Today I took a few hour journey back to the mountains of North Carolina, the place of my birth, and the place where generations of Ogle’s, Fox’s, Thomas’s, and Blevins’s were born, lived, and died. I could feel the cool wind coming across the hill scattering rust colored leaves, turning up the corners of collars, and being greeted with squinted eyes and rosy cheeks. I appreciated the warmth of the noonday sun which can only penetrate those deep hollers a few hours on clear days. I sat on rough cut wooden steps, looking down the road by the creek where you must look sharply up to see the sky in any direction. It is a time and a place where the richness of the black dirt is only surpassed by the lives of it’s citizens who carved out a meager living with calloused hands, strong wills, and faith in the Creator.
My people were common folks, few if any graduated from any school of any kind, but they raised children by the dozens who became “salt of the earth” kind of citizens who drove better cars, lived in houses with indoor plumbing, were better educated, but were cut from the same cloth as generations before them. They were carpenters, mechanics, home makers, and gospel preachers. But for a few sad exceptions they only saw the outside of a jail. As recently as two generations ago, one of my uncles, Bill Wheeler, never owned a car, never worked on a public job, had never lived in a house without an outhouse, but built a reputation as one of the best men in his county. Uncle Bill was a man of God, a fact no person who knew him questioned, but he never claimed to be anything but “saved by grace” and in love with his Lord. He had two brothers who were preachers like him, although Bill would never admit to being a preacher.
Grandpa “Papa” Fox, my maternal grandfather, married my grandma who had a house full of small children, was living in a wilderness area of Avery County, N.C., and had been deserted by a philandering hypocrite husband. Papa and Grandma Fox added three more children, my mom being the first from their union. Papa walked several miles to hitch a ride to work on the Blue Ridge Parkway, leaving at about 4:30 a.m. and returning after dark. He raised most of what was eaten including pigs and chickens and vegetables. There was no electricity, no water in the house, no insulation in the walls, but they joyfully survived, playing the cards dealt them without grumbling and complaining.
Grandpa and Grandma Ogle, my paternal grandparents, lived a few miles West in the same county, living off the land, scratching out a living and managing to raise twelve children, burying another boy when he was an infant. Digging May Apple roots and ginseng, gathering ferns for florists, working in saw mills, and killing wild game and catching fish, fed the Ogle clan except for the coldest part of winter when at least some of the kids would be sent to relatives for a while ‘til “Spring broke” and the garden started to produce food.
I come from good stock. I’m proud of my heritage, my mountain home, and my people. I like to think that in my physical and spiritual DNA there is some of the stuff that makes men strong and faithful to their families and their God. From birth there was a Good Samaritan some place in me, a kind word, a hug, a helping hand, and a seed of faith that is still alive and well. My grandparents, my parents, and almost all of my many, many aunts and uncles, and countless cousins, claimed Jesus and live, or lived, in His grace.
This morning I went to an old roll top desk that I had as a child and took out a cookie box, and a Christmas card box, both full of pictures, obituaries from the news paper, report cards, high school play programs, and letters, and I revisited history in black and white. This time there was no sadness, no tears, only warm memories and renewed appreciation for my place in the world and for the land and the people who made it possible. I have more relatives in heaven now than on earth, and that is not a bad thing, it’s very good. At 63, I too will graduate soon and I sort of look forward to the home coming.
What wonderful people! What a wonderfully blessed life! What a wonderful God!
It is time to be thankful.
A son of the hills and the One who made them,