The Sacred Hoop of Life
Someone over pie and eggnog the other night asked me about Aunt Emma. They remembered me writing briefly about her some years back.
I never knew Aunt Emma, but I know her well. She was my father’s grandmother, a Cherokee foundling, the family story goes, a woman of the fields and streams who shaped my world long before I ever placed a toe in it.
My great-great-grandfather, George Washington Tate, a circuit-riding Methodist preacher who surveyed the modern boundaries of half a dozen counties of the Piedmont following the Civil War, reportedly “adopted” her as an orphaned infant during one of his periodic trips out west to spread the Christian Gospel among the Eastern band of the Cherokees. He brought her home to nine other children and a proper life in Hillsborough and gave her a civilized Christian name, “Mary Emma Tate.”
A prominent street was later named for this great man in Greensboro, where I grew up, yet whenever I pass this street I think of Aunt Emma, not the great man it is named for.
For several years in a row, either just before Christmas or just after it, my father, my older brother, Dicky, and I would go hunting in the fields and forest around Aunt Emma’s farm off Buck Horn Road in Orange County. I was 10 or 12 at the time and scarcely recall anyone discharging their shotgun save to blast a bit of mistletoe from the magnificent oak trees that surrounded the home place. The house sat well off the road, long abandoned, windows knocked out like jagged teeth, its once grand porch sagging to the ground, a silvered ruin being swallowed by Virginia creeper vines and wild nandina.
Though I didn’t quite appreciate the point of this brief annual ritual at the time, we were hunting something far more than mistletoe or quail. My father, who’d grown up hunting and fishing on this land and been to war in Europe, did not believe in killing anything unless you needed it for the table. The first and only rabbit I ever shot on New Year’s day he made me take home, skin, cook and eat. He said that was the “Indian way.” All living things were sacred.
The home place originally belonged to Jimmy Dodson, Aunt Emma’s husband, a genial, fiddle-playing n’er-do-well farmer who local lore held had once raised and sold horses to the occupying Yankees by day and stolen them back by night. Who knew for sure?
According to my father’s elderly great maiden aunts, Josie and Ida, who were in their 90s and very much alive when my brother and I knew them in the early 1960s, a pair of hardy antique ladies still fending for themselves quite happily in the log house (heated by one wood stove, lit by one electric bulb and several oil lamps) their daddy built them after returning from the Civil War — this was just a few miles closer to Dodson’s Crossroad, where our antecedents had lived and farmed since the late 1700s — Uncle Jimmy kept a bull named Herman in a lower pasture that was always trying to kill him.
“They were both pure rascals,” Aunt Ida (the talkative one) once told me. “Their battle made that Civil War look tame. Neither one cared much for a full day of work, to tell you the truth.”
Why Aunt Emma Tate married Jimmy Dodson remains a family mystery. Her proud and upright preacher man papa couldn’t have cottoned much to the likes of land-rich, dollar-poor Uncle Jimmy Dodson, I’m guessing, though I have no evidence one way or another.
What I do have is a hand-tinted photograph of Uncle Jimmy I’ve kept on my writing desk for going on three decades, probably taken sometime around 1930, not long before he passed away — a surprisingly dapper old gent in a blue serge suit, smoking a pipe and wearing a felt hat cocked at a rakish angle, a carnation in his lapel. The perfect country dandy headed off to play his fiddle at a grange hall dance. As far as I know, he was the first one named Jimmy on that side of my family, possibly the source of my first name and possibly my love of stringed music, though the opposite side disputes that. Ironically my mother’s father was also a James and a charming fiddle player who had 11 children on a mountain in West Virginia. My mother and her seven older sisters always claimed my first name actually came from him. He died when I was 4.
Whatever the attraction, Aunt Emma gave Uncle Jimmy six children, four boys and two girls. My grandfather, Walter, like me, was the youngest, a quiet, hardworking polymath who could make anything with his hands and eventually helped wire the Jefferson Standard Building in downtown Greensboro — then said to be North Carolina’s first “skyscraper” — and worked on pole gangs bringing electrification to the state.
This man was indisputably the source of my middle name, Walter, and he dearly loved fishing and wood-working and smoking King Edward cigars, not necessarily in this order, teaching me to do all three things somewhat to the chagrin of my Southern Baptist grandmother, a cheerful, Scripture-savvy Taylor from the Falls of the Neuse north of Raleigh.
Why Beatrice Taylor married Walter Dodson is also something of a mystery because she never missed a chance to attend church and he never darkened the doorway of one. She was a social butterfly, a keen lover of poetry who won a raffle and got to go up on an exhibition flight in Greensboro with Amelia Earhart and fell in love with flying. Three of her five sons became pilots in the war. There was Indian blood in her family line, too — supposedly traced directly back to Zachary Taylor, who claimed native blood in more ways than one, and her birthplace in Tyler, Texas.
