Growing up I was aware that my parents worked hard, but everyone who lived in Owl’s Hollow labored to eek out a living during the Depression. Mama and Papa worked hard, but they loved the mountain and did not want to leave as others had, to live in the city. Mama said that mountain folks are the last of the pioneers.
I was an only child. Mama was very sick after I was born, and the midwife told her the fever poisoned her womb. Mama accepted this outcome as the Lord’s will and Papa looked at his scrawny daughter with no hair as a miracle.
It was Papa who named me Willow. It wasn’t a Christian name, Mama argued, but Papa loved the sound of it. “Like a whisper,” he often remarked. God’s glory to him was nature, not the wooden church building he would visit on Sunday with Mama when he was not working our fields or working at the mill. Sometimes he did neither, taking advantage of the weather to, “sit under a willow with a fishing pole, enjoying God’s majesty, while catching a few trout.” Mama would frown, as she marched me up the hill to the pray for Papa’s errant soul.
My name suited me. I was tall and thin, my long brown hair braided tight each morning by Mama and tied with buckskin. I grew up in the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains, climbing hills with Mama looking for medicinal herbs, leaping from stone to stone across the gentle creek with Papa as we made our way to his favorite fishing spot under the willows that grew near the bank.
Mama and Papa had grown up in the Tennessee mountains and had built the cabin we lived in with their own hands. The cabin was one large room with a fireplace at one end. A loft was built above the chimney as it rose up through a hole in the roof. I slept in the loft surrounded by the spicy odor of dried herbs that hung from the rafters. Mama and Papa’s bed was hidden behind a calico curtain tucked below the loft. We hung our few clothes from pegs driven into the rough log walls.
Mama did all her cooking in the fireplace. We could not afford a stove. A springhouse was dug into the side of the hill next to the house, where the cold waters from Owl Creek ran under the floor of the spring house, keeping our milk and butter icy cold.
We had two cows and laying hens. When I was old enough to carry the mash bucket, I walked to the chicken coop to feed the hens and gather the eggs.
Papa grew some tobacco to sell in town for the things like sugar, flour, coffee, and tools for the farm. He worked for the Little River Lumber Company, working the skids that placed felled trees onto rail beds. The trees were hauled by rail to the lumber mill down stream. Papa worked six days a week for eight dollars a day. He would walk home tired and sore, but I would greet him with a tall glass of buttermilk, and a cold biscuit. He would crumble his biscuit into the glass and eat it with a spoon. Then wipe his mustache and head out to the fields to check the tobacco, and take care of the stock.
Mama worked hard, too. She had a vegetable patch behind the house, constantly weeding and hoeing, and spreading manure to keep the tender plants growing and producing all summer long. Mama grew herbs and went into the woods and gathered plants for medicines. Her Cherokee friend, Dancing Bird, had shown Mama where the medicine herbs grew when they were young girls growing up on the mountain. Mama was heartbroken when Dancing Bird and her family were forced off their land by government agents. Mama never knew if they went to the reservation in Oklahoma or were able to hide from the agents deep in the mountains as Dancing Bird’s family had vowed to do.
Mama made all our clothes. She grew flax from the seeds she receive as a wedding gift from her mother. Seeds were carefully gathered from the plants and presented to newlyweds to grow around the cabin walls. Mama used the flax to spin into thread. She dyed her threads using berries, green plants and onion skins to create color. The threads were woven into fabric and later cut into simple shift dresses for us, and shirts and pants for Papa. We kept sheep and Mama used the wool to make warmer clothing for the long, cold winters. I hated my woolen undergarments. They itched dreadfully. Mama hated the smell of the sheep that came off the clothes when they got damp, but we were grateful of the warmth they provided when the sharp winds blew down the mountain hollows.
Mama made lye soap from the ashes she swept up daily and soft soap from the animal fat. We scrubbed the cabin clean with the lye soap, and used the soft soap to clean our clothes and bodies. Mama had a cake of rose smelling soap that Papa bought for her when they were courting. She would wash my hair with that soap on special occasions. It was precious and we didn’t waste it.
We used kerosene in our lamps and a candle lantern for going out after dark to the outhouse. Mama and Papa butchered a hog every fall and Mama smoked the meat in the smoker Papa built out of an old log. I was to watch to make sure the fire never went out and to gather wood chips for Mama to add every few hours. She stored the smoked meat in the loft along the vegetables she canned and the preserves she put up. The food we stored kept us fed throughout the long winter months.
There was no school in Owl Hollow, so Mama would teach me between churning, baking and other chores. My schoolroom was the mountain. I picked wildflowers and pressed them between books. Mama taught me how to find medicine herbs. We never left the cabin without a small sack to gather herbs, berries and nuts.
Papa taught me to read tracks: panther, deer and bear. We fished for trout along the creek, and when I was eight, Papa gave me a flint rock that I carried in my pocket whenever I roamed the woods. I knew how to make a fire, and mark a trail so I never lost my way.
I planned to stay on the mountain with Mama and Papa, but times changed, and the government told us they had bought all the land around us. A few held out, but most gave up and took the pittance they gave us, and left Owl Hollow for the city.
When Mama and Papa passed I was able to bring them back to rest with their ancestors. By then I had grown up and moved far from the shadows of the mountain. Each time I returned to take care of Papa, and then Mama in their last days, I felt the pull of the past. They had settled in the town that sprouted up at the base of national park. Their little house was located near a busy intersection filled with tourist shops. The air was filled with the smell of car exhaust, and the flowers were contained in pots and hanging baskets along the streets.
After Mama’s funeral, I left my car at the church and changing heels for sneakers, I set out to walk along the trails, hoping to find something that linked me to this mountain.
I was now an orphan; both parents were gone. As I cut through the trails I looked for a familiar tree or rock that would jog my memory. Something I could point to and say, “yes, I was here.”
I heard the creek to my left. Sliding down through the damp leaves, I grabbed at a tree trunk before I lost my balance and pitched head first into the swiftly running creek. Gone was the gentle stream of my childhood, the dam upstream had been removed and the roaring water tumbled unchecked down the side of the mountain again.
I walked along the edge of the creek, looking for wildflowers and keeping my eye trained for snakes.
Birds were singing and squirrels scolded me from their perches high in the trees. As I glanced up at the sun to check my bearings, when I spotted a large flat rock. This was the rock that Papa and I had sat on while fishing on warm summer mornings. A willow tree shaded a portion of the rock. A smile lit my face and I raced towards the familiar rock. As I stood on the rock, the sun broke through the clouds. I was flooded with warmth. “Papa,” I breathed as I turned my face to the sun.
Now I was confident that I would find the site of our cabin. I turned and ran up the steep hill finding trees with the faint marks of a triangle with an x on the peak- my mark. I looked around a clearing that held the remains of a chimney long collapsed. I walked through the grass around the perimeter of the missing cabin walls and spied three flax plants still growing wild. “Mama.”
I pulled a tissue out of my pocket carefully pulled up the flax plants, careful to keep the roots intact.
I stood and looked around the space as the sun began to slant between the trees. It was time to leave, but I would be back. In the meanwhile, I was taking some of Owl Hollow, and Mama and Papa with me.