Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Storyteller Who Dipped Snuff

Cora Lee Hale, abt. 1970
October 8, 2014

Dear Constant Readers,

This is the sixth installment in an ongoing series of posts from which I hope will form the first draft of a book.  The working title for this book is, "Confessions of a Second Grade Failure."  It is a coming-of-age memoir about growing up in Kingsport, Tennessee during the 1960s and early 1970s.

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P.S. Even though I do proofread my work before publishing on this blog, occasionally a grammatical error or misspelling will elude my notice.  I do have a more objective proofreader, my wife, Lynn, but she usually proofs it after it has gone out to you, the reader.  When I finish a blog, I transfer what I have written into chapters kept in a text document.  These blog posts help shape what I will soon submit to the literary agent.  So, if you find grammatical errors or misspellings, feel free to share them with me so that I may correct them.  Right now I am writing to generate material and content for the book, so I am somewhat less attentive to the polishing process that goes into finished material.  Thanks for your understanding and your participation.


Confessions of a Second Grade Failure

The Storyteller Who Dipped Snuff

My maternal grandmother was Cora Lee Hale. After the death of her husband, she lived with our family until her own death in 1971. As I child, I cannot remember a time when she was not present in my life. It was like having two mothers - one who gave actual birth to me and another who gave birth to my spirit.

When I remember my grandmother, Cora, the image that most immediately comes to mind is of her
Cora Hale and Stevie Rhodes
sitting in a green sofa chair in our living room near the fireplace. She has on her favorite blue print dress with knee-high stockings and comfortable low heel shoes. She is wearing a pair of dark, horn-rimmed glasses, though they do her little good - her eyesight failing as a result of advanced diabetes. Her gray hair is pulled back into a bun. She keeps a small tin can close by. It is filled with the brown power of Bruton’s Scotch Snuff, a tobacco that she frequently dips. And her black leather Bible, worn by years of reading, laying next to her on a small table.

Cora was a mountain woman from Appalachia. Her parents, Mickleberry Townsend and America Sparks, were from a long line of eastern Kentuckians who lived in the counties of Wolfe, Breathitt, Owsley and Estill. Cora herself was not born in Kentucky, but in Lawrence County, Missouri on July 19, 1886. Her extended family, along with many other Kentuckians, had migrated west in the early 1880s in the quest for new lands and new beginnings. But the Townsend family’s sojourn was brief. The West was not for them. The eastern hills beckoned them back home. By the 1890s, they were in Kentucky once more.

Mickleberry, Cora’s father, wore a long black beard and moustache above which were set a pair of
Mickleberry and America Townsend
with children
penetrating eyes. He was a farmer and a stove mill operator. America, her mother, raised their seven children and helped Mickleberry on the farm.

My grandmother was a natural storyteller. She loved to tell stories, especially about her childhood and adolescence in Kentucky. She and her younger sister, Lulie, were forever competing over the local boys. Mamaw said that whenever she would bring a boy home to court her, Lulie would just as quickly steal him away from her. Even so, being sisters was a stronger bond than any potential suitor - and besides, there were plenty of boys to go around.

Another story that Mamaw often told also involved her sister, Lulie. This was the story about the visitation of a spirit. She told me how her childhood best friend, a girl who lived the next farm over, became seriously ill - smallpox, if I remember correctly. Just before her illness, Cora and the girl had an awful argument. They ended up refusing to talk to each other. But as her friend’s illness grew progressively worse, she asked for Cora to come visit her so that they could make up. Cora admitted that, at that age, she had a stubborn streak and refused to go. She would make up with her friend when she was good and ready. Sadly, that time never came. The little girl died without the two of them reconciling. Cora was overwhelmed with grief, blaming herself for her friend’s death, berating herself for being so stubborn. Weeks and months went by before life seemed to return to normal, nevertheless the death of her dear friend continued to weigh on her.

One day, Cora was outside her house putting up laundry to dry in the sun. It was a bright, sunny day and no breeze was blowing. Suddenly, everything seemed to grow unnaturally still. Then Cora heard

something moving. It was the sound of her swing attached to a limb on a nearby tree. Slowly, Cora turned around to see why the swing was moving. It was then that Cora saw her - her best friend, the little girl who had died. She was sitting in the swing. Backwards and forwards the swing went with the little girl’s feet pumping in the air. She smiled at Cora, who was so startled that she dropped her basket of laundry. Cora was certain that this must be something that she was imagining. Her grief was surely causing her to see things that weren’t there.

Cora’s thoughts of self-doubt were interrupted by a scream from the kitchen. It was the sound of her sister, Lulie, who was at the sink washing dishes. She, too, had heard the swing and looked out the window, thinking that she would catch her older sister shirking her chores. But instead, she saw the dead girl, too. As soon as Lulie rushed out the kitchen door to get a better look, the apparition of the little girl quickly faded and the swing came to a stop. Cora and Lulie, both shaken, fell into each other’s arms and cried.

