Thursday, February 15, 2007

Barbara Ellen of Big Ridge

While searching for something else, I found this interesting article: "Beyond the Mountains": The Paradox of Women's Place in Appalachian History by Barbara Ellen Smith, 1999 (from NWSA Journal Volume 11, Number 3). Smith's prose sometimes lurches about in that academic code-talking style,

[T]he history of women in Appalachia has only begun to be written. Those who make the attempt must come to terms with implicitly gendered constructions of Appalachia and narratives of regional history that feature men as the determinant actors....
but she always recovers, and tells engaging stories of her family and how it informs her studies in Appalachian women's history. I expect the following passage will send you on to read the complete article. Big Ridge is continuous with Pocahontas County's Allegheny Mountain.

I have a faded color photograph of my grandmother, Lelia Belle Fridley Smith. She is standing at the side of the dirt road on the summit of Big Ridge, an ancient mountain that lies on the present border between West Virginia and Virginia, where she and my grandfather settled in 1913. She is gazing east over a panorama of ridges, which are incandescent with fall. Her face is turned away from the camera.

The plain wool scarf, knotted under her chin, her dark sweater and long skirt, the high cheek bones that jut out from the partial profile of her thin face--all mark her as a "mountain woman" from an earlier era. She bore and raised eight children in log cabins and frame houses that never had running water; hoed 50 years of successive plantings of corn on steep mountain hillsides; raised gardens of tomatoes, cabbage, peas, and endless varieties of beans; and used a shotgun to kill the copperheads and rattlesnakes that lurked in the dark corners of the barn and sunned themselves near the blackberry patch. Her dinner table groaned with the bounty that her tending produced.

I remember her as a shy person; even with children, she was quiet to the point of awkwardness. I cannot remember the sound of her voice, or a single word she ever spoke to me. Maybe that is why I have invested her with so many of my own feelings and thoughts. As I gaze at her gazing out over the mountains, I imagine that this rare moment of leisure, when she can enjoy the beauty of the mountains rather than work their soil for a living, brings her pleasure and contentment. As I look at the undulating ridges in front of her, I feel a sweet yearning--for home, for the mountains, for what I imagine her life to have been.

One day I was looking at this picture with my father. He interrupted my sentimental reflections. "She was all the time looking beyond the mountains," he mused to himself. "Big Ridge was like a prison for her; she wanted to see the rest of the world."

...[T]his is a cautionary essay about unquiet women....Nothing I set down on paper seems authentic; nothing captures their experiences, although they are certainly Appalachian women. There is no established historiographic tradition, no "literature review" in which their lives may be interpreted....These women have been dead for anywhere from eight years to more than a century, but they haunt me now.


Unknown said...

david Balidacci wrote a wonder full book about a strong woman in his novel Wish You Well.

--and in your quest for history of chemistry, have you read Oliver Sacks book "Uncle Tungsten"?

its autobiography, and a history of chemisty.

(and there is the recent PBS broadcast about Lucian Percy, Jr. and his work with soy beans)

(i've tried 3 times to post a comment, and this is the first time it worked.. i presume it was network traffic or something)

Rebecca Clayton said...

Both books sound interesting. I'll be tracking them down.

I'm glad you got through--I appreciate your perserverence.

Dave Tabler said...

Boy does this quote resonate with me! My grandparents were born and lived their whole lives in Martinsburg, WV. Furthest they ever traveled was to Cleveland, and that was only to visit their daughter, who had married and moved there.

Meantime I've watched as my father and his sister in their separate lives have restlessly traveled the country and the world, and I can just feel the push to get out and away, even now, from their under-educated, boxed in parents.

Dave Tabler