When winter comes now, and I see those familiar pale shafts of sunlight that briefly touch the tops of the Balsams - just before total darkness settles on Rhodes Cove - I find myself remembering a trip to see my great-grandmother over sixty years ago. As I remember it now, I went with my grandfather to visit his mother, Babbie, in the Cowee section of Macon County. By the time we reached Franklin, we found
ourselves driving through a heavy snowfall that quickly erased the road, forcing my grandfather to halt frequently, get out and prod gingerly at the snow, searching for asphalt and gravel. By the time we got to Leatherman’s Gap in Macon County, all the familiar landmarks had vanished, forcing my grandfather to move with infinite slowness. We seemed suspended in a vast whiteness filled with fat snowflakes that slowly descended like languid feathers.
Finally, somewhere near the old Cowee Church, we abandoned the car and began to flounder through the big drifts that a rising wind had blown into Babbie’s little cove. I had been here before, of course, but now the ramshackle old house, the old barn and the noisy little creek were all transformed – burdened with great, white cloaks. We finally saw the smoke from Babbie’s chimney, and eventually, a collection of relatives spilled out of the house – my grandfather’s sister, Elsie and her daughter, Irene; Uncle Ardell and his boys, Lyndon and Fred followed by Pratt and Zelda and their family – a chorus of Hursts, Cardens and Daltons who watched us trudge toward them.
When we arrived, we were escorted into the house where Babbie sat propped up in her bed, my ancient great-grandmother, clad in a half-dozen sweaters and a huge bonnet. She was surrounded by dozens of framed photographs and faded tintypes, the legacy of her dead husband who had been a photographer. When visitors came to Babbie’s bed, they invariably commented on these images. Who is this? They would say, pointing to a man who stared fiercely back at them. “Oh, that is your great-great-great grandfather who was killed by Kirk’s Raiders in the Civil War.” And this one? “That would be Esther Holland who moved to Sedro Wooley. Do you know where that is?”
In later years, I came to feel that Babbie had been something of a trickster. I think she used all of those old photographs as a means of putting visitors at their ease.
As soon as they asked about the pictures, they were in her spell. She was no longer a frail, ancient woman with cataracts and poor hearing, but a practiced storyteller who knew how to hold her visitors spellbound.
A great fire roared in the fireplace where two-foot lengths of oak popped and crackled. The mantle which stretched above the fire bore the inscription, “God Bless This School” because Babbie’s husband had once taught grammar, arithmetic and John Bunyan in this very room.
We could smell dinner (the noon meal then) and the room was heavy with the odor of gritted cornbread, ham and red-eye gravy, bleached apples and leather britches. The room where we ate canted like the deck of a ship due to the house’s eroding foundation – a condition that made me feel like we were all adrift in a seagoing galleon in a white ocean.
In the adjoining room, a big, iron Home Comfort stove not only baked bread, heated water in a reservoir, and provided a “warming closet” for cat-head biscuits, but it heated the room where we ate. We ate for over an hour, I remember, and then we all returned to the living room/ bedroom where Babbie sat drinking buttermilk and nibbling buttered biscuits.
Over the years, I came to know that in Babby’s house, I was participating in a ritual. Everyone gathered in rockers and cane-bottomed chairs around the bed. It was time for Babbie to talk.
“Last time I seen it snow like this,” she said, Hit were the night that the convicts came.” She waited while those of us who had not heard the story before absorbed that detail. “Yes, that’s right! Convicts! Them poor fellers, they had done turned blue, ‘n one of ‘em couldn’t walk. They knocked on the door which shore give me ‘n Elsie a shock! What in the world. Hit was long atter midnight, when thet pitiful lit’le rap-rap come. Elsie opened the door, ‘n there stood three pitiful wretches. Hah! They just blurted it out when we opened the door. ‘We are convicts, ma’m, and we’re lost.’ Near dead, too. Well, we didn’t even hesitate. Told ‘em to go to the barn, ‘n git settled in, ‘n them come back to the house. We fed ‘em in the kitchen, ‘n Elsie tended the one with frostbite. We packed ‘em a basket of vittles, give ‘em a dozen blankets ‘n quilts ‘n sent them two of ‘em to the barn and put the frostbit ‘en on a pallet by the fire. The snow stopped in the night, ‘n the next day, they was gone by noon. I don’t know what they done to get in the penitentiary, but it didn’t make no difference to me. Nice fellers, they was.
Folded them quilts up, washed the plates in the snow ‘n brought everything back to the house. I often wonder what difference there really is between them and us. Could they just as well be Fred over there or Ardell? I think so. Years later, one of them boys come to see me and brought his family. Stood on the porch with hat in his hand, and thanked me. Had a car, too, ‘n he was so proud of his boy who was plannin’ on goin’ to college. He said I saved his life. Well, I don’t know about that, but he was shore a changed man from the one that came to my door in that snow storm.”
That night, grandpa and I slept in the attic in a feather bed. We were warm as toast, but when I woke there were lines of snow on my quilt. It had drifted through the spaces in the roof singles. At breakfast, we had to break the ice on the wash pan and I noticed that the water ran to the house through hollowed-out pine logs, and we dipped it, cold and ice-laden into the wash pan. Within a few minutes, fires were going in both the fireplace and the Home Comfort, and we sat down to biscuits, gravy, eggs and hominy.
Later that day, grandpa and I hiked into a place that he called “the Cove.” “When I quit work, this is where I am comin’,” he said. He talked about the cabin he would build here, and how he would be “so far back, he would never hear another car horn or stripped gear…just wind and rain.” The cove was filled with evergreens and great oaks, and the silence was only broken the occasional cascade of snow that the wind blew from the limbs of trees; and I remember the sharp report of a frozen tree like a pistol shot which, my grandfather said, was the result of sap freezing and exploding. On the way back to Babbie’s, a flock of grouse burst from a laurel thicket, scaring me badly. “Think about that,” said Grandpa, “having grouse in your front yard.”
Oddly enough, I don’t remember the rest of the day, but over the years, I have retained the vivid images – faded tin-types, Babbie’s face, that table laden with food and Babbie’s enchanted audience. When hard times came for my grandfather, he sold the Cove and I understand that all of that silent beauty is now crowded with retirement homes and condominiums. Babbie’s house burned shortly after her death, and the Hursts, Cardens and Daltons have scattered. Occasionally, we meet at reunions (or funerals) and invariably, we talk about that magic day when we gathered by Babbie’s bed during a snowstorm.