Many, many years ago I discovered this wonderful Appalachian story by George Foss. It was originally published in Discover: The Arts & Humanities of Greater Baton Rouge November/December 1981. I saved it and read it each year on Christmas Eve. It takes me right to Brown’s Cove in an instant. These are my people, these are my kith, my kin. It’s a long read but treat yourself ~ you won’t be sorry. Wishing all my beloved friends and family a day filled with old traditions.
No one ever went to Hilma Powell’s house by mistake. It is one of the most “out of the way” and “away from it all” places I know. If you start out, as I did, from Washington, DC., head west into Virginia on Route 211 past old Fairfax Courthouse through the Civil War battle fields of Manassas and Bull Run to Warrenton. There you reach the crest of a gentle rise and for the first time see the Blue Ridge Mountains stretching north and south before you like a misty wall. Turn south for Charlottesville running parallel to the mountains through stands of pine and sycamore trees. West again on I64 into the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge. Double back north at Crozet and follow the winding blacktop through the tiny towns of Whitehall and Free Union. Where the road turns sharply to the right over a bridge, take the left fork. A loose gravel road runs past the eighteenth century home sites called Mountfair and Brightberry. Don’t go too far. To the right by a post is an almost hidden two-rut trail which leads up into Brown’s Cove. The trail is full of rocks, pools of water and in winter, snow. About a mile of axle-breaking jolts and perhaps a push or two brings you past a large stately country plantation house the locals call “Headquarters” because Stonewall Jackson used it as his field headquarters while directing his army from the Shenandoah Valley through Brown’s Cove on their way to join Robert E. Lee in the first defense of Richmond. A few hundred yards farther and you see a large old log house which once served as the dwelling for the overseers of the Brown plantation. It leans slightly from its three hundred years of standing, and there are several cars of all makes and vintages parked randomly about. We are not the first ones there for a Christmas visit. You see, despite the remoteness of the location, and the difficulties of the trip, folks are drawn here as surely and certainly as the Magi were by the star. This is because Hilma is the most hospitable person who ever lived, and she and the others who will also be there make this one of the very best places to be any time, and at Christmas, more so.
Hilma is a part of the Virginia mountains and countryside, born in this very house. Almost blind since birth with a congenital malady common in parts of the mountains, she constantly “looks after” the house for her husband, Al, her brother, Lloyd, her cousin, Marybird, various boarders, relatives and a constant stream of transient visitors from near and far.
Al is a New Englander, set apart by his birthplace and foreign speech. But Al came into the Virginia mountains and met Hilma, fell in love with both and stayed. Al does everything from fixing roofs to stringing fence.
Lloyd is a gentle giant with long arms and huge callused hands. He suffers from the same loss of sight as his sister and moves about the house, barn and garden with slow and deliberate grace. He talks very little, listens much and is quick to laugh.
Marybird McAllister is an older cousin who has boarded with Hilma for more than 20 years. Now well over 80, Marybird is the archetypal mountain woman: married at 13, mother of 10 children, widowed. She is totally illiterate but can recall and sing the words and music to more than 150 old songs and ballads. It was to hear the singing and banjo playing of Marybird that I first came to this house years before.
Along with these permanent residents were a number of visitors. Mary Shiflett, Hilma’s nearest neighbor and close friend, is a large, robust woman. She had brought with her two gallons of her own homemade apple butter and four of the dozen welfare children she boards at her own home nearby. Mervin Sandridge, another neighbor, breeds cattle for a living and tells tall tales and plays the fiddle for fun. Sarah Ritchie, a pretty young woman, has taught in mountain schools from the Blue Ridge to the Cumberlands. A dark man called simply Jerry, is also there. Jerry never speaks. He is not unable to speak, he just does not speak. Jerry roams the hills with a rifle and a large dog, often bringing offerings of fresh game to Hilma, Mary and others thereabouts in exchange for a hot meal.
Hilma and Mary Shiflett move about the wood stove in the large room which serves as both kitchen and dining room, mixing the ingredients for biscuits and cornbread which will soon be passed around with Mary’s apple butter. In the other big downstairs room, Al places kindling in a pot-bellied stove. The room is filled with chairs of all sorts, and around the walls are several beds, couches and an old bellows organ which is Hilma’s pride and joy.
There is an intense warmth from the glowing stove which is broken only when the door is opened as someone enters or goes out, letting in a swirl of the crisp, icy mountain air. The smell of fresh burning wood mixes with that of hot biscuits and cornbread being handed from person to person on heaping plates followed by bowls of fresh churned butter and dark brown apple butter sweet as candy. The room is filled with people sitting and talking, radiating out from the stove like the spokes of a wheel.
Everyone’s thoughts and words are drawn and focused on the fact that tomorrow is Christmas. It’s cold enough, but will we have snow? It seems too clear, but you can never be certain. Is there enough wood in the house for the night and for cooking in the morning?
There is some talk of the neighbors who are not there that evening. But soon attention swings to the youngsters who came by with “Miss Mary” as they call her. What do they want for Christmas? Have they been good? Do they expect Santa Claus will come and remember what they want? Each excitedly recites his expectations and main hope for the nearing Christmas morning. There is the certainty that “Miss Mary” has used a considerable amount of the money she received from a year’s worth of making quilts and apple butter to make the desires of her “kids” come to life with tomorrow’s light. Mary proudly recounts the number of quilts she stitched and the number of jars of apple butter she dipped up this year, adding that when she was younger she also had the time and strength to run two moonshine stills and to help take lumber off the mountain.
