|Although the following article is published under my name, it was written for you totally by Sharon. With my apologies to all of our previous guests, I think it's the best article the Who's Who Spotlight cubit has presented so far. Sharon, my friend, welcome to the Spotlight!|
I’ve told this story before in one place or another, so if you’ve already heard it, feel free to glance at the photos and move on. I don’t like to read things over and over again either. I’m really not fond of writing about myself unless it’s an Aunt Bett story. I tend to get too wordy, and don’t know when to hush. It’s a really bad habit. But it’s just me and it is what it is, so Nap, my dear buddy, you asked for this.
I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of Southeast Kentucky. My house was up a holler called Webb Branch. Since we are being up front and personal here, I’ll call it a holler. You folks from the north might know it better as a hollow, the low valley between two mountains. No matter what you call it, it is a totally beautiful part of our earth. Webb Branch was a one lane dirt road that veered off Bottom Fork Road; trees grew from the mountain on one side and in summer those trees provided a shady canopy for walking. On the other side were Aunt Bett’s cornfield and Uncle Sinc’s old mostly empty barn. If you kept following Bottom Fork Road a few more east bound miles, you’d find yourself in Virginia. If you went in the other direction, you’d end up a few miles down the road in Whitesburg, the county seat of Letcher County. Those few miles were my whole world until I was about five and then we ventured out of the mountains to visit my aunt in Lexington and to buy me a new winter coat.
But let’s go back to the beginning. It was November 1942 when I made my appearance and our world was already in the throes of WW II. My dad was in the Philippines right beside all the other able bodied men from our country and I wouldn’t see him till 1945 when I was 3 years old. My grandfather was the only man in my life during those years. He named me Sharon, after a favorite plant that bloomed for him there at his house in the mountains, and he also delighted in telling me it was a name from the Bible. I thought the name was beautiful and wore it with pride; I loved the plant it came from, Rose of Sharon. It wasn’t until I was older that I found that the Biblical name meant a fertile coastal plain in Israel that lies between the Mediterranean Sea and the hills of Samaria.
I forgave my grandfather for naming me after a fertile coastal plain for goodness sakes because he was truly a man of God, and also because he was my beloved and only grandfather and was to me the epitome of perfection. I loved him dearly in spite of the name he gave me. I just told everybody I was named for the Rose of Sharon and left it at that.
And so it was that I spent most of those early years with my Granny Ninna and my mother’s aunt, my Great Aunt Bett. My mom spent those years teaching school. When my dad returned from the war, he was not the man I knew from his picture on the wall. My daddy wasn’t supposed to be bearded and skinny and shadowed and I ran screaming when he first tried to lift me. I wasn’t prepared for a scary dad, and he wasn’t prepared for a screaming 3 year old who was terrified of him. Sadly that was the beginning of a bonding that never took place and left me even more often with my two little old ladies. The three of us bonded, and that’s about all I ever needed.
I truly believe we are given abilities and talents at a very young age, and if we are fortunate, they are nourished by those around us. It seems too that those abilities are given for a reason, maybe to make up for what we often can’t do.
I sat on the old wood floor of Ninna’s back porch and listened to the stories she and Aunt Bett told while they were breaking beans. I played with the curly green strings that fell from their fingers. I was maybe two years old.
“Them’s right good beans this year, Susan. Reckon we’s right smart to plant ‘em by the moon.”
“Coulda been that chicken manure I pitched into the garden fore we planted.”
“Prob’ly both. How many bushels we got put up now?”
“I ain’t kept count, Bett, but next bushel is gonna be shuckies.”
And so I learned; about planting by the moon, and chicken manure, and canning, and drying and puttin’ up for winter.
There was no one else up in the head of the holler for me to play with, but I didn’t know the difference. The women had no car, no truck and couldn’t have driven if they did have them, so we didn’t go anywhere unless my grandfather (maternal) came to get Mom and me to go the 2 miles down Bottom Fork road to spend the weekend with them. Gramma Ell had a cellar and since it was one of my favorite hiding places, I learned all about the vegetables that were stored in it. Gramma Ell also taught me to quilt. My grandfather took me with him to plant flowers and he let me put my fingers in the fishpond where the gold fish nibbled them. He also had books and postcards from faraway places in his study. I sat on his lap on Saturday nights as he read to me his sermon for Sunday. It wasn’t long before I was learning to type on his big black Remington typewriter. Sometimes he had to come behind me and fix the keys I’d jammed.
