) with my cousin and she has been around the family ever since. I believe she has even made a couple of trips to family events in Grundy, Virginia. Now she lives in Boston, far from Grundy.

Several weeks ago I got a Facebook message from her asking about a horrifying report that was on local news in Grundy and was spreading around the Internet about a dog that had been abused. I told Lisa that people I knew back home seemed to be on the case. I responded like most people, probably, I thought it was sad but moved on quickly. Not Lisa. She was clearly moved by this dog’s plight. So, she did something about it, from Boston.

Eighteen days ago she started a GoFundMe page for this dog, his name is Watkins, within 2-3 days she raised $10,000 for him. The total today is at $26,862.

Lisa is busy. She has a job, family, friends, and a life (in a super cool city). But she stopped what she was doing and made time to help this critically ill dog. This dog that can’t do a thing for her. A dog she has never seen in person.

What a lovely example of passionate service.

Thank you, Lisa for being a fabulous example of love and kindness and to the kind volunteers and veterinarians who are caring for this dog.

If you are an animal lover I encourage you to check out the GoFundMe site or the Buchanan County Humane Society Facebook page to learn more about Watkins.