Missing Ernestine – my mountain mother – who bloomed where she was planted

I’m sitting in the Maggie Valley Public Library thinking about my beautiful friend, Ernestine, who passed away early this morning on August 31, 2017.

I can’t believe I can’t drive over to see her on Frank Mehaffey Road. I have so many stories that Ernestine told me that I hardly know where to begin. She said once that the Cherokee Indians didn’t have a word for “good-bye.”

Instead they have a word that means “Until we meet again, my friend.”

I don’t know what that word is in the Cherokee language, but long ago, Norah and I went with Ernestine to see the Cherokee Indian Reservation not far from where she grew up over just over the mountain in Maggie Valley, North Carolina.

And though she finally found peace this morning, I cannot say good-bye to her.

So I am going to follow the example of the Cherokee.

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This picture is sadly blurry, but this is Ernestine at the Cherokee Indian Reservation on our trip together. Somewhere a much clearer version exists but this will do for now.

Ernestine was my mountain mother. I was able to be with her yesterday, and I played her some of my sister-in-law’s songs because Ernestine loved Tomi’s voice and music, so I played her “Bryson City,” “Alabama Darling,” and “Taking Care of Dreamers.”

Ernestine understood dreamers and took them into her heart and home.  I also played her Sheila Kay Adams’ ballads because I would not know Sheila Kay Adams were it not for Ernestine, who opened up the world of the mountains to me after my first Maggie Valley novel was published.

I also wouldn’t know the storytellers Kathryn Tucker Windham or Donald Davis, because Ernestine insisted that we travel together to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee in 2005. We heard Kathryn and Donald tell stories that day under a rainy tent by the railroad tracks. That day, I never dreamed I would end up writing a book about Kathryn that my daughter Lucy would illustrate, but I loved putting that book into Ernestine’s hands.

Before the National Storytelling Festival that cold October morning, Ernestine and I got up early to go to Joey’s Pancake House to fortify ourselves and to visit with Brenda O’Keefe, who ran Joey’s from 1965-2017. It only just closed in June.

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That morning as we were driving away from Ernestine’s house, I saw Popcorn Sutton pass by in his truck with several more trucks following along behind him out of the swirling mountain fog. Over pancakes, Ernestine said, “Did you see the CEO himself leading his employees over the mountain?” Popcorn was a moonshiner, and Ernestine helped him write his book, ME AND MY LIKKER, which he dedicated to her as he said there never would have been no damn book without Ernestine.

The first time I met Ernestine was at Joey’s Pancake House, the meeting place for all in Maggie Valley, and it was like I’d known her all my life. She wanted to talk about my children’s novel, GENTLE’S HOLLER, set in Maggie Valley.

She said, “I thought you based your book on the Connor family who lived over on Fie Top Road.”

I said, “I never met them. Was the father a musician too? What did he do?”

“Absolutely nothing. He begat children.”

We talked of so many things that day.  And over the years to come after that first meeting, every time I came to Maggie Valley, I stayed with Ernestine

Ernestine was a social worker, a historian, the literary matriarch of the mountains. She had a bright burning curiosity about people and she read everything. Her house was full of books and she championed new authors and supported more established authors. She loved mountain stories and history. She loved kids and wanted them reading and telling stories too.

One time she described visiting her husband’s relatives in Alabama as a young bride, and a rather snooty friend of the family said to her, “You from those mountains? Tell me something, can those mountain children even learn? Are they capable of it?”

Ernestine said she put on the biggest smile that she could muster and said, “Why yes those mountain children can learn. Children are children the world over.” Then she excused herself and found someone else to talk to.

On another one of my trips, she took Kiffen and me up to see GHOST TOWN IN THE SKY when it was closed and she said, “That road up to Ghost Town is so crooked you meet yourself coming. Now get out and take notes.”

Another visit to Maggie Valley, we drove up to Waterrock Knob where the Weems’ children adventured in my second book, LOUISIANA’S SONG, which I dedicated to Ernestine. She wanted me to get it right. The day we headed up the mountain, it was pouring rain so she said, “Get out and take a look. I’ve seen it.”