And it wasn’t long before I was breaking beans with my two aproned and bonneted old ladies and stringing those white half runners on a long thread to hang for drying.
I had a bout with polio soon after my dad came home from the war. There was a mild polio epidemic in my area, I say mild because it was sparsely populated so there weren’t big numbers of people to be affected. The hospital was small and I remember being taken there by my parents late one night. I heard the doctors tell them that it looked like polio but there was no room for me in the overcrowded hospital. They said I might live, even if they took me home. I also remember my mother moaning at the words ‘She might live’. My mom took that to mean that I might die, too. Not many recovered from polio in those late years of the 40’s. There was no cure, people either died or lived with crippling defects. My mom seemed to dwell on that aspect of it, but being so very young, I didn’t know a thing about dying or polio or being crippled so I don’t remember that it bothered me. I do remember it seemed like a long time to stay in bed, waiting to die or waiting to walk or whatever was going to happen, but that was the year Ninna taught me to read. I discovered a whole new world and forgot about polio. I read everything she brought to me, including Life and Look and Grit magazines. I was about 4 years old.
With a lot of help and care from my mother and Ninna as well as Aunt Bett, I recovered and finally cast those braces and crutches aside. I was able to start first grade right on time when I was not quite 6 years old. Part of that recovery was due to the fact that Aunt Bett and Ninna insisted that it would be good for my legs to make short climbs up the hill behind my house to where the blackberries and raspberries grew. I thought that was a great idea, too. and came home covered in sticky purple juice, helped all the way up and down the mountain by Ninna and Aunt Bett.
I learned then about berries and the vines they grew from, about canning and jams and jellies and blackberry jam cakes and cobblers. Recently my uncle, mom's brother, told me that I was like a sponge, I soaked in everything around me and remembered it all. I hope so.
Polio, once I was over it, didn't seem to affect much of my life when I was young, I do remember having excruciating leg cramps at times, and sitting on the hard wooden benches at church was one of those times. It wasn't unusual for me to end up with my legs across Ninna's lap while she frantically rubbed them right in the middle of church services. I don't remember ever crying about it though, but then I still don't cry very easily.
Spring and summers, sometimes fall, I went with Aunt Bett up the mountains to find the plants that she needed for her herbal medicines. She taught me one wildflower from another, one herb from another, and she taught me about the magic cures that each of the plants held. I learned from her to make salves and teas from the plants we found in the mountains.
School was good for me, I loved it because I learned to write and could put my words with the drawings I’d made of flowers and bugs and animals; I could write stories of my adventures on the mountains. I remember writing of tigers that lived in the old chestnut oak where the mayapples bloomed in spring. I wrote of monkeys swinging from limb to limb and of bears making their way across the mountains from Virginia. I drew pictures of all of them. Aunt Bett and Ninna both told me the stories and the drawings were gifts and to keep right on writing and drawing even if the teachers told me there were no tigers or monkeys in our mountains.
I lost my grandfather in 1950, and his death very nearly wrenched my seven year old heart right out of me. But I had memories of all he taught me, and when I grew older I was given many of his writings. He was a truly admirable man. I wanted to be just like him and sit at a desk with a typewriter in front of me pecking out word after word after word. And then I wanted people to read all my words, just like they read his. He was a lawyer too, and county judge, so his writings were not always sermons, but the sermons were my favorite, they always told a story.
"What are you writing, Papaw?"
"It's just words, Honey. Just words. Here, I'll show you."
And he taught me to type one word: L-O-V-E. He said that was the most important word he knew and that I should always remember it. He was the very best man.
That same year my brother was born. I was nearly 8 years old by then, and to me he was a magical miracle. His birth made up for the loss of my grandfather. He still lives near the home where we grew up, and he still is my magical wonderful brother. He is a reclamation engineer. He goes along behind mining companies to make sure the land is reclaimed in the best way possible. He loves our mountains as I do, and it’s with him and his family that I stay when I go back for a visit. He didn’t get the benefit of the training I received from Aunt Bett and my grandfather, but he grew up with Ninna and what he didn’t learn from them, he seemed to absorb from the mountains around him.
