Happy Birthday to my Little Mamaw in Heaven as it is the first one she is spending there. This means the first birthday that I have not been with her to give her a big kiss on her wrinkly cheek, receive one of her heartfelt hugs and tell her I love her.
She was an amazing woman, the strongest and wisest woman, at least in my eyes. There are many sayings about and for what a grandmother is and I suppose she filled the bill for them all or for none of them, not quite sure. She was strong rooted in family and her faith. Her family meant everything to her. She prided herself on being strong-minded and willed, on her honesty, and in her love for God and her family. She had more quirky little sayings that would make you laugh out loud and wonder where in the world that came from. Things just popped off her head and when you would ask her where she heard that the response was always the same, “Oh, that is just something Mama always said.” By Mama she was referring to Mommie Wilcox.
Thelma Virginia Wilcox Williams was born on the side of a mountain in a little house, we always have known as the Fannie Fillmore house. It was a little shack of a house with gray asbestos siding and a little flat front porch just a few feet off the ground. It stood as the first real house on the Left Fork of Beech Creek Road. I couldn’t possibly count the number of times she said, “In the old Fannie Fillmore house.” Now, I don’t know if Ms. Fannie Fillmore owned this house before my great-grandparents lived there or after, but that is the name Little Mamaw gave it.
To the left side of the yard, very small yard, as the front porch was only a few feet from the gravel road and the back porch stoop backed up to the mountain side, but to the left side of little gray house was a barn crib or tobacco crib that my great-grandfather stick built by hand. The last time I was in my Beech Creek it was still standing, but I do not know as of today. Little Mamaw was very proud of that tobacco crib mostly because she was so proud of her daddy.
I’ve always been enamored with my great-grandfather’s name probably because it fit the era so well; Porter Madison Wilcox, sounds stately I think. Porter Madison. Yes, I love it but only have a few images of him in my mind, all from photographs and not that many of them. He died at a very young age leaving my great-grandmother, Mommie Wilcox to raise and tend to their six children; Little Mamaw being the oldest. I do not know what drew Little Mamaw to her daddy so, more so than to her Mama, but she was drawn to him; to an untarnished image and memory of a man whom was the center of her being. Every time I ever heard her mention him she always seemed to be so far away in thought as if she was remembering a specific time she spent with him. I even thought of giving his name or at least the Madison part to one of my children, but she didn’t like that idea because she said her daddy never liked his middle name and that would not be honoring someone by giving one of their great-great grandchildren a name that wasn’t liked very much by the first. I just said okay and chose a different name.
Getting lost in thought, my apologies. Little Mamaw was born when the snow and frost was still on the ground in March of 1929 to Porter Madison and Lillie Rebecca Grindstaff Wilcox. Yes, you’ve heard me talk about my Grindstaff Stinger and now you know which side of the family it came from. Our Grindstaff stingers are not a bad thing as far as Little Mamaw saw it; it was more of an honor to have been blessed with one. In the early part of the 1900’s one had to stand up for themselves and their family if they were to survive and that is basically what the Grindstaff Stinger is; a means of survival; standing up for oneself and sometimes telling people just what you thought of them or their ways and not giving two cents who heard you.
Little Mamaw never claimed the Grindstaff Stinger, but believe you me (as she would say), she had one. She mostly referred to it when speaking of her Mama, but I never really saw Mommie Wilcox’s stinger, I guess by the time I was born she had pretty good control of it.
Hardworking, well I’ve never met a woman to this day who could pull a day’s labor like my Little Mamaw could and be proud as punch (another one of her sayings) of the tiredness that settled in her bones. She would be up at the crack of dawn, e v e r y d a y, make lunches for herself and for Papaw, which included two Thermos of coffee and usually an egg sandwich with some type of canned meat;sometimes it was Spam sometimes it was Potted Meat (the one with the little red devil on the white wrapper) and sometimes it was whatever was leftover from supper the night before; but everyday they had a homemade lunch.
This lunch accompanied her (them both) to the textile mill where she (they both) worked. Here you would see employee dedication like you have never seen before. Every single day she went to work, day after day she labored and toiled in this loud cotton mill. She had a separate hairbrush and a separate pocket-book and a separate jacket for when she went to work because everything became covered with lint. The workers would, as she would say “blow off” with the air hose when their shift ended but she still came home covered in cotton fibers.
