Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fierce Old Women by Vicki Lane

Caryn in St. Louis is the winner of the drawing

Leave a comment here to be entered in a drawing on the 30th for a signed, hot-off-the-press copy of THE DAY OF SMALL THINGS!!!

Vicki Lane is the author The Day of Small Things (coming September 28!) and of the Elizabeth Goodweather Appalachian Mysteries which include Signs in the Blood, Art's Blood, Old Wounds, Anthony-nominated In a Dark Season, and Under the Skin (coming from Bantam Dell in 2011.) Vicki draws her inspiration from the rural western NC county where she and her family have lived on a mountainside farm since 1975.  Visit Vicki at her daily blog, her website  or go HERE to learn more about The Day of Small Things.

Fierce Old Women
by Vicki Lane

Thanks, Kaye for inviting me! You asked for pictures of where we do our writing. Well, this is my official writing spot – a comfy chair in the corner of an upstairs room that also houses my sewing/painting/quilting/giftwrapping/ironing stuff. 
In summer it’s unbearably hot. 

So I’ve been camped out in a corner of the living room for the past three months.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to talk about Fierce Old Women -- some I’ve known well, others, only at second or even third hand. They all share virtual DNA with Miss Birdie – Elizabeth Goodweather’s octogenarian neighbor who is the protagonist of my new book.

My first introduction to these Fierce Old Women was when we moved to the North Carolina mountains in 1975. (Back then, sixty-something seemed old. I’ve adjusted my idea of old a good bit.) 

At that time, I knew about Sweet Old Ladies – my grandmother’s friends in Tampa who played bridge and arranged flowers and were on the Altar Guild. They were always nicely dressed and they went to the beauty parlor once a week to emerge with freshly blue-tinted coiffures.

Louise, my nearest neighbor in the mountains, wasn’t like that at all.

Louise and her husband grew tobacco, milked two cows, raised hogs and chicken and were the hardest working people I’d ever met. Clifford taught my husband how to plow with mules, and how to butcher hogs; Louise showed me how to wring a chicken’s neck and turn it into supper.

She was a no-nonsense woman, as she had to be.  She did love her flowers though and had a row of them in tin cans on her porches. One day a ground hog – a noted garden scourge – had made his way up the steps and was nosing about the potted plants. Louise called her husband to come quick with his shotgun. 

“But, Louise,” he protested. “I’m afraid I’ll tear up yore flowers.’

Louise didn’t hesitate. “Forgit the flowers -- shoot the ground hog!”

Mearl was another neighbor – tough as nails and never happier than when out building fence or weed-eating.  It’s her voice I hear when Miss Birdie says, “Come on in and git you a chair.” 

One of her daughters told me how one day Mearl, who had begun to have some unexplained spells, began to get ‘swimmie-headed’ and felt that she was about to pass out. Her grown son, there visiting that day, grabbed her. “Mama, I love you,” he said urgently, not knowing if this might be IT. 

“We ain’t got time for that now,” Mearl snapped. “Call 911!”

I met Grace   when our cattle went wandering down the other side of the mountain.  She and her husband lived in the same cabin Grace had been born in -- a cabin high up an unimproved road, a cabin with no electricity. They were still farming in their late seventies.

Grace kept a little book in which she recorded daily happenings – a new calf, visitors, rain -- and I gave this charming habit to Miss Birdie.  

Paul and Grace had no children – but they adopted all us ‘transplants’ as their own. And at the end of every phone call or visit Grace would say, “We love you.”

While Miss Birdie's voice and character draw from my own neighbors -- Grace Henderson, Mearl Davis, Louise Freeman --- and from fictional characters -- you can find Birdie's kin in Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies, in Kathryn Stripling Byer's  Black Shawl or Wildwood Flower, and in The Foxfire Books, to name only a few -- I've never pictured Birdie as looking like anyone I know. A bit like the picture above that a friend sent me,maybe.

But then another friend showed me a photo she’d taken back in the seventies. Oda Blankenship of Pipestem, West Virginia is as close the Miss Birdie in my mind as can be.

I love the way Oda's face and hands sum up her life.

The world's going to be a poorer place when all the old women have had face lifts and other 'work' done and all look like Joan Rivers clones.

These wonderful, fierce old women -- everywhere I go I hear their stories. Not long ago a new acquaintance told me about her octogenarian aunt, up on the roof hammering down shingles. (Didn't I have Aunt Omie doing something like that in Dark Season?)

So many stories waiting to be told -- in my family and yours, among my neighbors and yours.

Let's hear it for fierce old women!


Anonymous said...