She said once, “Your family is going to have to learn to spare you if you’re going to write about our mountains.”

She loved her mountains, and she loved the people in the mountains. She insisted that I get to know Shirley Fairchild, so I could understand what it was like to grow up on Dirty Britches Mountain, and I wound up becoming dear friends with Shirley too.

I once asked Ernestine why she never left Maggie Valley, and she said, “I bloomed where I was planted.” She did go to Berea College as an undergraduate and to the University of Tennessee where she received her masters in social work. She raised two beautiful kids, Evan and Libby, with her late husband, Cecil.

She proudly told me, “I played Queen Nefertiti in college.”

She square-danced with Soco Gap Square Dancers who, before Ernestine’s time, square-danced for the Queen of England and the Roosevelts in 1939 at the White House.

Her brother, Kyle, owns Maggie Valley’s STOMPING GROUND.

Ernestine was the big sister of twin brothers, Kyle and Verlin.

Brenda O’Keefe (Joey’s Pancake House) and Shirley Pinto (another dear friend of Ernestine’s) said that her brother, Verlin, rarely left Ernestine’s side for the last six weeks often spending night in the hospital.

I met both brothers last night, and they were wonderful. They were born twenty minutes apart and their nicknames from babyhood were (and occasionally still are) Little Boy and Fat Man.

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***

In 2006, Ernestine invited me to stay up at the cabin that Popcorn Sutton built for her on Johnson Gap, and it’s where I wrote bits of Louisiana’s Song and Jessie’s Mountain. 

When I was writing the Maggie Valley novels, I took Norah with me on one trip. Norah was seven-years-old and we drove up to Ernestine’s house on an early August evening.

Ernestine was sitting in a chair in the driveway, waiting for us. When we got out of the car, Ernestine looked at Norah and said, “Why you’re a real living princess standing before me. Would you give me a hug?”

Norah squeezed her tight and they were fast friends in a second.

During that same visit of 2006,  I kept a journal and the national news at the time was all about “banning liquids on planes.”

Ernestine said, “Well, did you hear the news that we can’t take our liquids on flights anymore? We’re going to have to learn to travel a new way. And your prescription has to be your own. No carrying grandma’s medicine to her. Not anymore.” She laughed and shook her head at the absurdity of it all.

From my journal then I wrote:

There is old wood stove in the cabin and a gas stove too. There are lace curtains in the window and a wide front porch with a wasp’s nest above it. The generator is about thirty yards from the house. Popcorn bought Ernestine six Amish chairs for the cabin that are incredibly comfortable. A groundhog lives under the porch, and Popcorn is going to get it out for us, but Ernestine wants us to watch out for it. I think a groundhog should absolutely move in under the Weems’ front porch in the third book…The mist is so thick and pearly white. Norah won’t quit singing the song, “Five Pound Possum in My Headlights Tonight” that she learned at the Maggie Valley Opry House. I saw these signs when out exploring today. 

“IF YOU LIKE OUR SERVICE, THE WAITRES IS ALLOWED TO EXCEPT YER TIPS.”

“OLD CARS ARE LIKE PRETTY WOMEN. DON’T TUCH IF THEY DON’T BELONG TO YOU.”

“PLEASE PAY INSIDE…TOO MANY DRIVE OFFS. WE ARE SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.”

“IF GOO FEELS FAR AWAY GUESS WHO MOVED?”

“GOD READS KNEE-MAIL.”

“WORRY IS LIKE THE DARK ROOM IN WHICH THE NEGATIVES CAN DEVELOP.”

Today the forest behind the cabin is like a fairyland with mist rising in the rays of sun falling down through the trees.

Popcorn told Norah, “No finer pet than a groundhog.” Then he built her a fire. Norah drew a picture of Popcorn and Ernestine jumping on a trampoline under a yellow sun. 

Norah asked me this question before she went to sleep tonight, “How come mountain water feels like there’s a big giant ice cube in it?”

