Ellabel lived in the big house where she was born, the house her granddaddy built of stone picked up from the fields when the land was cleared and the sod first broken by emancipated slaves. Tiny slave cabins still stand behind the house.
The farm sits on an achingly beautiful spot where Battle Creek runs through the Sequatchie Valley between Scratch-ankle Hollow and the Fiery Gizzard. Those are real places in southeastern Tennessee.
Her husband Dave owned a small drugstore in town. He loved living on Ellabels family home place, but rarely hit a lick working on it. That was all right with Ellabel; he did his thing and she did hers. Her thing, mostly, was working the farm. From her fathers death when she was a teenager until her own death more than 50 years later, she was the sole boss and hands-on operator of the homestead.
Stronger than many men, Ellabel repaired her own tractor, used a chainsaw like a surgeons scalpel, threw hay bales to the top of a stack higher than her head and, with one quick shot from a .22 rifle, cut mistletoe cleanly out of the top of a Loblolly pines or decapitated copperheads.
For many years, at planting and harvest time, she rented convicts from a nearby prison to handle the work overload. Nary a felon fled, or gave her any lip. Dave said they were more afraid of her than she was of them. And she did feed them well!
In her younger years Ellabel had been a smashing beauty. Now her deep-creased, weather-leathered face bespoke decades of exposure to the elements. But everybody between Monteagle Mountain and the Hamilton County line knew that everything inside her skin was still beautiful.
And she knew them, all of them.
She knew every bootlegger in the bone-dry county, and they knew her well enough to understand that her back 40 was not a good place to build a still.
She knew every valley boy who went to war, hand wrote a letter to each one every month and personally welcomed each one home whether he came vertical and ambulatory, wearing a cast and leaning on a crutch or in a flag-draped casket. She knew every 16-year-old mother living back in the coves. When their babies got sick, Ellabel knew what medicine to get from Daves drug store that would fix them up.
Her big barn was crammed with all sorts of household stuff scrounged from godknowswhere. Hanging on racks in the old slave cabins were enough washed-and-ironed clothes sorted by size and gender to outfit half the county.
Local lore had it that Ellabel knew when a neighboring house was burning before the volunteer firefighters did. She would show up, sometimes before the fire was entirely out, to make certain the occupants had someplace to stay, and came around the next day with her pickup full of necessities to help them get settled somewhere.
An uncultured redneck she was not. Though her speech was often peppered with Appalachianisms, she spoke with the cultured cadences of a young ladies' finishing school. At age 80-something she signed on as an art student and turned out some tolable good still-life paintings.
Sometimes those who thought of Episcopalians as the country club at prayer were surprised that Ellabel was one of us; she didnt fit the image. Sunday after Sunday she sat in the same pew with the bank board chairman and the president of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She loved the old Anglican hymns and improved the congregations singing," she said, by not singing."
One day a local lady saw me on the main street of our little town, identified by my black God Squad shirt with the little white tab collar, as the local parish priest.
Arent you the preacher at the church Ellabel goes to? My affirmative reply evoked her second question, Whats the name of your church? She had a little trouble saying Episcopal, repeated it to make sure she had it right. Then, Can I come next Sunday? I want to go to whatever church Ellabell goes to.
I replied, So do I.
Editors note: W. Jackson Jack Wilson is a psychologist, an Episcopal priest, a sometime academic and a writer living in Colorado. He writes with humor, whimsy, passion and penetrating insight into the human condition. And in Pushkin, Russia, a toilet is named in his honor.
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