Los Angeles, California, 1921
CHRISTMAS IN THE CUMBERLAND MOUNTAINS
”Oh, Uncle Simon, do come up to the house this if minute, and see Peggy wearing mama’s wedding dress. It’s the finest dress you ever saw, and Peggy is just beautiful in it!”
Ralph Ware was all excitement and enthusiasm, as he stood in the door of Simon’s cabin, located in one corner of the yard.
Ralph was just ten, with big brown eyes, dark curly hair, and a chubby face.
“I’se pow’ful busy, lettle boy,” said Simon, “but I ain’t seed dat dress sence your mammy wore it at her weddin’, an’ I’ll jest lay my work down fer a lettle while an’ run up to de big house wid you.”
“What are you making, Uncle Simon?” asked Ralph, looking at the great pile of shavings that littered Simon’s floor and hearth.
“Lettle boys musn’t ax questions, ‘specially long erbout Christmas eve. You know dat it wus on Christmas eve dat curiosity killed de cat what you allus heerd erbout.”
“Did curiosity really kill him, Uncle Simon?”
“Wall, dat’s whut dey allus tell me, but I don’t think it killed him more’n seben times, an’ den de cat learn to min’ his own business, an’ he still hab two more libes lef an’ he know how to behave hisself.”
By this time they, had reached the “big house,” as’ Simon designated the double log house in which the Wares lived, and Simon was cut short in his dissertation about cats.
“Come in, Simon,” said Mrs. Ware, “and tell me if you recognize this dress. It has been hidden away for many years, but Peggy discovered it today, and insisted on trying it on.”
‘”Corse I membahs it, Young Missus, an’ I membahs de day you an’ Massa Ware wus married at de big church weddin’. You wus de belle ob Shenandoah Valley, an’ I wus so proud ob you as you stood up long side ob Massa Ware, young an’ hansum, an’ you lookin lak a queen.”
“Tell us all about it, Uncle Simon,” cried Ralph and Virginia in chorus. “We want to hear about our beautiful mother when she was a girl back in Virginia.”
“Did you know her when she was a little teensy baby?” asked Virginia, the youngest member of the Ware family. “Did she look like me?”
“Don’t ask so many questions, ‘Cotton Top’,” exclaimed Ralph. “Of course she didn’t look like you, because your hair is white and your eyes are as blue as the sky in June, while Mamma’s hair is as black as a crow, and her eyes are just like mine,” he proudly asserted.
“Answerin’ yore fust question, Virginia, I knowed yore mothah when I could hold her out on one han’, an’ I knowed her mothah an’ her fathah.”
Virginia had climbed upon Simon’s knee and settled down comfortably for the story that she and Ralph had heard from the old man’s lips a hundred times. To them it was always a new story, and grew more wonderful with each repetition.
A big log fire burned in the wide-mouthed chimney, and Peggy and her mother took their seats to listen to the story that Peggy loved quite as well as Ralph and Virginia.
“I belonged to Cap’n Lee befo’ de wah,” the old man began. “He was yore gran’pa. He was a cousin ob General Robert E. Lee, an’ de Lees, you know, had de fines’ blood in ol’ Virginny, an’ dat’s sayin’ sumpin’, case Virginny got de fines’ blood in de worl’.” The old man straightened himself up proudly as he delivered this statement with an air that would have made contradiction presumptuous.
“Yassum, it’s de shore ‘stocracy blood, an’ wharevah you fin’ it in de Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, an’ Alabama, you kin allus tell de Virginny blood.”
“Are you a Lee, Uncle Simon?” asked Virginia earnestly.
The old man scratched his head, frowned, and thought very hard. “Ob cose I’se a Lee,” he said finally, “my name is Simon Lee, an’ I libed wid de Lees so long dat I des nachelly got ‘noculated wid de Lee blood. Dat’s why I allus tells lettle boys an’ gals to ‘sociate wid none but quality.”
“Well, I heard my papa say that his folks were ‘poor white trash’ before the war,” ventured Ralph. “What did he mean by that?”
