Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

© 2006-2017 All rights reserved

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), and several Kindle ebooks.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Greenbrier Ghost

I've always liked a good ghost story—especially if it's a true one. Last year, I self-published a novel, Them That Go, which had several ghost stories in it, including a true one: the Greenbrier ghost.

In one scene, a high school student relates the story of the Greenbrier ghost to her English class. If you're not familiar with the story, there are several versions of it online, and even a couple of videos. Here's one that summarizes the story:

In a chapter of Them That Go, the English class has been studying Hamlet, in which the ghost of Hamlet's father tells Hamlet about how he was murdered. The teacher asks if the students have heard any ghost stories, and—on pages 99-100— this is what Lizzie says her aunt told her:

“Well, Aunt Sarah said back in the 1890s a woman named Zona married a good-looking stranger who come to town. He worked as a blacksmith, so he was real strong. But he was real mean, too, and Zona’s mama didn’t much like him. One winter day, the blacksmith sent a boy to his house for some reason or other, and the boy found Zona dead at the foot of the steps. The boy run back and told everybody, and the doctor was fetched to see about Zona. But the blacksmith got there before the doctor and was carrying on something awful about his wife being dead. He’d even took her and put her to bed and had her all cleaned up and dressed, even though other womenfolk are supposed to do that for a woman, not the husband.”

Several girls nodded. Likely they had witnessed some home burials. A lot of folks in the county can’t afford a funeral home and have to make do the old way.

“Anyhow, the doctor didn’t get to examine her real good, what with the blacksmith carrying on and crying and hanging onto her. When somebody rode out to fetch Zona’s mama, she said that no doubt that devil had done killed her daughter hisself.”

Nobody was saying a word while Lizzie told this. It wasn’t like some of the boys to be so quiet.

“Well,” Lizzie continued, “next day, they carried Zona in her coffin out to her parents’ farm to get buried. The blacksmith stuck pretty tight to that coffin even during the wake. He put a pillow on one side of her head and a rolled up sheet on the other, which struck her family as odd, but he said it seemed like to him it made Zona more comfortable, so they didn’t mess with what he was doing. He tied a scarf around her neck, too, and said it was her favorite so she ought to be buried with it.

“Right before they closed up the coffin, Zona’s mama slipped that sheet out of the coffin. After Zona was buried and folks had left, Zona’s mama washed the sheet but couldn’t get a stain out of it no matter how hard she tried. She took it as a sign that Zona didn’t die no natural death.

“Meanwhile, she started to pray that her daughter would come to her and tell what happened. She prayed and prayed every night for nigh onto a month until Zona’s ghost appeared and said her husband had got mad and killed her. He beat her some and choked her and broke her neck.

“Zona’s mama went to a lawyer who listened to what she said and got the doctor and some deputies to look into what had gone on. They dug up Zona and examined her real good this time.” Lizzie paused to take a breath. This was the longest I—and likely everyone else—had ever heard her talk.

“What did they find out?” Susan Collins asked.

“Found out that her neck was indeed broke and her windpipe was mashed and her neck was bruised up like somebody had got a’holt of it, so they arrested the blacksmith, and he was tried for murder and sent to prison. Turns out he’d been married twice before and his second wife had died mysterious too. 

“At least that’s the story my aunt told me,” Lizzie said. “I thought it’s kind of like in Hamlet. A ghost appears and tells about a murder.”
* * *
How did I happen to include this particular ghost story in Them That Go? In late summer 2015, when I was midway through Them That Go, I asked on FaceBook if anyone knew of an Appalachian ghost story in which a ghost gave information about his or her own death. A couple of people suggested the Greenbrier Ghost. One was best-selling Appalachian novelist, Sharyn McCrumb, who'd been researching and writing her new novel—a novel, that I was later to learn, based on the Greenbier ghost. 

At the Franklin County Library in spring 2016, when I heard her speak about her then-new novel, Prayers the Devil Answers, Sharyn gave a bit of a preview of her next book: The Unquiet Grave. When it comes out in September 2017, the cover will look like this:

Meanwhile, I just finished reading an advance reader copy that her publicist sent me. 

I'll do an "official review" on this blog in August, but I can tell you now that I really enjoyed the book. Even though I was familiar the basics of the story, Sharyn McCrumb's novelization of what happened in Greenbrier County back in the 1890s was compelling. It kept me reading way past my bedtime two nights running.

