|Cora Lee Hale, abt. 1970|
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|
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 |
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|
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|
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|
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.