The tiny community I grew up in has been home in some way or another to my ancestors for many generations. The mountains of western North Carolina contained all that my people ever needed or wanted. It was a simpler place in a simpler time. When I look back to those days, the first memories that bob up to the surface almost immediately are ones that have helped form the person I am and the person I want to be.
In those memories, I am eight years old again, a tomboy in ragged cutoffs and stained Bug-off tee shirt. The youngest of eight children of a widowed mother, I have learned to keep myself entertained by imagination and resourcefulness.
Twilight hunts for lightning bugs to be collected in a Mason jar, running through freshly cut grass with my bare feet wet from splashing in the cold creek, with my face sticky from sweat and bubblegum. I look up to the periwinkle and peach sky that is framed in black fringe by the mountains I love. The palms of my hands are dirty and rough from testing the strength of wild grapevines on the mountainside and the almost primal swinging. The smell of cooking drifts out into the evening- smells of wild greens, pinto beans, pone of bread. I hear the vague sounds of a television, and barking dogs in the distance. Flashes of neon green in my peripheral vision. They are easily caught. The bugs tickle my palms as I gently place them into my jar. The bugs leave an unpleasant odor on my skin so I skip into the house to wash my hands- not because of the dirt, you understand, but because I don't like the smell of the bugs. The bathroom window is open and I smell the wild roses that grow rampant at the back side of the house. For some reason the smell of the roses makes me remember the wild raspberries near the edge of the driveway. I gather my jar of bugs and tuck them under my arm. There is still enough light to see so I gather some of the berries, eating as I pick. Frogs chorus in the marshy area behind my berry patch. The sky is now lavender turning to navy velvet. I take a soggy handful of crushed berries in to my mother who is sitting on the couch with her hot tired feet propped up before her.
She has been working hard all day and has just come home from her second job. Sometimes she works as many as three jobs at a time to make sure we have all we need. She lights a cigarette in a nearby ashtray, and it sends swirling wisps of smoke to drift around her head. As she places the used match beside the ashtray, she tells me that when she was pregnant with me she liked to chew the ends of burnt matches. She accepts my offering of pulpy berries with a sigh and places them beside her tepid cup of coffee, black, which she pours down in one long swallow before sighing with appreciation. She moves into the kitchen and sets the scratched Formica table with a jelly jar full of the wild roses she has cut, and their fragrance sweetens the balmy air. The worn curtains ripple gently in the breeze. No such thing as air condition for us, just open windows. Her eyelashes flutter slightly as she inhales. Her brown skin is shiny from the humidity. She is beautiful. She is a strong Cherokee woman.
After our simple dinner of vegetables from the garden, she gets out her basket making materials. Fragrant strips of white oak that she has split and scraped smooth, strips of orange and brown that are pungent from the black walnut and bloodroot dyes. Her strong hands work deftly with the pocket knife, the blade flashes in the light of the stark kitchen bulb. Her hands are deceptively feminine looking: concealing strength beneath the silver and turquoise rings as she weaves her vessels. She works late into the night creating more than just works of art. She is making chances for us to have a better life than she had.
These are the memories I cherish most from my childhood. These are the memories that flood in as I watch my mother, now a senior citizen, working quietly on the award-winning baskets she still makes. Her hands have changed very little, and though slightly bent from arthritis now, I know the strength in my mother's hands. The baskets she makes will endure, as does my admiration for this woman. This beautiful, strong Cherokee woman.