Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Mountain Girl Grandma

A little more than 100 years after my grandmother Mary was born, her granddaughter, Connee Troutman Handke Willis wrote a poem to her memory. Dated November 27, 1987, It is tucked into a collection of family Christmas letters in my office. With Connee's permission, I’m including it here because it’s a testament to some of the family lore about our grandparents, and it’s a lovely tribute to our grandmother. Thank you, Connee.
Mountain Girl

Sweet, spicy and tart
as the nutmeg and lemon
that laced the sugar cookies
multiplying in my memory
as they did in your cookie jar.
            Tall, proud and enduring
            as the Appalachians
            that beheld your beginnings
            on that May day in 1887.

                        You were my mountain girl grandma.

Born in the shadow of Walker Mountain
in western Virginia, called Rich Valley,
of poor, hill-country parents
who could neither read nor write,
you wanted to be a teacher.
            Cleaning grimy black soot from lamps for pay,
            you lit your light of learning
            and, with brown eyes sparkling,
            earned your teaching degree.

                        You had spunk, my mountain girl grandma!

You taught, then your mama
moved the family to Missouri
for new beginnings and to get you away
from that back country boy
who had taken such a shine to you.
            One day he hiked up out of the valley,
            clear over Walker Mountain and down
            to the train station, emptying his pockets
            for a ride to claim you, his sweet Mary Ann.

                        Were you surprised, my mountain girl grandma?

Married, you moved to Nebraska,
and, with your brood of five young-‘uns,
one of them my daddy,
you raised chickens and garden and
together, wrested a living from the dry, hard dirt.
            By the evening’s lamplight
            you mended clothes and quarrels,
            and answered questions about homework,
            about faith, hopes, dreams, and becoming.

                        You were strong, my mountain girl grandma.

Spare and angular when I knew you,
fresh in cotton housedress and home sewn apron,
still a touch of the mountain in your voice—
your can’t was “cain’t”, your hollow, “holler”,
your hair was seasoned, salt and pepper.
            Your house bulged at holiday feasts for kith and kin,
            where mashed potatoes mounded
            like the rounded hills of your recollection,
            eroded, streaked by floods of rich, brown gravy.

                        You were a memory-maker, my mountain girl grandma!

I recall you and grandpa
telling tales of the lump in his throat
when he climbed Walker Mountain,
never to return. The twinkle in his eyes
told me that Mary Ann was worth every step.
            When that mountain boy died, the sparkle
            slowly left your eyes and your gait—
            now you, too, are tucked in these
            gently rolling hills,* an eternity from Rich Valley.

                        A black-eyed susan,
                        you looked folks in the eye,
                        squared your shoulders and took on life—
                        I miss you tonight, my mountain girl grandma.

(Used by permission from Connie Willis)

*The "gently rolling hills" referred to in this stanza are in Wayne County Nebraska, specifically a little cemetery called Pleasant View, near the town of Winside.

Grave marker of Mary Ann Waggoner and Clint Troutman, Pleasant View Cemetery, Winside, NE.
(c) 2013 Z. T. Noble (except poem, copyright for which belongs to Connee Willis)

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