I always enjoy a good ghost story, and The Unquiet Grave was indeed a good 'un.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Senior Day at Kroger

For nearly two decades, I've been enjoying Senior Citizen Day at Kroger, when those of us over 55 get a 5% discount every Tuesday. However this senior perk ends next week. A lot of us seniors are angry about this.

I'm angry about something else Kroger does—or doesn't do: make the store where I shop handicapped accessible. Those of us with mobility problems have to use the handicapped buggies. To get to a buggy, I've often had to push aside one or two signs that block easy access. Yesterday, after I'd pushed the signs away, and gotten into a buggy, I remembered I had my camera. You can see that the other end of the buggy row is blocked by a box and a sign:

A lot of aisles were blocked, too. I wanted to go down this one to get some organic sweet potato chips, but there was no way—between the pole and the stacks of boxes—that I could do it.

I thought maybe I could get into the other end of the organic section. But when I tried to make the turn, there wasn't quite enough room.

Finally, by taking a long way around, I got to the other end of the organic aisle. Nope, that was also blocked. 

 Later, a sales associate did go down the aisle for me, but there weren't any organic sweet potato chips. Meanwhile, I headed for the produce section. Again, there were places where the handicapped buggy wouldn't fit. I couldn't quite make the turn here, and had to back up and take the long way. . . .

. . . only to find the section where I wanted to get mushrooms was blocked.

I went back several minutes later, but the aisle was still blocked. I asked the guy if I could get through, and he pushed the big black cart to the side so I could squeeze through and get the mushrooms. In another part of produce, I had to ask another employee who'd blocked the aisle if he'd hand me a cauliflower, which he did. There was no way I could maneuver the cart close enough to select one myself. 

In the meat department, I couldn't get close enough to the case where the bacon was on special. I couldn't even get through what is normally a very wide aisle. Totally blocked! (Do you see any sales associates here? Neither do I.)

At that point, about a third of my journey through the store,  I stopped taking pictures, I did encounter several more blocked aisles, though. And there were a few things I didn't buy because I couldn't get to them.

I wonder about all these blocked aisles. Would they be a problem if a fire broke out? Are they just blocked on Senior Citizen Day, or are they blocked at other times? Why is it necessary for so many boxes to be brought out at once? Do all the Kroger stores do this, or is it just the one where I shop?

Anyhow, for those of us who are old and gimpy, these obstacles don't make for a pleasant shopping experience.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Whistling Woman

I'm a big fan of Appalachian novels—both to read and to write. When I ran across a free Amazon download (free at least for Prime members; 99¢ for others), I figured I'd take a chance. I'm glad I did. I really enjoyed CC Tillery's Whistling Woman.

A plot description is on the back of the paperback version:

The back-cover description covers the basics but hardly does the book justice. It doesn't let the reader know that the book has such a rich texture. I was impressed by the details that make this book truly Appalachian—a sense of place (rural Kentucky setting), time (late 19th century), daily life, the sense of family, traditions, and superstitions.

Some of Whistling Woman echoes my self-published novel, Them That Go, but with a different setting and situation. I'm pretty sure that those who like my book will like this one, too. And there's some "going" in Whistling Woman, too.

While Whistling Woman reads like a novel, it's actually creative non-fiction by sisters Cyndi Tillery Hodges and Christy Tillery French, who use the name CC Tillery to write about the life of their great-aunt Bessie. You can read more about the authors and book here.

Whistling Woman is Book 1 in the "Appalachian Journey" series. The other three books follow later events in Bessie's  life: Moonfixer, Beloved Woman, and Wise Woman. The e-books are a good bargain at 99¢ each, but they're also available in paperback.

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Friday, April 21, 2017

Out and About with Books

Warning: Blatant promo for my books!

When you're a self-published author, there aren't a lot of ways to sell books. Bookstores don't carry self-dubbed books because they (pick one or several): aren't returnable, don't have a distributor, don't have a deep discount, have no quality control, etc. While my books are on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, few people know they're there. Hence, self-pubbed authors usually sell their books in person. That's what I'll be doing for the next month.

This spring, I'll be making a few appearances to promote my books. On Saturday, April 22, from 10 AM until 2 PM, I'll join two dozen other authors at Brewed Awakening in Danville. Because of the weather, I don't know yet if we authors will be inside or outside. I've been to Brewed Awakening author events a couple of times in the past and really enjoyed them. My picture from last summer even appeared in a news article about the event.

