Posted by: Banta | April 16, 2013

A Godmother’s Legacy

Tita. Pronounced Ti-tah’. My toddler translation of Sistah, the deep South nickname for my grandmother’s older, and only, sister. I called her Ti-tah’, and the name stuck. Tita was my godmother, and from my child’s-eye view, she was also the strongest woman in a family tribe dominated by females.

Tita took the role of godmother seriously. A devout Episcopalian, she crocheted countless cinctures for her priests, and painstakingly stitched enough needlepoint prayer cushions to line dozens of parish altar rail kneelers. She took me to church every chance she could, and filled me with the holy mysteries of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. If the church had deigned to ordain women in her day, Tita would have arm-wrestled God for a calling to the priesthood. Instead, she practiced a servant ministry of her own, loving her priests with a pure heart, and adorning them and their altars with her gifts of needle and thread.

Born in 1902, Elise Bailey Turnbull (aka Tita) attended Florida State College for Women (now FSU) in the early 1920s, when women on campus were forbidden from dancing or riding in cars with men. At 22, college degree in hand, she married Clarence Jordan Stokes (aka Honey), and for several decades they co-owned and managed their own insurance business in Sarasota, FL. When I was a child in the 1950s, Tita was the only adult female I knew who worked full time outside of the home. That caught my attention. She and Honey wanted children, but after Tita suffered a number of late pregnancy miscarriages, they embraced other investments of the heart – most especially my mother and me. My mother’s first marriage was brief and ended in divorce. In Ozzie-and-Harriet’s 1953, a divorced woman with a child did not fit in.

While my mom immersed herself in art school and community theatre, she and I lived with Tita and Honey in Sarasota for a time. Though I was just a toddler, I already carried inside me this given: Tita was a namer of houses. Her Sarasota home, a cedar shake rambling ranch with breezeways and porches and a tiny beach on the Gulf of Mexico, she called Whitecap. I learned to swim there, made shell mosaics, tangled with the blue crabs that wanted to eat my chubby little toes for breakfast, picked guavas for jam, arranged bouquets of sea grapes and honeysuckle for the dinner table. I also fell in love with the summer sounds of baseball on Honey’s radio. In my child-sized world, Whitecap had a personality unique unto itself, quirks of mood and fits of temper. She (don’t ask me how I knew the house was female) could feel proud of her new shutters or a fresh coat of paint, or lonely if we left her empty too long. She sheltered us from the big September blows (now we call these hurricanes), shaded us from the brutal south Florida sun, and lulled us to sleep at night with the cross-breezes between Gulf and bayou.

To escape the hot summers, Tita retreated to the other house I knew and loved as a child, called Sunledge. Nestled halfway between Cashiers and Highlands in the mountains of western North Carolina, down a steep drive off Highway 64, Sunledge was my doorway into the sacred nature of place. A weathered gray two-story clapboard  house with a big kitchen, Sunledge opened onto a spacious flagstone terrace bordered by a wisteria-draped arbor and white picket fence. Just beyond the fence stretched a mountain view that took my breath away with every sunrise. The closest peak was the broad bald of Whiteside Mountain, looming so large to the right of the terrace as to seem just yards away. Down the slope from the house rambled tiered vegetable gardens, a freshwater mountain stream, and the occasional bear. Inside the house, my great-grandmother taught me three kinds of solitaire and listened to soap operas on the radio. Uncle Billy introduced me to fresh strawberry-rhubarb pie, and I tucked in at night under a quilt hand-stitched by Hazel, a wizened old neighbor woman down the road.

Tita spent most of her summers here, joined by Honey when he could close up their Florida office. My great-grandmother Carrie Belle (aka Bam, for reasons I cannot now remember) lived at Sunledge from April through October, along with her older brother and his friend from New York. In hindsight, I realize that Uncle Billy and Uncle Buddy were the first gay couple in my young experience. They doted on me and on each other, and this was all just as natural as rain.

Summers between the ages of perhaps ten to fourteen, when my school friends disappeared to camp, my mom put me on the Silver Meteor train for the eight hour ride from Jacksonville to Sarasota. I know, you would never put a 10-year old on a train by herself now, but back then it did not occur to any of the adults in my world that such an extraordinary adventure might be unsafe. I took myself to lunch in the dining car – a grilled cheese sandwich and a coke – and let the hours of orange groves put me into an afternoon trance.