There was no sitting unless you visited the canteen on you short break so she stood all day long completing her tasks whether it be winding or filling barrels almost chest high with long fluffy and wide strands of cotton. She not only had to stand on concrete all day in a loud environment with the air full of cotton particles filling barrels, but she also had to move those barrels from here to there and there to here. How did she do it, with her legs. She would scoot the extremely heavy stuffed bins and barrels to where they needed to be by pushing on them with her legs. I have seen her to it. This maneuvering process didn’t bode well for her back or her legs with her multiple varicose veins sometimes so enlarged with blood clots that she would have to have partial or whole veins stripped out of her legs. Still she worked.
Back to the, “I have seen it” part. In my life I spent a great amount of time with both of my grandparents. They worked different shifts, and being that Little Mamaw was never late for work or church; sometimes I had to ride with Papaw to the mill to wait for Little Mamaw’s shift to end. The most punctual individual to my recollection was my Papaw. Being on time meant being twenty minutes early, so from time to time while being tended to we had to get to the mill before his shift started.
Where did this leave me? It left me sitting on a little stoop which was actually two wooden steps that were meant as a step stool which resided underneath the Safety / Medicine cabinet. I was supposed to be very quiet as to not be noticed, but with the loud roaring of the machines and the large metal elevator pull doors and the buzzers and horns going off no one would have noticed me by sound anyway. I wasn’t really supposed to be there but I had to be somewhere and it was only for the five or ten minutes before Little Mamaw’s shift ended. I was placed on the little stoop steps under the white cabinet and given a yellow pad of paper and a red pen so I could scribble or draw. I was told only once not to move and to be very quiet. I did exactly as I was told. It was such a large place a little scary and I liked it when the horn blew because that meant Little Mamaw and I could go home. During some of those forbidden visits to the mill as I sat on the wooden stoop I could see Little Mamaw pushing and pulling those barrels of cotton. Sometimes her friend Ruby would help and sometimes Ms. Ruby had her own barrels to lug around.
This was just to give you a slight glimpse of what Little Mamaw’s daily work life was like. She went when it snowed, she went when she was sick, she went every day, for 38 years. And this was just her day job not her only job. She was tired when she came home at 2 o’clock and not the kind of tired you and I are after a day at work. She would use her lint brush first thing to get as much of the cotton out of her hair as she could. Sometimes we ran to the drug store, which had a toy and candy section and a real druggist who knew her by name, sometimes we had to run errands to the bank or the grocery store and depending upon the time of year sometimes she would change out of her work clothes and into her Garden Clothes.
The vegetable garden that she tended to and worked out with my Papaw was not an industrial garden by any means but it was big enough to grow enough food to be canned, stored and put up to feed our family for an entire year. Now that’s a pretty big garden. Little Mamaw passed away in November of last year and she worked her garden through last summer. Even through all of the hard work that went into the garden, secretly, I think it was her happy place! They both loved their garden and I know this because they fussed over and with it year after year.
Little Mamaw believed in the Signs, you know the signs of the stars and moon and all the ones you find in the Almanac. She definitely planted and pruned by the Signs. It means something if the Sign is in the heart or the foot or somewhere else. I never learned the signs but I still have time.
So year followed year one not much different from the one before for Little Mamaw. She worked in a cotton mill 200 miles from that little Fannie Fillmore house she was born in on the side of Beech Creek. She tended to her garden and her family, and she tended to me.
The weekends were not much different, she tended a garden on the weekends too, but her second garden was way back up in the mountains where we would go almost every weekend. Depending upon the hurry that Papaw was in we might leave on Friday afternoon once Mamaw’s shift ended or if she was just too tuckered out we would leave on Saturday morning, bright and early while it was still dark outside. We had our bacon and egg sandwiches wrapped in her own special way in waxed paper and their thermos of coffee and we would hit the road. The quicker we could get there the better because there was always so much work to be done when we got there, to Beech Creek, and we were never gone past Sunday night because there was work and school on Monday. The times and the roads have changed since those days when I was a little girl and over the years the time it took to drive the 200 miles into the mountains shortened. Every other year or two we were able to shave off a small town that we no longer had to drive through to get there. By the time the path was perfected Papaw could drive it in about 3.5 hours and that was with only one quick stop for gas and a bathroom in Canton.