***

I found a letter Ernestine sent me in 2011. I had given her an “I remember” writing spark to tell me about her first job. She was wanting to write her stories, but her life was so busy as she was very much in demand in these mountains because she was so beloved.

She wrote about first job as a little girl.

I remember my first actual responsibility which I am calling my first job. I remember we were living in my grandparents house on Soco Mountain and I was five years old. I remember that Mama sold milk to the neighbor, Mattie Ramsey. I remember at that time farmers sold raw milk to neighbors who did not have a milk cow. I remember that the fresh milk was strained and kept in sterile glass half gallon jars and were kept in the spring box through which cold pure water spring water flowed as primitive refrigeration. I remember the milk had to be delivered on a daily basis because it was a necessity for the Ramsey family of four. I remember feeling the sense of responsibility because this was my first role as a productive family member and that I was helping my mother. I remember Daddy worked at Oak Ridge away from home and the radio carried news every night about the War overseas and my neighbor, Jim Mehaffey had gone off to the war. I remember the sounds and the silence in the family as news of the war filled the kitchen. I remember the smell of the frosty air in November and seeing the branch of clear water as it rushed through the pasture making its way to join Jonathan’s Creek. I remember walking through the pasture, seeing the dirt and rocky path beneath my feet and fearing that the cold, wet jar would fall from my grasp and be broken, spilled and wasted. I remember a feeling of success in arriving safely after crawling through the wire fence twice to get to their wooden frame home. I remember the face of Mattie when I arrived with the milk and I remember Mama’s look of confidence. She believed in me. 
***

I asked Ernestine if it would be okay if I wrote a children’s picture book about a little girl who was brave enough to carry milk through the mountains.

She said, “Yes.”

So I interviewed her about her rock house, her cow named, “Ole Peg,” and what a spring box was like. I called it “Ernestine’s Milky Way,” and it comes out in 2019.

Ernestine won’t get it see it but I plan to read it to children everywhere.

Ernestine made me brave.

In the fall of 2009, she wanted to show me Popcorn’s first grave (a whole other story) at bend in the river at Harmon Den, but I-40 was closed due to a huge rock slide. There was no debris between Maggie Valley and Harmon Den on I-40 East. So as we pulled up to the barricade, Ernestine said, “Just move it out of the way and we’ll take I-40 East west.”

A neurotic rule follower, I panicked and said, “I can’t drive on a closed freeway – I can’t. I can’t drive west on an eastbound freeway even it’s closed. I’m sorry, but what if somebody is coming the other way?”

Ernestine was unimpressed by my whining and excuses. “Do you meant to tell me that two brave mountain women like ourselves can’t move a little barricade out of the way to get where we need to go?”

“Ernestine, what if we got stopped?”

“I’ll handle it. Now move the barricade.”

I moved it. Then, my heart in my throat, I drove us west on I-40 East to Harmon Den.

Nobody stopped us.

I felt daring and a little reckless.

We put flowers on Popcorn’s grave.

She told me all the stories of Harmon Den.

Yesterday, I got to sit with my beautiful Ernestine and hold her hand and play her mountain music.

I kissed and told her that I loved her, but I didn’t tell her good-bye.

Ernestine is these mountains.

She is Maggie Valley for me.

I will miss her forever.

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Ernestine and Norah and Pepper

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Ernestine and Norah

Norah and Ernestine

Ernestine and some Egyptian child (another story)

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Norah and the chickens in her favorite Godzilla T-shirt.

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Norah and Popcorn – he made her “a far.”

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Ernestine and Raymond Fairchild, Shirley’s husband, a great banjo player.

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Ernestine and her granddaughters, Katherine and Lauren, Norah, and daughter, Libby.

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Ernestine meets Olive.

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Norah and Ernestine

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Windy Maggie Valley – Me and Ernestine and of course, Olive.

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Olive meets the donkeys and Tadpole, the mule, is coming up to say hey too.