On Tuesday, April 25, from 10 AM until 2 PM, I'll be among another couple dozen of authors at Westlake Library's Local Author Expo. Several members of Lake Writers will participate.

On Thursday, May 11, from 4 until 6 PM, Linda Kay Simmons and I will present "Down-Home Writers" at the Moneta/SML Library. Both Linda and I write Appalachian fiction, so our work complements each other. We'll discuss how our homespun stories were woven from scraps of family lore, childhood recollections, regional history, folklore, familiar places, and maybe a few out-right lies. I'll have a Powerpoint presentation showing some of the places and people who have influenced my stories.

On May 20, I'll join another twenty or so local authors who'll sell and sign at the Salem Museum's "Read Local" event. Some are self-published; some are commercially published.

The museum is a neat place and the exhibits are well worth seeing, too.

Meanwhile, if you want to buy my books in advance, click the titles to go to their Amazon page:

I'd like to do a few more events this summer if any opportunities arise. Because I have some mobility issues, I can only accept invitations that are within a hundred miles of home, are handicapped accessible, and don't require a lot of walking.

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Sunday, April 09, 2017

Beowulf Rap

I was going through an old filing cabinet and found something that gave me flashbacks to my English-teaching days—a rap I wrote in 1988 so my 8th graders would understand Beowulf better. Granted some with more literary talent than I possess have done translations, but I figured mine might work for 8th graders. Plus the movie version of Beowulf wouldn't come out until 2007, and even the animated version wasn't available back then:

Anyhow, here's my rap version. If you're an English teacher desperate to get your students more involved, feel free to use it: 

The Beowulf Rap
By Becky Mushko © 1988

Old King Hrothgar built Heorot Hall,
And him and his homeboys had a ball
’Til Grendel came upon the scene.
Man! This dude was big and mean—
Big red eyes, twelve feet tall—
Listen to what I’m tellin’ y’all!
Grendel chowed down on twenty guys—
Only a snack for a dude his size!
Every night he came again
And chomped and crunched up more and more men.
Poor old Hrothgr was reallin illin’
’Cause Grendel really got into killin’.

This went on for twelve years long
Until Mr. Beowulf came along.
Now Beowulf was one cool cat,
And he wondered where old Grendel was at.
A dude named Unferth put him down,
But Beowulf would prove he ain’t no clown.
Hrothgar said, Get it on, Man,
But you got to kill him with your own bare hand!”

They feasted and drank and went to sleep drunk,
And along came Grendel, the ugly punk.
He chomped one dude and slurped his blood
And said to himself, “Mmm-mmm, that’s good!”
But as he reached for another to harm,
Beowulf grabbed him by his arm
And slung him back and forth like a rocket
’Til he ripped his arm right outta its socket.

Grendel ran back to his bloody lake
’Cause he’d had about all that he could take.
Beowulf nailed his arm to the wall,
And they partied and boogied in Heorot Hall.
Hrothgar gave him gold and stuff
’Cause that’s what you get when you’re good and tough.

I hope you understand the poem of Beowulf
’Cause I think I’ve done rapped enough.

I can't guarantee that it'll work, though.

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Friday, April 07, 2017

Lilacs and Connections

My lilac bush is blooming. Brought a slip from a bush on Smith Farm, it is an old-timey lilac with a wonderful fragrance. The original lilac bush was planted by the old kitchen house near the cabin, but what's left of the kitchen has been just a pile of rocks for nearly a century.

My Aunt Belva—who died in 2003—once told me that when she was a child, she and her younger sister Virgie—who is 99—were playing in the old kitchen when it fell in. I'd always thought of the kitchen—and lilac—as my Granny Sallie's, but now I realize the kitchen was Gillie Anne Bernard's. It's likely Gillie Ann planted the lilac. Gillie Ann died in 1897 and was the first resident of the cemetery up on the hill. 

Her husband William had a window cut in the cabin wall so he could sit by the fireplace and see her grave. This window also provided a view of the lilac bush. William joined Gillie Ann on the hill in 1907. (I blogged about that cemetery in my "Vines and Stones" post in 2011 and again in 2014 in "Special Delivery.")

