A PERSONAL STORY
I’ll close this series with an account of my mother’s experience in Big Cove, North Carolina; the comparatively traditional eastern Cherokee community of the late 1960s. I’ll change all the names and characters except for my mother and her wonderful friend, Annie Crowe.
My mother got hired to run a preschool daycare center in Big Cove that was funded through a Community Action Program (CAP) grant, part of LBJ’s Great Society’s War on Poverty. The federal government supplied the daycare center with food, salaries, utility bill coverage, and other various expenses. My mother applied for the job after passing North Carolina’s state teacher certification test.
Very quickly, it became obvious that my mother had stepped into a bit of a territorial firestorm. Her problem was a Cherokee Indian woman I’ll call Nancy. Nancy had run the daycare on a shoestring budget before the advent of CAP funding. The CAP funders wanted a director with some college training and a state teaching certificate, and they refused to grandfather-in Nancy, who only had a high school diploma. For this alone, Nancy apparently decided all outside directors were her enemies. Nancy had driven several out before my mother arrived, including a husband and wife team. The longest anyone else had lasted was ten days. Nancy had apparently tried to dominate them, contradicted their suggestions, obstructed their ideas, sabotaged their efforts, and otherwise made their lives miserable. Ironically, technically I think any of these parties (including my mother) could have fired Nancy, but strangely enough, none had done so.
At the time, we were living paycheck to paycheck in a rental house, and the financial straits alone made my mother determined to stick with the job. My mother is a very gentle woman, and she considered herself something of a guest on the Cherokee Reservation. But she also has a spirited, stubborn streak, especially when someone tires to push her around.
Sure enough, Nancy immediately began mistreating my mother. I’m not sure if it would have been that easy to fire Nancy; there may have been bureaucratic stipulations about a required level of Indian employment in that particular CAP program. In any case, my mother was not the type to take such drastic measures, especially in an impoverished area where people needed their jobs. Instead, she simply began ignoring Nancy and her attempts to sabotage my mother’s work.
Annie Crowe was Nancy’s assistant. She watched from the sidelines. After a few weeks, she began arranging “nature walks” for the children in order to have an opportunity to converse with my mother. That’s when Mom learned of Nancy’s track record of aggressive hostility, and other matters pertaining to the daycare center and the wider community. But a couple of key things happened during the interim that probably began winning Annie’s affection.
My mother was the only non-Indian employee of the small operation. The remainder of the staff was Nancy, Annie, Eddie (an elderly janitor), a number of girls fresh out of high school working at minimum wage (basically as baby sitters), a school bus driver, and a cook I’ll call Ava.
One day my mother finished work and left, only to return unexpectedly to fetch something she had forgotten. She accidentally walked in on Ava helping some community members load those cafeteria-type gallon cans of food into their cars. They were stealing food.
My mother took Ava aside and said, “I haven’t seen anything here, and you can rest assured I’ll say nothing to anyone else. But please do not take too much. I have to fill out the requisition forms every month, and if the higher-ups suspect that we’re ordering more than we can reasonably use, there will be trouble for everyone. I’ll lose my job, but you’ll also lose this supply of food.”
This brought Ava to tears, probably mainly out of gratitude for Mom’s compassion. Perhaps she had expected, not unreasonably, to be fired on the spot instead. So Ava and the others continued to “liberate” reasonable amounts of food. From my mother’s point of view, this was not a crime. “After all, they were hungry,” she later explained.
I would be surprised if Annie did not learn of this incident through Ava. My mother never breathed a word of it, except at home with the family. But perhaps learning about this incident gave Annie an idea.
My mother had only been there a month when Annie first mentioned a little girl further up in the hills whom they were trying to entice down to the daycare center. I’ll call her Carly. She was only four or five, but her grandfather was very attached to her and protective of her, especially with her parents not in the area. This was fairly common in Big Cove at the time; parents my mother’s age had left to find work elsewhere, and the grandparents were left to raise the kids. Carly’s grandfather had resisted Nancy’s repeated attempts to entice Carly down to the daycare center, despite the two free daily meals provided for the kids. Apparently, Carly’s grandfather found Nancy to be overbearing and didn’t want to expose his little granddaughter to this sort of behavior. Annie related all this to my mother. And now that my mother was running the operation, Annie was eager that Carly come down to benefit from the daycare center.
So one day, after work, Annie asked if my mother would accompany her to Carly’s house. They drove there together. Annie asked my mother to wait in Annie’s pickup truck. There were earthen stairs carved into the steep clay hillside leading up to the house. My mother could not see the house from the road, but she could see the porch. Soon Annie, Carly, and the grandfather were all out there on the porch having a conversation. My mother thought it best to show herself. She got out of the truck and went and sat on one of the earthen stairs.
The next day Carly was waiting for the school bus. From the beginning my mother had arrived early to ride with the school bus driver, to make sure the kids were okay. They were all so very young. And that day, Carly was among the group.
But it might have been my mother’s display of humility that day, sitting on the earth, that helped sway Carly’s grandfather. Plus, I’m very sure Annie put in a good word. After all, Annie, Nancy, Carly’s grandfather, and all those families were very well acquainted with each other, as people almost inevitably are in a very small rural community. In vital ways, my Mom was like Annie, and Annie like my Mom. Carly’s grandfather appreciated that.
“You should have seen Carly that first day,” my mother recalled. “It was like she was going to a birthday party. She was in a fine dress with ribbons in her hair. A darling child.”
I myself visited the daycare center once, and brought along my guitar and played the children the handful of folk songs my father had taught me. They found that very boring! Later that day we all went on one of those “nature walks.”
Mom and Annie were both gracious, sensitive women. I think they were kindred spirits from the beginning. But Mom only discovered the extent of their friendship just before her employment ended. The job did not last long. Nixon got elected in 1968, and by 1969 he began dismantling the Community Action Programs and other aspects of LBJ’s Great Society. Apparently Congress or one agency or another cut the funding to Big Cove almost immediately, and by year’s end the CAP daycare center was defunct and my mother was unemployed just before my father lost his own teaching job at Western Carolina College. Somehow I’ve blanked out how afraid they suddenly were, though I remember my father saying he might have to sell used cars to earn an income. Soon we were moving north.
Before we left, Annie presented my mother with a wonderful basket that her octogenarian grandmother had made. The grandmother was named Anna, and was born circa 1888; undoubtedly she had grown up hearing her elders remember the Trail of Tears and how they had hidden in the mountains to escape the forced trek to Oklahoma. But she had heard of my mother through Annie. The basket was their way of saying thank you and goodbye. It was their way of showing the love of friendship.
See my List, “Enrichment Assimilation” for other installments in this series of excerpts from my unpublished book, Enrichment Assimilation: A Lingering American Dream, Copyright © 2019, 2022 Will Sarvis. All rights reserved.