Archived Stories
from the Road

 


 

GROWING UP SOUTHERN—Stories from the Attic of Childhood Memories

MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS
Benson, North Carolina
Chapter 1

CAROLINA IN MY MIND

In my mind I’m goin’ to Carolina
Can’t you just see the sunshine
Can’t you just feel the moonshine
Maybe just like a friend of mine
It hit me from behind
Yes, I’m going to Carolina in my mind.

There ain’t no doubt in no one’s mind
That loves the finest thing around
Whisper something soft and kind
And, hey babe, the sky’s on fire, I’m dyin’ ain’t I,
Going to Carolina in my mind…

Dark and silent late last night
I think I heard the highway callin’
Geese in flight and dogs that bite
Signs that might be omens say I’m going, going
I’m up and gone to Carolina in my mind.

Song written by James Taylor

 

Mother was born Ina Blanche Neighbors, the seventh child and second daughter of Rosa Dell Dixon and Charles Franklin (C.F.) Neighbors. Two years after Mother’s birth, her mother died in childbirth as did the baby she carried.

Kitty and I remember Mother telling us how lonely she was as a child, and how much she loved and missed her mother. Every time we’d go to North Carolina, Mother would get all weepy about Rosa Dell, especially at Aunt Clara’s house in Southport after the two of them had a few tall glasses of whiskey and tap water over ice.

One story that Mother frequently repeated was about Rosa Dell’s grave. “Whenever I’d get sad and blue, I’d walk over the hill behind our house to her gravesite. I’d sit on the ground and cry and tell her about my life so she’d know me.” Mother mourned the loss of a kind and loving mother she never had.

Even though she never knew her own mother, as she grew up, Mother constructed a vivid memory of Rosa Dell from stories heard over the years from her siblings and close relatives. My grandmother was very much alive in Mother’s mind. The mother she created for herself became the mother she would be to me, my brother, Jim, and sister, Kitty. Mother was our source of unconditional love.

Picnic with Mother when Jane
was about a year old.
Jane with Mother celebrating her
eighty-eighth birthday, the week before
her mother died.

 

Clara Belle Neighbors, eight years Mother’s senior, raised Mother until Aunt Clara ran away from home (Benson, North Carolina) when she was sixteen. Apparently, one night C.F. was going out for the evening and told Aunt Clara not to leave the house; however, she took the car into town to buy some groceries. C.F. found out about it and apparently gave her a hard beating for disobeying him. She left the next day and didn’t came back.

When Aunt Clara left Benson, Mother was only eight years old, and was left pretty much on her own. C.F. had very little interest in his younger children, so Mother and Uncle Robert, the youngest boy, had to fend for themselves. Were it not for the kindness of Uncle Ezra and Aunt Effie, Rosa Dell’s brother and his wife, they might not have survived childhood.

Uncle Ezra, crippled with rheumatoid arthritis, and Aunt Effie had a daughter, Minnie, who was a year older than Mother. Minnie and Mother were best friends, and just as close as any two sisters could be. Mother and Uncle Robert would have gone hungry many a night had it not been for Minnie dragging them home for supper at her house while C.F. was out gallivanting and whoring around.

Aunt Clara never forgave her father for what he did. She went to Kenly, located about 15 miles northeast of Benson, to the home of Uncle Elton, one of the elder Neighbors boys, and Aunt Gladys. Ultimately, Uncle Elton and Uncle Eugene, the eldest son in the family, paid for Aunt Clara to go to nursing school. She began her training in Greensboro, then went on to James Walker Memorial Hospital in Wilmington where she received her RN degree. “Neighbors,” as Aunt Clara was called by friends, relatives and patients, worked as a nurse at J. Arthur Dosher Memorial Hospital in Southport for forty-one years.

Aunt Clara married Thomas St. George, the Captain of a commercial fishing boat, and they lived in his family’s Victorian home in Southport with Uncle Thomas’s younger sister, Marian, who had been horribly scarred on her face, arms and hands from burns in a fire when she was a young woman. The man she was engaged to marry broke off their engagement and she moved into the St. George house with Aunt Clara and Uncle Thomas. They never had children, but Aunt Clara welcomed Marian into their family. Despite her grotesque appearance, we adored Marian, and as children called her Mammie.