Later that night before going to sleep, they talked about what they had experienced. They agreed that it had indeed been the spirit of Cora’s dear friend come to visit them, but not to haunt them. Cora believed that it was a sign of forgiveness on the little girl’s part - that she released Cora from her sense of guilt and shame. At least that’s how my mamaw interpreted her visitation of the dead. For her, it was a moment of heaven-sent grace. That same night, she committed herself to never being so stubborn again.

My grandmother swore that this story was absolutely true, which only added to my own anxiety as a child upon her telling of the tale. Mamaw was no stranger to the supernatural. She had seen many things in her life which were not easily explained or understood. As I grew up under her love and care, my world was imbued with the uncanny and mysterious. She taught me that “we walk by faith, not sight” (2 Cor. 7, NRSV) - and that faith means trusting that reality is always bigger than your own perception of it.

Another of my grandmother’s favorite stories to tell was about how she came to be married. Her older
Jim and Nannie Hale
sister, Nannie, had married a man from Wise, Virginia in 1898. Nannie was older than Cora by eight years. Nannie’s husband was Jamerson Hale, better known as “Jim.” He and his older brother, John Edward Hale, ran a planing mill and lumber business together back in Wise. After the wedding, Nannie moved there with Jim. In 1901, Jim’s brother, John, was separated and soon divorced from his first wife, Emma Baldwin, with whom he had two children: Napoleon Kingsley and Dewey Hobsan Hale. John was grieved at the divorce and filled with regret. His worry about it was constant - so much so that one day, while working at the mill, he lost his concentration and thus lost his right arm in an accident. He was left to raise two boys with only one remaining arm. Being a man of considerable determination, he overcame his handicap, continued to work at the mill and raised his sons. But John was lonely, and he needed help caring for Kingsley and Dewey.

Within a couple of years or so, Nannie began to talk to John about her younger sister back home in Kentucky. She had turned nineteen and her parents had begun to worry that she might be getting too old to marry. Nannie told John that Cora was pretty and also a hard worker, that he should consider her as a potential wife. It wasn’t long before he began making trips to Kentucky to see Nannie’s sister. He courted her off and on for a short time. They got along well, enjoying each other’s company.

After a time, John talked to her father, Mickleberry, about the possibility of marriage. There was,
John Edward Hale
however, an issue of age. John was only ten years younger than Mickleberry himself, and there was a distance of twenty-four years between he and Cora. She was all of a teen and he was a middle-aged man of forty-three. But neither John nor Cora seemed to mind much the difference in their ages. So it was up to her father. Mickleberry and John talked man-to-man and reached a mutual agreement. So you see, my grandparents’ marriage was somewhat of an arranged affair, as many mountain marriages were at that time. But the difference in this instance is that Cora was very willing to marry John and quickly consented to their agreement.

Now there was one person who was not happy about the impending nuptials - and that person was America, Cora’s mother. To say that she was mad about the arrangement is to put it mildly. The reason for her anger had to do with John’s age. Why was Cora agreeing to marry this “old man”? What was Cora getting herself into marrying a man who is old enough to be her father and already with two sons? Weren’t there other suitable men who were closer to Cora’s own age?

America was so furious that on the day of the wedding, she grabbed Cora, slinging her across her knee
Cora Lee Townsend, wedding picture
and gave her a serious spanking. Cora cried and cried that her mother had treated her this way, and on her very own wedding day. Nevertheless, she was determined. She pulled herself together and got ready for the ceremony. The wedding took place at the Townsend home place in Horntown, Kentucky on June 19, 1905. The service was lead by a local preacher, Rev. B. M. DeWitt. Cora was now a married woman, and ready to leave home in Kentucky for her new life in Virginia with John.

Together, John and Cora built their own house in Wise, just a block from downtown. Their method of construction was that John held the wood in place with his left hand, Cora positioned the nails and John pounded them into place with a hammer strapped to the stump of his right arm. Board by board, window by window, door by door, John and Cora built a home to hold their new family. They would eventually have eleven children together - nine of whom lived to adulthood. The house that they build was filled with children, and their home was filled with love.


  1. "Cora positioned the nails and John pounded them into place with a hammer strapped to the stump of his right arm."

    That, my friend, is the very definition of trust. :)

  2. Cora sounds similar to my great-grandmother "Mammie Waldren" who was said to have numerous supernatural abilities (also an Appalachian woman). Love these old stories--nice photos as usual! - Carol H.

  3. I have now fallen in love with Cora Lee. And the part about the little girl in the swing...gave me rippling chill bumps head to waist over and over and over. Good story telling, sir!