Miss Henrietta’s Heaven
Looking back on it, I should have been rich and beautiful, with a handsome, kind husband. But here I was, ordinary looking, never married, and enjoying my life teaching school in Book County, North Carolina. I never went to Europe, like Pete McKinnon did, she ran away with a playboy and traveled around the world. She wound up back in Book County with nothing to show for it but a fancy pink and black dress and a really stupid hat that she insisted was from a famous haberdasher.
I grew up in Book County, high in the Great Smoky Mountains. It was the last county incorporated in North Carolina, the Scots shoving out the remnants of the Cherokee. The Great Depression was tough on my parents, but I roamed the forests of the southern Appalachian Mountains and thought life was grand. I could identify any tree, flower, or critter that I encountered on my wanderings. When money was nonexistent, public libraries still had books. I skipped almost a year of studies when I got to the Western Carolina Teachers College in 1942. Tests on botany, biology, zoology, and geology were passed and classes satisfied. I came back home to Book County and started teaching in 1945. Folks in Book County are religious, some faithful and some hysterical. I distanced myself from the hysterics, not because of my scientific knowledge, but because they made my stomach hurt from worrying. They were proved wrong about the end of the world, thank goodness, and with the end of the war, life picked up in Book County. It was good that I already had six years experience teaching before the wave of war babies hit the schools. Forty years teaching school, I know almost everyone in the county. Many are dear friends. Needless to say, I am not financially rich.
The handsome man in my past was a no account drifter, my mother said. He made me feel like the prettiest sunrise, the brightest moonlit night, the baby fawn, wobbly and full of wonder. I was sixteen, pregnant, alone, and my mother was mortified, befuddled as what to do with me. There was no such thing as an ‘unwed mother’ in her world. I stubbornly insisted that I would keep and raise the child. Maybe the screaming matches, my dad called them cat fights, made the child feel unwelcome. Before I could be sent away, I miscarried. My mother was elated. I was desolate.
Pete McKinnon and I did lots of things together. She never recovered from her lost love either. She lived in a solid Craftsman style bungalow, out past Robertsville. She and I would go horseback riding in the forest. We took a couple of trips to Las Vegas. I love number games and always won enough to pay for our trip!
Life in the mountains reflects your attitude. Plenty of folks had less than I did, and were content. Others could be sitting in the catbird seat and moan and be mean. The children in our classrooms were mirrors of their homes. I’m not a gossip and good thing, because I knew more than I wanted to about the families of Book County. There are countless stories, some turned out better than others.
People come and go but the mountains remain and erase human scars with the changing seasons. Native vegetation is denigrated as weeds, but a few years respite from bulldozers, chainsaws, lawn mowers, and weedwhackers and the mountains reclothe themselves in trees and flowers, bejeweled with butterflies and birds…
Let me know if you’d like to read the rest of the story. SL