Uncle Thomas was a hard drinking man, his face weathered by the elements from working his entire life on a fishing boat. My understanding of the life of a fisherman off the coast of North Carolina was a melodrama of danger and heroic adventure. I identified with the women who paced back and forth along the “Widow’s Walk,” a porch on the second story of every house facing the Atlantic Ocean, when their husbands failed to return to port following a storm.

Aunt Clara told us harrowing stories about treating submarine sailors who were burned and injured in attacks in the Atlantic Ocean during the Second World War, not all that far off the coast of North Carolina. She was an exceptional nurse, beloved by all who knew her, and attended the doctor when Mother gave birth to all three of us children. And Aunt Clara was the inspiration that motivated Kitty to become a nurse.

The St. George home in Southport was next door to the house where Robert Ruark was born and raised. Uncle Thomas was his older cousin. Bobby, as Mother called him, was a chubby little boy, but according to Mother was sweet and sensitive. Even though he was bullied in school, he was an exceptionally bright student. He advanced very quickly through high school, and became a freshman at the University of North Carolina at the age of fifteen.

Robert Ruark was greatly influenced by his maternal grandfather, Captain Edward Hall Atkins who would later be immortalize in Field and Stream magazine in the “Old Man and the Boy” stories which chronicled Ruark’s childhood spent hunting and fishing on the Carolina coast. The St. George and Ruark families were close, and Mother and Bobby spent a lot of time together during their early teens whenever Mother visited Aunt Clara.

Once Robert Ruark left Southport, their paths never crossed again. Mother read many of his heartwarming stories to us during the 1950s when we were in Southport. He was the local celebrity and we thought of him as a bigger than life character.

Robert Ruark went on to realize a lifelong dream of going on safari in Africa, and wrote a book called Horn of the Hunter, in which he detailed his adventures. His tracker was a man named Kidogo, who had hunted with Ernest Hemingway, and after his first safari, a one-hour documentary entitled Africa Adventure was made that was released by RKO Pictures. I never saw the film, but hearing all the stories about Ruark’s exploits kindled a wanderlust in my soul that, as an adult, propelled me on a journey from the pyramids in Egypt to the roof of the world in Tibet, with India, Nepal, Greece, Crete, England, France and Italy along the way. My last remaining dream is to travel to Africa to visit the Masai in Kenya, to see the animals of the Serengeti, and travel to Mount Kilimanjaro before its ice cap melts from global warming.

Minnie and Ina
as teenagers

Dixon homestead c. 1903. First row from left to right: Great-grandfather Haywood Dixon (seated), Myra (first daughter of Uncle Ezra and Aunt Effie), Great-grandmother Lucinda Dixon (seated). Standing from left to right: Carrie Dixon, Ezra Dixon and Effie Dixon (Minnie’s father and mother), and farm worker Will Moore and his two sons.


C.F. Neighbors
Mother’s father when he was an older man.

My Grandfather was not a farmer like my mother’s people. I’ve been told that C.F. Neighbors, (his friends called him Charlie), was a financier who went to Raleigh almost every day to play the stock market. Apparently, he was also something of a “loan shark” and “pawn broker,” and primarily took diamonds rings as collateral for the loans he gave.

C.F. gave both Mother and Aunt Clara a beautiful diamond ring. The ring C.F. gave to Mother had belonged to her mother, Rosa Dell. I remember Mother’s ring very well. It was round, about the size of a dime in a platinum setting, with concentric circles of small pavé diamonds all the same size radiating out from the center stone. Mother would let me and my cousin Charlotte, Uncle Laurence’s daughter, play “dress up” with the ring whenever Charlotte spent the night at our house. That was really something special for two little girls. We would wear Mother’s high heels, her faux pearls and make outfits out of silk scarves or fringed shawls, and wear her hats. We looked like gypsies most of the time. Mother had a flair for bright colors and earth tones. I got my love of hats and richly colored clothes from her.

I share the sentiment about color expressed by Georgia O’Keeffe, my most favorite American painter. Even though she wore black and white most of her life, what she put on canvas was brilliance.

“Color is one of the great things in the world that makes life worth living to me, and as I have come to think of painting it is my efforts to create an equivalent with paint color for the world – life as I see it.” – Georgia O’Keeffe

 

Years later, when Daddy sold the Rexall Drug Store, he pawned Mother’s ring, worth about $500 at the time, for around a hundred dollars and never paid it off. Mother lost the only thing she had that belonged to her mother. When Uncle Laurence heard about what happened, he said, “Ina, why in God’s name didn’t you come to me? I would have bought it outright for what it was worth so we could have kept it in the family.”

