Archived Opinion

No time for sentimentality

By Dawn Gilchrist Young


“ ... and all day I turn over my own best thoughts,

each one as heavy and slow to flow

as a stone in a field full of wet and tossing flowers.”

— Mary Oliver

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“Writing keeps me company living here by myself.”

— Zora Walker

What does a woman of 74 do with her spare time when her husband dies and her grown children all have lives of their own?


In the case of Zora Walker, whose husband Gail Walker died in 1996, she renews her interest in crocheting and begins to fill notebook after notebook with stories, songs, and poems. The stories are about her life on Yellow Branch in Graham County, both before and after World War II, and a brief period in Proctor when she was very young, a few years before TVA flooded the area to create Fontana Lake.

The poems range from the first one she wrote and memorized in 1934 at Stecoah Valley School to a more recent one protesting the injustice of demoting Pluto to less than a planet. Her songs include hymns, love songs, and elegies, performed for me in a strong, melodic voice, in the tunes that she says, “come to her.”

Much of Mrs. Walker’s prose is about memories of Proctor and Ritter, a town and a community now underwater, and about life in Yellow Branch before the area was developed and electrified.

In conversation, she tells me about the backing up of the waters from Fontana Dam: “The water only came up a few feet on our land, so we didn’t have to sell. But we did go swimming above what had been my uncle’s cornfield.”

Her prose, unsentimental and factual, is a memorial to life that accepted loss and death with the same equanimity as it accepted a good corn harvest or a birth. In one passage of a piece she titles “A Paradise Lost” (after John Milton), Mrs. Walker writes about the George and Dixie Higdon family who “lived down at the lower end of Proctor not far from the school.” She lists the names of the children and talks about the two families’ closeness, then briefly mentions, “Mrs. Higdon passed away during the birth of the youngest,” and then, almost as afterthought, adds, “It hurt my own mom a lot.” Her belief that life goes on is clear when she continues, “I grew up with them. I went to church and school with them and often spent the night at their home.”


A glass half full

Zora Walker’s speaking voice is equally even-keeled. The only time she expresses anything other than optimism is when she talks about the death of one of her own children, Tommy Walker, who was killed in an automobile accident at 25, and who was buried on Memorial Day. After his death, she says, “My husband was never really well again.”

However, about most things her speech is inflected with a genuine cheerfulness, even when speaking of the small difficulties of daily life when everything had to be done by hand. For example, she explains the process of taking a bath in the time before water was on tap: “You had to go out and pull up the well water, chop the wood, heat the water, get an old zinc washtub, and find you a good corner where nobody would see you.” She goes on, “Now you just turn faucets and push buttons. But it’s not as good exercise. Even rubbing on a rub board [washboard] is good exercise, but it’s not fun. Walking everywhere like we did was good exercise, but I wouldn’t want to have to do that anymore either.”

Her balanced approach, innate or willed, is also in evidence when she speaks of her life now. Her crocheting, her grandchildren, her writing, and her involvement with her church are her pleasures, as are watching birds, squirrels, and the mountainsides outside her window going through each season’s changes.

One notable aspect of Mrs. Walker’s character is her openness to change. When she talks about attending church, she says, “Back then most everybody went to church, partly because we thought it was right to go and learn more about God and the Bible. It was also fun to be with other people. Also, we didn’t have cars and good roads to go other places so easily. Now lots of people still go to church faithfully, but many people don’t because there are so many other places to go with cars, good roads, and money to buy gas — and nothing to hinder them, if that’s their choice.” Through the church she attends now, Mrs. Walker has met people who come here for the summer, and she says they are “some of the nicest people [she’s] ever known.”


An open mind

Her openness extends even beyond new people to new constructions and new ideas. Her late husband was a carpenter, and of the housing boom taking place all over the county, she says, “It’s so much better for people who want to work at carpentry or building. You could almost resent people crowding in and covering up the mountainsides, but everybody has to have a chance. Everybody has to live somewhere, and you can’t blame [people] for liking it here.” However, this openness does not mean she sees through rose-tinted glasses. About changes wrought by television she says, “TV is a good thing in a way and a bad thing in a way. So many things children can learn, like the little cartoons that have a good moral to them. But much television is filthy now. I feel every day there’s stuff on there I don’t want to see. But people have to go with the flow, and you feel like you just can’t do without TV. But you just can’t attend to it right.”


Different is not worse

An attendance to what is important, to morality and a strict work ethic, is what she feels set her generation apart, but she also thinks the generations behind her work just as hard, though it’s not as much physical. She thinks that having grown up “in harder times made physical labor a necessity, like getting all your water from springs like we did on Yellow Branch, or getting your water from a well like we did in Bryson City until we got electricity in the late 1940s.” Although she also points out “the younger generation never had to do the kind of work that we did,” she does not mean it as a criticism. She explains the other side of the coin by paying a compliment. The lack of necessary hard labor has made her children and grandchildren “a more refined generation.”

Even when Zora Walker criticizes, she softens it with the same understanding. “What I am against in the young generation is the way they dress. They dress scandalous. It’s what they’re used to and how they’ve been brought up. If you see something long enough and see other people doing it, you begin to think the wrong thing is right.” Still, she says, her own parents’ lack of compromise in child rearing was only good “for the most part. Being brought up with Victorian ideas has stuck, but being taught to literally fear the devil’s pitchfork may not have been the best thing. Scaring children is not the best way to teach them.” Preachers and parents, she says, should talk about “hellfire and mistakes we make, but they should focus on the love of God and his sacrifice.” With the same evenhanded approach, Mrs. Walker comments on the rearing of the baby boomers. She believes her generation compromised more on childrearing because of the hard lives they had known. “We wanted to allow our children to be more like other people’s children.”

Another mild admonishment she has for the current generation is that “we now don’t take time. Used to be people couldn’t go anywhere else, so we walked to see neighbors. So people just visited and you didn’t have to have an appointment to eat with them.” But even to this she adds, “But there’s a reason for that. Groceries are so high, and you can’t cook huge meals just in case somebody comes.”


Finding her place

Somebody coming, however, is clearly something Mrs. Walker enjoys. Her walls and tabletops display gifts from her family, photos, artwork by grandchildren, and awards for children and grandchildren. Although she looks back on her own childhood as “good old days,” she is the kind of person whose mindset does not allow sentimentality. She seems to see the flawed present without bitterness, the future without fear or resentment, and the past with a certain wistfulness, but not with regret. Of her childhood, she says, “I wouldn’t bring it back because going from where we are now to where we were then would be so hard.”

Maybe what enables Zora Walker to maintain her equilibrium is that she is a seeker of patterns. The patterns she finds help her to make sense of things. And the patterns she creates, whether in the words she writes or in the yarns she crochets, have helped Zora Walker find her own place in a larger design.

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