Monday, September 28, 2015

Ona Blankenship (re-post)

This is a re-post from 2008.

"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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8 comments:

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.

Mary Anne Rudolph said...

When we first moved to TN in 1972, to a farm we bought on Dog Hollow Rd, our nearest neighbor was Ms. Tennie (for Tennessee) Wickham. She always wore house dresses, dyed her hair black, and for years, climbed up into the hayloft to push bales down for her cows in winter. She was born in 1900, so was 72 when we met her (I know, that sounds so young to me now). She mowed her own grass, raised a garden, canned, got up early every morning, 4:30, because she loved to. She rode the school bus with the kids for years and was the 'cafeteria lady', although she cooked breakfast and lunch on a huge Army wood cookstove and there was no cafeteria in those days. That was before they closed all the small schools and built the new one 15 miles away. She lived up into her 90's and stayed in her own home except for the last few months. She was our introduction to the South, and let me tell you one thing, it was sure an eye opener for a young couple from San Diego, recent college grads with no clue about anything but wanting some land in the rural, oh so rural rolling hills of Middle Tennessee.

Barbara Rogers said...

Ah, what a wonderful looking woman...I notice those strong hands which are strangely large compared to the rest of her. Osteoarthritis maybe? I do remember the 70s when my sister moved from FL to her cabin in Livingston, TN in the mountains...no running water or electricity. Another generation of strong brave women! Mary Anne reminded me of my visits to her. Now I live in the more civilized part of the mountains of NC. (Roads are paved, and I need the conveniences of electricity!)

katy gilmore said...

Yes! FOW forever!

jennyfreckles said...

I can't imagine myself looking like the quintessential little old lady. We have soft lives these days and maybe that makes a difference. My mum lived well into her 80s and never looked really old - but nevertheless I hope I can be as feisty and fearless as this wonderful woman looks to be.

Anonymous said...

Though not rural, my grandmother was a fierce old lady, too. Her young adulthood, teaching in a one-room school house, breaking the ice off the water bucket, teaching kids some of whom were older than she was, gave her the grit to survive as a penniless widow with one daughter not that many years later. Her love of people, canning, art, and music helped sustain her through a second, but loveless, marriage. Left a widow again, in the last decade of her life she still had the zest for music club twice a week and the fortitude to crawl up the stairs to her bedroom when her legs were too lame. She lived to be 98, still on her own, still finding joy in life.

Deana the Queena