It was a small house, and the dining room table took over that room. It was wide and long, and many chairs and stools always crowded around it. Sometimes there were several high chairs in the mix. Whether it was for Sunday dinner or only warm, pound cake and cold, sweet iced tea, it was the gathering place at Granny and Pop’s home. On the back stoop was a wringer washing machine, and a piano took up one whole wall in the living room. The horsehair sofa faced the piano.
Sitting around the dining room table at my great grandparents’ house in Hendersonville, North Carolina was a privilege I didn’t realize when I was young. What I remember now were the smiles and laughter as Granny encouraged various family members to tell their stories.
Most would begin with “Do you remember….” She even included us children in this time by asking questions about school, church, or friends. I can remember her nods and sparkling blue eyes, as she listened to all of us. It was obvious that she loved stories, particularly family stories, and closely paid attention to the details. Just as she intently listened to stories, she captured interest with her excited voice when she told hers. Granny also talked with her hands.
A lifelong resident of Hendersonville, she attended Judson College, a Baptist college for women, and Asheville Normal School, was active in church work, and was one of the founders of Jones Gap Baptist Church.
Judson College on Third Avenue and West Flemming, Hendersonville
Asheville Normal and Collegiate Institute was an outgrowth of the Home Industrial School, an elementary school started in 1887 by Louis M. Pease and his wife. The Peases directed the school, and Florence Stephenson was its first principal, holding the post for 30 years. From the beginning, the school emphasized home training and religious instruction for girls and young women in addition to regular academic work.
Born in 1877, the magazines and books around her small house in the 1960’s showed how her education molded her into a reader and a lifelong learner. Her worn Bible with loose pages and smudged leather proved it was her favorite book.
A visit to her house was always a family reunion, as children and grands would suddenly show up. Granny was the matriarch that welcomed everyone with a hug.
Besides listening to the family stories, I vaguely remember Granny sharing stories, too. She shared about the boarders she took into their home at Laurel Cliff after my great-grandfather lost his money during the Great Depression.
Built in 1905, the two story house, painted white, had three stories in the front, but only one in the back. There were two rock fireplaces, and a rock path wandering up to the back door. Mountain laurel spread up the hill behind the house in a hedge.
It’s one of the most glorious wildflowers of summer, both for the timing of its blooms and its will to live. The blooms painted the hillside for all to enjoy. It is amazing that all parts of this plant are poisonous. As Alice Walker wrote, “In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.”
All the children had jobs, too. Mary, Edythe, Geneva, and Ruby were helpers with the cleaning, washing, and cooking. Charles, FC, George, and Hobson followed Pop/Franklin Curtis Justus around and learned the art of handymen. Life at Laurel Cliff was a family affair, and everyone did their part. There were no allowances handed out.
Many were summer boarders who visited year after year. Granny served three meals a day, plus afternoon tea. Her eight children talked about her hospitality to anyone who came to the door. Hobos were always served, just like her paying guests, and all enjoyed her Southern cooking.
There were always a myriad of minutiae that she shared that helped me to picture what she was reminiscing about. Granny painted pictures with her words, and oh, how I want to do the same, whether with my writing or telling stories around my own table.
As I weave facts and oral tradition in my writing about heroines of the American Revolution in South Carolina, I have seen the importance of those stories passed down from one generation to another. They keep a family alive and connected to the past.
Whether it is with family or friends, strangers or in the office, we should share our stories, because those stories are who we are.
“We are just stars in our family’s constellation,” said Stephen Robert Kuta