Sitting on the front porch on a cool evening as dusk approaches, watching the lightning bugs start to twinkle and hearing the katydids and tree frogs sing is a pleasure too few of us take time to experience. As my mother and younger sister, Beth Ball, sat on the front porch of my mother’s home one evening recently they began to reminisce about our family. My sister said, with a catch in her throat, “All the memories that have been made while sitting here.” Lots of laughter has been shared and many tears have been shed on that porch. Family and friends have been entertained and it is where we gathered to console each other and dread the last breaths of beloved family members. It’s where we received friends during bereavement periods. It’s where we sit today watching the children play as we sing and laugh together. That porch has seen and heard it all.
I am descended from a long line of good, hardworking, southern, nutty, front-porch-sitting, loving family. My great grandparents bought 103 acres and it has been passed down through four generations and will be passed to our children. My mother is the 3rd generation to live in this house. My great grandparents, Charles “Charlie” Webster Davis and Mary Florence Burton Davis, bought the property in 1917. At that time a log cabin built by the previous owners stood on the property. My Nana, Nina Elizabeth Davis Hildebrand, was born in May 1922 in the cabin as was her older sister, Ruth, who died at the age of four from Typhoid. The current house was completed in 1923 and was built by my great grandfather and his brother, George Davis, with some of the work being done by friends and family. Before some additions, and being remodeled a few years ago by my mother, the house was what they call a “shotgun” house because you could stand at the front door and shoot a shotgun straight out the back door. I’ve learned a lot of lessons about life in that house.
On this land my great grandparents weathered the depression. Nana always said they never knew the difference because when you live on a rural farm, raise all your own food, and drive a horse and wagon everywhere you don’t really miss what you never had. When my grandmother was in her early teens my great grandparents heard through a relative about a woman in the Connelly Springs area who needed help. Her husband had left her with a passel (a true southern word meaning “a lot”) of children that she wasn’t able to support. Back then people looked out for one another. My great grandparents knew they were able to provide for more children. Grandpa Charlie brought one of the older boys to stay with them until the mother could get back on her feet. That is how my Papa (William Howard Hildebrand) came to live and help on the farm. His father would not sign papers to allow him to attend school and so my Nana would come home and share what she learned in school. My grandfather had no formal education beyond the fourth grade. Howard and Nina married in 1942 just before he left to serve in the Army during WWII. They are the ones that taught me about marriage and how it should be.
In September 1946 my mother, Judy Carol Hildebrand, was born. She was an only child as Nana said childbirth was not something she wished to repeat. My mother also grew up in this house with everyone living and working together. During Mom’s childhood my grandparents raised several foster children. They were loved and treated as if they had always been in the family and, in fact, we remain in contact with them to this day. My older sister Kimberly Ann and I (Carol Michelle) are named after two of my mother’s foster sisters (Michele and Ann). Many neighborhood children and cousins loved to come and stay throughout the years as well. Everyone always felt welcome and at home. This is how I learned sharing, hospitality and manners.
In 1950 my great grandfather Charlie died and my mother was too young to remember much about him. He farmed and worked with his brother George as a professional carpenter. They built houses all over North Carolina. They even worked on the housing and barracks at Fort Bragg. Mom remembers every day when he came in from work he would bring her a Baby Ruth candy bar. She would say “Grandpa, where is my candy?” He would always reply, “Hon, I forgot to bring you one today.” She would run to look in the side pocket of his International pickup truck and there would be her Baby Ruth. This is how I learned about keeping your promises.
In the 1960’s, my entire family attended the local Church of Christ where a new preacher, Jesse Lee Robert Condra, had been hired. Jesse and Iva Lusk Coleman Condra had three boys. The middle one was Timothy Lee Condra who later married my mother in December 1967. My oldest sister Kimberly was born in February 1970, myself in September 1971, and Elizabeth in July 1978. You see how this house and the front porch have a long history. My mother and father lived here with my grandparents until the house I grew up in was built next door in 1972. It is built from lumber milled from the logs of the original log cabin my grandmother had been born in. Our hand and footprints can still be seen in the concrete they poured for the porch. This is how I learned about memories that matter.