I learned to use the abilities I had been given. I’d always wanted to dance and often pretended I was dancing all over the mountains following one ray of sunlight right after another. My damaged legs weren’t made for dancing, though, so my ladies told me that’s why God gave me drawing and writing and all my stories, to make up for being unable to dance. I believed them then, and still do.
I did well in school, graduating from high school as valedictorian of my class of 155 students and chose to go to a small liberal arts college that offered a great scholarship and the opportunity to learn more about those things I continued to be interested in: writing, art and ancient history (most of which had been inspired by the legends and lore Aunt Bett and Granny Ninna had told me, as well as from the sermons that my grandfather read to me). I went on to teach art in Louisville, leaving my mountains behind. I truly didn’t realize how much of them I was actually taking with me. I remember Aunt Bett and Ninna both telling me, “Don’t you ever forget your roots, chile, don’t ever forget your roots.”
I loved being a teacher, loved the young people and totally loved teaching art. I wrote part of the art curriculum for Jefferson County schools during the 9 years I was there and enjoyed life in the city in the 60’s, a time of change for all of us. But I fit, I belonged and I drove the 200 miles back to the mountains as often as I could in my shiny new Mustang.
Fast forward to the ‘70’s, I married a man who was also a part of the Louisville school system, though he was in data processing, not directly in education. We were good friends, and were totally opposite. He was tall and quiet and serious, very professorial. I was none of those things, even though I was the teacher. He took a job in a small town about 200 miles southwest of Louisville and so we moved to the flatlands of western Kentucky, had our two children and made a good life here. Still I missed my mountains, and they were as far to the east of the state as I was to the west. Once a place gets in your blood, though, it goes straight to your heart and there it stays. Same with people. I just seemed to carry my mountains and all my favorite people around with me, no matter where I was.
Those who had played an important part in my life began to pass away; my beloved grandfather in 1950, my Gramma Ell in 1973, I lost Aunt Bett during that time too, and Granny Ninna in ’78. I felt a little orphaned with them gone, I remembered things I’d forgotten to ask. But I still held tight to the memories and all they had taught me. And I kept them tucked away in my heart.
Recently when I looked at a plant a friend had, I recognized it as one I'd known long ago and told her the story of gathering it with Aunt Bett for its roots. She asked me how I remembered all those stories about so many old plants and I told her those memories and those people I loved are stored away in my heart; I just bring them out from time to time when I need them. She looked at me and said: "I think your heart is bigger than you are." Maybe so.
I continued to teach art here in western Kentucky, still loving it and loving the students I taught. It seemed I had a gift for teaching, I think it was because I was so well taught when I was young.
My dad died suddenly in 1982 and though he adored my children, sadly he and I had never really been very close.
With very little family left, and none who lived near me, my husband and I decided to take advantage of the waterland that surrounded us here in western Kentucky. We purchased a houseboat and during summers we lived aboard. It was good for the children, they felt close to nature and they also had the advantage of making friends with children whose parents boated too. Most of them were from surrounding states, coming to Kentucky and Barkley lakes for their boating experiences. We continued to boat until the late ‘90’s; by then our children had grown up and were through college and making lives of their own.
I loved teaching. Did I already say that? Sometime during the 80’s I began to bring plants from the mountains to my home; favorite plants that I’d loved then, plants that grew in my mom’s yard, and plants that held the magic that Aunt Bett taught me to find. So I loved teaching and I loved gardening and even during the boating years I managed to have a bloom here and there. My husband never liked any of it except boating, and he retired early so he could spend time on the boat. I continued to teach for 37 years. Yes, I loved it that much.
My mom died in ’95, so I didn’t go to the mountains as often anymore, but I continued to gather all the plants that I could find that held mountain memories. Some didn’t survive here in this hotter climate, but trust me when I tell you I have Granny Laurie’s rose growing up the side of my house, and cedar trees from Great Grandma Combs' house in Bardstown, Rose of Sharon from my grandfather’s garden, hibiscus from Ninna, a redbud tree from the mountains, and daylily after daylily from all of them. Same with the irises that grow in my yard, same for the vinca, the snow on the mountain, and the silly creeping Charlie that drives me crazy.