I loved this post and loved the pictures of the "fierce old women". They reminded me of my paternal grandmother. She was a tough old bird, raised 5 kids, buried 2, took me fishing, lived on next to nothing in a small house and could boss her grown sons around like nobody's business. I miss her to this day. She had 18 grandchildren and she would go through about 6 names before she got to the right one, but she'd get there eventually. She would hug you so hard, you'd think your ribs were breaking, but she was not sentimental except for a sniff of her nose and she'd kind of shove you away and move on to the next chore.

I haven't read any of Vicki's books yet, but you can bet they will go on my endless list now. Kaye, thanks for hosting Vicki. Vicki, thanks for loving fierce old women!

Anonymous said...

Thats the kinda woman I aspire to be when I 'grow up.' My aunt was like that - a spitfire.

Loved the blog..:)


Larry W. Chavis said...

Some of the pictures accompanying this post could almost be from my maternal grandparents' place deep in the backwoods of Grant County, Arkansas. Masil Mae and 'Claytie' (James Clayton)Vanlandingham lived on eighty acres of fields and woods and creeks that were a young boy's wonderland. They worked hard, without any of the conveniences that we take for granted - I remember when they first got electricity in the '60s, and indoor plumbing came after that. I've seen my grandmother many times facilitate a chicken's transition from yard to supper in just the way you describe. Those old folks had lessons to teach us that are ageless.

Thanks for reminding me.

Unknown said...

Wonderful post. I'm looking forward to reading the new book.

Kari Wainwright said...

Love the old pictures. I recently found several from my family's past and I don't always know the stories behind them. Still, I love to study them and try to glean what little I can about their lives.

Patty said...

My maternal grandmother was Martha Grace, but she had everyone call her "Gramma Grace", even people who were not related in any way. I remember her making lye soap and quilting for hours on end. She didn't live the hard life (at least while I knew her, Grandpa was a farmer so she might have that background as well) that your friends have, but she was widowed early and took on a job in the city to pay the bills and finish raising her children. She could be as fierce as needed and as gentle at the same time. Great memories. Thanks.

Cea said...

My Aunt Margie is a fierce woman. She may be 89 but she would deny being old yet. She keeps going because "What else are you going to do?"
I love Vicki Lane's characters and Miss Birdie is my favorite. I want to be like her when I grow up (I've adopted my Aunt's interpretation of age.) Thanks Vicki, for the great women.

Anonymous said...

How interesting! --BrendaW.

Vicki Lane said...

What a pleasure to discover other who know and treasure Fierce Old Women and even aspire to FOWomanhood themselves! I love how you all note that while they're fierce, their love is fierce too.

Kay's paternal grandmother surely fits the pattern and Gina's aunt and
Larry's Masil Mae (love the name!) Patty's Gramma Grace and Cea's Aunt Margie are part of the sisterhood too!

Thanks so much for sharing their stories!

jenny milchman said...

Those are terrific pictures, Vicki--I especially love the one of Ona. You can hear how those voices come through in your work. They're all so tough, no nonsense, yet doesn't the heart show through in the "I love you" at the end of every conversation?

Carol Murdock said...

Hey there Kaye and Vicki! Great article Vicki! I've always pictured Miss Birdie looking like Aunt Arie of the Foxfire books who actually, looks a lot like Ona Blakenship.
I hope ALL HERE will get a copy of " The Day of Small Things "! It is a wonderful read from an awesome writer!!

Karen said...

I have not read any of Vicki's books either, but I shall.

The closest to a fierce old woman that I have been privileged to love is a lady I knew when I was a kid. She was the only one I knew who canned apricots, was kind, and knew what to do in any crisis. She was like the grandmother I never had. She was a godsend to my sick, tired and fearful mom and, thus, she was a godsend to me. --Karen

Deborah Crombie said...

Thanks for the wonderful post, Vicki! You know I love the book, and it was delightful to get a glimpse of the inspiration. Let's us all know we have something to look forward to :-)

Stephanie D said...

I haven't known any fierce old women up my family's tree, but I've cared for several in my lifetime. Sometimes I contrast them with the patients, male and female, that I care for today who expect the world to hand them whatever they want. I can only figure they've never had a Fierce Old Woman in their lives.

Martin said...

Brilliant post, Vicki. In the village where I was born, there were many old characters. They coloured my childhood and they're still with me now. You'd have loved my grandmother. About six months before she passed away (aged 91), she was rushed to hospital with chest pains. I received a call at work, and rushed to be with her. I found her, surrounded by medics, in the resuscitation room. Her first words to me, "I've already told them, if I drop off my perch, don't try to bring me back!"

We really are a good deal poorer without some fierce old women around.

Marilyn & Jeff said...

What a wonderful post and how fortunate you were to have met these women and to have learnt from them.
When I am with woman like these in your post I wonder what they were like as children, growing up and as young adults and in their middle years.
When were with Jeff's Aunty Dorothy on her 98th birthday a couple of moths ago she said that the arthritis in her legs was very painful but she said that one day she will pop off and it can jolly well pop off with her!

