Monday, November 07, 2005

Pocahontas County Knitting History: Louise McNeill

Here's another Pocahontas County knitting reference, from Louise McNeill's wonderful memior The Milkweed Ladies (1988, University of Pittsburgh Press). You'll have to pardon me for quoting a longer passage than is strictly necessary. I think this prose is even better than her poetry.

The cinnamon rose on the wall of our farmhouse belonged to Granny Fanny, my father's mother, and hers too, the row of bachelor buttons, the pink sweet rockets by the garden fence. But Granny Fanny had little time for fussing around with flowers. She was busy in the kitchen or stable or running the hills with her gunnysack, picking her loads of wild plums or wormy apples, or half-rotten kindling wood.

Milkweed Ladies, ready to sail away In 1914, the Austrian archduke had been assasinated at Sarajevo and the world was engulfed in war, but Granny was not of this century; she was wild and running free. Born in 1840, she still roved the rocks and waste places, tended her ash hopper, which made lye for her homeade soap, and poured tallow into her candle molds.

It was as though, standing in her hilly pocket sometime about 1861 or 1862, she had set her thorn broom handle into the world's axis and brought it to a grinding halt. In her long black dress and black bonnet, she walked the hills of another time, and perhaps, even of another country, and gathered pokes of horehound and "life everlasting" to cure the twentieth century of its "bloody flux." She was an old pioneer woman, thin and wrinkled as a dried apple, and with her secret in her that she always kept from everyone. On her back, where she had bent it so long under the burdens, a great knot had grown as big as a wooden maul. In her old age, she wore it like a saddle, the seal and saddle of the mountain woman.

When she was no longer needed in the kitchen, Granny Fanny would go into the fields and woodlands with her gunnysack, or she would take her thorn bush broom and sweep the dirt from the floor of the woodshed, then sweep the path and yard so slick and clean that there was hardly a splinter left. Or she would find a dead sheep out in the pasture, pull the wool off it, pick the burrs from the wool, wash it, card it, spin it, and knit it into crooked mittens and socks. But she would never sew or do fine quilting or mend the clothes. If clothes wore out, she threw them in the fire.

Granny Fanny was not at all a proper woman like my other grandma, my mother's mother, Grandma Susan, who worked only at housework and wove coverlets and always spoke so nice and fine. Granny Fanny would sometimes have a high fit of temper, pack up her black "gretchel," and go whipping over the hill to Aunt Mat's. She was high tempered, tight-lipped, even, in a sense, an unlovable woman, and yet I loved her with a wild, fierce kind of love and would always fly to her defense. But Granny Fanny had her own sharp tongue, her black "gretchel," and her secret. When I was a child, I could feel that secret in her, and I wanted to know. I wanted to know so much that sometimes, when she tried to sing, I would look at her hard and try to see if her secret was hidden down in the song. Granny was not one for singing and had only one tune. She would sing it in her high cracked monotone, always the song about the little horses:

Oh, the black and the bay and the dapple gray
And all the pretty little horses.
Sometimes her craced voice would get to running over and over in my head, and in years after, whenever I thought of Granny Fanny, her song would come back to me like the crackle of thorns in the hearthfire.

Grandma Susan would sing in church: "On Jordan's stormy banks I stand," or "Rock of ages, cleft for me"; but Granny Fanny would not go to church, nor to prayer meetings, nor to the pie suppers down at school. The only place she would go was to trade and barter. She would "take her foot in her hand," she said, and whip down over the hill to sell her butter pats or jars of apple butter. She would trade her goods for sugar and coffee and tobacco, for she was still smoking her old corncob pipe, and would carry her store things back home in her sack. If she got cash money, she would put it in her long black leather purse, then stick it under her bed tick to be safe and sound. Granny had never heard of the Protestant Ethic; she was just an uneducated old woman who hadn't learned the evils of working and saving, and she wanted no foolish things--only coffe and tobacco, and her mantel clock with the gargoyles staring out above its face.


Dave said...

Wow, that is a great quote! I love McNeill's poetry; guess i need to check out this memoir, too.

Rebecca Clayton said...

I remembered you were a fan of her poetry. Most of the people in Pocahontas County seem to take "Gauley Mountain" as if it were their own personal family history. "Milkweed Ladies" is a very short book, but she packs as much meaning into her prose as her poetry. I keep coming back to this book. If you can't find a copy fast enough, I have some more quotes on Literary Pocahontas County.