I ask Lloyd Powell what Christmas was like when he was the age of Mary’s charges. He tells of the ritual of hanging stockin’s over the fireplace and how each one on Christmas morning would contain an orange — always an orange — some hand-carved toys, perhaps a pocket knife for the boys and a pretty comb for the girls, and lots of store candy. And every Christmas Eve the grown-ups would tell the young-uns that if they crept quietly out to the barn exactly at midnight, they would see all the animals kneeling down to pray and talking to one another as if by magic on this one night of the year. He laughingly recalls how the parents would smile, confident that long before that special time, droopy young eyes would close in sleep until the dawn came with the magic moment long past. How like my own futile attempts to wait up for Santa Claus it seemed.
Another car bumps along the road and stops. Professor Davis from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville comes in greeting all and saying how it simply would not be Christmas unless he came by to hear Mrs. McAllister sing “The Lady Gay.” He delivers an especially courtly bow to Mrs. McAllister and presents her with a Whitman’s Sampler box of chocolates. She is delighted by the attention and says that she will need a minute or two to “study up” the song. She begins humming softly to herself. The box of candy with its cellophane wrapper still intact will be placed in a large trunk of her belongings upstairs in her bedroom. It contains several quilts made by Marybird herself, numerous handmade rag dolls to give out to visiting children, many faded family photos and at least two dozen untouched Whitman Samplers from previous special occasions. Marybird prefers gifts of chewing gum for immediate and unceremonious consumption. Suddenly and unannounced she commences the song… “There was a lady and a lady gay…” It is an ancient British ballad known to Professor Davis and other ballad scholars as “The Wife of Ushers Well” which recalls some of the nearly forgotten pagan magic of Christmas. As the story unfolds with each repetition of the archaic five-note melody, it tells how the spirits of three young children are allowed to return to life to visit their grieving mothers under the Christmas blessing of the baby Jesus. Next with very little coaxing necessary, Mrs. McAllister plays an appropriately festive dance tune using a homemade banjo and sings “Hey Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you moan…” During the last few stanzas, Jerry rises and dances a traditional clog step while we all clap in time.
Once the music has begun, its momentum grows. Hilma plays on her cherished organ, fingers moving over the small keyboard and feet pumping the bellows with a march-like rhythm and motion. She plays those pieces, mostly hymns, which the season suggests to her and we all sing along: “Wondrous Love,” “The Little Family,” and “Green Grow the Rushes.”
Someone expresses regret that Mervin Sandridge didn’t bring along his fiddle since he has considerable reputation as a fiddler and his playing is much admired. He recalls how he had handmade his first fiddle from a dried gourd and how it was replaced by a brand new factory-made violin ordered from a mail order catalogue the Christmas when he was eight years’ old. Since he had no case, he carried it about in a flour sack. One night walking home after playing for a barn dance, quite late for a youngster, he thought he saw a man in the woods with no head. He had heard folks tell about this ghost with no head and took out a-running for his life. He slipped crossing the creek and fell smack on his fiddle. He went on home crying great wails, not caring now whether he lived or died, carrying the flour sack filled with wet splinters which had been his beautiful violin. An emergency family conference led to a trip to Charlottesville the next Saturday and the acquisition of another instrument, a factory clone of the original, this time complete with case.
As the hour grows late, “Miss Mary” readies her youngsters to leave for home. Mervin drives off in his pickup truck for his farm some 10 miles distant. Professor Davis continues up the climbing road to the cabin he uses a retreat from city and work. Jerry and his dog cut through the woods for his shack up the mountainside near Brown’s Gap.
The house is still amply full with Hilma, Lloyd, Al, Marybird, Hilma’s five cousins from Indiana, and me. Trunks of bedclothes are opened, quilts are handed out and sleeping places assigned. Pallets are made on the floor for a few of the children. Hilma, Lloyd and Al ready the house for the night. As Lloyd places a full charge of kindling in the stove he asks Al, “Is Mr. Foss going to sleep stoke tonight?” Al replies, “I don’t know l ain’t ast ‘im yit.” I break in, “What’s sleep stoke mean?” Lloyd answers, “That means to sleep closest to the woodpile and stoke the fire if it gets low and cold in the house durin’ the night. It’s a special honor on Christmas Eve.”
I suspect that I am again the victim of another good natured “snipe hunt” such as mountain folk like to play on city folk, but figure that it is the least I can do in return for the wonderful time I have had this evening and for the wonderful time I will have tomorrow.
There will be a great baked ham, heaps of fried chicken, perhaps a pot of rabbit with dumplings, courtesy of Jerry’s unfailing aim. There will be baked sweet potatoes and fried apples, a rainbow assortment of homemade pickles and preserves, biscuits and cornbread. Hilma will bake a huge chocolate cake made with the rich guinea hen eggs that Lloyd gathers daily. There will be more of “Miss Mary’s” apple butter, and someone will produce a bottle of clear, smooth moonshine whiskey, cooked from barley mash and laced with sweet mountain blackberries.
With memories of the recent evening and anticipation of tomorrow filling the mind while settling down for a long winter’s sleep, there is hardly room for visions of even a single sugarplum left.