The 2022 Short Story Challenge started by A Virginia Writer’s Diary is all about folklore, and the original post can be found here. We are finally caught up, and here is our official post for May. For our May entry, we’re focusing on the mountain tradition of storytelling, as well as Mother’s Day, to bring you a story from my Mom, who passed away in 2020.
ABOUT MY MOM
Dorothy Jenkins was born in 1931 in the mountains of Western NC. Her father, Ed Calloway Jenkins, was a farmer who took on other jobs to make ends meet, including working in a sawmill. Her mother, Edith, worked hard at home and raised 12 children. Dorothy, or Dot, only went to school until the eighth grade because she was needed at home to help take care of the family. However, she loved to read. She read a book a day when I was a kid. Growing up, her mother would read stories to my Mom and her siblings, often Grace Livingston Hill romances or Zane Grey westerns. And my Mom could tell a story. One of my favorites was the story about the jar of peanut butter. I’m calling it Death by Peanut Butter, and you will see the reason why when you read the last two lines. She wrote that story down, and I’m providing it below with some dialogue and context thrown in. I also added a bit of another story she used to tell us about The Swinging Bridge.
This is Appalachian folklore in its purest sense–Mountain parents and grandparents sharing stories of their lives with their children.
DEATH BY PEANUT BUTTER
One day my Momma asked me to go to the store and a get jar of peanut butter for school lunches. “Ok,” I said, “Can I take Ed and Bonnie?” My brother Ed was eight years old and Bonnie was only six.
“Yes, Dot,” she said, “But take care of them!”
I said okay and we went on our way. It was four miles one way to the store, and we ran along, playing and being silly, until we made our way to town.
In the early to mid-1940s, in order to get to the store in our town, which was Bryson City, North Carolina, we had to cross the Tuckasegee River. That was the scariest part of the trip. Our little town was split in the middle by that river. In order to get across, we had to use the swinging bridge that had been put up by the Carolina Wood Turning company, a furniture company where our Daddy worked in the lumberyard.
The swinging bridge had always been a scary place for me. The river could get very wild, and the bridge rocked back and forth on windy days, with only rope on the sides to hold onto. I’ll never forget the day, a couple years before, when I brought my Daddy his lunch. He had always crossed the bridge to meet me, because he knew how scared I was to cross it. But that day he did not. He sat down on the bank and called, “Dot, come over here!”
I was terrified, but I had to do as my Daddy said. I slowly stepped onto the bridge, which creaked and swayed. I stopped, shaking, afraid to go forward. He called out again, “Dot, don’t be afraid. Just look at me!”
It was the most terrible trip, that first trip across the bridge. But keeping my eyes on my Daddy and not on the water, I made it across. Ever since then, I was able to help Momma more, such as running those errands to the store, because I could cross that bridge and go to town.
Even now, each crossing was a scary event for me. I held tight to my sister Bonnie’s hand, but my brother Ed scampered across without a fear in the world.
At the store, I bought the jar of peanut butter plus some other things my Momma needed. The lady at the counter smiled at little Bonnie and said, “Would you like a peppermint stick, Sweetie?”
Her big grin and quick nod resulted in all three of us receiving candy for the trip back. What a treat!
Of course we had to head back to that swinging bridge in order to go home, so we walked across, sucking on our candy and enjoying the day. I went even more slowly because I was carrying the bit of groceries.
At the end of the bridge, a strange man was standing, swaying back and forth, and he wouldn’t let us pass. I asked him nicely to let us go past him, but he did not. The bridge was narrow, and he was blocking the exit. He kept swaying and talking unintelligibly, trying to keep us trapped on the bridge. I don’t know why. He was probably drunk.
I said very loudly “Let us off this bridge!” but he did not. I was getting worried now, so I told Ed, “When I say run, take Bonnie and run!” Again I said very loudly, “Let us off this bridge!” When he didn’t move, I yelled “Run!” and Ed and Bonnie began to run. I took that jar of peanut butter and threw it at this odd man, hitting him in the head. And wouldn’t you know it, he fell over and then rolled down the hill!
Ed and Bonnie were already running toward home, but I looked for the jar of peanut butter. It was sitting halfway down the hill and was not broken. I ran and got it. My Momma needed that peanut butter. I took off for home, catching up with my brother and sister. We never told our Momma or Daddy about this until we were grown.
My brother Ed, when telling this story, would always say I killed a man with a jar of peanut butter! I don’t think so, but I sure didn’t go back to check!
Mom in her favorite place–the garden.
At this link is a picture of the lumberyard of the Carolina Wood Turning Company in 1942. If you enlarge the photo and look over the water, you will see a narrow swinging bridge. That’s the bridge from this story.