Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (16/19) — Chapter Sixteen, Lily (3/3)

THIS BUNCH of delicate rain lilies grows next to our driveway in Morganton. They’re also called fairy lilies.


BOONE, N.C. (June 30, 2020) – I’ve mistakenly called them mystery lilies over the years, but they’re actually rain lilies; or, zephyranthes. Other names are zephyr lily, fairy lily, magic lily and rainflower. Timberley corrected me the other day as I was babbling about them. She’s my own personal Wikipedia. I’m always asking her what that pretty flower is and what those nice plants are, and she always knows.

Like our bogus mystery lilies in Morganton, I’m treading on dangerous ground or thin ice or eggshells or whatever writing about one’s spouse for public consumption is called. Those lilies grow in a single, unlikely spot in a thin strip of earth between our asphalt driveway and stone retaining wall. It sure is a mystery to me how they survive from one year to the next, but they pop up each June, like clockwork.

Here in Boone, our daylilies are just starting to bloom. For the past decade or so they have been, by far, the most prolific flowers in our Rutherwood yard, especially the common orange variety that Timberley says some folks call ditch lilies, a fact also supported by Wikipedia that she noted as we traveled to and from Morganton this past weekend. We also have yellow and purple lilies, and Turk’s caps at our house.

JUST A FEW of the different lilies that bloom in June in our yards in Morganton and Boone, many more on the mountain than off because it’s ‘where the lilies bloom.’

The N.C. High Country, after all, was where the book-writing team of Vera and Bill Cleaver set their novel Where the Lilies Bloom. All my adult life, I’ve had great respect for married couples who worked together, like John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Paul and Linda McCartney, even my own father and mother, who served as pastor and pianist in all Dad’s churches after they wed in 1952. They were good teammates for 49 years.

Mom and Dad also tag-teamed a single teaching position at Burke County’s Jonas Ridge School during the 1953-54 school year. Mom, who was carrying her first child, my sister, started the term and taught a grade-school class until she gave birth right after Thanksgiving. Then Dad took over her class (much to my mother-in-law’s chagrin, as she was one of their students) until Mom returned to close out the year.

As a result, Jonas Ridge, the only true mountain community in Burke County if one counts Gingercake Acres as a Jonas Ridge suburb, was always special to Mom and Dad, and, by extension, to me. On trips up or down U.S. 181, the Beatrice Cobb Highway, Dad would always note the old rock school building as we passed, and sometimes we’d stop if a local fund-raising group were selling country ham biscuits.

MY PARENTS AND ME in the spring of 1978; a listing of my parents’ 1953-54 teaching jobs in Earline Johnson’s ‘A History of Jonas Ridge’; and part of the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area’s eastern ridgeline from Gingercake Mountain and Sitting Bear (on the right) to Hawksbill Mountain.

Of course, Jonas Ridge is special to me for other reasons. In my youth, a favorite place to backpack and camp was in and around the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area, from Sitting Bear near Gingercake Acres to Hawksbill and Table Rock peaks, then through Chimney Gap to Shortoff Mountain near Lake James. We also went there as EMTs with the Burke County Rescue Squad’s Mountain Rescue Team in the ’80s.

My first “date” with Timberley—well, the first time she rode somewhere with me, anyway—was to a Burke County Board of Commissioners meeting at Jonas Ridge School during the summer of 1981. I covered the meeting for The Valdese News and met there for the first time Timberley’s grandpa, Lester Clark, a dyed-in-the-wool Republican who didn’t mind letting me or any other damn Democrat know it.

Our commercially published novel, Night Lights; or, Golf, the Blues and the Brown Mountain Light, is set in large part around Jonas Ridge. We spent a couple of years driving graveled roads and hiking trails in the Jonas Ridge and Harper’s Creek sections, in particular, where Grandpa had lived from his birth to his retirement years before he and Granny finally settled down and bought a house outside Morganton.

When I got around to writing the novel in the summers of 2002 and 2003, I’d rise early, maybe around 5 a.m., and go downstairs to my desk in the basement. There I’d drink one or two cups of strong coffee and maybe chip or putt a few golf balls at the practice cup across the room in order to wake myself up. And then I’d open my AcerNote Light laptop and tap out maybe a section, maybe two, of Night Lights.

Timberley would join me downstairs a few hours later and drink her coffee, and I’d read the pages that I had composed earlier that morning. Like my problems with lilies, she’d point out things in the story that didn’t make complete sense or were just plain wrong. Also, we’d discuss the characters’ motivations and different directions in which the story could go as I worked on the novel over those two summers here.

All the while, Timberley was sketching pen-and-ink chapter illustrations for Night Lights, and painting the cover art that eventually became her fourth limited-edition poster print, with her N.C. Coast-themed “Kindred Spirits” (1990), “Gazebo at Sunset” (1992), and “Sunflowers” (1994). She had also published small prints of the last two images and a set of “Island Greetings” cards consisting of six beach scenes.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP RIGHT — Partial images from Timberley’s acrylic painting for the ‘Night Lights’ book cover and limited-edition print, and the watercolor paintings for her ‘Kindred Spirits,’ ‘Gazebo at Sunset’ and ‘Sunflowers’ limited-edition reproductions.