Pat in east TN said...

I really enjoyed your post Vicki. I've known some wonderful ladies like those, one being my late mother-in-law. So much spunk and full of love/compassion.

Brian Miller said...

nice. love the spotlight you gave to the fierce old woman...think i would lump my grandmother in there as well...

Sam Hoffer / My Carolina Kitchen said...

Kaye, thanks for hosting Vicki's visit today. I'm so impressed by the spirit of all of these women and the hardships they've endured. You've made them so real Vicki. They certainly aren't anything like my grandmother's friends. They are truly mountain women.

I smiled when you said you've had to adjust your idea of old. Haven't we all.

KarenB said...

Hmm, yes, somehow "old" keeps edging upward, even as we do!! Wonderful post, as always, Vicki. I'm so looking forward to reading Miss Birdie's book.

Vicki Lane said...

Ona sums them all up, Jenny. And absolutely, the love shows through.

Yes, Carol, I should have included Aunt Arie in my list. She was definitely in the back of my mind when I wrote Miss Birdie.

Karen -- I'm so glad you had a FOL in your life. I think they're like Fairy Godmothers and show up where they're needed.

Deb -- I treasure your words that grace the cover of Birdie's book! Praise from an author whose books I love is sweet indeed!

Stephanie - Such a contrast, isn't there? Sad...

Oh, good for your grandmother, Martin! She was definitely one of the sisterhood!

And Aunty Dorothy is another, Marilyn!

I know you've known these women, Pat! We're so fortunate.

Thanks, Brian. As I get older (and older) I realize how invisible old women become to much of the world. That was part of the reason for this book.

Well, Sam and KarenB, at some point I did the math -- 60 isn't middle-aged unless one expects to live to 120. Which leads me to the inescapable conclusion that, at 67, I must be . . . old! Horrors!

caryn said...

What a great blog! As you "introduced" us to your neighbors, I could see parts of Miss Birdie in them all.

Helen T said...

I never knew my maternal grandmother, but she gave birth to 2 daughters and 8 sons. All of her sons served their country in WWII and Korea. From what I've heard of her she was a tough lady, but educated and much loved.

Jill said...

I love the picture of Louise and her husband. Great post and photos. I know many fierce old women and hope to be one myself.

N. J. Lindquist said...

My dad's mother was one of those women, too. Married at 16 to a man much older, homesteaded in a not-great location, farm work, 12 kids born at home, widowed early - she did what she had to do... just as many women do. Her grown children always deferred to "Mother."

Michele said...

I love this topic. Yes, we need more of these lovely ladies in the world, and I, too, aspire to become one. I can't wait for Miss Birdie's book to arrive.

Suz said...

I've know a few in my days..but of a different kind.
and there is nothing like them
loved the photos

Vicki Lane said...

Caryn -- Oh, yes! I can trace Birdie's lineage pretty well!

Helen -- your grandmother had to have been tough-- to bear that many children and then to have all eight sons go off to war. How truly dreadful! I hope they all eight came back safely.

Thanks, Jill! Me too!

N.J. - 'She did what she had to do' -- That could be the epitaph for many and many a FOW.

Michele -- I hope you enjoy it!

Suz - I think there are so many women with great strength and untold stories. We can all be proud of them.

Deanna said...

For some reason this post almost made me cry. Well, actually it did. It made me think of my grandma, yelling "git me a hoe, I'll git that snake" and my other grandma baking bread in a wood fired stove. Life was hard and they had to be fierce. Thanks for the memories and wonderful post.

Oh, an I like your work spots. So homey and comfy.

Mary Jane Maffini said...

What a special post, Vicki. I really enjoy your books and Birdie is one of the reasons. Thanks for the great job you do taking us to your wonderful world.


NCmountainwoman said...

What a great post. I love all of the women and the photographs. When I grow up I hope I can be a fierce old woman. I've been working on the "fierce" part and the "old" part is rapidly sneaking up on me.

Tipper said...

I love all of Vicki's books!! And when I grow up-I want to be a fierce old woman : ) I'm pretty sure I'm on my way already-cause I've had some wonderful role models in my neck of the woods.

Vicki Lane said...

Oh, Deanna -- I'm glad this post touched you. And you reminded me of a time I was down helping Louise in her garden and a harmless garter snake slid out from under a squash plant. She went for it with her hoe but I said, "Oh, please don't kill it, Louise. They're harmless and it'll eat bugs and thing you don't want in your garden."

She stopped and watched the snake slither out of the garden. "All right . . . fer now," she said.

Thank you, MJ! I'll bet there are a few Fierce Old Women in Canada too.

I know what you mean, NCMountainwoman!

Thanks, Tipper! But you're such a young un, you've got a ways to go.

