By Keith Whitson
Maya Angelou once said “I believe that one can never leave home. I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and the dragons of home under one’s skin, at the extreme corners of one’s eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.”
As a young boy, growing up along Chandler Cove Road, in the Spivey Community, I remember the remains of a small home, which we referred to as “The Ellie Place.” It sat in a storybook surrounding, on a grassy spot, with a wooded backdrop. A small stream and spring were at the back of the property. The little country road passed a few feet from the front porch.
Ellie Willis was related through my grandfather’s side of the family, Claude Chandler, who also lived with his family along same the road. I have heard stories of Ellie and how she was affected by the polio virus. She lost use of one leg and got around by using a crutch. Her husband died at an early age, leaving her to raise their only child, Princie.
My mom still remembers Ellie and how she crawled to scrub her wooden floors until they were amazingly bright and spotless. She gardened and cared for her place with pride.
Princie and her husband, Wallen, were loved dearly by my entire family. She and my grandmother, Minnie, shared a very close friendship.
With few jobs to be found in the area, Princie sent her husband to New York to find work. She and their three small children were to soon follow. She heard that farmers were seeking hired hands there and knew her family needed to make some drastic changes if they were going to make a better life.
After one month, Wallen wrote back to say he was coming home. The labor was hard, the field owners cruel and conditions very tough. Princie responded with a note telling him it was too late, she had already purchased train tickets for the family to join him. In reality, she hadn’t. She knew they had to make this work out, so they headed to New York to join him. After a few tough years and changing farms, Wallen got a better job and life improved for the Willis family.
Princie kept in touch with my grandmother through detailed letters and occasional visits. I still remember my grandmother receiving big boxes of clothing from her in the mail and how excited she and I both were as we dug through the contents. The two women shared a bond and closeness that distance did not come between.
After my grandmother died, my mom continued writing Princie until she died and then corresponded more with Princie’s son, Wayne, and his wife Kathy, who had visited several years back. Correspondence even branched out to Princie’s granddaughter Shelly by way of my cousin, Karen Guinn, and myself. The bond which started years ago was growing by each generation.
Last Thursday night and all day Friday, mom and I spent with Wayne and Kathy. They stopped by on their way to Florida. Mom and I took them to many locations which hold the roots of Wayne’s heritage on both the Tilson and Willis side. We looked through photo albums and shared stories of the past and highlights of the present.
Growing up in different surroundings, speaking with differing accents and having little face-to-face contact over the years, did not diminish the bond. It was as if we had been with them our entire lives. We shared laughter throughout the day and we shared tears upon their departure.
Shelly had also contacted me a month or so before we realized Wayne and Kathy were coming. She and her husband, Jack, were going to Pigeon Forge and wanted to swing by Erwin on the way. This would be her first visit here.
Sunday, they arrived in time for lunch. Shelly, Jack, Karen, her husband Randy, mom and I met around noon. It was the first time Karen and I got to meet Shelly in person.
It turns out, she had kept letters from us and photos from our pen pal days. Shelly described a photo I sent her years ago, dressed in a stylish 1970s attire, featuring peach toned and striped, bell-bottomed pants, with a shirt buttoned to the neck. I told her it was best to leave some things in the past.
Again, the visit with Shelly was just as comfortable and heartwarming as that of Wayne and Kathy. In the brief moments together, we tried to catch up. Cell phone photos were shared to give a glimpse into our current lives and new photos were taken to remember the current moment.
After hugs, tears and goodbyes, we parted ways.
It amazes me how a special bond, started years ago between my grandmother and a dear friend, continues just as strong today through their offspring. The same roots from which our families came, starting years ago on that mountain road, are still attached, no matter how far apart they extend.