To answer the question I’ve been asked three times this week, “Do you miss LA?” No. I miss California in the winter, but I never miss LA. It’s a wonderful place to be from and to be at, but I don’t miss it. Also, I was from Ventura Country. That’s not exactly LA. It’s southern California 100%, but not LA. Any Angeleno will confirm this immediately and loudly if you ask.
What I do miss is the South. I miss Texas sometimes, Tennessee, and Georgia. Places where my people are from. No one related to me is from LA. I don’t miss Oklahoma, but I think on it with affection, my birth state. I remember its red dirt and its wide open spaces, and all the Indian names. Chickasaw, Okemah, Broken Arrow, Ten Killer Lake. While California wins with exotic Spanish saint names, and I don’t have any difficult feelings associated with southern California, I just don’t miss it.
I miss Napa and the Ventura foothills on occasion. I miss Santa Barbara and even Santa Paula, with all its dusty orchards and winding mountain roads leading to Ojai. I don’t miss Ojai. That place was weird in a Salem, Massachusetts sort of way, and all the “gift stores” smelled like spiced pot and French soap. I miss driving past the ranches of Santa Ynez and Santa Maria. I even miss Oxnard strawberry fields and careless afternoons watching pretend surfers wrangle the baby waves at Silver Strand. Don’t miss Long Beach (who does?) or Anaheim or Westlake (again, why?).
I have good, messy childhood memories of Thousand Oaks, though, when kids from southern California still played in roving bands that ran around the cul-de-sac barefooted on the their bikes. I don’t know if Thousand Oaks is still like that, but my memories of it are that way, and I think of the summer and fall I spent there, before we moved to Oxnard, as lovely. Dirty and sunburnt and lovely.
I don’t miss any of the freeways or Hollywood or any of that. But, God help me, Pennsylvania winters make me want to puke, and nothing in California ever made me feel that way. Except North Hollywood and Tarzana. Those can be a puke-worthy place. So, if LA became its own country, I’d be fine with that. If I never drive on another LA freeway, I’d be fine with that. If I never saw another sunset over the Pacific, I’d be sad. There’s nothing else like it. But I’ve settled here in the Appalachian foothills and they’re fine, too. If I wasn’t literally allergic to the cold, I would die in this Ugly Old Farmhouse as an old lady, with a book in my hand and a dog at my feet.
I plan to move South as my children age. I need the sunshine and the warmth. I break out in anaphylaxis when it gets below 40 degrees. When it gets below 50, really. I blame all of that on my Southern birth and my southern California upbringing. The sunshine raised me. The dry desert air and the subtropic humidity of the low plain states. I just can’t handle the pressed-down molecules of winter in Pennsylvania anymore. Still, even the possibility of dying because I ran outside to get the mail and I didn’t wear enough wool, doesn’t make LA tempting to me. California, yes. LA, no. So, to answer your question, those who’ve asked. I don’t miss LA. I miss year round sunshine though. But when Pennsylvania gets over her obsession with freezing rain and blizzards and lets the spring break through, this is the view from my living room window. It’s almost like Bougainvillea, right?
Mary-Elizabeth Carter was born in in 1850 in Jackson County, Alabama, in the heart of the southernmost Appalachian Mountains to Alfred B. and Martha F. Carter. She was the baby of the family and grew up playing in an area that was rife with rattlesnake, every representation of Eastern wildflower, and the fragrant citrusy pines of northern Alabama and eastern Tennessee. She lived near what is now Russell Cave National Monument, a stunning natural 7.2 mile cave at the foot of Montague Mountain. Her family was solidly middle class and of Scottish descent. She was one of four children–Hulda, Mary-Price (who died in infancy), Mary-Elizabeth, and Hiram, the only son.
When Mary was born, her father (a native of North Carolina) was an active member of his town council and opposed the succession of the state of Alabama from the Union, but later, he relented and joined the Army of Tennessee and died on July 20th, 1864 in the Battle of Peachtree Creek, now a city park in the very center of the city of Atlanta. At the time, it was a mill named for a man called “Collier” and the battle was depicted by Union Maj. Gen. J.D. Cox in his memory as such, “Few battlefields of the war have been strewn so thickly with the dead and wounded as they lay that evening around Collier’s Mill.”