Not long after Mother died, a few days before her eighty-eighth birthday, I was surprised to receive a beautifully hand-written letter in pen and ink from my second cousin, Lucinda Matthews Coates. Lucinda is the daughter of Minnie Dixon and Bill Matthews. Just as our mothers were, she is a year older than I am. We hadn’t been in touch since we were teenagers.

In her letter Lucinda wrote, “I don’t know if you have any interest in this sort of thing, but I thought I should tell you that I have many old papers belonging to the Dixon line. Your grandmother (Rosa Dell Dixon Neighbors) and my granddaddy (Ezra Dixon) were brother and sister. Robert Neighbors lived in your family’s old home, but when his wife, Onie, died about a year ago, the house and land were put up for sale. It was purchased by a nice Yankee family who are turning it into a horse ranch. The little house where your mama and all the children of Rosa Dell and Charlie Neighbors were born is going to be torn down in the near future. That leaves only me living on any of the old Dixon land. I wondered if you might want to come back to North Carolina to see it before it’s gone.”

“It’s very pretty here, but Raleigh creeps ever nearer. We love our little farm, and it’s very peaceful. We lease our land and cotton, sweet potatoes, corn and soybeans are still grown on the farm, but we stopped growing tobacco back in 2004 when we took the government buyout. My husband, Kirby, is retired from farming due to having rheumatoid arthritis just like my granddaddy Ezra, but not as crippling, and is still busier than he should be. I cook daily mid-day meals for my family, dinner as we call it, and I sell Avon from here at the house which I love doing.”

It wasn’t long before Jim, Kitty and I were up and gone to Carolina.

BLUE SKY

Walk along the river, sweet lullaby, it just keeps on flowing,
It don’t worry ‘bout where it’s going, no, no.
Don’t fly, mister blue bird, I’m just walking down the road,
Early morning sunshine tell me all I need to know.

You’re my blue sky, you’re my sunny day.
Lord, you know it makes me high when you turn your love my way,
Turn your love my way, yeah.

Good old Sunday morning, bells are ringing every where.
Goin’ to Carolina, won’t be long and I’ll be there.

The Allman Brothers Band
Song written by Dickey Betts

 

Jane and Lucinda at Dixon family homestead c. 2009. Currently rented to an African-American couple.

The first thing we did on a Sunday morning in North Carolina was head out Tar Heel Road to Lucinda’s house. Their home is next door to our great-grandfather Haywood Dixon’s original homestead, built sometime after the Civil War. Lucinda’s mother, Minnie, was born there.

Lucinda warned me that they were “poor farmers” and not to expect lavish entertainment, yet she served us a royal feast in typical Southern fashion. She had baked a country ham, made barbeque pork (pulled pork), yams, boiled potatoes, green beans cooked with ham hock, chicken salad, spoon bread (fried cornbread), and lima beans from their garden, the last of the crop that she had saved especially for us. She served pecan pie, made with pecans grown on the trees behind their house, and pumpkin bread swirl cake (like a jelly roll) for dessert. And, of course, we had sweet tea to drink.

Picking Lima beans is a laborious process. Given Kirby’s condition and Lucinda doing most of the cooking, Albert, an old African-American man who has worked for Kirby for nearly thirty years, just pulled the whole plants up by the roots right out of the ground. Lucinda and Kirby sat on a wooden picnic bench under the shade of a Carolina Pine to shell them. Sometimes, Albert shows up at Lucinda’s for Sunday dinner, but, if not, she always sends a plate full of food to him. He lives in one of our family’s original farm houses down the road from her son Bennett.

I happen to like Lima beans, but some people don’t, so I serve them in a succotash dish along with fresh corn, green beans, scallions, and crumbled crisp fried bacon. It’s a perfect compliment to a summer supper of fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits. I use organic vegetables. Here’s the recipe:

JANE’S SUCCOTASH

6-8 ears of fresh corn
1 package of frozen baby Lima beans
1/4 pound fresh Blue Lake green beans (or more if you like)
1/4 cup butter
5 slices of bacon
3 scallions, trimmed
1/2 cup chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Makes 6 servings

Cut the uncooked corn off the cob from the top of the ear downward. Scrape the pulp from the cobs and set aside in a bowl.