My great grandmother lived until 1981. Although I don’t remember her as well as I would like, she was much loved and I am told loved everyone she met. She did beautiful embroidery and drew all her own patterns. Some of my most cherished possessions are handkerchiefs she stitched herself. She has passed the legacy of being kind and being strong and silent through turmoil down through the generations. I have always heard she never allowed anyone to leave her home without feeding them and was one of the best cooks anywhere around. I spent many Saturdays helping her pluck the feathers from chickens in preparation for Sunday dinner. She kept a large, cast iron pot in the back yard that she’d build a fire under. We’d souse the chicken in the hot water and pull feathers. Before church the next day she’d be up making homemade creamed corn, cabbage, slaw, creamed potatoes, and several other vegetables. She always had at least two kinds of pie or cake. The biscuits were made after church and we would all eat together. That is how I first learned to cook.
In the early 1960′s a new kitchen was built onto the house and the old one was converted into a bedroom. She got a new electric stove and Mom said she never did learn how to use it correctly…not that you could tell from her cooking. She would leave the burner on high and just move the pot or pan as needed. Her best friend was Bertha Vaughters and they helped each other with many things. They canned vegetables from the garden, cooked, cleaned, laughed, shared their troubles and did whatever needed to be done. When there was a hog or cow to be slaughtered Bertha and other family members would help and the meat would be shared. I can remember sitting on the porch breaking beans to be canned while listening to them laughing and talking. Grandma was a very meticulous housekeeper as well. She kept everything very neat and loved to garden. She especially loved flowers. She didn’t like any animals being on the porch so she had wrought iron railing installed. She had them make sure the gate was wide enough to carry her casket through. That is how I learned friendship and laughter makes everything better and lightens your load.
There was a couple that lived in a house on the property named Ernest and Gladys McKinley. They helped out on the farm in exchange for living in the house. Their nephew Leroy “Pete” Daugherty came to live with them and remained after they both passed away. When my grandfather died we were more worried about Pete than ourselves because he cried so hard he couldn’t stand. My grandparents loved him and he loved them. They took care of each other. This is how I learned that family isn’t always about the blood running through your veins.
I’ve written about my grandparents before and had someone write and say we were lucky to have someone give us everything and black people didn’t come from money and privilege and had to work harder. I guess I should have mentioned that Bertha, Gladys, Ernest and Pete were all black. My Papa and Nana had a dairy farm and worked full time jobs until they retired from a mill in Cooleemee which closed in 1969. My mother worked there as well. Their day started before dawn every day. The cows had to be milked and fed twice each day. They also had to feed and water all of the other livestock (goats, pigs, chickens, horses, etc), gather eggs, do all of the seasonal harvesting, tend the garden, make repairs to equipment, keep up the barns and fencing, and hold down full time jobs. They also had three grandkids and a lot of other children running around getting into everything. They took us to our basketball and softball games, took us to school and picked us up, took care of us while my mother and father worked and cooked three meals a day. How they found the energy I will never know. The land we have was purchased by my great grandparents through hard work and lots of it. No one gave them anything. This is how I learned about hard work and self respect.
I have always heard stories about how strong my Papa was. He would work on a piece of equipment and tighten a bolt so tightly he’d twist the head off. I heard a story that he was wagered he couldn’t lift a wheelbarrow full of bricks and did so. My grandfather raised Walker hounds as a hobby. In 1971 he was dipping them for fleas and ticks. One of his dogs scratched him and the toxic chemicals got into his blood stream. He was paralyzed almost completely and by the time the doctors figured out what was causing it there was nothing they could do. The doctors said he would probably never walk again, but proved them wrong. He had permanent nerve damage and was never the same, but was able to get around with the use of a cane. Nana took on most of the responsibility for the farm and house until they sold the dairy cows in 1980. My Nana couldn’t stand not having something to do so she raised beef cows to supplement their social security income for a few years. This is how I learned about perserverance.
Papa was very limited in what he could do, but with Pete’s help was still able to plant a garden every year and still raised a few hounds to sell. He would often go out of state to pick up a new dog to expand his breeding line. I grew up going to field trials and showing his registered hounds for him. By the time he became too ill to travel anymore I had a shelf full of trophies and ribbons. He had a neighbor and good friend with which he often traveled and hunted. When I say “fox hunting” it is not what you may think. This kind of fox hunting is where a bunch of men get together and turn their dogs out and sit around a fire and tell lies, drink coffee and eat whatever each of them brought from home while listening to their dogs trail a fox. I remember one night when a “city slicker” came to the fire. One of the men commented “Aw, listen to that music” when one of the hounds hit the trail of a fox. There was a pause and the City Slicker said, “I can’t hear anything from all those dogs barking.” They could tell by the hounds bark or bay which dog was leading and whether or not they were trailing or hunting. I would go with him most times and I have many wonderful memories of those times. I also remember being told about the Boogie Man in the woods who came to get children who made a lot of noise. Around the fire is where I learned to stay quiet and think. I still love the sound of hounds baying to this day. This is how I learned that City Slickers aren’t so smart and sometimes you just have to shut up and listen.
