A Real Mountain Woman


By Betty Miller Conway

--originally published in  Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Silas House Volume II (2010)

“So, he’s found himself a real mountain woman!”

The mobile to mobile connection between Denver, Colorado and Boone, North Carolina crackles and pops as I patiently try to explain to my husband’s old college friend that no, my brother-in-law’s new wife—a strong, outdoorsy woman who likes to hunt, fish, chop wood, grow her own food, and live without the comforts of electricity and indoor plumbing—is not from the Blue Ridge Mountains at all but instead from Maine. 

But as the conversation continues, I find myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable. This man knows that I’m from the mountain area; he’s been to my house, even visited the farm where I grew up.  The fact that he would automatically view my sister-in-law as a “real” mountain woman just because she embraces a more primitive lifestyle is unsettling.  After all, most mountain folks that I know—including my own family—enjoy the comforts of the 21st century. 

No doubt, part of my discomfort stems from a basic uneasiness with my own role as a “mountain woman.” But it also has a lot to do with how mountain people—especially mountain women—are often stereotyped. Mountain people are supposed to be tough, old-fashioned, self-sufficient. Despite the advent of computers and televisions—despite even the advent of the entire technological revolution—mountain folk are often considered separate, even backward individuals who’d as soon shoot you as look at you. A real mountain woman is supposed to be tough enough to wring the head off of a chicken and serve the bird up to a whole passel of younguns. She has to know how to use a shotgun, an ax, and an outhouse even as she sings old ballads and tells enchanting tales by the fire at night. In short she’s supposed to be more comfortable with the world the way it was a hundred years ago than the way it is now. 

At its best, the stereotype naively glorifies and romanticizes the mountain culture as a purer form of existence; at its worst, it transforms mountain people into folks like Ellie Mae and Granny in The Beverly Hillbillies—laughable, ignorant caricatures who eat possum and hog jowls and are, as the mountain saying goes, “dumb as a stump” when it comes to modern ways. And despite the fact that generations of my family have lived in these mountains since the 1700’s, neither version of the stereotype begins to explain who I am. 

            I grew up in a closely knit mountain community, attended Green Valley Elementary School in the late sixties and early seventies, and graduated—along with plenty of other traditional mountain kids—from high school.  Then I went to the local university and graduated with a degree in education.

I was brought up wandering freely in these beautiful ridges and valleys—horseback riding, fishing, reading on misty summer days, visiting family in the area—never really knowing that I was the apparent embodiment of a stereotype. In fact, despite Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 “war on poverty” which brought increased attention to what the media called the “impoverished and culturally unique people of the Appalachian Mountains,” I didn’t feel that I was much different from anyone else.  The media might have viewed our region as marginalized and forgotten, but these labels were meaningless to me.

To be honest, I didn’t know how “mountain” I was until I left to teach school in Florida and later Texas.  It wasn’t until flatlanders started to comment about my “colorful” dialect and “interesting” pronunciations, that I realized that the Appalachian Mountains hadn’t left me, even though I was miles away from them. I was a college graduate before I learned not to use the word “sipher” for “siphon.”  I worked on making my speech more standard.  I quickly stopped saying “nar” for the word “narrow” and learned that “It was pouring the rain” was a mountain colloquialism.

But then as I pursued another degree—this time in Canada—I became even more acutely aware of my differences, not only in dialect but also in orientation.  There, I was something of a novelty.  I was somehow expected to be representative, not only of the mountains, but also of the entire south. After seeking my mother’s long distance cooking advice, I dutifully served up mounds of fried chicken, milk gravy, mashed potatoes, and okra to my curious Canadian friends and neighbors who wondered what mountain people ate.  I smuggled in boxes and boxes of grits and country ham (then unavailable in eastern Canada) so that my family could provide “real” southern cuisine for the neighborhood Sunday brunch.  In the meantime, I spent a summer translating Beowulf into modern English and tried to ignore the barely smothered smiles when I read aloud.  Pretty soon I made a conscious effort to not flatten my vowels and to clearly pronounce the “ing’s” in words.  I figured out pretty quickly that folks enjoyed good southern mountain food, but that they also enjoyed a good laugh at idiosyncratic mountain speech. Consequently, I weeded and pruned my speech as diligently as my mother tended her garden.  By the time my second daughter was born in Nova Scotia, I had lost many of my “mountainisms.” 