Cut the stems off the green beans, French cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces and cook separately in salted boiling water until just tender. Cook the Lima beans as directed on the package.

In a large heavy saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat, making sure not to burn. Add the corn and its juices, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring often. Add the chicken stock slowly during the 10 minutes.

Place bacon slices in skillet and cook over medium heat until crisp. Drain on paper towels, then crumble by hand.

Slice scallions into half-inch pieces, including some of the green tops, and set aside.

Add both types of beans to the corn, stir mixture and cook for another 5 minutes on low heat. If mixture is too dry, add a little more chicken stock. Add the scallions and continue cooking for another minute or two. At the end, fold in the crumbled bacon and spoon the succotash into a warm serving bowl. Serve immediately.

 

We visited our cousins in North Carolina every summer when I was growing up. Lucinda’s Sunday dinner was just as I remembered as a child. My favorite part of the meal was the salty country ham, home cured in those days in the smokehouse from hogs raised on the family farm, served with biscuits and red-eye gravy.

After dinner, Lucinda brought out a cardboard box full of photographs and old documents. Included was the handwritten deed for 367 acres of farmland purchased in 1816 by our Great-great-grandfather Patrick Dixon. It was a stunning revelation to see documents from the 1820 census stating that my family owned sixteen slaves, how old they were, male or female, but who were nameless.

I asked Lucinda if she still had the Confederate sword that hung over the fireplace in the big house and she said, “No, I sold it. It was a Yankee sword our great-granddaddy Haywood took off a dead soldier.”

During the course of the afternoon conversation, when Lucinda and I were alone, I asked if her mother had ever mentioned anything about my mother’s “nervous breakdown.” When Lucinda was a young woman, Minnie told her, “Ina got the name of the other woman in her head, and it went round and round in her head until her mind exploded. The next thing Ina remembered was waking up in the mental hospital.”

“Daddy had a sexual relationship with another woman when Mother was pregnant with Jimmy,” I said, “and he gave her a venereal disease which fortunately was cured with penicillin.” Lucinda looked at me with a solemn expression on her face and replied, “You know, don’t you, that C.F. killed your grandmother and her baby? He gave them a venereal disease and that’s why they died. There was no penicillin in 1914.” I had never heard that story before, and it cut me to the bone.

I felt as though my own mind was about to explode when I realized that Mother must have feared she would suffer the same fate as Rosa Dell and that she, too, might die in childbirth as her mother did. To this day, it makes my heart ache to think about the nightmare Mother must have been living at that time. No wonder she lost her mind. Lucinda could see that I was visibly shaken by this revelation and said, “Jane, let’s go over to your mama’s house now.”

The Neighbors family house was only about three-quarters of a mile further west on what is now called Denning Road. When we were children, it was just an orange-colored clay dirt road with a ditch on either side. We were in a car wreck one summer when Joyce, Minnie’s sister, was driving the family sedan after a rain and slid into the ditch, rolling the car over on its side. Lucinda, Minnie, Mother and I were tumbled around like clothes in a dryer, but, fortunately, no one was hurt, just shaken up a bit. Lucinda and I thought it was kind of exciting, like a carnival ride.

Joyce may have been drunk at the time. She was a terrible alcoholic, and though she fought her addiction hard, she was in and out of hospitals throughout most of her adult life. When she was young woman, Joyce had a baby out of wedlock -- it was a big family secret. Minnie, ten years older than Joyce, had arranged for the baby to be adopted. At that time, in the early 1940s, it would have been scandalous to keep a baby without being married. Maybe the shame Joyce carried for having an illegitimate child was what drove her to drink.

Lucinda had gotten permission from the new owners for us to come onto their land to see the Neighbors’ house, but it was locked up so we could only peek inside through the windows. I have no memory of it as a child because we always stayed with Minnie and Bill in the big house, and I was surprised at how small it was. I just couldn’t imagine how seven children could have been born and raised in a house that was probably less than 500 square feet. It looked like there were two bedrooms, and one room that served as a kitchen and sitting area like a living room. There would have been an outhouse when Mother was a child, but I’m sure there was indoor plumbing by the time Uncle Robert and Aunt Onie lived there. Jim had his video camera and was shooting a little documentary of our family “Roots” tour.