“Wall, befo’ de wah, honey, all we niggers dat belong to white folks got stuck up an’ thought we wus bettah dan de white folks dat don’t own no niggers, an’ we call dem ‘po’ white trash,’ an’ we sorter looked down on dem. But when de wah come yore gran’daddy Ware fought long side ob yoah gran’daddy Lee, an’ dey wus bofe killed in Virginny, an’ when dey wus brought home dey wus buried in de same grabe yahd, side by side.
“Yoah gran’pa Lee lef a big plantation wid thousans ob acres ob Ian’ an’ joinin’ it yoah gran’pa Ware lef about a hundred acres. De niggers use to laugh an’ say he des had enough Ian’ to make a turnip patch. But when de wah wus ovah an’ de slabes freed an’ mos’ ob dem gone yoah gran’ma Ware’s place wus wuth des erbout as much as yoah gran’ma Lee’s place, ‘case dey warn’t nobody to cultivate nothin’ ‘cept little patches scattahed heah an’ dah.
“Wall, yoah gran’mas wus de bes’ frens in de worl’. Dey bofe wove dey own cloth an’ made de jeans fer de men an’ de linsey fer de wimmin, an’ dey warn’t no moah po’ white trash aftah de wah. Ev’ry tub stood on its own bottom, an’ ef you had de blood it didn’t make no diffe’nce wheatha you owned slabes befo’ de wah ‘r not.
“Yoah gran’ma Ware and yoah gran’pa Ware had des as good blood as anybody evah had dat warn’t a Lee, an’ when yoah ma married Massa Wilbur Ware, I said dey nevah wus no finah blood jined.
“An’ it wus de right sort ob marriage, too, ‘case dey had knowed one nother sence dey knowed anythin’, an’ dey had lubed one another all dey lives, an’ God done jined dem togethah in heaben’ befo dey wus pronounced man an’ wife by de preacher.”
“Was my father a preacher when he got married?” asked Ralph.
“Yes, chile, he wus de likelies’ young preacher in de Shenandoah Valley. He wus des home frum a big ‘ological school in Boston, an’ he brought a.whole wagon load ob dem ‘ological books wid him. Dey up in dem shelves now, an’ erbout a thousan’ more dat he bought sence den.”
“Well, I ain’t never going to be no preacher,” declared Ralph, “because preacher’s can’t have any fun.”
“Wall, I ain’t gwine to ‘scuss dat now,” said Simon thoughtfully. “I think they mout an’ again they moutent. I ain’t sayin’ what I thinks, ‘cept this: On Christmus eve de whol’ worl’ ought to be happy, even de preachers.”
“It seems to me, Simon, that the preachers ought to be the happiest people in the world,” said Peggy, “for they are doing such a noble work in ministering to the distressed and needy and leading people into the light of truth.”
“At least we shall try to feel this way about it today,” said Peggy’s mother, “for this should be the gladdest, happiest time of all the year. Our Savior came to the world at this time, hence we call it Christmas. He came to give the world its greatest Christmas gift, the gift of the life of joy, peace, and abundance, and we, in our poor way, make gifts to each other, trying to emulate the Christ spirit.”
“I don’t like Christmas,” spoke a harsh voice, and all turned toward Wilbur Ware, who had entered the house without being observed.
Peggy rose to offer her father a chair, and he observed that she wore her mother’s wedding dress. His face softened for an instant. “Ah, your mother’s wedding dress. How beautiful you are in it, my child, but not more beautiful than your mother was the day she wore it, nor more beautiful than she is now,” he said gently as he walked over to the corner where his wife sat arid pressed a kiss on her cheek.
As he did so, .he observed that her cheeks were flushed and her eyes unusually bright, shining like dew drops after a Spring shower. A fit of coughing seized her, but she laughed musically, saying she had taken a slight cold, but that she would be entirely well by morning and able to attend church with the family.
Wilbur Ware, Peggy and Simon were greatly distressed about her condition, and a dagger thrust to their hearts could not have given them keener pain than this soul-racking cough of the one they loved, a victim of the great white plague.
Peggy assumed a gaiety she did not feel, for in her heart there was a great fear that some impending disaster hung over the Ware home.