Tita met me at the train station, and for a lazy week or more, I read Nancy Drew mysteries on the porch at Whitecap, or scoured the beach for star fish, or hit tennis balls against the side of the house, or “helped” Tita at her office. The time in Sarasota marked the waiting time, until we packed the car for our two-day road trip to the mountains and Sunledge.

Riding shotgun with Tita, we snaked our way along the legendary Woodpecker Trail, through tiny Georgia and South Carolina towns with names like Blackshear, Santa Claus, Wrens, Walhalla. We ate peanut butter crackers and drank cokes in thick green bottles. We adopted the spider who took up residence on the dash, and called her Cordele. We stayed overnight in a motel, but only if it had a swimming pool. And we talked for hours. Tita did not coddle or preach at me; she assumed I had good sense and ideas of my own, and she counted on me to hold up my end of a grown-up conversation.

At Sunledge my bedroom had a window overlooking the terrace and the mountains beyond. After I unpacked, I ran down the path to the garden to find Uncle Billy and see what vegetables he was picking for dinner. Beans and summer squash, tomatoes and basil for the salad. Fresh raspberries with ice cream for dessert. Well fed and road weary, I let the crickets and tree frogs lull me to sleep.

In the days that followed, summer upon summer, Tita took me under her wing. She channeled my pre-teen and adolescent energy into swimming outings at Thorpe Reservoir (now Lake Glenville), trail rides on horseback, gem mining in Franklin, and movie dates with distant cousins. She took me to nearby Cherokee Village to see the outdoor play Unto These Hills. She gave me a few dollars to spend at Hank Conkle’s Carolina Mountain Shop, where I overdosed on balsam sachet and Ice Blue mint coolers. And on the hottest of days, she showed me the secret treasure known only to the locals: Sliding Rock.

Not to be confused with the popular 60’ outcropping of rock near Pisgah Forest, that still draws summer tourists by the thousands, “little Sliding Rock” near Cashiers was marked only by a well hidden trail head off Whiteside Cove Road. We parked on the shoulder and walked the short distance to the water. Canopied in gnarled rhododendrons and towering hemlocks, this narrow stretch of the Chattooga River was friendly enough in the summer months, but wild and dangerous during the spring snow melt. Wearing cutoff jeans to protect the backside, we waded barefoot along the shallows to the 10’ rock face, pockmarked with potholes and swirling eddies. My first time, Tita pointed me to the wet rock. “Sit, push off, and slide. Try not to get stuck in a hole. I’ll meet you at the bottom.” Ok. Ready, set, slide! Squealing in terror and delight, I remembered to pull up my knees just before I hit the water, and cannonballed into the freezing mountain pool. “Again?” she asked from her knee-deep spectator spot. I nodded vigorously. Again and again and again.

Decades later, when our own daughter was about ten, we found our way back to Cashiers and little Sliding Rock. With memories awash in nostalgia, I wanted her to experience some of the magic I had felt there as a child. We all took turns sliding and squealing and dashing back up the trail to do it again. The magic remains.

Tita left me a precious legacy. From the time I was a toddler, she shared her love of the mountains with me, opening that love like a jewelry box, one sparkling gem at a time. She taught me the history of the area, identified the native flowers and trees, and set me free to wander the woods on my own. From Tita I learned that a place can have a soul, that a house can have a name.

In her honor, I, too have become a namer of houses. Our home in Black Mountain is the most recent incarnation of Sunledge. Perched atop a steep rock ledge, the house faces southeast and we wake each morning to the spectacular colors of sunrise. The name feels right. I think Tita would approve.

                                                                                      Sunrise 2


Responses

  1. Loved this, Banta. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Great story. Brought back all my summer memories of camp in Hendersonville, NC., from the Cherokee Village to Sliding Rock. Just loved it. Great writer, you are 😉

  3. A lovely reflection of a soulful woman in your life. And oh, the places! Your words pull me right in to the places. Hugs!

  4. This was awesome… you are such an artist with words… this brought back many memories of the Tita and (the first) Sunledge, and helped me picture your world before I became your little sister! (:


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