THE POWER OF ONE WOMAN
Etta Lee drew her strength and mystery from the Southern Appalachians
In my heart, the Christmas season will always belong to a long-deceased southern Appalachian mountain woman whose name was Etta Lee.
She was one af a special breed of women who once inhabited the hills and valleys of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina.
How can one describe to an outsider the beauty, the agony, the mystery of these women?
They were the daughters of dirt farmers, laborers, and coal miners whose ancestors had come to America's shores poor and uneducated and had headed west in search of economic opportunity but never made it past the Appalachians.
Being born in those mountains and growing up poor in those little communities meant embracing a particular way of life—a life of doing for yourself, caring for your own, and suffering silently. The Appalachian women, as Etta Lee used to tell me, "took their strength from the mountains and from living day to day." It was a way of life that created women with tough, worn bodies, fixed, guarded faces, and eyes that had learned the danger in expecting too much from the world.
The specter of defeat, the humiliation of "not having anything decent, " of not being able to provide properly for the children, was the hardest cross these Appalachian women had to bear. It was not just their own failed hopes with which they had to contend, but also the fears and defeat of both their own fathers and the men they'd married. Those proud, solitary mountain men harbored a rage born of the frustration of knowing they had no promise in life and nowhere to go. That sort of rage finds expression in easily injured pride, and its companions are physical violence and emotional brutality. The Appalachian women, as daughters and wives, often suffered the blows, the hard words, the stony silences of that rage and had to live their lives weighted by its unrelenting tension.
It is no wonder that these women turned inward, considering life's mysteries in terms of the moods of the mountain weather, the wild flowers and trees of the woods, and the tales they told their children of heroes and villains and ghosts and miracles. They prepared their children not to surmount great heights, but to endure and to suffer the lot that God had given them.
In the 1930s and 1940s the outside world started to touch the Appalachians. The government built decent roads and dammed the rivers, and industry began to move in. Suddenly the men had new prospects, the women a better standard of living. The level of education rose dramatically, and the isolation of these communities gradually ended. As their communities joined the mainstream of American life these Appalachian women started to disappear. Today, in the mountain towns, one will occasionally come across a woman who stands out from the crowd, and one can easily guess her ancestry by her earthiness, that strength that characterized the southern Appalachian women and defined Etta Lee.
Etta Lee was special even among this special breed. She was born in Damascus, Virginia, in l892, to the Dickenson family, whose ancestry was probably a mixture of European blood and maybe a little American Indian. Looking for better work anywhere, the family moved to Tennessee. At age fourteen Etta Lee married a strapping young man, a sharecropper~s son named Della Wayland Moffitt, who had nothing but a strong back to recommend him. Both Etta Lee and Della had had only about a second grade education. Theirs was a hard marriage and a hard life. Della got a job working for the Carolina, Clinchfield, and Ohio Railway laying ties as the line extended from Tennessee to the Carolinas. For the first three years of their marriage Etta and Della lived in the confines of a single railway freight car. As the railway would extend another mile, a little engine called a dinkey would pull along an the cars housing the work crew. It was a world of backbreaking work, uncaring bosses, and meanspirited men; fights were as popular as the weekly payday. Della learned to set concrete block, by brick, measure lumber with his naked eye, and having acquired those skills he was finally able to settle down, in the 1920s, to work in a cement factory. Etta bore four children, had two or three miscarriages, and endured. Della was strong, hard, quick-tempered, and domineering, but Etta was a fighter and held her own—she once knocked him unconscious with an iron skillet. Theirs was a union not of similar sensibilities but of singular wills, with each standing steadfast behind a barrier of watchful strength.
In my earliest memories of her, Etta Lee stands about five foot five, with brown eyes and black hair. By that time she was in her fifties. She was small-boned, weighing no more than about a hundred pounds, and always seemed somewhat fragile, but never timid or weak. In fact, in my memories she seems less a physical presence than an emotional one—a presence not visible to others, like the wind in those mountain valleys, rustling and touching but never seeming to have a place of origin.
She did not behave like a typical grandmother. There were no hugs and kisses or praise for my abilities or interest in my accomplishments, nor would I have thought to tell her my problems or seek her advice. Yet she was the most important person for me in those formative years, and the person with whom I spent the most time. In retrospect, I could describe her as having somehow been assigned to that little boy, to give him a kind of comfort, to train his mind and shape his emotions. But that description does not capture the actual experience of being a five-year-old, Iying for hours on end underneath a tall pine tree on an old homemade quilt and listening to her soft, slightly raspy voice telling me stories of the mountains, of the railroad, of impoverished life. It does not capture being eight years old and eating graham crackers with peanut butter while sitting at an old, chipped kitchen table and listening to tales of mountain spooks and of unrequited love. Nor does it capture the transforming power of being nine or ten years old and being told the full story of one's own father as only a mother could know it, and the story of one's father's father as only a wife could tell it. They were real stories, without rose coloring; adult stories of human weakness, of betrayal, of domination—stories without heroes and happy endings, but also without self-pity or defeat. Life as it is.