Resuming his conversation, Ware said: “No, I don’t like Christmas. It is the saddest season of the year, for me. I always feel my poverty more keenly at Christmas than at any other time, for I am unable to give presents to the members of my family and to others who are in need.”
“Wall, I got to go down to de cabin an’ finish a little whittlin’ befo’ bed time,” said Simon, “an’ I ‘spect I bettah be gwine.”
“We are going to have roasted sweet potatoes and sweet milk for supper, Simon, with lots of good butter to put on our potatoes,” said Ralph. “Don’t you want to come up and eat your supper?”
“Do come, Simon,” urged Peggy and her mother.
“Dat’s a Christmas eve supper fitten fer a king,” said the old man, smacking his lips. “Day ain’t but one thing to make it bettah, an’ dat would be a good fat possum, an’ ef Ralph will borry a good possum dog, we’ll ketch one afo’ Miss Peggy goes back to college.”
Peggy had been home a week from college, and she had been busy assisting her mother in making some clothing for Ralph and Virginia from some of her outgrown garments. These, with warm woolen socks her mother had knit for her father and Simon, were to be hung on a Christmas tree that Simon had ready in an adjoining room. There were also some cakes and homemade candy for Ralph and Virginia hidden in Simon’s cabin. The shavings on Simon’s floor were made by his jackknife, with which he was an expert. From pieces of soft timber he had whittled many wonderful toys for the two younger members of the family.
Peggy was now sixteen, and had completed a two years’ course at college. She had an unusual mind that seemed to know things without being taught. Stored away in her subconscious or superconscious mind was a fountain of knowledge and wisdom that she was apparently able to tap at will.
She was the pride of her teachers, and would have been envied by her fellow pupils but for her unusual personality that made every one love her and glad to have her excel.
She had been given a scholarship at the college because her father was a minister, and on account of her superior gifts, but it had entailed untold privations and sacrifices on the part of each member of the Ware family to supply the small amount of money required for Peggy’s board and clothing.
In fact, it would have been impossible but for the help of old Simon. His devotion to Peggy was almost divine, and he had insisted on “hiring out” to work on a near-by farm, where he received a certain wage and his “grub.” Every dollar had been turned over to Wilbur Ware for Peggy. Simon even refused to buy a pair of shoes, when his old ones could no longer be mended. He said he preferred going barefoot so his “cawns could git well.”
Peggy, although she had devoured all the books in the college library on science, philosophy, and the history of the various religions, was not the typical bookworm. She was full of a healthy enthusiasm, and was a leader in all college sports. She was the soul and center of all the activities of the student body, and no movement was complete without Peggy Ware.
Her hair was an unusual golden shade, her eyes blue as sapphire, and as she looked earnestly at you, you could never penetrate their depths.
“Miss Peggy’s eyes des lak a pool in de woods what ain’t got no bottom,” old Simon was wont to say when referring to her.
“The sweet potatoes are done,” declared Ralph as he removed them from their bed of hot ashes and coals. “I will go and call Simon.”
“Lawd, you don’ need to call me, chil’,” the old man exclaimed gleefully as he came in, brushing the snow from his coat. “I done heerd dem sweet taters callin’ clean down to de cabin. It’s snowin’ pow’ful hard, an’ I ‘spect de groun’ will be covered in de mawnin’.”
“If it is, you’ll have to carry me on your back, Simon, to church,” said Virginia.
“Dat I will,” said Simon. “I toted Peggy, Ralph and you when you wus lettle, an’ I toted yoah ma, an’ lettle Florence when she was heah.”
A look of suffering passed over Wilbur Ware’s face at the mention of Florence, which was not unobserved by Peggy and her mother.
“I’ve fixed you a plate in this warm corner, Simon, where you can eat your supper while we sit at the table,” said Peggy.
“I’se so happy, so happy!” exclaimed the old man, “that you’se all well, got a wahm house to lib in, plenty to eat, an’ Miss Peggy, de smartes’ gal in college, heah wid us to enjoy it all.”