Out in front of the house was a man-made lake with a dock that Uncle Lawrence had built. The lake was stocked with fish which were frequently caught and fried for supper. Walking around the house and getting a feel for the lay of the land, I asked Lucinda, “Where’s the cemetery that Mother would go to and visit Rosa Dell’s grave?” She seemed perplexed by the question.

Apparently, the Dixon family cemetery was located off the main road going out of Benson toward Raleigh, past the turn off on Denning Road that led to Lucinda and Kirby’s house.

We piled into the SUV I’d rented and drove off in search of our grandmother’s grave. When we got to the Dixon cemetery where Lucinda’s mother and father, and her brother, Mickey, Joyce and other Dixon relatives were buried, we checked every headstone in search of Rosa Dell’s grave, to no avail. The location didn’t make any sense, either. Mother always said she’d walk over the hill behind her house to her mother’s grave.

Suddenly, Lucinda said, “I reckon she might be over in the little gravesite next to my house.” “What little gravesite?” we asked. Apparently, our great-grandparents graves were on the original Dixon farm just a few hundred yards from Lucinda’s house. That parcel of land was sold years ago to another family, and the gravesite now rests in the middle of a soybean field which had recently been harvested.

Lucinda said, “I’m ashamed that I’ve never kept up the gravesite and it’s become so overgrown that it would be almost impossible to get into it.” Kitty, Jim and I looked at each other, and in unison said, “Let’s go.”

A narrow dirt road separates Lucinda and Kirby’s property from the family next door. Cows and horses roam their property, and there are several old, bare trees in the middle of the field that mark the gravesite. Jim led the way, followed by Lucinda and Kitty. I was bringing up the rear, dressed totally inappropriately to go tromping through a harvested soybean field full of sticks and remnants of plants. Sharp, sticky burs were attaching themselves to my long skirt with every step I took.

But we made it and, Jim, being the man he is, started pulling away fallen branches to look closer underneath. There was a wild rose vine encircling the area. After considerable effort, he uncovered the weathered, mossy overturned headstones of our great-grandparents that read as follows:

Haywood Dixon
Born: June 30, 1836
Died: May 25, 1918
Inscription: “He died as he lived, trusting in God”

Lucinda Dixon
Born: December 21, 1840
Died: August 18, 1923
Inscription: “A beloved mother and faithful wife”

 

Digging deeper, Kitty found a small granite marker reading “Neighbors infant.” We knew instantly that the infant was the child who died with our grandmother Rosa Dell, but try as we might, we couldn’t locate her headstone or any sign of her resting place. There was simply too much overgrowth to go any further.

When we returned to the road, Lucinda stepped into the field behind their house. It looked like a fluffy blanket of snow, overflowing with cotton bowls ready to be harvested the next day by a huge piece of machinery that would stack the bales into a neat mountainous pile. Machinery, of course, having replaced manual labor.

The Civil War destroyed slavery, but sharecropping, an arrangement that allowed landlord and tenant to share the proceeds of the crop, emerged as the dominant labor system of the times.

When we visited North Carolina in the late 1940s-early 1950s, however, cotton was still being picked by the hands of African-American sharecroppers on our family farm. Men, women and children of all ages.

I can still hear their voices singing as they worked, but have come to understand that even though the song is considered a traditional Negro folk or work song, it has a “John Henry” twist in that the lyric speaks of picking a bale of cotton a day, an almost impossible task for one person.

Folk and work songs have always been a window into culture and history. As a child what I heard was a joyous work song that I sang along with, but it was in fact, a lament about the hardships and degradation of slavery.

Picking cotton c. 1940s

 

PICK A BALE OF COTTON

Gonna jump down, turn around
Pick a bale of cotton.

Jump down turn around
Pick a bale a day.

Whoa Lordy, pick a bale of cotton.
Whoa Lordy, pick a bale a day…

 

 

Lucinda picked bouquets of cotton for Kitty and me which we brought back to California as a reminder of a bygone era. An old culture that bears little resemblance to life in this day and age, yet remains as a story in the attic of childhood memories.

Jim turned his camera toward the setting sun silhouetting the ancient trees that mark the graves of our ancestors. A North Carolina Whip-poor-will, perched on one of the top branches, began its evening song which seemed a fitting tribute to honor our mother and the grandmother we knew and loved through her.

Portrait of Rosa Dell Dixon Neighbors about a year after the birth of the first of her seven children.
 
©2006 Jane Bay - All Rights Reserved