In a book written by Lee Smith, Fair and Tender Ladies, a mountain woman tells of her life during times of joy and trouble, the Depression and change. I was reminded of this story as I stood last night with family, celebrating a life and mourning a loss. The strong and gentle women that have surrounded me all my life came to mind: loving, witty, elegant, earthy, each one unique yet bonded by ties of family and love.
My father's father came from a close-knit family of nine; one brother died in World War II but I knew all of the other siblings well, along with their spouses and children. The family spanned a century of change. They were born on a farm deep in the hills where the children played along creeks and they all worked together to make a living, the older daughter helping to tend the younger children and loved as a second mother by them. Times changed; most of the family left the farm and created very different lives for themselves, raising their children in a world that seemed more challenging.
Yet each year the family came home for an extended family reunion, a gathering of the clan that has dwindled with the years and passing of so many of the older generation. I stood as a child in awe of my father's young cousins, teenagers when I was small, beautiful young women and handsome young men that seemed so confident and wise. Voices were raised in song inside the old Primitive Baptist church as I played in the creek with younger cousins on the grounds, surrounded by watchful kin. There was always talk that flowed over us, stories of family and memories of even older generations that had gone on before. Ties that bind, even now that my generation is older and not as close, a recognition of common experience that will never quite be left behind.
The sweet lady that we celebrated last night stood as a fine example of her generation. A working woman, raising two wonderful sons in a world that had become so different from the times she had known as a child. A wife, treasured by a man who valued her strength and intelligence as much as her beauty, and mourned the loss of those wonderful qualities as her health failed. It's hard to capture a life in just a few sentences; memories flow to mind that can't be imprisoned in mere words. Lives pass, with each moment affecting the next, each word and action leaving a lasting impression somewhere, on someone.
This web of experience; of history, memory and kinship, that draws the family back to this mountain generation after generation. Joy, work and sorrow flow into the farms and stone and shape the land as the land has shaped us. A quiet heritage.