“And I thank God for you, Simon,” said Mrs. Ware. “You have been the most faithful soul in the world, and I love you. We all love you with a love that is too great for words. When the war was over and you were free to go where you pleased, you remained with my mother and watched over me. When I married and my mother had passed on, you left everything and followed our fortunes without hope of reward. You never thought of self in your younger days, and now you are old and penniless, and we are almost as poor in this world’s goods. I know God will reward you when He calls you home, for you certainly lost your life in your thought of others.”
“I don’ hab to die to git my rewahd, Young Missus,” the old man declared reverently. “I don’ been gittin’ it all de time. An’ I don’t hab to die to go to Hebin nethah, ‘case dis is Hebin right heah. I libes in Hebin’ all de time, an’ I don’t much believe dat you gwine to walk right slap bang into Hebin when you gits obah yondah, onless you takes yore Hebin wid you.”
“I think you are right, Simon” said Peggy.
Her father frowned. “That is poor theology, Simon,” he said. “I don’t think you and Peggy know what you are talking about. In my sermon tomorrow, I shall try to set you right.”
Neither Peggy nor Simon replied, Simon realizing his own ignorance, and Peggy unwilling to argue with her father.
There was a vacant chair at the table, a child’s chair, with a white oak splint bottom. It was given to Florence, the first born of the Ware children, by an old blind man who made chairs for a living. It was guarded sacredly and never brought from its place of seclusion except on the night before Christmas. No one made any reference to the little chair during the progress of the meal, but each knew that it was uppermost in each other’s thoughts.
Early in the evening, Ralph and Virginia began to manifest by yawns and nods a desire to seek their beds. They felt that in some way the hours would pass more quickly if they were asleep. Their mother, remembering how she had felt at their age under similar circumstances, suggested to her husband that the children be allowed to go to bed.
Then, as was his custom, the minister took his wellthumbed Bible from its resting place, and read the beautiful twenty-third Psalm, after which they all knelt devoutly and offered their thanks to God.
When Ralph and Virginia were sound asleep, the others sat by the great wood fire as the hickory logs burned into glowing coals, the flames forming fantastic shapes and figures, depending on the mood and fancy of the beholder.
For a long time no word was spoken, each knowing the thing nearest the other’s heart, and yet hesitating to begin a discussion of the subject that all knew was inevitable.
At last the silence was broken by Wilbur Ware, and his voice was unusually hard and hopeless. “Sixteen years ago tomorrow this little chair was left vacant when some fiend cruelly stole our little Florence. For years I searched for her all over the country from Richmond to Atlanta, Chattanooga, and Nashville. Something kept telling me that she was alive and that I would find her. I could not understand how a good and merciful God could be so cruel as to take our darling away from us. As time went on my faith waned, and now I have long ceased to hope. God has hidden His face from me, and I am groping in the dark. All the old foundations upon which I built while at the Theological Seminary, and upon which I have stood since, seem to be crumbling beneath me. I used to think that love was God’s predominating characteristic; but He is also powerful in vengeance, and it is the vengeance of the Lord visited on me for my sins. It is to teach me to fear Him, and to show me that I am but a poor, creeping worm of the dust.
“And yet, there are times,” the now deeply agitated minister exclaimed, as he paced the floor, his eyes blazing, his fists clinched, his breast heaving, “when I almost hate him!”
Suddenly he stopped, frightened, horrified that he should have dared to give utterance to such blasphemy, and sank into his chair, the tears following the deep lines of suffering down his weather-beaten cheeks, while his massive form was rocked by the inward tempest.
His wife, also weeping sympathetically, placed her arms lovingly about him, while Peggy knelt at his feet, holding one of his great, bony hands in her two soft, warm ones, smiling through her tears, while Simon covertly drew his red bandana handkerchief from his pocket and applied it vigorously to his eyes, saying, “My ole eyes are gittin’ so pow’ful bad, I think I will have to buy a pair of specs.” At this Peggy laughed heartily and said:
“Simon, I think I need some specs, too!”
