Monday, October 25, 2010

An Appalachian Ghost Tale

The Woman from the High Mountain

© Linda Goodman, 1997

(What follows is my adaptation of a story that my father told. He claimed that the story was true, but I believe that he meant that in the storytelling sense: i.e., just because it did not happen does not mean it is not true. There are many cultures that have a variation of this story. This story is written as a monologue in a modified version of the Appalachian dialect.)

When my daddy was a young’un, his best friend was Rufus Gilliam. Rufus and my daddy grew up together, and when they was boys, you never saw one without the other’n. And when they was growed, they even worked together in the mines for a while, until Rufus come into this inheritance from his mamaw.

Rufus used that inheritance to buy Gilliam’s General Store over in downtown Norton. Now Rufus never did make much money off of that store, but he did get by, ‘cause they won’t no other such place in them parts and folks would give Rufus all their business just to keep him going.

My daddy was at that store ever single day. In fact, he was there when Rufus proposed to Reba May Tackett, his very best customer. And then Daddy was best man at their weddin’, and a year after that he stood godfather to their adopted daughter, Clara Gay. And it was my daddy who told me the story I’m a fixin’ to tell you now. And, like as not, when you hear it, you’re gonna say, “Huh! T’aint so!” All I got to say to that is, my daddy never told a lie in his life!

Now it seems that one Friday, ‘long bout eight o’clock of the evenin’, closin’ time, Rufus was fixing to lock up his store, when in come this woman he’d never seen before. She was right tall, he said. Fact is, he had to look up at her. She had long stringy, black hair and she was wearin’ a frock that looked more like a nightgown than a proper dress, and she was barefooted. And she was covered with dirt from her head all the way down to her feet. Why, Rufus said it looked like she’d crawled through miles of mud to get to his store, yet it hadn’t rained in weeks.

And then he looked into her clear, gray eyes, and it was like the held him hypnotized. All he could manage was to ask, “Kin I help ye?”

She didn’t say nothin’, just pointed to the milk in the dairy case behind him.

Rufus went to that dairy case and he took out a quart of milk and handed it to her. The next second, she lit right out the door! Didn’t pay for that milk. Didn’t even say, “Thank ye.” And Rufus, well, he didn’t have the heart to go after her, ‘cause he knew that this was a woman who’d been hit by hard times, and he figgered that she needed that milk more than he needed the money to pay for it.

After that woman had gone, Rufus locked up his store and went to open up the door to the back room. See, Rufus, my daddy, Rusty Mullins, and Orville Rittenbury got together in that back room for a card game every Friday night.

That night, as Rufus was dealin’ cards, he told them boys about that woman that’d come into his store. My daddy listened to him, thought about it for a minute, and said, “Now, Rufus, the way you talk about this woman being covered with dirt and all makes me wonder is she’s one of them people that live up on the high mountain. You know, them that’s called Melungeons. ‘Cause they don’t have water right handy up there like we do down here, and I hear tell that they don’t take a bath but once a week or so. You reckon she could be one of them?”

Rufus scratched his head and said, “I never thought about that, Ted, but I reckon she could be.”

Then they got back to the matter at hand, which was that card game. And my daddy had a real good game that night. Fact is he won two dollars! So he took all them boys to the Starlite Café after, for some cold beers.

Now the next night, that’d be Saturday, right about the time that Rufus was fixin’ to close his store, in come that woman again. Once again, Rufus looks into her clear, gray eyes and all he can do is say, “Kin I help ye?”

Once again, she don’t say nothin’, just points to the milk in the dairy case behind him. And Rufus gets the milk from the dairy case and hands it to her. And once again, that woman lights right on out of there lickety split!

This time, though, Rufus decides to go after her and he runs out the door. But he looks this way and that, and he don’t see hide nor hair of that woman. Why, it was like she just disappeared into thin air!

Well, that spooked Rufus, so he locked up that store right quick and went straight to see my daddy to tell him all about it. “I’m a telling you, Ted,” he whispered, “they’s somethin’ unnatural about this woman, somethin’ that just ain’t right!”

My daddy didn’t think nothin’ of it. “Now, Rufus,” he drawled, “this is just a woman that’s been hit by hard times. And it’d be agin the Code of the Hills for us not to help a body like that, right here in our own midst. But how kin we help her if we don’t know who she is or where she lives?

“Now what I aim we do is this: your store‘ll not be open tomorrow, it bein’ Sunday and all. But on Monday, why don’t me and Rusty Mullins and Orville Rittenbury come on over around closin’ time and wait. Like as not, that woman‘ll come in again and one of us will recognize her, and then we’ll be able to give her the help she needs.”