I guess my time in Canada served as an education, not only for me, but for my neighbors and friends as well.  At my going away party, friends commented on my time in the area and what is was like to get to know me.  One well-meaning neighbor told the group that although I embraced the Appalachian stereotype by being kind and hospitable, I “exploded” it with my intelligence and character. Although I was, of course, gratified to know that he didn’t consider me “dumb as a stump,” I was nevertheless disturbed at this very tangible evidence of how mountain women are often viewed elsewhere.  And it explained why I never quite felt as though I really belonged there.

When I finally—after over ten years—came back home to the mountains that I loved so much, I found to my chagrin that despite all the ancestral and emotional ties to this area, I no longer exactly belonged at home any more either.  I had changed. Times had changed.  Fences, developments, and No Trespassing signs crisscrossed many of the places I had played as a kid.  My grandparents had died. Many of my cousins had moved away; others were so busy making a living that I rarely saw them. The local elementary school boasted a roster of teacher and student names that were unfamiliar.

Nevertheless, I stayed. How could I not?  My parents beamed when they saw my Subaru—with its precious cargo of their granddaughters—pull into their driveway. My mother kept my girls so that I could go to work each day and then provided dinners of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and homegrown vegetables when I returned in the evenings to pick them up.  My father taught my daughters how to ride horseback, milk a goat, and shoot a shotgun.  They played for hours in the creek that splashed and gurgled through the farm where I grew up.  In the evenings we would sit on the porch and watch the fireflies light up the sky. I was happy. I wanted my girls to know the mountains, to know where they came from. The blue shadowy peaks pulled me into them, reminding me of who I was.  I felt safe—and more than happy to try be a mountain woman again. 

But as I look around me, it’s harder and harder to know who the real mountain woman is and what she stands for.  My family watches a special program about changing mountain culture on PBS.  It has mountain storyteller Orville Hicks in it—someone we’ve known for years.  Orville comments that times have changed, that his kids now have not one—but two—televisions at their house.  Orville laughs his infectious little chuckle and then moves into a story. The shot quickly shifts to two old women dancing a mountain jig in long skirts near a fireplace. I tell my ten year old to pay attention—that this is her culture, her roots, who she is.  She looks at me with round, blue eyes.  “But I was born in Nova Scotia, Mom.”

And she’s right—she was born in Canada.  But being born in some place doesn’t make you “from there.”  It’s where your family has lived for generations that is important.   At least that’s what I tell her. I tell her that she will grow up to be a real mountain woman, not a Canadian.

But I secretly wonder.

As I take my children to school in the mornings (yes, they too attend Green Valley Elementary!), my little green station wagon twists and turns as it heads down the mountain toward school.  I pass brick ranchers, old frame houses, and an increasing number of trailers.  Is this where real mountain women live?  I don’t see any one out chopping wood, using an outhouse, or walking with a shotgun in her hand.  In fact, I see no one at all.  I wonder if perhaps they’re all in the seemingly endless line of minivans and SUV’s snaking its way around the circle at school. 

Certainly, there are not many at the university where I teach. Most everyone in my department is from somewhere else—and very trendy about it.  They worry about the millennial student, globalization, and feminist pedagogy.  Despite the fact that there’s an entire center for Appalachian Studies that attempts to define (among other things) what it means to be from Appalachia, I believe that I may be the only “local” teaching in my department.   Folks seem surprised to hear that I come from a traditional mountain family since I have an advanced college degree and apparently live an ordinary, middle-class life.  To their surprise, I don’t play the dulcimer, banjo, or fiddle. I certainly don’t know how to dance a jig.  Although my kids still enjoy nature while spending time with their grandparents, they attend public school and participate in dance, piano, and other after-school activities.  Other than the accent that creeps back into my speech when I’m not paying attention, I don’t stand out very much at all. 

In fact, the women I see who most fit the stereotype of the mountain woman aren’t from the mountains at all.  Like my new sister-in-law who moved here from up north, they come here in order to be more connected to the earth. I see them in the winter buying organic food at Lowes Grocery Store.  I see them at the local environmental camp in the summer sweating in the heat as they learn to hoe and weed by hand. They watch demonstrations of plowing with horses.  Their long, shiny hair and peasant skirts flow in the breeze.  They wear work boots, have their babies at home, and home school their children.  They are willing to learn to adopt the sparse lifestyle of the old time mountain culture—to live the old ways and learn to do without the luxuries of televisions and computers. 