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Meeting Ernestine at Joey’s Pancake House

Ernestine and Kiffen and Norah xo

Ernestine sent us off with a recipe for fireballs that day

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Ernestine said that Norah needed to meet Mary Jane Queen. Norah learned about pretty-by-nights and flutter-byes (butterflies with broken wings).

Shirley, Norah, and Brenda

Norah with Shirley Pinto and Brenda O’Keefe at Joey’s Pancake House (Somewhere this is a bigger picture. AGGGG.)

Popcorn Sutton & Ernestine Upchurch

Popcorn and Ernestine outside the cabin he built for her up on Johnson Gap where I worked on Louisiana’s Song and Jessie’s Mountain.

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Who else? Queen Nefertiti

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One of Lucy’s gorgeous illustrations from NOTHING FANCY ABOUT KATHRYN & CHARLIE.

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Heart rock in the mountains near Maggie Valley

Sheila Kay Adams singing a mix of ballads

***

Tomi Lunsford singing “Bryson City” and “Taking Care of Dreamers’

 

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15 thoughts on “Missing Ernestine – my mountain mother – who bloomed where she was planted

  1. this made me smile and it made me sad. I’m sorry for your loss and I’m sorry I never got to meet Ernestine. I’m grateful to her for introducing you to Kathryn and Donald. She sounds like an extraordinary woman.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonderful tribute to Ernestine. Thanks for sharing!
    Ernestine was such an amazing Haywood County historian. I couldn’t believe one person had that much knowledge of the history of Maggie Valley and our county. Also Ernestine was a great encourager when we were restoring the Francis Grist Mill.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a treasured piece, Kerry. Thank you for giving us a glimpse into Ernestine’s remarkable life. I now feel as though I know her somewhat. Your love for her leaped off the computer screen, which is something I’m sure would have pleased her to no end. Eager to read Ernestine’s Milky Way! I’m so sorry you lost such a genuine, authentic friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you so much for describing Ernestine’s dialect, wit and “all things” Ernestine. She could make you feel like you were the most fastinating person she had ever met. What a special quality. I am married to one of her nephews on the Alabama “Upchurch” side and she and Uncle Cecil were the funniest and fun people to be around.

    You have captured her with your words and I am anxious to read Ernestine’s Milky Way.

    Thank you. Sincerely,

    Jayne Upchurch

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I wish I had the words to express how I feel after reading your moving tribute to your wonderful friend Ernestine. You really captured her personality and warmth. I would love to have known her. And the photo’s were so special also. Thank you so much dear Kerry.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. How inspiring to think of the mountains through reading the love of nature, music and life that Ernestine and you Kerry have shared –and continue too. thanks for the words an photos.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Such a beautiful essay about a wonderful woman. She shared a story at an Appalachian Christmas celebration we had at Blue Ridge Books. It was about getting a pair of scissors for Christmas and how she new she was grown up, because scissors were a tool, not a toy. I’m so glad to know you’ve made one of her stories come to life in a book.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I have known and known of Earnestine for 30 years and this was a marvel to read. How lucky you and Norah are to have had her in your life and in your minds heart. Thank you. Toni Mullany, social worker.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. A beautiful tribute, heartfelt and magical. Thanks for sharing. I’m looking forward to Ernestine’s Milky Way. Sometimes words and pictures together do strange things. I imagined Popcorn and then I saw the picture and I had to read those sentences again… what an extraordinary pair – Popcorn and Ernestine – definitely fictional! Not real at all. Oh, wait, yes, they are real – you’ve brought them to life. Ernestine sounds so inspiring. xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jama, I’m in tears reading your beautiful review – we had a crazy night and you cannot know how much your beautiful words were so needed. Ernestine would have loved it, and I can’t wait for her daughter, Libby, to read it, and her grandchildren too and her son, Evan. It’s just so lovely. I love the blackberries too! Thank you with all my heart.

      Like

  10. What a wonderful story! The book is a must read and getting to hear about the real Ernestine and her life and looking at the pictures was so much fun. Thank you for this great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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