By the time Mary was 15 years old in 1865, the war had ended, she’d lost her father, and her town was overrun by Federal troops who routinely burned, looted, harassed, and even tortured the remaining locals who were mostly women, children, the elderly, newly freed slaves, and badly wounded and half-starved Confederate veterans. The cotton plantations had been replaced by wheat, Indian corn, and livestock farms about 40 years prior, but what did remain, went up in smoke never to be replanted or sold back down the Mississippi (via the Elk River) to New Orleans on gigantic cargo barges.
By the time Lee was surrendering at Appomattox, many of the residents of Jackson County had fled to the hills and deep caves surrounding the area. It is not known if Mary and her mother, sister, and brother did this, but it is suspected that they did, as most widows and their children sought any available refuge from the violence that plagued their small Appalachian villages. In Godspeed’s History of Franklin County, in very nearby Tennessee, there is record of early settlers eating the bark from trees and any available game in order to survive the unseasonably brutal winter of the Appalachian plateau, and it is assumed that the descendants of these settlers did the same in order to avoid the starvation that often results from war.
While Reconstruction worked, for only a painfully short time, to support the African American slave, it ruined the existence former slave owners. It toppled former cotton and tobacco magnates, reducing them to paupers, beggars, and refugees headed West. Mary’s mother was eager for her daughters to find suitable husbands to ensure that the family did not deepen their story of tragedy and sorrow, which was a constant lament throughout the devastated region of the South. And in 1867, Mary wed a man 10 years her senior named George Washington Gifford, who would soon change his surname to Locke. This was a common practice for former Confederates after the war in order to avoid having to pay heavy restitution fines, employment discrimination, and imprisonment for having betrayed the Union. No doubt, many a former slave in Jackson County, Alabama felt little sympathy for the new sufferings of their former owners.
George had miraculously survived a head wound when a musket ball pierced the parietal lobe of his brain during the Battle of Seven Pines, part of the bloody Peninsula Campaign. He was transported on one of the first hospital trains from Chattanooga to Richmond, where he spent the remainder of the war undergoing surgeries and treatments for “soldier’s melancholy” at Chimborazo Hospital and, later, No. 9, where he served as a nurse and watched the city of Richmond burn from his view in the wayside hospital, a converted tobacco warehouse facing Grace Street.
George had lost the use of his right side, but he managed to return to Jackson County, marry his bride, no doubt a girl he had grown up with, and work at farming his own small patch of scorched earth. But by 1876, George had moved Mary and their four children to Howell, Missouri, a burgeoning railroad town facing West, because he could not properly provide for them where the memories and ghosts of the past lingered so heavily in the air. That same year, Mary-Elizabeth Golden (a middle name given to her because her hair was golden at birth) died in a small cabin on the rich Missouri soil. The cause of her death is unknown, but she left behind a devoted husband and very young children who relied on her for every aspect of their care, affection, and survival. She was 26 years old.
Mary-Elizabeth is my 3rd great grandmother, and I began thinking of her today while I sat on my porch swing, crocheting a shawl I’m fashioning after a Mourning Cloak Butterfly that landed on the wooded trail I recently traveled near my home in the foothills of the northern Appalachian Mountains. The beautiful creature stopped so suddenly at my feet, that I nearly tripped trying to avoid it. It wings were a velvety black, streaked with bright periwinkle blue and a cheerful canary yellow. In the center of its large wings, was a wide swath of deep claret, the color of aged blood.
It allowed me only a moment’s notice before it flew away, and its beauty caused me to reflect on my good fortune to be living near the mountains I love most. I grew up out West, where the Appalachians are considered merely “speed bumps” in the scheme of North American ranges, but I love these mountains the most. I have to retreat deep into them every summer and fall, because sitting at their feet is not enough. I feel immediately connected to my people, to my ancestors in these mountains as I do in no other location on Earth.
That morning, I walked away from that spot on the trail wondering about the Mourning Cloak, wondering who I might create this shawl for. It has to be for someone who has suffered much in life, for someone who needs to be reminded that she is not alone, that other women who have suffered are with her in solidarity.