Once we finally arrived it was so good to stretch our legs. Very shortly after arriving the first thing to do was to cut on the water as it was always turned off upon departure in the event a pipe would freeze and bust (burst). The truck was unloaded, a pick up truck, a burnt orangish-brown GMC with a white camper top covering the bed. When I say bed that is exactly what I mean as there was a blue and white stripped mattress inside the bed of the truck covered with the white camper top. It was neat! The camper cover had little windows on each side and there was always plenty of room for me or my cousins to sit or lay on the long trek up the mountain. You see in those days, children could ride in the back of trucks, even for 200 miles! If there was room in the back amongst all of the items that were being hauled up for the weekend stay we could ride in the back.
Once the truck was unloaded and the water turned on, the key was retrieved, I think there was only one, from over the door jamb. The only entrance to the three room house that sat on the side of Beech Creek on the right side of the left fork of Beech Creek Road was the screen door on the front porch. This little house, road, town, mountain, it was all cumulatively known as Beech Creek. If someone said Beech Creek you knew where they were talking about and if someone said they were “going in” or going to the mountains they meant they were going to Beech Creek.
It all smelled musty, the porch and the sofa and chairs that resided on it and the house in general smelled musty; the way something would smell if it had been closed up for a few weeks way up in the mountains where a gentle rain would pelt the authentic silver tin roof on a daily basis at sometime during the day. But what a wonderful smell it was, when I smelled that smell I knew where I was. I was free to have the most fun a little girl could have in a two-day span. I was in Beech Creek and I was with the two people who I looked up to as if the sun rose and set in their eyes.
There would always be an unspoken agenda of things to be done that first day and throughout the stay. Beds to be changed, mowin’ (mowing) to be done and not just with a push mower. The mowing had to be done sometimes with a tractor and sometimes with a sickle and then just the part around the little house got mowed with the push mower. Mamaw and I would start in on the cleaning that needed to be done, usually I watched or handed her whatever she asked for, she did the work part. Once everything was set to her satisfaction and was fit for livin’ (living) in for a few days we were off to town, yes all the way into Robbinsville – for several reasons. The first being to call my ever so patient Momma to let her know we had arrived safely and weren’t a layin’ (laying) on the side of the road in some ditch, and the second was to purchase goods to eat while we were there. The phone call was necessary because there never has been a phone in the Beech Creek house. Well, once there was for a short time, but it’s cost didn’t match the need so it was un-installed.
We usually only bought food that would spoil such as milk and eggs and bacon and things like that because there was enough canned goods in the little house to feed an army at any given time. We didn’t stay gone too long as the truck would be needed for the visits. These were short little trips to the Right Fork of Beech Creek Road in which we would travel to see Papa. Papa Williams was Papaw’s daddy. The right fork curved higher than the left and it was longer with more people living on it. We would throw up our hands and wave to various farmers and neighbors along the way up to see Papa, sometimes stopping at brother Weaver’s or at Marvin’s mother’s house but our destination was to see Papa. The visit wasn’t long but just enough to let Papa know we were “in” for the weekend and that we would be back with one of Little Mamaw’s special banana puddins’ (pudding) before we left to head home.
Back to our side of the mountain, down the winding road past brother Weaver’s trailer and some hand throws to some other older folks that I did not know as we had work to do! Little Mamaw and Papaw worked their whole lives but that was in their blood, instilled in them from the day they were born. It is what their parents did and their parents before them. You worked to survive or you died; so they worked. With all that working I would probably be a goner but to complain wasn’t in their vocabulary. It was who they were and I loved them with all my little heartstrings!
I think back to Little Mamaw on her birthday and I can’t be selfish that she is gone, we will all go I suppose. The above little story of different remembrances of her life, stories she told me and times I spent with her would only fill the first page of a book if I were to write one. With that many memories of someone how could I be sad that she is no longer here? Well, being saddened is human nature, but I am so very happy that I had such an inspiration in my life and was blessed with her to tell me those stories and to make memories that really do keep you going sometimes and do last a lifetime.
Post Script: I will add photographs for this story just as soon as I pick the perfect ones ~