Stories of Appalachia Remembered
Short stories reflecting the author’s love of the region and its people
Shady Valley’s Strawberry Cobbler
I drove to Shady Valley, Tennessee to meet Ellen, the great, granddaughter of Nancy Osborne Greer, a remarkable weaver of regional acclaim whose life spanned 101 years. On an earlier visit to her home precariously balanced against the side of a mountain in Trade, Tennessee, I saw Nancy’s loom built in 1802, walked the land she and husband Alexander farmed, learned the names of her twelve children, and photographed some of the bed coverlets she wove during her long and productive life. I hoped this trip would yield more details of Nancy’s personal life.
The best part of fieldwork is the people I meet along the way, and I set out for Shady Valley on a mild, overcast November morning filled with excitement and anticipation at finally getting to meet Ellen. For the first few miles the drive was scenic and comfortably familiar, but as I turned toward Backbone Rock in the Cherokee National Forest, the land changed dramatically – seemingly unspoiled by human intrusion. The sky was still slightly foggy at that hour; the woods bare and damp, only rhododendrons still a rich dark green. Next to the roadbed, a stream bubbled and gurgled as it tumbled over the rocks with rays of sun sparkling over the wet tips. As I passed through a narrow tunnel under the high craggy ridge of “the rock,” I felt I was leaving present-day life behind. The road twisted around rocky outcroppings until suddenly, like arms gesturing in welcome, it opened into a wide, fertile valley. Rolling mountains surrounded me on all sides; I had a feeling of snug safety and comfort like a mother’s warm embrace. I began humming a tune from the musical Brigadoon, and thought this was be the kind of place where time could stand still for a hundred years.
Ellen must have heard me pull into her driveway, because when I got out of the car she was yoo-hooing from a side door to come in the house and she would join me in a couple of minutes. She hollered that she was just out of the bathtub and still needed to brush her hair, adding that her slow start was due to the difficult delivery of a calf born the night before to an old, first-time mother.
I entered the sitting room and immediately felt the warmth of a small, crackling wood fire; I knew this would be a special day. Waiting for Ellen to reappear, I surveyed a room full of treasured belongings, antiques, and memorabilia reminiscent of a life long out of current fashion. She used antique lace remnants to make a doll’s dress and line the inside of an old doll buggy; from the guest bedroom doorway I noticed a fabulous beaded and sequined black dress spread across a huge Victorian bed, and hats, gloves, and dainty beaded handbags displayed casually on dresser tops and footstools.
Ellen emerged from the back of the house and invited me to join her in the kitchen where she was making coffee on a small wood cook stove. There is nothing quite like the calming effect of a warm cozy kitchen on a chilly autumn day – the aroma of a wood burning instantly transported me back to a real or imagined simpler lifestyle. Surveying the assortment of bric-a-brac on shelves, I spotted a huge pan full of freshly baked strawberry cobbler sitting atop a conventional stove. Ellen was either expecting a lot more company for lunch or I was going home five pounds heavier!
We sat down at the kitchen table with our coffee and Ellen began to tell me about her parents and memories of Granny Greer, but we kept veering off the subject. Lulled by the warm fire and delicious coffee we exchanged favorite recipes and told of various flea-market finds. I gave her my secret for a flaky piecrust and she told me how to make ground cherries into tart jam. I gave her my recipe for Apple Dapple cake after tasting a Rusty Coat apple she picked off a tree next to the kitchen door. I drank a glass of her homemade grape juice and Ellen told me she retired from her factory job after being widowed four years ago. Ellen keeps busy on the farm, in her church and community. She is an outdoors’ woman who walks with her big dog, Sheba, to the creek every day. Ellen rejoices in the sky, the mountains, and the earth underfoot. She said it was her strong religious faith and antiquing pursuits that kept her going when her eldest son was killed in an auto accident during his second year of college.
Ellen fixed us a large bowl of homemade spaghetti for lunch and, of course, a huge dish of strawberry cobbler for dessert! Then we took a long walk along the creek, stopping to admire the view and she shared more stories of life on the farm where she had lived all her life. Back at the house, we built up the fire and had another huge helping of strawberry cobbler and a mug of fresh coffee.
It was dusk and time for me to leave but I didn’t want the day to end. The weather was changing; a cold front suddenly descended on the valley. Dark clouds gathered low on the hilltops forming interesting shapes and figures as they moved swiftly across the mountains. Suddenly the sky opened up and the rain poured straight to the ground in torrents, the wind howled and the trees creaked and moaned bracing themselves against the wind. The fireplace downdraft puffed out clouds of smoke as we finished our coffee and cobbler. We kept saying how nice a crackling fire was, but pretty soon we noticed the room was so full of smoke we could hardly see each other. Ellen said it was so smoky I could leave and she wouldn’t even notice. “What with all the smoke,” she mused, “maybe I’ll just pretend you’re spending the night.”
The rain stopped and I stepped onto the front porch as the last slivers of sun streaked through the clouds and lit up the mountaintops. Reflecting off wet fallen leaves, shards of light glistened like gold. Time was suspended in the gloaming and dancing shadows twisted in the wind. I thought of the heather on the hill in Brigadoon.
Reluctantly I drove toward home. The valley was wet but peaceful again and I had a sense of wellbeing – and a very full belly. I had made a friend who added new perspectives to my understanding of mountain ways and “olden days.” I turned on the radio and quickly turned it off again, realizing I wanted to stay in the moment. In silence, I left Shady valley and re-entered the forest to watch shadows deepen into charcoal as wind swirled fat wet leaves and naked gnarled branches swayed eerily in the twilight. I looked in the rearview mirror to see a final shaft of light break through a thick cloud making a perfect circle of light that twittered on the highest mountaintop behind me. I passed under Backbone Rock knowing I would have to face the real world again – but not for another day. I would keep my sense of wholeness and safety for tonight. Tomorrow would be soon enough to talk on the phone, grocery shop, and deal with the stack of correspondence on my desk.
I have promised to go back to Shady Valley. Ellen wants me to see how she nestles her small antique baby dolls among the evergreen branches of her Christmas tree, and let me taste her apple stack cake. I think I will share with her my grandmother’s recipe for lolly-good-stuff and depression sauce. Sadly, it has been nearly fifteen years and I have still not returned.