Gradually the tempest of doubt, of lack of faith in God raging in Wilbur Ware’s soul began to subside, and Mrs. Ware, her face illumined until all looked at her awe-stricken, as though she were some ancient prophetess just stepped down from the skies, exclaimed:
“Wilbur, I see a vision too big for utterance. It is so great that it overwhelms me, and in its presence I stand on holy ground, for in the midst of the vision I see God. And He is guiding us.
“I am near the end of my journey, but a great work lies before the rest of you. There will be much suffering, much anguish, but in the end you will all really find God, for He is beckoning. And you will find our dear child. I see her alive and well, and some day there will be a happy family reunion, and my spirit will be there to rejoice with you.”
As she ceased talking, all were silent. They felt an unusual presence and power, and stood in awe of something they did not understand.
Quietly Simon stole out to his cabin as Peggy kissed her father and mother good-night and climbed the stairway to the attic room, leaving them with clasped hands, looking into the glowing coals.
Early Christmas morning Ralph and Virginia were peeping out of the window for the first streak of dawn when they discovered that a heavy snow had fallen during the night. Their shouts of delight aroused the entire household, and all were soon gathered about the great fire that Simon had slipped in and built while every one slept.
Soon the door of the other room opened and Santa Claus appeared and announced that he was ready to distribute the presents on the Christmas tree. His long white beard and funny wig so disguised him that Ralph and Virginia did not recognize him until all the presents had been distributed, and he produced his banjo and began to pick one of Simon’s favorite jigs and to dance to the music. Then they knew it was dear old “Uncle Simon.” They took off his long beard and funny wig, screaming with delight at discovering that Simon had rubbed flour on his face until it was white. Banteringly they said: “Simon, why did you make your face white?” To which he replied:
“Huh, who ever seen a nigger Santa Claus?”
When the hour arrived for going to church, Mrs. Ware wanted to accompany the family, but all protested that the walk through the snow would be too much for her, so she reluctantly consented to remain at home.
Peggy, walking beside her father, followed by Ralph, striding proudly by himself, Simon with Virginia perched on his shoulder, bringing up the rear, formed the little procession that took up its march to the mountain church a mile away, Mrs. Ware watching from the window until it had wound its way over the hill.
In the church there was an assembly of typical mountaineers who had sat under the theological preaching of Wilbur Ware for the past five years. He had come to them from one of the largest churches in Knoxville. Just why no one seemed to know. Uncomplainly and unquestioningly his wife, children, and Simon had followed him, and endured without a murmur the hardships and privations of their new environment.
In his search for his lost child in previous years he had spent a few days in the wild recesses of the Cumberland Mountains, and as his thoughts became more and more introspective, he felt drawn back to this out of the way place.
It was five years ago that he finally lost all hope of finding Florence, and with hope dead he desired to get away from the world, so that he would be able to devote more of his time to his theological studies. He had accumulated one of the largest theological libraries in the South, depriving himself and family of many of life’s comforts so that he could buy the precious books containing the thoughts, beliefs, and interpretations of other men’s minds.
His sermons to the little mountain church would have made him famous if they had been delivered as lectures in some great theological school; but to his hearers they had little meaning, and they accepted all he said as being true. He officiated at weddings and funerals, but always his discourses were as cold as icicles, and his words like the chill of the winter winds.
This mental and spiritual attitude of her husband had caused his wife great sorrow, and in secret she had poured out her heart to God for him.
Peggy had been away at college most of the time for two years, so that she was not wholly prepared for the sermon her father delivered on this Christmas morning. She had played the little, old, squeaky organ and sang Sankey’s beautiful song, “The Ninety and Nine,” while the audience sat spell bound under the magic of the beautiful words of the song as interpreted by Peggy. Many of her auditors whose lives had been hard, cold, and barren, were moved to tears, while her father’s face showed a great struggle of contending emotions.
His sermon came like an icy blast following an April shower, and the buds of tender emotions froze into icicles, even as they burst into full bloom.
“Vanity, vanity, all is vanity, and vexation of spirit,” said the preacher, and a shudder ran through the audience.
“Man is doomed to a life of sorrow and woe, and when he is cut down, must go before an angry, but just God, to give an account for the sins of the flesh.
