Bertha Jewel McWaters Sharpton gave birth to four children from the time she was 17 until after she turned 40. I waited a decade after her to have my first son, and if you confronted me with the prospect of us having a new baby three years from now, I’d confront you with a swift kick in the teeth.
My point is, Bertha has my admiration before we ever begin to dig into who she was and how she did all that was required of her to bring those four children into the world and carry them through the 20th century safe and sound far enough to leave behind a sprawling family tree with roots and branches across the country and fruit too numerous to count.
Born on the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, just 31 years early, Grandma Sharpton was a firecracker from birth. She loved poetry and remembered into her final days the poems and songs they taught her in school,
“All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wondeful the Lord God made them all”
She also remembered the longest word in the dictionary (and how they’d taught her to spell it sylabically), “an-anti-antidis-antidises-antidisestab-antidisestablish-antidisestablishment-antidisestablishmentary-antidisestablismentarian-antidisestablishmentarianis-antidisestablishmentariansm. Good Lord, class must have been long.
She knew the Bible, and could quote it which wasn’t really surprising since as long as I knew her it was all she ever read. And she read it sooooo much. My father had always “run references” as he called it reading the Bible and comparing notes in different commentaries, dictionaries and biblical encyclopedias. But Grandma just read the bible. Like it was the daily paper, her favorite novel and roadmap for her next journey all in one. And, you know, she would have said it was. That it is.
I loved Grandma for one thing more than anything else and I don’t mind telling you even now years after her death. The woman made the best biscuits that have ever been made and while my culinary tastes are not extensively broad, they are DEEP with knowledge and experience in a few avenues and I know biscuits.
Cathead biscuits is what Grandma Sharpton made. Big, ugly, delicious. with muscadine jelly or moonshine syrup or a big pat of butter or (if you were like me) just plain jane hot and fresh out of the oven, literally as many as you could stand to eat before they got cold or your stomach betrayed you. If I was on death row and had a last meal, my Grandma’s cathead biscuits is really what I would want, no matter what the kitchen might be able to provide. When I get to Heaven, one of the things I’m most looking forward to is being able to eat those cathead biscuits without the stomach pains or the poor substitution that my own cooking has been for the nearly 20 years she’s been gone.
My point is these biscuits were good, friend. You know why? Lard. None of that box crap, Grandma didn’t need a mix. She’d be in the kitchen, 20 or 30 minutes before anyone else was awake, mixing up a giant bowl and beating out those biscuits by hand. And God bless her for it.
Dad was allowed in the kitchen to cook the biscuits, or more precisely to manage the insertion to and removal from the oven. But the prep was all Grandma. She put more than lard into them of course. There was buttermilk and flour and lots and lots of love. And that’s the ingredient that I can’t find at the grocery these days. I sure do miss it, and her...and those biscuits.
I could tell you about how Hershel married her at 16 after only finishing the 9th grade and how in later years when he’d ask if she ever had wanted to go back to school, she’d smart back, “Well, Hershel, if I had I wouldn’ta never married you!”
I could tell you about the time Grandpa cut a tree down on her (she was fine mostly), I could tell you about the time she told Hershel he was about to get his finger bitten by a giant rabbit (and he did). I could tell you about the time right before she passed away, when she introduced me as her son and my mother as my wife and told us all about the bus ride she was on to Oak Ridge (hundreds of miles and decades in the past at this point in her life).
But the story I want to tell you is about how the same mountain that killed Grandpa Sharpton, the mountain he and Grandma had been born on nearly a century before, tried and failed to kill Grandma too. Because that’s just how bad a b*$%# Grandma was.
After Grandpa’s death in 1982, Grandma discovered a whole new world. She learned how to drive (though she didn’t continue that for very long afterwards), learned how to balance a checkbook, run her house and affairs etc. She lived on her own throughout the 80’s and 90’s visiting family often for extended periods but always returning to Chandler Mountain. One Sunday after church, she made lunch, collected her scraps and went outside to throw them off the ledge as she always did. But it had been misty that morning, her slippers were slick on the moss and rock and maybe her footing not as sure as it was in her youth. No one was with her, so we’re not exactly sure what happened, but to hear her tell it, her feet just went out from under her and she went off the cliff.
That would have been the end of Grandma, just as it was the end of Grandpa, but fate and a forgotten trash dump had other ideas in mind. There was a “burn barrell” an empty metal barrel used to burn trash since garbage pickup wasn’t as common up on the mountain, that had outlived its usefulness and been dropped over the side was wedged between two outcroppings of rock. Sitting solid side up, this half of a barrel was like a metal saddle just waiting there to catch Bertha on the way down.
And it did. She was bruised and battered, shocked and in the end suffering from a shattered leg that had been pulled back behind her a bit unnaturally. But alive, and amazingly, unshaken. Bertha waited for hours for her eventual rescue, and it was only her regular church attendence with some friends that in the end meant she was found at all. They pulled in to pick her up as usual, found her absent, and after seeing her clothes laid out on the bed, and other things “undone” around the house conducted a thorough search outside and found her, hollering up that if they’d help her she was sure she could climb out.
When the rescue workers arrived later to climb down and pull her up, once again she suggested that if they’d straighten her leg out she’d be fine.
She wasn’t in the end. The leg healed slowly and not completely, age and dementia eventual set in as she rounded her 90’s and in the end she never moved back fully to Chandler Mountain after that. The house has been sold and sold again since then, it’s no longer in our family or even a friend of the family. But the neighbors are still friends and every few years we happen by there to say hi to Grandma and Grandpa.
You might think for someone who nearly lost both his grandparents to the mountain it would be a place of dread or fear. But it never has been. Anytime I stand there on the cliff now I think of what Grandma told her friends when they asked what she’d done while she waited for rescue there, hanging off the edge of the cliff on that piece of a barrel.
"Well, I sang some, and prayed a bit, she said and sighed. But more than anything it was the birds that kept me company. They came and sang me to me while I waited.”
Grandma Sharpton was a tough old bird. But on the side of Chandler Mountain that day we discovered she’d been a Disney princess all along too.
For now, I’m Joel, this is my story or one of them anyway, thanks for listening.