Sunday, August 3, 2008

Ona Blankenship

"This is how I picture Miss Birdie," my friend Louise told me last night, handing me these two black and white photos. Ona Blankenship was Louise's nearest neighbor in Pipestem, West Virginia, back at the end of the Sixties.

You know what? Ona looks just like the Miss Birdie in my mind. While my Miss Birdie's voice and character draw from my own neighbors -- Grace Henderson, Mearl Davis, Dessie Wilson --- 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 any one I know. And now, here she is.

When Louise knew her, Ona Blankenship was in her eighties and living alone. In spite of failing eyesight and arthritic fingers, she created beautiful crazy quilts, Louise tells me.

The quilt in the picture isn't one of Ona's. It was made by Ollie Payne, the mother of the woman from whom we bought our farm. Ollie was almost 100 the only time I met her and was a bed-ridden invalid, covered by numerous quilts of her own making.

These wonderful, fierce old women -- everywhere I go I hear their stories. Only last night 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, in my county and yours. Let's hear it for fierce old women!
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Susan M. Bell said...

I always pictured Miss Birdie like this lady I knew as a kid, Miss Smith. And low and behold, Ona looked just like her. I'm betting she's about the same age in those photos as Miss Smith was when I knew her, although I never did know her exact age. She's even wearing her hair the same, and the dress is about the same. Some things never really change since the pictures of Ona are from the 60's and I knew Miss Smith (didn't know her first name) in the 80's.

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Vicki, thank you for giving the women in my poems credit for being kin to Miss Birdie! I like to think they are. I wish our fierce old women could all get together in one big book party. K.

Vicki Lane said...

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.

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