(This is the actual view from the deck of my mom’s house.)
Yesterday I drove out to my mom’s house on the lake out in East TN to celebrate Mother’s Day a day late (she had to work Sunday). The plan was to spend the day working in her new vegetable garden and then grill out on the deck.
Mom’s garden is something else. I’d say it’s more than 100 feet long, set right in the center of a lovely, grassy small valley on her property. My mom is a mini-land baron: She first bought a few acres for herself and the Tennessee man she was married to at the time, and then, when the old man who owned the property all around her unexpectedly offered his land for sale cheap, she pretty much bought up an entire small peninsula jutting into Cherokee Lake. She’s got forest land, pasture land and lakefront.
My mom, possibly the most bizarre Republican who has ever drawn breath (a pro-choice feminist who is fascinated by alternative energy and alternative homebuilding) has always wanted to have her own compound, her own little community of people who share her interests in shared work, self-sufficiency and enjoying the land. She’s actually convinced two of her friends to come live in her house with her, and my sister just bought a brand-new doublewide that now sits in plastic-wrapped halves, like a clamshell broken in two, on top of one side of the beautiful small valley the garden lies in.
I can’t tell you how pretty that little country valley is that my sister’s new home will overlook. And I can’t believe I didn’t think to bring my camera! The valley was tilled and plowed for years, and in the middle of it still sits an old-fashioned hay rake, ancient and rusting, abandoned no doubt for a more modern appliance. It’s grassy and quiet, and the only sounds you can hear are singing birds and cawing crows. Beautiful green summer trees surround the quiet peace of the little valley, and there are wild geese, wild ducks, deer and turkeys, even elk that were imported and released. The sun beats down on honeysuckle and wildflowers, and fat summer dragonflies buzz overhead.
The new-tilled garden was dry, dusty and tan-brown. Gathered to help my mom plant it, just the way people did generations ago, were her children and her neighbors and her friends. Mom’s hilarious neighbors Donald and Salty came over in a utility vehicle (not to be confused with an SUV, which is different), a rugged little car that’s like a souped-up golf cart built to handle rough terrain. A utility vehicle isn’t quite a necessity here, but it sure helps you get with speed to places like the little valley, where there are no pathways, old barbed-wire fences, steep hills, scrub, poison ivy… People used to use horses, and now we’ve got these funny, rugged little cars. My mom’s got one too, and since she has a bad knee and hip problems, it makes it much, much easier for her to get around her property.
Have I mentioned that my mother lives out in God’s Country? She does.
Already there waiting for us was mom’s friend Gail, who is half of my mother’s two best friends, a middle-aged gay couple. Gail is of mountain stock, and grew up being chased by flogging roosters and using an outhouse. In North Carolina, if you know the right people and do the right things, you soon realize that the preindustrialized world is not that far away for everyone. Gail flat knows how to garden, how to turn the dusty center of a sun-baked little valley into beans, tomatoes, corn, peppers, onions, pumpkins, sunflowers, eggplant and zucchini.
Eventually my sister showed up, looking totally incongruous to the day’s activities but somehow fitting right in. She was just coming back from her yoga class, and walked down the sunny hill to us wearing shorts, a black sports bra, black tank top, Buddy Holly glasses that got dark in the sun and a fire-engine red punk haircut. I can’t tell you the strange chill of incongruity I felt when this lycra-clad eidolon of modernity of walked over to where we worked planting seeds in the dust and the sun. Lord but I am the child of many worlds. I drive to a world of group farming where I can check my email using high-speed internet, ride in a golf cart on steroids, talk to people who grew up using an outhouse and drive home listening to Indian pop music on my MP3 player. What world am I in again? I am dizzy but somehow delighted.
Gail is working at the far end of the field, wearing dusty old work pants, a baggy brown t-shirt and work boots. Her headgear is a cool damp rag on her head, covered by a wide straw hat with a hanging chinstrap. A cig dangles from her lip. Holly and I agree, laughing together in the heat, that she totally looks like an old Cambodian woman working the rice paddies. I laugh to think how much East TN is like the third world, with scrappy people in old clothes gathering to help each other grow food. The hyperindividualistic culture of Asheville is only two hours away, yet somehow much farther. In Asheville I would never work all day with my neighbors, nor plan a big meal with family and friends. I might have a dinner party, or chat with my neighbor in the sun as we worked our yards, but nothing like what I’m doing today.
Mom’s neighbors Don and Salty have a seed setter, and Holly, her flyaway fake red hair floating in the breeze, set a few rows of greasy cut-shorts (an heirloom WNC green bean) in the hot sun. I hang out with Don and Salty, since I have never met them before and know my mother adores them.
They are middle-aged men, very country, one of them quite prone to making fun and cutting up. He kept tickling my mom’s neck with a stick when no one was looking, making her think all day she had a bug in her hair. Both are TN natives with the deep , deep accent people only have when they are part of a group that has lived in one place for many generations.
Accents have always fascinated me. Everywhere I lived as a child (PA, FL, TX, NC) people talked a different way. I soon learned I’d never win, that for some strange reason no matter where I went I’d always be made fun of as the one who talked funny. In the North I was a Southerner and in the South, a Northerner. My own accent, shaped by so many factors, belonged to neither place and marked me as foreign no matter where I went. But when I am among country people I can feel my Southern accent kicking into high gear. I use reflexive constructions (“I’ve got to get me one of those”), feel my accent become more mountain-sounding. I don’t do it consciously, but I do feel it happening and can control it. All my life I’ve had a strange party-trick ability: I can imitate almost any accent almost perfectly after only hearing it once. Sometimes I have to work at not picking up the accent of the person I am talking to. Once while talking to an English makeup saleswoman in the mall she asked if I was from England. I’d begun using her accent without noticing. I think I did the same thing once with a man from Caracas.
Accents, to some people who can control them, can be a sort of personal statement, a construct, a garment, a signifier. I’ve known backwoods people who went to college and dropped their country accent forever. And then there are people like me, who were brought to live in mountain culture and dropped their cosmopolitan Florida non-accents for the ways of their adopted homeworld. Accents are much more of a personal choice than I think most people know. And some people and put them on and take them off like clothing.
They’ve always, always fascinated me.
We worked in the garden for a few hours, setting seed, hammering posts into the hard, dusty earth and marking the rows with nylon string we cut with a pocketknife. Then, just like people used to do after they worked in the fields all day, we had a great big group dinner. My sister fired up the grill on mom’s breezy deck and we had steak, chicken, baked potatoes and grilled veggies. Butter, sour cream, A1, sea salt, ginger-and-honey Arizona green tea in the carton. A WalMart chocolate truffle cake and Extreme Moose Tracks ice cream for dessert.
In an episode of Six Feet Under that I watched the other day, some people go to an art show and sit inside a little pyramid. They can’t agree if it’s supposed to mock New Age beliefs or create a connection between modern life and the ancient world. One character says, as they sit chilling in the pyramid, that between old worlds and the world we live in there’s probably “a continuity we don’t even understand.”
A woman in the pyramid smiles. “That’s… very comforting,” she says.