“We are born in sin, and shapen in iniquity, and are all on the road to hell; and nothing but the blood of Jesus can save us from the wrath of a sin-avenging God. I warn you that unless you believe in the power of the blood to cleanse from sin, ‘you will be lost and lost through all eternity.’ And if you are not washed in the blood you will spend eternity crying ‘Lost! lost! lost!’ but God will turn a deaf ear to your cries.”
Peggy sat horrified, a feeling of fear clutching at her heart.
At the conclusion of the sermon, her father announced the closing hymn, “Hark, from the tombs a doleful sound,” but Peggy shook her head mournfully when he requested her to lead the singing.
In a hard, unsympathetic voice, the preacher sang the first line of the hymn, a few of the older members of the congregating joining in from time to time, in wailing, discordant tones as he “lined the hymn.”
Peggy sat with bowed head, a great pity in her soul, and a strong, almost irresistible desire to tell her father and the assembled people about God’s love and God’s mercy.
The service concluded, Wilbur Ware strode solemnly from the church, few caring to come near or to speak to him. Scarcely had he departed from the room until a great change came over the audience; with one accord they rushed to greet Peggy, the female members smothering her with kisses and embraces. Spring had burst again. The bleak winter wind of a few minutes ago was forgotten, and Peggy’s smile, her musical voice, her warm handclasp, her soul speaking through her eyes, had in one wonderful moment brought the Kingdom of Heaven right into their midst, and in that moment some of them felt a presence that they could not explain; but Peggy could have told them that it was God, “nearer to them than hands or feet.”
It was a long time before Peggy could tear herself away from the heart-hungry people, but with a promise that she would be with them on the following Sunday she finally made her escape in the midst of many “good-byes” and “God bless you’s.”
Simon, Ralph, and Virginia were waiting for her on the outside. In answer to her eager inquiry she was told that her father was impatient and had gone on home.
Joyfully they followed the trail now beaten out in the snow; Ralph marching proudly by the side of “Big Sis,” as he fondly called Peggy, while Simon, with Virginia in her accustomed place on his shoulder, kept step in the rear.
As they approached the home, Peggy was seized by some indefinable dread. She ceased to respond to the prattle of the children. Her face became ashen and her limbs trembled until she felt that they would not sustain her as she moved at a rapid pace; Simon kept close beside her, he too feeling some impending disaster.
When they arrived at the gate, they heard a strange voice, now hoarse and angry, and anon broken and pleading. They stopped in fear. What could it mean? Who was this stranger, and where was father? They listened for their mother’s voice, but it was not to be heard. Then an awful thing happened. The man inside the house began to curse God, and they heard him say:
“If there is a God, I hate him! I hate him! for he not only took my little Florence away from me, but now he has taken my precious wife.”
They did not wait to hear more, but rushed into the house. On the bed lay the mother, a beautiful smile parting her lips, the roses still in her cheeks, her eyes gently closed, the long, beautiful lashes covering them for the long sleep, while Wilbur Ware crouched on the floor, with the look of some desperately wounded wild animal in his face, his hair dishevelled, his eyes bloodshot, the veins in his neck and forehead swollen and black as though about to burst.
Ralph and Virginia standing in the presence of death for the first time did not recognize him, but called piteously for “mother,” while Peggy, overcome with the greatest sorrow of her life, kissed the beloved lips and stroked the beautiful hair, crying, “My God, my God! was it not possible for this cup of sorrow to have passed?”
Old Simon, standing at the foot of the bed, his white head bowed low, his body shaken as by some mighty inward upheaval, said: “Good-bye, l’il Missus; we hates to gib you up, but we’ll all be wid you on de resurrection mawnin’.”
Note: It is not known if this first chapter in the book entitled ”Peggy Ware” is based on real individuals or events, but regardless, the author has taken us back in time to how life was lived in the 1800’s in the wilds of the Cumberland Mountains. The rest of the book can be found on-line at books.google.com and it a wonderful commentary. I highly suggest family searchers and researchers to read stories such as this in order to get a sense of how ordinary people lived in this time period.