Rufus allowed that sounded like a right good idea to him.

So that Monday, long about seven-thirty of the evenin’, my daddy and Rusty Mullins and Orville Rittenbury went on over to Gilliam’s General Store. They was standin’ around the pickle barrel, jawin’ and tellin’ stories and such. Finally eight o’clock came, then eight-ten, then eight-fifteen. Finally Rufus threw up his hands and said, “Well, boys, it looks like she ain’t comin’ tonight. I’m sorry to have led you fellers on a wild goose chase of a Monday evenin’.”

Well, those words hadn’t nor more than come out of his mouth til that woman came in the door. Daddy said it looked like she floated more than walked! And he said she looked just the way that Rufus had described her, all covered with dirt. Them boys just watched with their mouths open while Rufus looked into her clear, gray eyes and asked, “Kin I help ye?”

Daddy said that woman was shiverin’ like she was about to freeze. Why, he could have sworn he heard her bones rattle as she pointed to the milk in the dairy case behind Rufus!

Rufus got a quart of milk and handed it to her. And that woman lit out of there so fast, Daddy said she looked like a streak of lightning leavin’ that store!

Well them boys just stood there for a second or two, and then Daddy cried, “Let’s go after her, boys!”

They took off runnin’ in the direction they had seen her headed. Finally Daddy yelled, “Look, boys, there she is, fixin’ to run up the high mountain! I told you she was one of them Melungeons!”

Then Daddy and Rufus got their second wind and picked up their speed. Daddy said he was runnin’ so fast he thought his heart would beat clean out of his chest. And yet that woman stayed way far ahead of them, and her lookin’ so weak and all.

Finally Daddy and Rufus closed in on her, almost close enough to touch her, when she ran behind a tree. But when Daddy and Rufus ran behind that tree, she was gone! And they stood there scratchin’ their heads, tryin’ to figger how that woman got away so quick that neither one of them had seen what direction she was headin’.

About that time, my daddy heard a sound comin’ from the ground beneath his feet. It sounded like somethin’ whimperin’. Daddy looked at Rufus. “You hear that Rufus?”

“Sure do, Ted!” he declared.

And my daddy and Rufus started diggin’ in the dirt with their bare hands. Then Rusty Mullins and Orville Rittenbury caught up to them and they helped dig. They dug about two feet down, until they came to a big pine box.

Daddy took his pocket knife and pried the lid of that box loose and opened it real slow. And there, layin’ right on top of its dead mommy’s chest, was a livin’, breathin’ baby girl!

Well, Rufus always did set great store by young’uns. He gently picked that baby up and held it to his shoulder. “There, there, sweet one,” he cooed.

And then my daddy said, “Rufus! Look at the face of that baby’s mommy.”

And Rufus looked down at that mommy’s face, and he saw starin’ back at him the clear, gray, lifeless eyes of that woman that had been comin’ into his store night after night.

Then Daddy said, “Look at her hand, Rufus! Look at her hand!”

And Rufus looked at that woman’s right hand. And in it he saw a fresh bottle of cold milk labeled “Gilliam’s General Store.” And at her feet, they was two empty bottles just like it!

Well, Rufus took that baby home to his wife Reba May, and they called the doctor. Rufus told the doctor where he found the baby, but he didn’t tell him the rest of the story.

That doctor examined that baby, and he allowed that it had been right sick and that it must have lapsed into a coma, so its people took it for dead and buried it with its mommy. Them Melungeons, you see, don’t set much store by doctors.

Rufus and Reba May raised that baby as their very own and named her Clara Gay. And I kin tell by the looks on your faces exactly what you’re thinkin’, “Ain’t no such thing as haints!”

Well, I don’t blame you none. Sometimes I’m apt to think that way myself. But then I look into the clear, gray eyes of Clara Gay Gilliam, my daddy’s goddaughter, and I know they’s more things in heaven and earth than mere mortals can understand. Life, you see, is a mystery.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Thoughts on Waiting for Superman

As a boy, Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, was devastated when his mother informed him that there was no Superman. His mother thought his reaction stemmed from the same emotions that overcame him when he found out that there was no Santa Claus. Quite the opposite, Canada explains, finding out that there was no Superman made him realize that there was no one coming to save him from the life he feared would be his.

These days, Canada is Superman to a group of kids that is small in comparison to the number of children who desperately need his particular brand of ingenuity and creativity in education. Featured in the documentary film Waiting For Superman, Canada makes a plea for America to save its children from the grim lives that await them if our educational system is allowed to continue in its present decline into chaos.