Suzanne said...

Vicki, I won't tell you about the FOLs in my life except to say that I've been honored to know a few of them. My contribution to this excellent topic and discussion is to say that FOLs resonate with us so well because they're archetypal.

At the end of a long lifetime, a FOL is in a position to teach us about letting go of attachments and uniting with the cosmos. She uses lessons from her own life to recognize transformative growth that loved ones must undergo. Then she finds ways to nudge these people into growth.

Quite a gift, eh?

Suzanne Adair

Louise said...

I've been honored to know two fierce old women in my lifetime, my Mother and My Aunt. Both very different from the women that you described, and both very different from each other, they both had that same strength that resonated through everything that they did. Children of the Great Depression and the War, they came away from both stronger, and more resolute.

Anonymous said...

Ohhh--What a wonderful post. Made me think of my own parents and grandparents. Although I'm from the Pittsburgh area, I love to read and find out about the women ancestors. They had to be fierce in order to survive and make life good for their children.
I've only read one of Vicki's books but I will search for her other books.

Sandi Lewis

Anonymous said...

Ohhh--What a wonderful post. Made me think of my own parents and grandparents. Although I'm from the Pittsburgh area, I love to read and find out about the women ancestors. They had to be fierce in order to survive and make life good for their children.
I've only read one of Vicki's books but I will search for her other books.

Sandi Lewis

Unknown said...

My Grandma was a FOWoman although she lived in town in a large house. She had seven sons, and her two unmarried sisters lived with her. She would tell me when I was 4 or 5 'There's no such word as can't. Kant was a philosopher'. And I had better try to do what she asked. She died when I was nine years old, and I still miss her.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Oh, Golly! You folks have been having quite a party here today while I've been sitting in a room waiting to see if I'd be called to sit on a jury. Which I didn't. Yet. And hope I don't.

Thanks to everyone for coming by - isn't this fun?!

Vicki - thank you!!!!! This is one very special post, and I'm quite honored that you chose Meanderings and Muses as the spot to share it.

I come from a long line of "fierce old women" on my mother's side of the family. My maternal grandmother raised 11 children (9 fierce women). We lived on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and she was a crab picker; paid pennies for the pounds of crabmeat she was able to get out of those devils. Hard and brutal work - but she always seemed able to find humor in most things.

My dad's mom had an easier life, but was also an extremely strong woman.

My goal is to make them both proud of the strength they passed on to me. And oh yeah - I want to be a Fierce Old Woman who takes no poop off nobody!

Vicki Lane said...

Amen to the archetype thing, Suzanne. I'm playing with that a bit in this book and also in next year's offering.

Louise -- FOW are everywhere -- and the Depression and WWII surely produced an abundance.

Sandi -- as I said, they're everywhere!

Shirley -- Love your grandmother's saying! I'll have to remember that one!

Well, Kaye, honey, we just went on without you. But thanks for hosting this shindig!

Dang -- a crab picker -- now that's serious hard work.

"Take No Poop!" The battlecry of the FOW -- or as I told Lou Allin recently, we flat do not give a damn.

Merisi said...

Just love your background stories, Vicki, and the fantastic photographic treasures too!

Through my Italian connections I made a friend here in V., an 86 year old woman who works as a volunteer at the National Library four days a week, cataloging and archiving her husbands photographic estate. Her life story reads like a modern-day female Homer's Odyssey, having lived on three continents, due to war and prosecution, marriage and life's trials. She is my heroine, a true strong and ageless woman.

With best wishes,

Merisi said...

I meant to write "persecution".

Vicki Lane said...

Oh, Merisi -- she sounds like someone waiting to have her story told!

Vicki Lane said...

Caryn in St. Louis is the winner of the drawing! Caryn -- I'll need your mailing address.

Thanks to all of you for commenting and a great big thank you to Kaye for her terrific blog!

wayne blankenship jr. said...

That fierce old women was my great grandma Oda Blankenship and we still have the farm were she lived at in Pipestem WV. My grandma is in WV history books and national geographic books with pictures of her for making her beautiful quilts.She had 10 kids and still had the time too make her quilts.Email me if you want to hear more about that fierce old women.

Vicki Lane said...

Oh my goodness! Wayne, I'd love to hear more but don't have your email. You can email me at


wayne blankenship jr. said...

Oda Blankenship my great grandma the fierce old women from Pipestem WV. My email address is if you want to hear more about her.

Vicki Lane said...

Thanks. Wayne! And I'll see if I can get Kaye to correct your great grandmother's name. The friend who lent me the picture either 'disremembered' or I misheard. Oda not Ona.

Unknown said...

Oda Bell Wright Blankenship (1889-1977) was my Great Aunt. She was featured in the July 1972 edition of the National Geographic, along with a picture of her and her quilt.