Yet, despite the microscope often applied to mountain culture, the women who are actually from the mountains seem to defy generalizations.  It’s true that some mountain women and their families still cling to the old ways.  But most of the mountain women that I know aren’t traditional at all; instead they juggle jobs, children, and families just like I do.  They drive mini vans instead of pick-up trucks, and they have computers, modern homes, and endless lists of things to do.  I worry that real mountain women are getting lost in the frenzy of the technological age.  I wonder, sometimes, if they will continue to exist at all.

And then I think of Blanche. My kind neighbor from down the road, she works all day at her factory job and then comes home to tend to her family. In the spring and summer, Blanche also tends her garden. Although like me, she’s living very close to the place where she grew up, she no more fits the primitive stereotype than I do. Her home is modern, her outlook fresh.  She doesn’t need to wear long skirts and work boots in order to know who she is.  She knows exactly who she is.  And no matter how busy she is, she’s always there whenever anyone in the community—friend or stranger—needs her.  When tragedy strikes, she’s the first one to arrive with fresh zinnias cut from her yard, honey-gold corn and half-runner beans from her garden, and the comfort of a quiet hug.    Even more importantly, I know, no matter what, she’ll be there when I need her—even if it’s inconvenient, even if I can’t pay her back.

It’s the same philosophy that drives my sister, a math teacher at the university, to load up her car with her three young children and then deliver her own special beef stew to all the shut-ins in the community, the same under-girding that makes my friend Janet take off from work to deliver freshly made lasagna to our home within hours of my father’s death.  And it’s what compels my childhood friend, Pat, to donate money to a needy family even after she has lost her job as a teacher in the local school system.

These women are delivering far more than food and comfort; they are also delivering a message about what it means to be living, breathing mountain women even in today’s complex and hurried society.  What that message is in its entirety I confess that I’m still not totally sure.  But I think it has something to do with being comfortable with the intersection of time and place—an understanding that you have to know where you come from in order to know where you’re going.  And it has a lot to do with living with grace and kindness in the community of the present.

And so I try to teach my girls, not only about their roots, but how to be good neighbors.  I take them from relative to relative and let them hear the stories.  We visit my Aunt Josephine, and she stops raking her yard long enough to share her pecan-apple pound cake—and a story or two—with us.  We listen to Aunt Juanita’s girlish laugh as she recounts how she met my Uncle Jack. I show my daughters the cabin my great, great grandfather built with his own hands.  I tell them about my great aunt’s cookies that she made in an old wood cook stove, how—when she was 78 and partially paralyzed by a stroke—she single-handedly killed a snake on her bed with a butcher knife.  I show them the springhouse and tell them how I used to love the cool and delicious butter that my great aunts stored there.  I walk them down to the waterfalls near my grandparents’ house and tell them that the cool spray on their faces used to wash my face—and my mother’s and my grandmother’s—when we were young.

We visit the oldest of my aunts.  Blind now, she lives in the frame house that my grandfather helped his father build in nineteen hundred.  While I pause to breath in the fragrance of the bridal wreath bush at the front gate, my girls run ahead to read Aunt Margaret’s mail to her.  The oldest one reads quickly and glibly, the middle one more slowly and carefully.  The littlest one, only four, can’t read but describes the pictures on the greeting cards.  Coming in from the bright sunlight into the cool, dim light of the living room, I am temporarily blinded.  I see only their dim shapes, hear their murmuring voices. 

Watching them, I know—I know it as surely and solidly as the rocks that fit together in the fireplace built with my grandfather’s hands—that the real mountain woman still exists.  She exists in the earnest eyes of my smallest daughter as she describes the blue forget-me-nots and grey fences on the Hallmark greeting card.  She exists in the clear, even voices of the other two girls as they patiently, steadfastly pass on the messages imprinted on the paper.  She exists in the lines and wrinkles of my aunt’s face as she leans forward—eager for every word. 

And she exists in me as well.

Betty's grandmother, a "real mountain woman."

Betty's grandmother, a "real mountain woman."