The United States, once a leader in education worldwide, now ranks 18th among the 36 industrialized nations. This film examines this crisis by following the educational obstacles faced by three students who are striving to get the best education possible while living in poverty and one student who feels that her upper middle class school is failing her.

I learned a few new terms from this film:

1. Dancing lemons – the practice of moving bad teachers from school to school because they cannot be fired.
2. Drop-out factories – schools where the majority of students never graduate.
3. Academic sinkholes – schools that are primarily babysitting institutions.

I also learned of some situations that surprised me. For instance, tenure is not performance based in most public schools. Rather, it is an award for the amount of time a teacher has spent in a system. Another surprising fact: it is almost impossible to fire tenured teachers, regardless of their performance.

Call me naïve, but I was shocked to learn that in most poverty centers, children can gain admittance to charter and magnet schools only by lottery, even though those very schools are their only hope of getting a decent education. Demand is high, and just a small fraction of the children who enter the lottery are chosen to attend these schools. Of the four children profiled in this film, only 2 are chosen.

The mother of one of the little girls in this film works several jobs in order to pay the $500 monthly tuition required for her daughter to attend Catholic school. When the mother’s hours are cut back and she gets behind on the payments, the school forbids her daughter to participate in its graduation ceremony. Seeing this little girl watch her classmates walk into the school to take part in the ceremony from which she has been banned is heartbreaking.

David Guggenheim, the award-winning documentarian behind this film, seems to think the problem lies with teachers and teachers unions. In many instances, union rules make it impossible to reward exceptional teachers, while at the same time protecting the jobs of inadequate teachers.

Nowhere in this film are parents held accountable. The parents of the four children profiled are responsible and are making their children’s educations their first priority, regardless of the cost to them. If more parents were this concerned about their children’s education, could that not go a long way towards solving the problem? Aren't drug use and absentee parents factors contributing to our failing classrooms?

As a professional storyteller, I have worked in many schools, rural as well as inner city. Most of the teachers I have worked with clearly love their jobs and the children they teach. Many of them spend their own money and personal time to help children in need.

In one inner city high school, I witnessed a student threaten a teacher who asked him to quit hanging around in the hall and go to class. In a Richmond, Virginia school, a teacher had her wrist broken while trying to break up a fight. Such teachers should get combat pay, not the paltry sums that they are expected to live on.

As one who was born in poverty, I am grateful for the teachers who influenced my life:

Mrs. Wiggins – my first grade teacher, who told me that my Appalachian accent was elegant. The kids who made fun of the way I talked took note and left me alone.

Mrs. Geddie – my second grade teacher, who defended me against the school secretary who wanted to have me suspended for forgetting to bring in my immunization form.

Mrs. Harrison – my third grade teacher, who let me paint with water colors to my heart’s delight.

Mrs. Mabry – my sixth grade teacher, who taught me to how to write and how to read for fun.

Mrs. Horne, my 11th and 12th grade English teacher, who taught me the power of the comma and to love poetry.

Returning our schools to their glory years will be achieved only if all parties involved (teachers, unions, administrators, parents, the community) agree that our children’s futures are worth salvaging and make the tremendous effort required to bring that about. Do not this nation’s children, the future leaders of this country, deserve first rate educations?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dickens-Era London Brought Magically to Life

Compact Disc Review by Linda Goodman

Missing the Muffin Man, by Mary Jo Maichack $12.00 + $2.00 shipping and handling. CD cash/personal check sales from Mary Jo Maichack, Maichack Arts, 93 Homestead Avenue, Holyoke, Ma 01040, or Visit for a free listen and a 40% discount if more than one CD is purchased. Recommended for listeners of all ages.

Missing the Muffin Man, the latest CD from minstrel, storyteller Mary Jo Maichack, is a wonderfully engaging tale of a young girl in search of a treasured friend. Set in Charles Dickens’ London, it is the perfect companion piece to A Christmas Carol. Indeed, with this CD, Maichack, long admired for her considerable storytelling and singing talent, makes her mark as a writer of note. In the process, she has raised the bar for all those who aspire to enter the realm of telling tales.

The story’s protagonist is ten-year old Ginny Wright, who becomes distraught after going three weeks without seeing her beloved muffin man. After all, in his absence she is forced to spend afternoons with her stern governess, rather than have tea with her adored mother. How she longs to hear the ringing hand bell that announces the muffin man’s arrival! How she misses the special wink that is a code between them!

