In God’s Country: Northeast Tennessee and Mama

Eighty-five years ago today, about nine months before the Great Depression began, in Flag Pond, Tennessee, Muriel Foster Ross – my mama – was born to Samuel and Ennis Foster.

A doctor and both grandmothers were there attending the long and arduous birth that was taking a fatal toll on Mama’s mother and led the doctor, upon delivery, to dismissively say “that baby’s going to die” as he handed an underweight and frail Mama to her paternal grandmother, Grandma Foster, and turned his attention to trying to save Ennis Foster’s life.

Grandma Foster countered, “This baby’s going to live!,” and put Mama in the warming bin of the oven in the kitchen – a primitive incubator. Grandma Foster hovered over Mama through that afternoon and night, feeding her and wrapping her up in fresh towels every few hours.

By the next morning, Mama was stronger, had color, and it was clear she was going to survive. However, her mother, who’d lost a lot of blood during the birth, was in a more precarious position and her survival chances were waning by the hour.

Ennis died within two days, never able to recover, leaving Samuel and his parents and Ennis’s mother to decide who would care for Mama. There, according to all accounts, was a bitter fight between the grandparents (Samuel, never able to take any stress after his experiences in World War I, left and sought the only comfort he knew in the bottom of a bottle), but once again, Grandma Foster prevailed and Mama went to live with them.

Ennis’s mother, however, did score a victory. Because Samuel was absent, she had her daughter buried in the maternal graveyard in Flag Pond instead of the paternal graveyard at Oakland Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Telford, TN. It was a decision that haunted Samuel, primarily in the form of guilt for not being there, the rest of his life.

The first six years of Mama’s life were surrounded with upheaval and uncertainty – Samuel’s drinking binges became more frequent, as did his hospitalizations at the VA hospital in Johnson City, TN because of the progressive damage to his lungs from the mustard gas attack he was a part of in World War I – but thanks to Grandma and Grandpa Foster, Mama was shielded from that and simply surrounded with unconditional love and care. Samuel’s sister, Tilda Aiken, and her family, were, in no small way, a big part of that safe and protective blanket that surrounded Mama’s early life.

But the fragile edges of that blanket began to unravel when Mama was five. Grandpa Foster, whom she loved dearly, died just a few days after her fifth birthday. Then, just a little over a year later, Samuel died.

A few months before Samuel died, he’d gotten his affairs in order, including making sure that Mama was taken care of after his death. He’d visited his much-older sister, Lula Waldrop, in Greenville, SC and, with an assurance of monetary help, asked her to be Mama’s guardian after his death.

Samuel didn’t like his older sister much, but he made his decision pragmatically, instead of sentimentally, trying to give the best future possible to his young daughter.

Tilda, his younger sister, had six kids and a seventh on the way, an invalid husband (he’d had both legs crushed in a logging accident), and their elderly mother to care for. Lula, who was in her late 50’s, had no children left at home.

Additionally, the educational system in northeast Tennessee at the time was rudimentary, at best, while the educational system in Greenville, SC was more progressive, and, in Samuel’s mind (he was right), would better equip Mama to make her way in the world.

Two months after Samuel’s death, Mama left northeast Tennessee. She also left unconditional love and care, comfort, security, and happiness for the next twelve years.

From that day forward, one of Mama’s lifelong desires would be to “go home.” 

We visited northeast Tennessee a couple of times a year while we were growing up, and each time we’d leave, tears would roll down Mama’s cheeks from Oakland Road in Telford, TN to US-421 in Boone, NC. For two years during that time, we lived near Asheville, NC, and our visits were more frequent and Mama was happier.

When Daddy retired from veterinary work with the state of North Carolina, he brought Mama home to northeast Tennessee. They lived in Greeneville, TN and Limestone, TN before buying a house in Jonesborough, TN. 

As Thomas Wolfe, the famous author born just about 70 miles southeast of Johnson City, TN, observed, you can’t really ever go home again.

You can go back to a place where the memories are sweet, but the things that made those memories sweet – and home – are gone or changed, so you’re left with a bittersweet fondness, tinged with sadness for what was and will never be again.

Still, Mama was glad to be home. And it was here, at home, that she lived out the last 27 years of her life.

On the whole, they were good years, but like her early years, they had their share of loss and sadness. Daddy died here in 1998. And, one by one, all of Mama’s beloved cousins died – the last was in 2007 – until, once again, except for us kids, Mama had no family left.

One of the things I admired most about Mama, though, was her strength and her resiliency. She took the losses, the setbacks, the pain and she used what came from that to move forward, to strengthen her relationship with God, to help others, and to create new family connections to her friends and our friends. 

Looking back, I realize that her first 18 years gave her that resiliency. The only option she had was to get up after each catastrophe and stagger forward. The other option was never on the table.

It is only now in my own life that I’m digging into the secrets that Mama learned early on to strengthen and reinforce my own resolve to stagger forward. It’s not easy. But, like Mama, the other option is really not on the table for me either.

So I follow in her footsteps, taking the losses, the setbacks, the pain and painstakingly endeavoring to harness what comes from that to strengthen my relationship with God, to help others and to create new family connections to friends-who-are-like-family and friends-who-are-becoming-family.

Thank you, Mama, for your example. I admit I didn’t always understand and appreciate all of this about you while you were living. Although I loved you fiercely, admired you greatly, and respected you beyond words, as you always told me, “there are just some things you can’t understand until you go through them yourself.” Once again – I can almost see your smile at me saying this – you were right.

I’m still here in God’s country, Mama. I don’t know for how long. But it’s not the same without you. In fact, now that you and Daddy are gone, it’s downright painful to be here.

Too many places bring too many tears because I’m reminded of when you were both here and now that you’re both not.

But my solace and my faith, like yours, like Daddy’s, is in the promise of a future God’s country, the real deal that everything in our lives is committed to, dedicated to, and which gives us hope when everything else here and now is hopeless.

So, as a small tribute to God’s country for you while you were on earth and God’s country that we look forward to, I’ll close with one of your favorite songs from U2’s The Joshua Tree. I love you, Mama, and look forward to seeing you soon there.