South of Sylva, back of yesterday: John Parris' inspiration
The oil lamp, the buggy, and the spinning wheel—they all were replaced by things that did their jobs better and easier, but “nobody came up with anything to replace the cradle.”
Parris, the late, great columnist for the Citizen-Times, had roamed the mountains from Brasstown to Blowing Rock for 42 years, beginning in 1955, often gravitating to Sylva, his hometown, and to Burningtown, 20 miles southwest, in Macon County.
Burningtown was where his maternal grandma and grandpa lived. This grandpa, whom Parris sometimes called the “Old Man of the Mountains,” was a go-to source for reliable lore.
“My Uncle Eli was the masterest cradle-maker in these parts,” the Old Man avowed.
He’d take a short length of buckeye log and work on it like he was makin’ somethin’ that was gonna hold a king. He pegged it with oak pins to two hickory rockers,” because “rockers out of hickory won’t creep.”
Caretakers would rock the cradle with a foot while sewing, knitting, or churning; or, when moving about the house, they’d set the cradle rocking as they passed by.
The comforts of home reached a peak at Christmastime, and merited Parris’ prose poetry.
“In the Carolina Highlands, December is an old man with memories and a young man with dreams.” Parris wrote. It’s a time “when the stars come close and night winds are winds of song.”
“It’s when,” he adds, “a house, be it cabin or mansion, reveals its true character and abody gets to know the meaning of a home.”
The nostalgia attached to an old-time mountain home is not all in vain. The recollections cause us to reconsider progress and value such blessings as a world full of evocative smells.
“A man can no longer drink into his lungs a thousand proud, potent, and mysterious odors,” Parris wrote from Little Savannah, his paternal grandparents’ place west over the mountain from Cullowhee. “Gone are the smells that whip the senses and plough a furrow on the memory.”
The smell of warm foaming milk; the manure-hay-leather-oats smell of a barn; the blue smell of hickory smoke; the bread-molasses-kerosene-coffee-vanilla smell of grandma’s kitchen; the starch-cabbage-wax-tobacco-mint-paint-cat smell of the country store; the smells of rain-wet plums, corn pollen, and burning leaves; and the “exciting smell of the hills blooming in the dusk”—these and other odors “have been tamped down, obliterated, or extinguished.”
Going home again
“The road back to childhood is a road to shattered illusions,” Parris related after visiting the place where his father had grown up and his grandfather is buried.
“The springhouse, shaded by a gnarled old oak, is gone...The peach trees have withered and died and the apple trees have been cut down...There’s only a slight depression in the earth where the barn stood, and I remembered the last time I had stood there. Neighbors with saw and hammer had been there then, making a coffin of pine for my grandfather. And I remember how they talked in hushed tones, their hammers ringing in the September afternoon.”
The old house still stood, sagging, its oak shingles replaced by a metal roof. Inside, Parris saw “the big bed on which his grandfather died...in the front room, fast by the fireplace. And over it is spread one of my grandmother’s coverlets.”
Cornshuck rain hat
Cash-scarce times were heart-filled times on the farms.
The Old Man remembered that during the Civil War and Reconstruction, ladies made “the prettiest bonnets you ever saw” out of corn shucks; and “the menfolks got to wearin’ hats out of the same stuff.”
Corn was a way of life. “It was corn-shuckin’s and hoe downs, fiddle-music and banjo pickin’” Corn was “pudding and soup, hominy and mush...It was dolls and whistles.” It was feed for the cows. “Many a family slept on cornshuck mattresses. They burned corn cobs for fuel.”
“There was no finer pipe than one made out of corn cobs....(and) I remember once,” the Old Man recalled, Uncle Eli “made me a cornstalk fiddle and bow.”
Grandma was “mighty peart with a skillet,” Parris observed. “In the early summer when the corn first ripened, we’d start havin’ gritted bread. Now that’s somethin’ to make your mouth water.”
There’s a recipe you can look at in Parris’ 1978 book, “Mountain Cooking,” but Grandpa gives a pretty good description in “My Mountains, My People,” Parris’ second of five books of collected columns.
“You take fresh corn and rub it over a piece of tin that’s been holed with a nail, rubbin’ the ear of corn on the rough side, and make a meal that’s milky-like. Sweetest, tastiest thing you ever tasted.”
Every resource got used in every way—peach trees, for example. They used to be more greatly favored than apple trees, the Old Man stated. “What we didn’t dry or make into peach butter or pickle we sold over at the stillhouse where they run ‘em through a mill and made brandy.”
Folks also made peach leather, pressing the peaches through a coarse sieve, adding brown sugar and cooking them, and spreading the sauce on plates to put out in the sun until it dried and could be rolled up.
“No one was ever known to go hungry at Grandma’s,” Parris proclaimed about his father’s mom; and it also applied to his maternal grandmother. “Nor was it necessary to make a flying trip to the store.”
At times, after the meal was distributed, Grandpa, holding his plate said he reckoned “the chickens didn’t have livers and gizzards anymore, teasing Grandma and knowing all the while she had held them back for the children.”
Grandma was happiest, Parris attested, “when the house was bulging at the seams with company. And it was the same with most of her contemporaries here in the mountains.”
Originally published, with a few changes, in the Asheville Citizen-Times. Follow Rob Neufeld on Twitter @WNC_chronicler.
Cover of “Mountain Cooking”