If I made a serious list, it would be a mile long and would include spiderwort, bee balm, spearmint, peppermint, tansy and yarrow and on and on. I won't mention all those I killed by forcing them to live in a climate they couldn't survive in.
Are y’all bored yet? Go take a break, I’ll still be right here when you get back. This might be the longest Spotlight in the history of Spotlights. And Nap, you better not delete any of this either, it’s important stuff. They can always just look at the pictures, they don’t have to read it all. I’ll never know the difference anyway.
The last 15 years of my teaching career were spent teaching studio art and humanities classes. I also wrote the art and humanities curriculum for our school system. I loved it. Have I said that before? I think I had more fun than the kids.
If you aren’t too bored yet I’ll tell you a little story about teaching, and if you are bored just skip down to the end. Anyway, we were learning about cave art, so I always liked to teach by giving the students living examples. There was no way we could go to visit the Lascaux Caves in France to see cave art, so I decided we’d make cave art ourselves. I took one of the classes on a little field trip out beside the school on some land that belonged to the school board. We gathered long sticks and flat surfaced rocks. I opened the bag I was carrying and pulled out a package of hot dogs and buns. We built a little fire and had a hot dog roast using the sticks we’d picked up. After they had their picnic, I asked them to take the sticks that held the hot dogs and hold them in the smoldering ashes a little longer. Then I had them draw something on the flat rocks with the burnt greasy end of their sticks. They did and we had cave paintings. You see, cave paintings were most likely made by using burnt charcoaled sticks, with the adherent being animal grease. Of course there are other ways using ochre and other minerals, but we made do with what we had, and the students learned the concept of cave painting. I’ll bet they never forgot it.
I loved teaching. Are you tired yet? We’re almost to the end, I promise. I retired in ’06, crying every step of the way, but I was getting tired and running out of creative ideas, plus we had a new grandson and my husband wanted to get a motorhome so we could travel by land since we were no longer boating. We decided to wait till the spring of ’07 to purchase the motorhome otherwise it would sit idle in our driveway all winter.
In the meantime our county judge had called me (upon hearing of my retirement) and asked if I would turn the courtroom in our old courthouse into an art gallery for the community. It had been replaced by a new judicial building but the old courthouse was still being used for offices. The old courtroom had no more use. I took him up on his offer and by fall we had an art gallery for the community. It was gorgeous and we had several very well attended events. I loved being director, it kept me in contact with the art world, something I thought I’d lost when I retired from teaching.
I was very excited. I kept remembering what Aunt Bett and Ninna said, they both told me the stories and the drawings were gifts and to keep right on writing and drawing even if the teachers told me there were no tigers or monkeys in our mountains. So all my life I had kept right on drawing, and now here was an opportunity to continue with art. I wondered if I could still write anything except curriculum guides. Again life handed me a devastating surprise.
My husband died suddenly in April ’07. With no warning, not a word, he was gone. One day I was a wife, and then suddenly I wasn’t. It took a while for my mind and wrecked emotions to take it all in. I hated that word: widow. It seemed like a black word to me, one to be whispered behind a hand, behind closed doors. I didn’t know how to be a widow. For awhile I could not bring myself to pick up a paintbrush, nor to even open my computer. I had been cast in a role that I didn't know how to play: I was a widow.
In less than a year, I was no longer a teacher and no longer a wife. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out who I was.
Later that fall, I had a huge community showing at the gallery and it was very well attended. I managed pretty well at my first really public event, and hid my grief and muddled mind behind a professional smile. At about the same time I opened my computer and visited a gardening site that I had enjoyed in the past. There it was, written right across the top of the page: Article Writers Wanted. I skimmed the site, read an article or two, and suddenly I could hear them, clear as a bell, Aunt Bett and Ninna: “Your legs ain’t made for dancin’, honey, that’s why God gave you drawin’ and writin’ and all them stories, to make up for not dancin’”.
I believed them then, and still do.
Strength. Strength comes from being true to yourself, being who you truly are with your feet planted firmly. I'm talking about inner strength because heaven knows what little bit of strength my muscles ever had is now long gone. Inner strength comes from making do with what you have, learning from losses, learning from experiences, having faith in yourself, and accepting life with as few complaints as possible. If you ever catch me whining out loud, just pinch me, OK?