I thought of four friends who’ve lost children. I thought of another who is battling cancer. I thought of my sister who is doing well, but far from home. And then today, while working on family tree information, I thought of Mary-Elizabeth. Surely she saw Mourning Cloaks in her cave at the foot of her own end of our shared mountain range. And so, with my third great grandmother in mind, thinking of the woman who had lost a father to war by age 16, who married by age 18, survived in caves and on tree bark, hid herself from drunken soldiers, loved and cared for a man who sometimes woke in the night screaming from terrors that made him ill with fever and violent shaking, a man who could use only the left side of his body to till the land he planted with wheat the spring before, Mary who moved West and left her family and took on a new surname that had nothing to do with her husband’s family or her own, because being a Southerner was to have been born the enemy. This Mary.
Mary-Elizabeth Golden Carter would have worn a crocheted shawl, as was the preferred needle art in the 19th century American South. In the picture above (which I can only enlarge for you, My Dear Readers, after I get a better version of it from my great great uncle John) she is not wearing a customary shawl. But this image was probably taken during the summer or spring, possibly even her May wedding when she was only 18. But her shawl would have been thicker than one found in a more southerly part of Alabama, as she lived in the mountains where it is often cool in the evening and much milder even on summer days. She would have used cotton yarn, and she would have had a spinning wheel and worked the cotton out into a fine, but sturdy thread. She would have been taught by her mother to perfect her tatting (intricate lace crochet), and to knit socks and other clothing for the war effort and for her family.
The dress in her picture may have been purchased by another seamstress or made by her or her mother. Because they were not poor, they may have had a choice in the matter. Either way, my Mourning Cloak Shawl, of which the beginnings are pictured here, is in honor of Mary-Elizabeth, and when I have completed it, I hope it finds a good home for another hard working mother who will be as moved as I am (and Mary probably was) by all the colors of Appalachia.
I visited my grandmother, Virginia-Lee Beaird-Fitzgerald, last week, and like always our conversation drifted back to where she came from and what her mother and grandmothers were like. You might be wondering why I’d mention her entire name up there. If you knit or crochet, it should be obvious–that’s the most Celtic name a human being could have, aside from a name written entirely in the old Irish or Scottish Gaelic. Yeah. My grandmother’s family founded the Scottish Catholic Church in America (otherwise known as Old Presbyterians), farmed potatoes and cotton from Virginia to Texas, are mostly red heads, and have a running family history of being allergic to the sun. True story. My grandmother can’t sit outside without being fully covered, or she will end up in the hospital. I think the name for the condition is simply called being “photosensitive,” but it’s real, and a good portion of the Beairds have this condition. Thankfully, it missed me.
So, when I visit Virginia-Lee, I usually sit indoors with her, or next to her completely shaded position on the back porch of my parents’ house. She doesn’t hear too well, and she’s always praying in tongues under her breath, so she rarely listens to anything I say, but when she does, the conversations are grand. She has this thick Oklahoma-Texas twang, and there’s no doubting that her ancestors hailed from Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. I mentioned something about the Civil War the other day, and she said,
“None of your relatives were Yankees. Let’s get that straight.”
“Yes, ma’am. I really had never pictured them as Minnesotans or anything.”
She laughed. “That’s not even funny.”
We talked about her “daddy’s” early life in Texas and how he came to Oklahoma in a covered wagon. He lived to be 98, I believe.
“We never die,” she said. “We outlive whole countries.”
She expressed irritation that I was not paying close enough attention to what she was saying. “Grandma, I’m right here,” I said. “I’m listening.”
“But you’re doing that thing Mama always used to do, and it drove me so crazy, I swore I’d never pick one of them hooks up because of it!”
I held my crochet hook up to her. “Crocheting? Your mother crocheted!?” I was thrilled. I have been working on deeper crafting roots in my family, but in order of when they had arrived in the United States in the 1600’s. This was a jut in the trail I could not leave cold for the sake of remaining on course. Perhaps, this journey would not stay on a linear path. “What did she crochet?”
“Oh, everything.” Grandma waved her hand like she was swatting a fly. “Hats, blankets, comforters, doilies, slippers, dresses…everything. She was always wrapping yarn around a hook–when Daddy would drive, when she was waiting in line for something. She’d have the ball of yarn in her purse, and she’s stand in line at the supermarket making a sweater for a grandkid. It was ridiculous! You could never see her eyes, because they were always on yarn.”