Papa loved Bluebirds. He had someone build him several Bluebird houses and he put them on a pole attached to the fence posts in front of the house. As much as Papa loved Bluebirds, he hated Sparrows. Sparrows were the only other bird small enough to fit through the hole of the Bluebird house and would rob the nests. To my Papa it became a personal war with the Sparrows to save his beloved birds. Many days you would find him on the front porch with his shotgun shooting at the Sparrows. He paid me a nickel for each one I shot, but charged me a nickel for each one I missed. We laugh about how everyone would hear and know my Papa and I were waging war on the sparrows. Those poor houses had to be patched back together more times than I could count. That is how I learned to use a shotgun.
Papa’s main interests were farming, his dogs, and his grandchildren. We often talk about his farming equipment and how it was maintained. My Dad often jokes that every spring Papa would pull the equipment out and go over it with a fine toothed comb and fix everything that was wrong and grease every fitting and gear. After that, it was in God’s hands until the next spring. We joke that my mother plants trees and flowers the same way. One story Dad likes to tell is how he had been baling hay and decided the baler needed to be greased. After he was done greasing it and went back to baling, the baler broke down. Papa said it had gotten too loose and flown apart from all the extra grease. That is how I learned that handling bad situations well sticks with someone far longer than yelling and placing blame.
Papa had his first heart attack in 1989 and subsequently had by-pass surgery. He had lost the sight in one eye shortly before from diabetes. His health declined slowly but steadily until his death the day after Thanksgiving 1994. This was a great blow to the whole family and many in the community. The visitation at his funeral was supposed to last from 6pm until 9pm, but we were still greeting friends and neighbors at midnight. He was well loved. This is how I learned about pain.
Nana never had it easy either. In 1975, while going to see a friend, she was hit by a drunk driver less than a mile from the house. The impact crushed her foot and ankle. She had a gash on her forehead from hairline to just above her eye. She also severely bruised her chest on the steering wheel. She walked to the closest neighbor’s house and had them call for help. She had a bale of hay dropped on her head once and had a pressure cooker blow up and burn the entire front of her body with second and third degree burns. Over the years she was kicked by cows and horses; had her hands and fingers slammed in car doors by grandchildren; fell on ice and many other incidents. One day while repairing fence a black snake fell out of a tree and landed around her neck. She pulled it off and went back to work. When she looked, Pete was halfway across the field headed home. She was one tough woman. This is where I learned to be stubborn and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Being an only child my mother had to be pretty tough too. She had to do a lot of hard work that probably would have gone to someone else if there had been anyone else to do it. She would help grease and repair the farming equipment, take care of the animals, haul firewood, etc. Another thing about Mom was her hair. She never had it cut until she was 17 and her braids hung to her ankles. One of her cousins tied her hair around a tree limb while Mom was standing on the ground. Her hair was so long she couldn’t reach the ends to untie herself so there she stayed until someone found her. Mom’s favorite thing to do was ride her horse, Flicka, who she got when she was 12 or 13 years old. She rode that horse all over the country side. She had people from all around bringing their horses to race and I don’t know that anyone ever beat her. I continued that legacy on a Kawasaki 50 I got when I was 9 and later a Honda CR125 I got for Christmas when I was twelve. Mom still talks about how all the boys would show up to ride and an hour later she’d see them leaving and know what had happened. This is where I learned that sometimes you just have to go fast.
My childhood years were spent riding horses, dirt bikes, and bicycles. We ran through the woods and played in the barn loft and nursed many scraped knees and elbows. My sisters and I spent many hours gathering chicken eggs, feeding calves, and watching the new calves, goats and animals born. I mowed, raked, baled and hauled hay every summer. We worked in the garden the entire growing season and hauled firewood in the fall. We would play in the creeks and come home covered in mud with nothing but the whites of our eyes showing. My Nana wouldn’t let us in until we washed off with the garden hose and dripped dry in the yard. We would go to the little country store owned by one of my Papa’s friends to get ice cream and soda in glass bottles then sit and listen to the neighborhood men talking. I wish I had recorded some of those conversations. Even then I recognized my Papa for the prankster that he was. I wish I could remember more about him, but I have so many good memories. You can’t go back in time, but sometimes you can go home and I’m blessed to have this porch. That’s where I learned about love.
My sister, Beth Ball, was a major contributor to this blog posting.