Three unforgettables

When my affluent New England seaside town began sending volunteers to a two- week work camp in the Appalachian Mountains several Junes ago, I eagerly signed up. We were to repair and rebuild homes of needy mountaineers, and with only minor carpentry skills, I temporarily -- and somewhat nervously -- left my life as wife and mother, my avocations of writing and tutoring, and a large home by the sea.

I was going "to give."

We found steep and stunning mountains -- sometimes mist-enshrouded, other times flat and fluffy, each tree standing out in singular relief. And deep among them, I found three mountain women who would change my life forever.

The first year, I worked at the home of Ellie Cool, who lived with her disabled husband, Jim, and young son, Jimmie, three miles down a mountain road near the edge of a large strip mine. With toothless smile and thin braids fastened around her head, Ellie looked frail and older than her forty years. But she and Jim nevertheless pitched in as we began digging a hole for a pump house that would give them running water for the very first time.

Taking a break, we walked with Jim to the mine along roadsides banked with wild rhododendron just bursting into bloom. "Ellie owns 109 acres here," he said, speaking of land that had been in her family for generations. Then he pointed with his arm: "Nearly to the top of that mountain over there. The mine wants her mineral rights, but she won't sell. She doesn't want to spoil God's creation."

Because our friendship had been instantaneous, Ellie and I corresponded after camp, my letters typed on heavy bond, hers handwritten on lined notebook paper. Their message was always the same: "Y' all come back now, hear?"

The second summer I didn't see her, for now I had a crew of four college students, working 2,300 feet up on another mountain at Hallie Hamrick's house. Delicate, smallboned, with dark hair falling shoulder- length, Hallie lived alone except for a six- year-old grandson, David, whom she was raising to lighten an ailing daughter's load.

With problems aplenty there, Hallie worked with us, her self-sufficiency and common sense without end. When we needed a ladder, we used a hickory one she'd built herself; we needed a measure, and she brought us a broom, a rule etched along its full length; and when we rolled out insulation, she suggested pressing it down with a smooth, flat stick to make the jack- knife cut easier.

There was a dignity to everything Hallie did, Whether working, or laughing, or sharing her life. With only six grades of schooling, she had wanted to return; but divorcing her husband years before, she'd raised three children alone. Now she cared for Dave on a small welfare check, supplemented by washing she did on her porch. Coal for their stove they collected by the road; the tires in the yard were collected to sell. She had no running water, no bathroom , no radio or TV -- nor an ounce of self- pity in her sweet, sturdy soul.

One morning, Hallie drew me aside saying she had leave for the day. "I don't have much, but I want you all to have something." She handed me five envelopes, an old penny in each, and written across the face of each: THIS IS A TOKEN OF LOVE.

Self-reliant though she was, I worried just the same. With a nearly spent potbellied stove, I thought about fire, and thought about her diet, too. In the winter that followed, I sent Hallie money from an article I'd sold; with tutoring money I bought a new stove; and after Christmas, sent clothes bought on sale.

"I can never repay you," she said.

"Gift enough to know you," I replied.

We campers paid room and board to live with mountain folk, and thus, returning to camp for the third straight June, I met strong and shy Lula McCoy, mother of seven daughters and a son.

Lula was tiny and had the watchful eyes of the earth-mother she was.When we walked her spread at 3,000 feet, she showed me chickens, horses, kitten, dogs -- and turkeys they'd raised from eggs. Would they later eat them? I asked. Oh no, she replied, they couldn't do that -- each had its own name and personality. Life was held dear, and it seemed apropos that even the cow emerging from the barn was pregnant.

Lula read a lot, and thought even more -- and when she was troubled, went into her woods. One day, deeply depressed, she entered the forest "praying to God to send a bear. A big, black bear." Instead, she said, He'd sent a deer -- a great, large deer coursing over the property where there hadn't been a deer in years. Her husband and son ran for their guns. "Don't you shoot that ole deer! Don't you shool that ole deer!" she cried.

She knew from whom it had come.

I was to spend my 25th anniversary at the camp -- without my husband, who was on a business trip a thousand miles away. And feeling lonely that night, I drove over three mountains to Hallie's house. It had been a year since I'd seen her, and we threw our arms around each other, she dancing a jig as she drew me into the house. "I have something for you," she said, and her eyes were dancing , too, as she handed me a package all wrapped in white.

Inside was a multicolored, handmade quilt.All my life -- though I'd never mentioned it to anyone -- I'd wanted a quilt. Now here it was, given in this humble house, by my beautiful mountain friend.

"I thought of you with every stitch," she said.

On the last day of camp, I finally got back to see the Cools. Ellie's land, I noticed, was still untouched. After offering ice cream and cake, she asked me to say grace, and we all sat with bowed heads and joined hands while I blessed the friendship that had again brought us close.

After strolling their garden, it was time to go -- and walking to the car I apologized for staying just an hour. "We wish we could keep you for thirty years," they said. I watched until they'd disappeared from sight, then started down the mountain road thinking: "It'll be a long time before I see them again." Suddenly, far up to the left, something caught my eye.

High on a hillock stood Ellie, Jim, and Jimmie, waving me goodbye. If I know anything of love, I felt it then in its purest sense -- springing not just from their hearts, but from their very souls.

At quarter to 6 next morning, I left Lula's place to begin the long journey home. The sun was not yet up, the sky pellucid blue, the mist-filled pastures so dotted with daisies the horses seemed to be grazing in lace.

Simplify, it all seemed to say. And listen: to the rhythms of the earth, the home, and the heart.

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