So around Easter 2004 when Parkway Publishing, Inc., of Boone, accepted Night Lights for publication and we began editing the novel in earnest, and when it was eventually published in December 2004, the book had been a true labor of two people’s love, like any offspring, and that’s why we share authorship. We don’t have biological children, but we do have a literary daughter and sons named Val, Alan and Bo.

I had created those three characters—Val Galloway, her cousin Alan Delacruz and their friend Lionel Hampton “Bo” Gaines—back in 1993 with my first juvenile novel, Quest of the Kindred Spirits. They reappeared in 2006’s South Bound and in 2008’s For the Sunrise, which we finished at Quarry Farm in Elmira, N.Y., where Olivia Clemens had served the same role for her husband, Sam, 125 years earlier.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT — Timberley’s greeting-card sketches; my favorite illustration that she drew for our novel ‘Quest of the Kindred Spirits’; and Timberley at her display in Holden Beach’s Festival by the Sea in the mid 1990s.

I mentioned two of my four favorite Beatles earlier—John and Paul. I have no idea how each individual couple actually worked together on their music, except that Yoko did write her own songs, like those on Double Fantasy, and that Linda pretty much stuck to keyboards and backup vocals, except for “Seaside Woman” and Wings at the Speed of Sound’s “Cook of the House.” But they got credit as equal partners.

As I suggested, our literary role models were former Boone area residents Vera and Bill Cleaver (not Bill and Vera Cleaver, you’ll note). I read somewhere that they had used the same basic writing process that we did, except that Vera was the writer; Bill, her de facto editor. Published in 1969, their Newbery Award Honor book also was a National Book Award finalist and was later made into a popular movie.

Ah, here’s what I read about them so many years ago—in their online listing at the Southern Historical Collection at UNC Chapel Hill: “The Cleavers wrote in collaboration until Bill Cleaver’s death in 1981 at age 61. Their routine was to gather ideas and discuss them for several months before establishing the central motif and characters. Vera Cleaver would then do the actual writing.” Vera died in August 1992.

The couple’s literary papers (1967-1982) are held at Wilson Library in Chapel Hill. Their manuscript of Where the Lilies Bloom is part of the Appalachian Collection in Belk Library at ASU in Boone, a mere two floors above where I work in the University Writing Center. I’ve loved libraries all my life, maybe from living across the street from the library in Zion, Ill., when I was little. Libraries are sacred spaces.

When I taught creative writing at Watauga High in Boone, I used both the book and movie in one long unit on writing local color, partly because the 1974 production was filmed here in Watauga County. It was interesting to see how much Boone and the High Country had changed since then. What had stayed the same through all those years, though, was the natural beauty of our mountains, valleys and hollows.

In the novel’s first chapter, a traveler stops by narrator Mary Call’s home one spring and comments on her valley’s beauty. Mary Call later says, “I have never forgotten what he said—that this was fair land, the fairest of them all.” Lilies aren’t mentioned until the end, after a difficult fall and hard winter when she lists “trout lilies, fawn lilies, and the dainty, nodding lilies-of-the-valley” that bloom every spring.

BILL AND VERA CLEAVER lived near Boone in the late 1960s when they researched and wrote their award-winning novel, ‘Where the Lilies Bloom,’ which, in part, describes mountain wildcrafting traditions like harvesting American ginseng, a prized plant shown in this drawing by 19th-century botanist Jacob Bigelow.

In the Cleavers’ fictional Trial Valley, all of those lilies—all wildflowers and plants, really, but mainly the wild lilies—symbolize hope and deliverance. One of the book’s greatest values is its discussion of wildcrafting—the collection, use and sale of mainly native roots, fruits and leaves. Timberley’s people who lived near Jonas Ridge talk about picking galax leaves and selling 100-leaf bunches for 25 cents.

Those waxy green, silver dollar-sized, pungent-smelling leaves were used in funeral wreaths. Another common wildcrafting activity is “diggin’ ‘sang” for sale to dealers who would send the ginseng root to China, “where it is highly valued for its cooling and sedative medicinal effects.” Wikipedia adds that it also represents “the cooling yin qualities, while Asian ginseng embodies the warmer aspects of yang.”

Timberley and I both had students at Watauga High School who still wildcrafted as recently as 20 years ago. One country boy had located a large patch of ginseng in the woods somewhere not too far from his house, but he kept its location more secret than that of a good fishing hole. We have another friend, an artist, who hikes these hills and takes gorgeous photographs of wild plants but leaves them undisturbed.

I wish I could say the same about my favorite part of the state—that doglegged corner of N.C. coastline between Wilmington and Calabash. We lived on the lower section of that dogleg for 10 years while the tenderest bloom was still on many sections of Brunswick County, from the towns near the Port City, to the Green Swamp in the west, to Cape Fear and the South Brunswick Islands along the southern coast.