I almost jumped out of my chair. “Do you have anything of hers?!”
But she didn’t. She said the other sisters got most of her things, because, “I don’t care about much of that. But I did get her quilt and Viola-Mae’s, too.” She smirked. Viola-Mae was her (mostly) Choctaw mother-in-law from deep down in the Kiamichi Mountains, and she did not much care for Virignia-Lee Beaird. “She thought I was too white. She had an Indian picked out for your Grandpa. I was never good enough. But I have one of her quilts, too. Both are about 60 years old, at least.”
I ran up the stairs after her when she agreed to show them to me. “Slow down, Tiffani-Lynne. You’re gonna knock me over!”
“Did you know that Uncle Jim used to call me Ani, because he said that Tiffani was too high brow a name for a child born in Oklahoma?”
“That’s stupid,” she said. “You’re from Tulsa. That’s a very cosmopolitan city.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” I told her. “But that’s my pen name for my crochet and knitting work.”
“I don’t know what that means, but your name is Tiffani-Lynne (pronounced “Tiffnee” in that Oklahoma-Texas twang), and it’s a pretty, elegant name.”
“It’s also a common stripper name.”
She gasped. “I won’t have that.” And then, under her breath, “That’s something Viola would have said.”
She pulled the two quilts out from the bottom of her closet and unfolded each of them onto the guest bed for me to see. Can you guess which one was made in Choctaw colors and patterns and which one was made by the Celtic, Esther-Mae Tacker-Beaird? (Yes, both of my great grandmother’s had “Mae” as the second half of their name. All real Southerners have two first names. If you’re Southern and you don’t, something is terribly wrong. Quickly add a second name. In my family, Sue, Lynne, Ann, and Mae are most common. You can have one of those. We’re a sharing lot).
Anyhoo, this is what she revealed to me.
Note the bold colors and the sharp geometric shapes. Viola was a no-nonsense business woman (and a bootlegger’s wife) from the Oklahoma hills. She was 3/4th Choctaw and lived her whole life in railroad towns. She had to be tough and direct in order to survive, I imagine. And she didn’t just survive, she was quite successful. I think this original design of hers reveals that work ethic and attention to detail. I wonder if she’s the one whispering in my ear, when I knit or crochet, “Go back and do that row. The one stitch doesn’t exactly match the others.” In no other place in my life am I as detailed and precise as I am in my needle arts. I get it from somewhere.
And then I look at Esther’s work and I think that her attention to detail is just as lovely. She was known for her long, beautiful Celtic thick hair. When I was a little girl, and my mother would tuck me in at night, she would always ask, “Did you brush your hair? You have hair like Esther-Mae, your great grandmother, and she had a young woman’s hair until the day she died. She said it was because she brushed it 100 strokes every night.” She and my aunt, Judy (really Judy-Lynne, for whom I am named), both praise her every time I ask about my great grandmother. My mother has said repeatedly, “She was the sweetest woman I’ve ever known. She was the Southern grandmother everyone wants. She tatted and knitted, quilted and sewed, could bake an apple pie from scratch in nothin’ flat. But it was her crochet work that I loved most, and I think it was her favorite as well.”
Esther was not much of a church-goer, because she believed faith was a matter of the heart and not a public exposition. Virginia-Lee, her daughter, said that Esther was always suspicious of religious people (which makes me think Virginia-Lee’s Pentecostalism is a rebellion) and married in the Unitarian Church. Family members argue otherwise, but folks, I have a copy of the wedding certificate. “Her church was the outdoors,” my grandmother told me once. I think this work reveals Esther’s love of life, color, and beauty. She must be the one whispering in my ear, “Use more color! Think of the water lilies.”
While I still haven’t found my great grandmother’s crochet work, and I began in the middle of my journey (I was working my way down the Susquehanna River with a 7th great grandmother from Switzerland when Virginia-Lee made this revelation of quilts and stories), I have begun the trip. I am inspired to make something–either knitted or crocheted–in honor of these two resilient women who preceded me into the world.