Blue Ridge Portrait in the Bay
- This month - American-Gothic-Goes-Appalachia in a stark portrait of life in the Blue Ridge.
A large photograph of a grim, elderly couple takes up a considerable amount of wall space in our home’s hallway. The camera that imprinted the original negative must have been a fine one, a Hasselblad perhaps. Only a quality lens like that could have captured the hundreds of tiny lines etched in the faces of that stern pair of farmers. Each fine crease seems to mark some nameless hardship endured.
The couple facing the camera sits side by side in rockers. Neither smiles. An apron tied around her waist protects the woman’s plaid house-dress. The man wears a dark coat. It’s not the sort of Sunday jacket that poor folks keep for weddings and funerals, but the kind of rough coat worn to milk the cows in the further barn when the weather is chill. It’s unbuttoned and frames the butt of a no-nonsense revolver tucked into the man’s belt.
If you were lost in the deep mountain coves of the Blue Ridge and from a distance, spotted these people on the porch of their rustic home, you might pull into their driveway to ask directions. Once you were close enough to see their expressions though, you’d probably jam the car in reverse without rolling down your window. You’d ease back out to the narrow twisted road, waving at them in the hopes that you were coming across as an accidental passerby instead of an intentional trespasser. Still, you wouldn’t breathe easy until you were out of possible pistol range.
The photograph makes some visitors to our home uncomfortable, ready to back out of our hallway. While the other pieces of artwork in our home evoke questions on occasion, no one’s ever asked about the stern mountain pair, despite its size or prominence. People might pause before it, but they never comment. Every so often, I’ll volunteer information. Like last fall, when friends of friends dropped in. The portrait caught their attention briefly and they were in the process of stepping away when I spoke.
“That’s my grandmother and grandfather,” I say. “They were really very sweet people.”
Courtesy forces the guests to stop and reexamine the picture. Although they don’t contradict me verbally, their eyebrows rise in disbelief. For some reason I feel a need to defend my grandparents’ congeniality.
“My aunt Fran was a professional photographer. In the 1960s, for an art exhibit, she shot a series of photographs of Ashe County, North Carolina, where she grew up. My grandparents lived there their whole lives. When she got them to pose, I think she was going for a sort of American-Gothic-Goes-Appalachia look. She asked them not to smile.” I pause a beat. “Normally, they looked pretty happy.”
The guests exchange glances and point their shoes to the door. Maybe mention of the gun will engage their interest.
“Fran got my grandfather to put the pistol in his belt too,” I offer. “Of course, they lived way back in the mountains, and he used to hunt to feed the family, so he had several guns. He never actually wore one around, though. Grandma wouldn’t have tolerated that.”
The guests aren’t sure how to react. My Barker family lineage isn’t the sort one usually brags about and they don’t understand my pride in being the descendant of these obviously poor, unsophisticated and rugged-looking people. They’re relieved when my husband calls us all into the living room for refreshments.
For instance, my grandparents didn’t care about fashion. Although Grandma liked to dress up on Sundays and had a fondness for hats, their wardrobes were dated by decades. No food was “fast” since they grew most of their own. Their sense of economy was totally out of step with the outside world’s constant panting for newer and presumably better goods. The idea of great entertainment in Ashe County consisted of visiting with neighbors or heading up to the gas station on Saturday nights to hear the bluegrass players. The Beatles weren’t big in the Blue Ridge and the Rolling Stones never made it past Wilkesboro down in the foothills.
There were also the painfully boring cake visits. Each time my parents and I drove up from Charlotte to the farm, my grandmother would make pound cakes with the eggs I helped her collect from the hen house. She won lots of ribbons at fairs with that recipe, although I’ll never understand how she was able to finesse the wood fire in her stove enough to bake anything at all, much less prize-winning cakes.
Then my dad would drive us all down snaky roads that threaded through the tight hills. Steep forests grew next to plots of nearly vertical pastureland dotted with cows, ones that must have been kin to mountain goats or else they’d have just tumbled down. Daddy would maneuver the car over rutted roads to isolated coves where we’d deliver the cakes and assorted produce from the garden to my grandparents’ friends. This was a lengthy process and involved sitting on their porches or in small rooms lined with old newspapers glued to the rough plank walls in a pathetic attempt to block the winter winds. At one cabin, a tattered truck seat served as a sofa. The shell of the rusted, cannibalized vehicle was being used as a hen house in the yard.
Sometimes we’d make two or three visits in a single day. Wherever we went, I always wanted to leave before we got there. I didn’t see how desperately those people needed the vegetables and the dozen eggs that my grandmother had brought - as though they were an afterthought – to leave along with the cake. Or how those social calls left the dignity of our hosts intact and prevented sharing from becoming charity.
My grandparents managed to feed six children during the worst economic crisis in the country, living in one of the most destitute areas of the south. They understood that poverty wasn’t to be judged. One accident, one illness, one bad turn of fortune, one lost loved one could set a person back, sometimes for good.
Those who had more – wealth, land, education - weren’t entitled, they had merely been favored by luck or by birth. Envy wasted energy, because prosperity wasn’t a matter of being special or blessed. The god they worshiped loved all equally.
I was favored by luck myself - both grandparents lived long enough for me to re-appreciate them. I grew to take enormous pride in their unvarnished character and the mountain heritage that shaped our family. When I moved away to the flatlands of the Gulf Coast after college, I was drawn by the similarities in attitude, as well as the differences in landscape. People I met during my first visits to Bay St. Louis left me with the impression that I’d be accepted, no matter my economic status or my social standing. The scenery didn’t look anything like North Carolina’s, yet it still felt like home.
Both my grandparents died before the turn of the century and even Aunt Fran passed on a few years ago. After her death, my thoughtful uncle found and sent me the print of the photograph that now hangs on our wall. It may have landed a thousand miles from where it was taken fifty years ago, but to me, it fits right in.