Until recently, I didn't know I had a connection to Gillie Ann, but it turns out that she's my first cousin. three times removed.  Here's how: Gillie Ann Bernard is the daughter of Gwin—or Gwynn—Dudley (1810-1846) and Nancy Eliza Smith (1815-1890). Nancy Eliza is the daughter of my 3rd-great-grandfather, John Wood Smith (?-1842), who lived just down the road apiece from where Smith Farm is. John Wood Smith was married to Lucy English (1791-abt. 1850), daughter of George Lewis English and Ann (Nancy) Smith, the daughter of Col. John Smith and his wife Frances. It is likely that Col. John Smith (1735-1820) is also the grandfather of John Wood Smith, so Gillie and I might be kin in another way, too. All of these folks lived within a few miles of each other in Union Hall. 

Anyhow, Gillie Ann Dudley Bernard and my great-grandfather, Henry Silas Smith (1854-1923) are both grandchildren of John Wood Smith—and that's my connection. 

In long-ago Aprils, my distant cousin must have enjoyed the smell of lilac blossoms outside her kitchen door. Over a century later, I'm enjoying them too.

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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Pen Hook Pottery

Last year, I acquired some pottery that I think is from the Pen Hook Pottery which hasn't existed for over a hundred years. (The village is now Penhook, one word instead of the original two.) I'd wanted to learn more about the pottery, but I couldn't find much online.

From p. 64, Franklin County 1785-1980 

Tex Carter, who is writing a book about the F&P railroad sent me two pictures taken at the Franklin County Historical Society Museum:

The exhibit pictured above is from Dorothy Cundiff, who knows local history and has been head of the Retail Merchant's Association for many years. Like me, she lives a few miles from where the pottery was.

The info in the picture frame: 

"About 1873, Kit Carter built a store across the road from Clement Store (later home to Mr. & Mrs. J.W. Perdue). Carter made pottery here about 12 years. In 1882, Wade Johnson began making pottery in back of what is now Blair's store (once Blair & —er's). The clay came from Pittsville. His [potters? partners?] were Elly Johnson and a Mr. Siegal.

"Janey Smith provided these pictures of pottery owned by her grandmother, Fannie Macenheimer Smith, who lived on Novelty Road at Penhook near the Pottery manufactory."

From an article on pages 45-46 in Franklin County 1785-1979 Yesterday & Today,  published by the Retail Merchants Assn, I learned this about the pottery: About 1879, a narrow gauge railroad was established to run from Rocky Mount to Franklin Junction (now Gretna). Since the railroad came through Pen Hook, where a store had been since the 1850s or earlier, the little town underwent a boom and a pottery shop opened in the 1880s. No trace of the pottery shop exists today, but it was apparently on a hill between what became Blair's Grocery (the building still remains) and Hodges' Store (which no longer exists).  Mr. C.L. "Kit" Carter founded the pottery business, and "his pottery bcame a fashionable item as well as a useful one." Clay for the pots came from Pittsville in Pittsylvania County and was delivered by train. It's possible that some local clay might have been used, too. Among his helpers at the pottery were A. J. Ramsey and Mary Ann Muse.

From p. 116 (a story by Miss Starn Carter of Gretna, VA): "He [Kit Carter] was a highly successful merchant at Pen Hook, manufacturer, and real estate operator. He operated a pottery keel [kiln?] and made many of the vessels still found around the county such as urns, churns, jugs, and jars. These were hauled by wagons into neighboring states and wagonloads of merchandise brought back to the store. The old Carter store stood on the hill in the vicinity of the home now owned by Mrs. Emmitt Jefferson."

Christopher ("Kit") Lawson Carter
Photo provided by his grandson Tex Carter

Pictured below are the pottery pieces I have. I don't know if all of them came from the Pen Hook Pottery or not. Some jugs are glazed in what is called the tobacco spit glaze because—although it was made from wood ash and not tobacco—it looks like chewing tobacco spit.

None of the pottery has a potter's signature, but I've been told that potters didn't want to be identified with their jugs that might be used for whiskey. I don't know if that's true or not.

The piece with a 2 is one of the few that have marks. I assume 2 stands for two gallons.

A few pieces appear to be salt-glazed with plume decorations.

Here's a view looking down.

All the pieces appear to be utilitarian. Nothing fancy here. Some are missing handles or show wear around their rims. Likely they were used for many years.

The paper towel roll will show the size of one of the larger jugs.

If anyone knows more about the pottery, I'd be glad to hear from you. Meanwhile, I'll keep researching.


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