Why did she tell me those stories? How often I've wondered about that. She was a storyteller with a real gift, and I was a born listener. She certainly never told such stories to her other grandchildren, but that doesn't mean I was her favorite; that honor belonged to a slightly older cousin. Was I a recipient of her legacy, the one chosen to bear witness to her having lived, loved and suffered? Did she sense that I would use, even desperately need, the understanding of life's ways that her stories provided? Whatever the reason, she did it, and in doing so, she shaped my development as no one else could have.
She taught a young mind to assume that all behavior was shaped by a person's history and to seek out that history. She determined the emotional makeup of that child, such that he found comfort in knowing the truth, even if it was a horrible truth, and saw that no matter what his misery, he had no monopoly on pain nor any extra rights to happiness. She led that little boy to the understanding that there is a cause for everything.
How can a boy act out his rag when he knows the cause of it, knows that his father and his father's father before him suffered the same rage? How can the boy's view of his parents not be inevitably altered when each week he hears more of their story, is forced to see them in the context of their struggle for happiness? How can he not be affected by learning that his school principal had suffered a broken heart as a young woman and never recovered?
I was a quiet but intractably independent child who would easily bristle at all adult authority. Etta Lee never acted as that authority, choosing instead to be on my side without judgment. When I began smoking at age nine, she would buy me a pack of cigarettes each week. Is it any wonder that I stopped smoking at fourteen? When I needed simply to go somewhere, there was always a place in her house, and she would let me be, never asking questions. If I needed to pretend to be at her house while actually wandering the town, she gave her silent cooperation. She simply assumed that I was responsible for myself, and in so doing she helped me become so.
She had an extraordinary talent for seeing the true character of a person or place. I vividly recall our discussing my younger brothers and sister when they were still toddlers, and she told me the specific personalities they would develop as adults. And they did, just as she'd said. What in hindsight seems most astonishing, however, although I accepted it without question at the time, is that she could describe places she had never seen—she had never been to a zoo or a seaside beach, yet she knew about them, about their essence. I would go to these places years later and they would be as she'd said. She would tell me about living in a big city, how politics worked. And I now know how right she was. This woman who could barely read or write, who could never escape her long-suffering role in life, who never traveled more than a hundred miles from where she grew up, could project the experiences of her own limited life onto the world as a whole. She could make a leap of imagination that most people cannot.
At twelve I became much too involved in running around with a crowd of older teenagers in the neighborhood and with chasing after girls to have time for our relationship. Moreover, there were younger siblings who needed her more, and age and illness were changing her dramatically. So our intense time together ended. I entered my teenage years, a man-child whose combination of understanding and naivete caused an increasing alienation from my peers—a fact I hid as best I could. Always I searched for those who saw the world as I did, and almost never could I find them. Teenagers, filled with their excessive adrenaline, are driven to explore the world outside themselves. Etta Lee, with her stories and dispassionate observations, had turned me too much inside myself to be an enthusiastic explorer of the world around me.
It has been twenty-five years since the days of our talks, and she has been dead fifteen of them. Over the years I have come to realize how deep and mysterious her knowledge was, and what a price she paid to acquire it day by day in those Appalachian mountains. I know now that I simply had the good fortune to be there at a certain time in her life, when she was past her personal struggle but not her vigorous vitality. She still had the energy to capture the reality and the drama of life, but she had no need to twist what she told me to satisfy her own emotional needs.
The little boy who listened to her gained an advantage. He learned to see through her eyes without having to pay the price she had paid in living. Although it took him years to realize it, she provided him with the power of possibility to escape his own rage and to overcome his own fear of failure.
But Etta Lee never found out how to use her talents to overcome the ache in her own heart. Probably it was in looking away from pain that she'd developed her abilities, and they came to fruition too late in her life to help her rise above her own circumstances. I do not know. Nor do I presume to judge this remarkable woman.
On a wet and cold and very lonely Christmas Eve some sixteen years ago I realized how similar my nature was to Etta Lee's. I realized that despite my outward drive for success and worldlly accomplishment, I too was of those hills and valleys, and my days, like hers, could be filled with the sweet sadness of observing life from the isolation of the dark mountains.
On New Year's Day that year, 1969, my resolution was that I would seek my peace in the world and let love and friendship warm the chill of life's disappointments. Believing that one can choose whether to be flooded by the sorrow or the joy of human existence, I vowed to escape those mountain shadows, to take that step Etta Lee could not take herself. Unfortunately it is not so easy to leave behind that which is carried in the heart, and each Christmas Eve since then, in my annual hour of reckoning, I discover how much further I still must journey. But I do not give up, for I know that I will try once more in the name of Etta Lee.