So Aunt Bett came to life again in my articles, with Granny Ninna right there, too. I wrote and I wrote, and I wrote the sorrow and grief away. I made do with what I had. I just sat right down and wrote article after article. It was my therapy.
That was 4 years ago, and I’ve been writing ever since. Sometimes I think I might run out of words, but I doubt that will happen anytime soon. You see, one door closes and if we watch real close, another one opens. We make do with what we have. And we use the talents that we’ve been given. We just have to be sure we don't miss that opening door; there might be a message written right across the top of the page.
Sure I’m a widow, but that word doesn’t scare me anymore because I’m still a mom, I’m still Ethan’s Nana, I’m still teaching through my writings, I’m still an artist, and I am writing. I am still me.
I’ve been fortunate, I’ve written around 200+ garden related articles, I’ve written several articles for a local nautical newsletter. I've written a few other e-articles. I’ve written short stories here on Cubits, I’ve written many Spotlight articles and now I’m starting another exciting adventure. I am so blessed.
In July when Dave and Trish launched All Things Plants they had asked me to join them as their Articles Editor. You know what? I didn’t even blink. It was such an honor, such a challenge, and so daunting, I had no doubt that it was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I believe in Dave and Trish, have always believed in them and who better than the two of them could I be working with? You see, I’ve always had to have a challenge. The doctors said I might not live, and if I did live I might be crippled. But Aunt Bett and Ninna said, ‘you make do with what you have, and you use the gifts you’ve been given’.
I’ve always tried to live by their words.
Isn’t life something? I wish Aunt Bett and Ninna were here to read their stories, because without them, I don’t think I could ever have written a word. I am and always have been very blessed.
So this is my way of telling you that I’ve asked Nancy if I can have a little break from Spotlight. We are only given so many hours in a day, and I’m already using up 23 of mine, mostly writing and painting, the other hour is for eating and sleeping.
I need time to devote to the new site, I need time to work with new writers, and I need time to finish writing my book about growing up with Aunt Bett and Ninna in the mountains of southeast Kentucky.
So Nap and I talked and we agreed that I would not leave Spotlight, but would take a little break from the writing part of it. We’ve asked Zanymuse to join Nap so the Spotlight articles could continue uninterrupted. I am very sure Zany will do a wonderful job and I feel comfortable leaving you with her.
This isn’t good-bye, because I will be back to read every Spotlight that’s written. After all, I still have Cubits of my own. And as I have time, I’ll happily write here again. Thank you so much for being such great readers. And for those of you who have allowed me to place you in the Spotlight, thank you from my heart. You are beautiful people and I am so proud to call you my friends.
Seems as if I’ve crammed as much as possible into my life, just like I crammed as much as I could into this article. I guess maybe I didn’t want to miss out on anything. Life goes on, one great adventure after another and I just hang on tight and enjoy the ride. Love goes on, too; once freely given, it remains with us. My grandfather taught me that when he taught me to type: L-O-V-E. I am forever thankful for those I love and for those who love me.
As my seven year old grandson Ethan says: “Nana, ya know what? You and me, we’ll always have real good days.”
I wish those real good days for you as well.
Sharon,thank you. Not only for this look into your soul, but for the love and laughs and friendship you have given me over the last year and a half since this cubit began. And this would be a good time to tell everyone that although the idea for this cubit was mine, it was Sharon who made it happen.
I was feeling a bit discouraged and decided to close the original cubit I had started. (It was all about my photography and scans.) For some still unexplained reason, Sharon got hold of me and gave me the pep talk to end all pep talks. She told me not to give up on Cubits, to stay and grow with it. She said she would be here for me with whatever I needed. I sort of threw out the concept of an interview, Who's Who type of cubit, and she enthusiastically came through on her promise. She said she would help me in whatever capacity I needed. Just say the word and she would do it. Well, I was only thinking out loud, but she started creating it in her mind and...well, I said, "Let's do it." The now famous term "Spotlight" was tacked on at her suggestion.
Sharon, you said it's not goodbye and I'm going to hold you to that promise, just like the last time you made a promise to me. Isn't it true that in French they say "au revoir," as sort of a "till we meet again?" So we won't say goodbye.
"Au revoir, Sharon!"