Brunswick is now the fastest-growing county in the state, I read the other day. As it was, we had a hard time finding our way around Shallotte the last time we were there—about three years ago—because of all the commercial and residential development and road construction since our previous visit about 12 years earlier. Shallotte, once a backwater fishing village, had become the area’s epicenter of commerce.

But in our own small ways, Timberley and I are partly to blame. For several years, both of us worked for Shallotte’s award-winning newspaper, The Brunswick Beacon. Timberley sold advertising. My job was to give subscribers something to read other than ads. Brunswick County was my beat, as in county government, county law enforcement, county courts, and county emergency management for starters.

When I finally burned out—oh, long about 1990, after almost three years of driving all over Brunswick County chasing down stories big and small—the more experienced newspaperman who replaced me, a former editor who was looking for a laid-back coastal lifestyle, dropped by our beach house one day to ask me exactly how in the heck I’d covered so much all by myself and had written a column each week.

“It wasn’t easy,” I replied. “I made regular rounds in Bolivia (the county seat), and I got to know every official or department head personally, but especially the secretaries. They’re the ones who can help you the most, like when you’re stuck at the Beacon office on Tuesday (deadline) night and you need info on something important—or not. [Your new boss] wants everything in your stories, even the little details.”

That’s why, even now, I have what I call “Beacon dreams,” my own peculiar kind of nightmares. In all these nocturnal reconnaissance missions into my subconscious, I always report to work on deadline day after a week off—fully clothed, by the way—and I have nothing to write for that week’s paper, not even for my column, which normally I could dash off—about breakfast cereal or something—in no time flat.

(One week I actually wrote a column about breakfast cereal because I couldn’t think of anything else to write about. And damned if an editor at the big Norfolk newspaper didn’t read that column and send me a letter in a Virginian-Pilot envelope just to tell me how much he’d enjoyed it. My big boss, who picked up the mail, gave me a $1,000 pay raise before he handed me the letter—just in case it was a job offer.)

I quit being a newsman because it was killing me. That isn’t an exaggeration. The stress of working all those long hours under weekly deadline pressure (which is worse than meeting a daily deadline) kept my blood pressure so high that I was setting personal records for medical technicians (“Wow, that’s the highest BP I’ve ever measured … really!”). And I wasn’t happy making a living off people’s misfortune. I felt like a scavenger.

That’s what most local news is, isn’t it? Sure, local newspapers and radio stations provide information that is in the public interest—like stuff from all those county meetings I was covering—but most local news, or most news on all levels, really, appeals to readers or listeners or, yes, even viewers on the most basic level. One of my radio news buddies told me that he used only news from police and fire sources.

And that’s why I went back to school in 1990, to get my bachelor’s degree and a teacher’s certification that would give me summers, at least, to work on my fiction writing. Yes, I just admitted that my main reason for becoming a teacher wasn’t to work with young people; it was to give me time to write. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t do my very best. I have never done anything to which I have not given my all.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP RIGHT — Timberley outside our ‘popup’ gallery and shop at Ocean Isle in 1992; her painting, ‘Gill-netting I,’ that I think of as ‘The One That Got Away’; and my room at the shop, where we sold used paperbacks and kept a Kindred Spirits-style mailbox and journal for customer comments.

Even when I was the clerk at Kindred Spirits Gallery & Shop, I tried my best to be the best unpaid store clerk ever to work there. That was Timberley’s shop that we ran from a log cabin on Highway 179 near the Ocean Isle Beach intersection during the summer of 1992. After I worked my regular job in Shallotte, I’d open the art gallery and sit there until Timberley got off work at the Beacon and joined me there. Best. Job. Ever.

I sat there and wrote my literary novel Lockwood’s Folly, the first book in another four-part series; drank two, two-liter bottles of Diet Sundrop every day; and waited on the occasional customer. Among my “sales coups” were the promotional mini-print that I gave away that got Timberley a feature spot on a Wilmington TV station newscast, and the sale to a Durham surgeon of my favorite Timberley G. Adams coastal painting—a transaction that I still regret.

I can honestly say that my best bosses were both named Gilliam—Timberley’s dad, Nat Gilliam, who was my first actual boss, and Timberley herself. Like the two Beatle wives I mentioned earlier, I don’t mind playing second fiddle to Timberley, the real shining star of our little combo, all these years we’ve been married. If we were still living at the beach, I have no doubt that she’d be a well-established artist with a popular gallery.

GROWING IN A THIN STRIP of earth between a stone wall and hot pavement, these magic lilies thrive after every summer shower.

But we came back home to the mountains, anyway. Some of the reasons we left the coast made perfect sense then; some don’t quite add up even now. Neither hindsight nor foresight is 20/20. Our lives, just like all those fragile lilies that pop up after a good summer rain, are mysteries, no matter what names we call them.