One Sunday in November, Momma, Marion Ann, Mary, and I took a ride up to Henderson County to see the fall foliage. MA drove. We went up highway 14 and got on I-26 at Landrum, with plans to come home via Highway 25.
I love the way you can plainly see fall coming down the mountain in certain spots in that loop. One of the prettiest sights was from the base of White Oak Mountain at Columbus. You have such a good view from the interstate. The top was ablaze and the bottom was mostly green. The day was clear and golden. It probably would have been better if it hadn’t rained so hard that Friday, knocking off some leaves. I get a good dose of fall shades in my own neighborhood off Gap Creek Road from the woods that lead down to the South Tyger River right across the street (if anybody develops that, it’ll kill me.) But it’s nothing compared to the rumpled-quilt effect you get on the Saluda grade or in the Green River Valley.
When we were outside Columbus, Momma thought we were on Highway 25. She asked several times, “Are we on 25?”
“No, Momma, we’re on the interstate,” I said. I thought she just didn’t hear the first time. After she asked the third time, MA and I gave each other silent, side-ways “uh-oh” look- raised brows, eyes wide.
The amazing thing is that she, at eighty-years-old, can still recount all kinds of stories about her great-aunts, the Ward girls, and their families. She told me something that day that I didn’t know (or maybe didn’t remember) while we stood in the middle of the Ward Cemetery at Double Springs Baptist where Gap Creek Road meets Old Highway 25 near Tuxedo, North Carolina. My great-great-grandpa, Calvin Ward, a Civil War veteran, had 17 children. Only one of them did not live to adulthood. This girl, Fanny, died at age twelve of pernicious anemia. Momma said the child still didn’t have a marker on her grave, over a hundred years later, but most all of her generation, only a handful left, can pick out the location of the little girl’s grave.
Now how do they know that? Is it because their parents told them? “This is my Aunt Fanny’s grave. She died of pernicious anemia when she was just twelve-years-old.”
Or is it because our great-grandparents told their children? “I had a sister who died when she was twelve. It was the awfulest thing. We buried her here, right beside Grandpa. She was such a sweet girl, but always frail. One of us always had to stay home with her. She couldn’t stand to ride in the wagon and was always out of breath.”
When I was little I was drawn to the tiny headstones, the ones shaped like hearts and lambs and angels. Sara likes to visit real old graveyards with me. But she says it breaks her heart to see the baby graves.
“That used to happen a lot back then, before antibiotics and vaccinations,” I told her one day when we were in the Woods Chapel Methodist Cemetery near Greer. Those are my daddy’s people out there. “Some families lost several children. Remember when you had Strep throat?" I reminded her. " Back then, that would develop into more serious diseases like rheumatic fever which can cause permanent damage to the heart, or scarlet fever, or blood infections, or kidney disease.”
“How do you know all that, Momma?” Sara asked (she’s thirteen).
“I’m old… plus my momma used to tell me that stuff. One of her friends had scarlet fever when she was young and ended up having to get a new heart valve when she was about forty because of it. Had to go to Texas to get it done back then. It was mechanical and clicked loud enough to hear.”
I guess you can count the family of Calvin Ward as very fortunate.
We had lunch that day at the Double Olive on Main Street in Hendersonville. Every time I go up there, that restaurant has a different name. Just about everyone that worked in there sounded like a Yankee. I think we kept the waitress entertained drawling out our orders. It sounded to me like she was trying cover up her own native sound. As a matter of fact, I didn’t hear anybody all day that sounded like us – in the restaurant, at the gas station, on the sidewalks, even at the apple stand on the down side of Flat Rock. The woman checking us out sounded like New Jersey. It made me feel like the Henderson County winesaps or the Blue Ridge sourwood honey she was selling me weren’t genuine.
Once, a few years back, Greenville Technical College offered a business class called “Get the South Out of Your Mouth” to help native business people cultivate a way of speaking devoid of culture and heritage. I was insulted just reading the description in the course catalog. I distinctly remember there being something about us sounding uneducated. The class was discussed on one of the morning country radio shows. Most of the listeners who called in were as appalled as I was. I doubt if the class ever made. I never saw it offered in subsequent catalogs either.