Ginny does what any curious child would do if given the opportunity: she takes her terrier Pike and sets out to find her friend. Her search leads her on an adventure that is both exciting and frightening. The streets of London come to life with costermongers (street vendors), beggars, flower stalls, and thieves. Maichak paints the scene so clearly that the listener can see the squalor and chaos; can hear the shouts and bells, so loud that conversation is impossible.

Ginny’s seemingly innocent escapade takes a dangerous turn when she has a run-in with a body snatcher. An orphaned boy who calls himself “Six” comes to her aid. Six proudly claims to be a thief. “Better thievin’ than beggin,’” he tells her. “At least thievin’ has some skill to it.” He advises Ginny, for her safety, to be entertaining. Ginny takes his advice and the result is her creation of the classic children’s song, The Muffin Man. While the origins of this song are not known, Maichack’s story certainly seems plausible.

No review of Maichack’s work would be complete without mention of the remarkable tool that is her voice. Using several English accents to perfection, she gives each of her characters a distinct voice. The listener always knows who is speaking. Her rhythm and timing are impeccable, and her singing is a delight.

Maichack’s CD cover portrait is a pastel painting entitled “Homage to Renoir,” by her husband Gregory John Maichack, a talented artist in his own right. The portrait is the perfect complement to the story. The inside cover has a nineteenth century muffin recipe that is sure to delight both culinaries and those who taste their wares.

Put on a pot of tea, warm an English muffin, and put this CD on to play. You will not be Missing the Muffin Man for long.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Neon Man and Me

DVD Review

Written and performed by Slash Coleman. Music by Slash Coleman. Available for $19.95 at

Reviewed by Linda Goodman

In 2004, Slash Coleman suffered the loss of his best friend, Mark Jamison, a neon light artist who was electrocuted while hanging a sign. After Jamison’s death, Coleman began collecting mementos meant to help Jamison’s little boy, not yet born, to get to know the father he would never meet. That process led to the creation of The Neon Man and Me, a one-man play about friendship and going home.

In this show, Coleman portrays thirty characters, beginning with Jacques Lemoire, who gives a dissertation on the mating habits of elephants, who meet through a series of long distance calls called “musths.” This is followed by a recitation of Terry Kettering’s poem The Elephant in the Room. Writing, Coleman discovers, is a powerful pill.

Next, Coleman describes his first meeting with an “elephant” named Mark Jamison, then a tenor saxophonist alternately described as an “alcohol powered weejie board” and a “Pentecostal chick magnet.” To Coleman he becomes “the man,” his new best friend. That friendship is deepened through road trips, fishing trips, and late night coffees. The two form a jazz band together.

Later, while being dressed down by a university official for a questionable promotional stunt, Jamison proclaims that jazz is a spiritual truth and reveals to Coleman that a member of his church has had a vision that the two of them will play before millions. Jamison also has a premonition that he will die young.

After college, Coleman heads to Knoxville to write the great American novel. Jamison goes to neon school in Johnson City, Tennessee. Their relationship continues through a series of long distance phones calls that cover getting kicked out of school, losing a job due to inappropriate behavior, various occupations, marriage, and divorce. At the end of each call, Jamison invites Coleman to come home to work with him and to “be amongst his people.” Coleman’s reply becomes a refrain: “I hate Virginia! I’m never moving back!”

Of course, Coleman eventually does come home, but it is too late for him to reconnect with his friend. Coleman finally gives up on the idea that life has to be a “fantastical Moulin Rouge.” Rather, he remembers Jamison’s prophecy: “God always provides a way when there is no way. You will always take the right turn in the path.”

Coleman yearns for “shoes so fast they can go back and change your past.” Yet, after 133 apartments in eight states and two countries, after 144 jobs, he finally settles in Richmond, Virginia “amongst his people,” content working in his family’s upholstery business, a job that he thought college would save him from. He is with his family and telling his story, just as Jamison always wanted him to be.

This story is accompanied by haunting music that extols friendship and home in gentle lyrics that Coleman sings with quiet grace and serenity. This beautiful tribute to a friendship too short makes one realize that relationships must be nurtured and enjoyed. One never knows when or how a relationship will end.

Also notable on this gripping CD is the audience, which is warm and receptive to Coleman’s considerable charm and talent. Whenever the camera pans the audience members, their wide-eyed eagerness to hear and see more, shows that they are actively engaged in the performance. This is an audience that was wisely chosen.

I have seen this show both live and on television and am pleased to see that nothing was lost in the transition from one medium to the other. Coleman is clearly master of this game.