Walter, on the other hand, was as silent as an empty church, but a man who’s natural calmness and calm silences held deep reassurances. He taught my brother and me to fish and how to cut a straight line with the fancy hand saws he gave us one Christmas when I was 7 or 8.
My brother still tells the story of how he and Granddad were once fishing on a lake when a thunderstorm boiled up, and he quietly told Dicky to sit perfectly still in their boat, to wait and watch the storm pass over them. The comforting smell of his cigars and the companionable silence of his manner must have gotten into my bloodstream, too.
On one of these New Year forays to “hunt” the family’s haunted home place, our father explained how he was trying to negotiate a purchase of the land from a man who had somehow acquired it from a distant relative who now lived in Florida.
He’d hoped to save it because he’d spent so many happy summers there following his grandmother through the woods and fields and tending the horses the same way his father had done as a boy. Walter was so connected to Aunt Emma, we learned, he only attended school for a handful of years before he convinced his mother he should stay home and look after the horses and Herman the bull. Emma was beloved along Buck Horn Road, according to both Ida and Josie, for her knowledge of natural medicine and skill at birthing babies or tending to the dying.
My father’s theory on this duality was that for all the “methodist civilization” forced upon her by the powerful Tate family, Aunt Emma was innately true to her Indian blood, a woman who felt most at home in God’s natural world hunting for healing plants and — like her youngest son — watching the sky for signs.
One autumn day when Walter was about 10 years old, the story goes, he heard that Chief Sitting Bull, the Lakota Sioux holy man whose vision of Custer’s annihilation at Little Big Horn inspired the Ghost Dance movement and Sioux uprising across the Great Plains, was appearing at the Raleigh fairgrounds in Buffalo Bill’s touring Wild West Show. Aunt Emma took him to see the show and even arranged for him to have his photograph taken with the fabled chief. Homesick and broken of spirit, Sitting Bull stayed with Bill’s famous show for only five months in 1895 — pulled out and headed home to the Dakotas to die, as near as I can calculate, just days after my grandfather met him.
I saw this photograph several times as a boy but it has since somehow vanished, though I’m still doggedly on the hunt for it, doing my own private Ghost Dance in hopes of someday bringing it back. Not long ago, looking at some old photographs of Walter and Beatrice taken after they'd retired to a small house on the edge of Lake Eustis in Florida — where my brother and Walter sat calmly through the storm like a native American version of Jesus and the anxious disciples in Galilee — I was powerfully struck, not for the first time, how closely my grandfather resembled the great Sioux holy man he clearly revered.
The Indian does everything in a circle. All life is a sacred hoop, a message constantly spoken in nature and even Christian Scripture. We end where we began. Water always finds its way back to the source, seasons come and go, and so do people.
Sometimes I feel I keep a foot in two worlds, not entirely by my own volition, one a spirit world unseen and comfortingly silent and very much at home in woods and fields, another that carries me off to see a larger world and write about the life and times we live in. Not surprisingly, both feet conspire to eventually bring me home again, my own circle nearing completion.
At the New Year, at any rate, as the media I served for so many years recounts the year’s most sensational stories and important passings, I find myself feeling surrounded and comforted by these kindly authors of my past, the sweet revenants of people I came from and will someday return to.
Perhaps the most bittersweet ending — at least in this realm of trials — belongs to Aunt Emma, our family’s darkest and hidden secret for decades. After her grandchildren all grew up and left the home place, Aunt Emma unexpectedly hanged herself from a beam of the house Uncle Jimmy was in the process of expanding — perhaps no longer willing or able to live the life of a civilized Christian woman, her foot in two worlds that possibly couldn't be reconciled in the end.
Uncle Jimmy, according to my father and both his maiden great aunts, was so grief-addled he never finished the house they lived in — in fact, moved in with another relative over in Dodson’s Crossroads and just let the Earth reclaim it. One day as he was coming out of the pasture, Herman the bull gored him and laid him up for a month. One evening he finished his whiskey, said goodnight, went up to bed and never came down again.
Walter passed away when I was 13. His funeral was the first one I ever attended. I still have the hand saw he gave me.
Beatrice — chatty and spry as ever, always quoting Scripture and her favorite poets — shuttled (by air, of course) between our house in Greensboro and my Uncle Jim’s in Washington, D.C., for the next decade till she quietly slipped off with little or no warning to meet her maker. Among other things, she left my father and me both with a deep love of poetry.
She and Walter are buried side by side in a country Baptist church yard north of Raleigh — “the closest,” as my father liked to say, “Walter ever got to the inside of an actual church.”
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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