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As a child, one of my favorite pastimes was visiting people who lived at Hatteras. I have always been intrigued by the interesting collection of diverse personalities of this small community. As far back as I can remember, it has been a friendly refuge for people who walk to the “beat of a different drummer.” To persevere on the storm-ravaged Outer Banks of North Carolina camaraderie must exist among its people.  Everyone, no matter how different he or she may live or think, has always been able to find a niche in this community, whose inhabitants always reach out to help each other in times of need. One of the most noteworthy characteristics of the village natives is their acceptance and tolerance of each other’s individuality.  I take great pride in being related to many of these folks who were accepted by the mainstream but who did not always identify with the conventional life at Hatteras.

One such person was Mama’s first cousin, Moody. He was born at Hatteras and attended school through the seventh grade. His left arm and leg had been deformed since birth.  He resided in the village all of his life with the exception of a few years when he worked on a dredge in Norfolk.  The last 28 of his 70 years, he clammed for a living, using a flat-bottom, 16-foot boat with an air-cooled engine that carried him to the various clamming sites near Hatteras Inlet. When he was not clamming, he built model boats from juniper and other materials that he found along the shoreside of the sound. He was one of the early craftsmen of the village whose talent helped supplement his modest income when tourists first began to frequent the island.

 My grandparents were poor people but appeared rich compared to Moody.  His life was one of existence with no frills.  His underprivileged way of life was my first close-up exposure to true poverty. He, like his home, was rather unkempt.  He was a short slender man who appeared somewhat undernourished.  It was not unusual to see him wearing the same tattered clothes for many consecutive days. His long, white hair and white beard framed a tan, wrinkled weather-beaten face whose eyes, aided by thick glasses with scratched lenses and broken, black plastic frames, expressed the gentle, kind, and warm-hearted nature of his soul. He lived the Bohemian style of the 1960s 20 years before its time.  He was a soft-spoken man whose dialect was unmistakably that of a native Hatterasman.  It was Moody who first made me realize that it is not a person's appearance, his education, or his wealth that is important, but it is the spirit that resides within an individual that really matters.

Mama seldom came to Hatteras that she did not visit Moody and his family.  I was always anxious to accompany her. Moody lived in a small, plain wooden house whose paint had worn from years of exposure to the island’s harsh elements.  The dark colored walls of the living room were dimly lit.  The sun’s light was obstructed by plastic shades that were pulled down and covering over three-fourths of the windows. The worn sofa and chairs were covered with old quits. Moody’s sickly wife, Ruth, more often than not was lying on the sofa when we visited.  She usually got up long enough to give us a welcome hug, only to return to her former reclining position where throughout our stay she gave us detailed accounts of her infirmities.  Scattered papers and magazines contributed to the room’s disarray.  Cats and their kittens wandered freely in and out of the room from the kitchen and the porches.  A bare light bulb hung at the end of a short electrical wire from the center of the room.

On the dark gray wall opposite the sofa hung a large picture of Jesus kneeling and praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Within the picture a brilliant ray of light radiated through a cloud from the upper left-hand corner and bathed Jesus as he gazed upward toward heaven. That light, the only bright spot in the room, seemed to be a reminder from God that someday the squalid setting that existed in Moody’s home would be replaced with riches beyond his belief. The picture was a testament of Moody’s spirit and faith.

 Our visit was never completed until Moody led us to the shed behind his house where he kept his model boats.  Without any assistance, he dragged his left foot as he made his way to the rickety old shed that stood more out of respect for Moody than its structural integrity. 

Lined up along the inside back wall like the pickets of the fence in front of the old Durant Lifesaving Station were a dozen two- and three-mast model schooners, measuring 12 to 24 four inches in length. By the gleam in his eye, it was easy to see how proud Moody was of his handiwork.

Moody was very resourceful in acquiring the materials he used to build his boats.  He used old twine for the rigging, which he had picked up along the shoreside.  Most of it had been discarded by fishermen while mending their nets. He painted the replicas with the residue left in paint cans that had been thrown away by the villagers.  His only investment in these unique models was his time. 

 He sold the smaller boats for $7 and the larger ones for $14. One of Moody's model ships still sits on a table in the living room in Grandmom's old house. It was a gift from Moody to my grandparents, who always offered him food when he unexpectedly but not surprisingly stopped in to visit at mealtime.  Afraid his home was not stormworthy, he would also seek shelter with them during many of the storms that frequented the fragile ribbon of sand that constitutes the Outer Banks.

Mama always tried to fit in two different visits on her morning excursions.  Since it was a short walk from Moody’s home to the front road where several more of Mama’s cousins lived, she suggested that we go there next.  Mama never came to Hatteras that she did not visit Dezzie, Victoria, and Garland.  The two sisters were always home when we visited, but it was only on rare occasions that we would find Garland, their brother, there.  He was usually away, working on a dredge somewhere in Florida.

Garland and Dezzie never married.  Victoria did once, but just for overnight. After Victoria returned home the day after her wedding, the two sisters rarely left home.  Prior to Victoria's marriage, the two girls moved around the island like all its other natives, participating in church activities, social functions, and visiting relatives and friends.  The details of Victoria’s failed marriage were never discussed and continue even today to remain a well-kept secret. However its impact changed the lives of these three siblings forever. 

Victoria left home only to go to the grocery store and the post office.  Dezzie never left home.  Garland assumed the responsibility of guardian of his sisters, providing them with their only source of income.  His efforts to provide them with the comforts of the present were constantly parried by his sisters who lived the Spartan lifestyle of Hatteras past. 

He wired the house for electricity, but his sisters continued to use kerosene lamps.  When they finally gave in to this modern convenience, they plugged them in only for the time that they were being used.  The same held true for any electrical appliance. 

Garland purchased a television set in the early ‘60s and installed a large antenna beside the house that on rare occasions would pick up the nearest stations that were located no closer than 100 miles away.  He thought this modern miracle would entertain his reclusive sisters, but that was not the case.  When he left home to work on the dredge in Florida for extended periods of time, they unplugged the TV and stored it under the stairs in the hallway.

Their home was located in a thicket of trees up a narrow, winding path, which was off a short side road from the main sandy thoroughfare through the village.  The path was like a time tunnel, delivering its travelers to a time gone by as they entered a small yard in which sat an unpretentious house.  It was the house in which these siblings were born, reared, and ultimately lived their entire lives. A thicket of live oaks, myrtles, and yaupons surrounded the small yard like the walls of a fort whose function was to prevent the influences of the present from penetrating the isolated sanctuary of the past.  A coconut palm tree that Garland had purchased in Florida and had planted in the front yard appeared as incongruous with the local vegetation as the fruit of the same species is when one occasionally finds it as a part of the flotsam on the island’s beach. 

The exterior of the weathered, white wooden house looked exactly as it did when it was built in the early 1900s. Only the upstairs bedroom windows and the kitchen windows downstairs had netting tacked to their lower half to prevent insects from entering the house when the windows were raised.  All the rest of the windows of the house were sealed shut by layers of dried paint. 

Behind the kitchen was a large, red-brick cistern, which was connected to gutters along the roof of the house by way of downspouts. Located about 25 feet from the sideporch that led into the kitchen was the family graveyard. A retaining wall of concrete blocks surrounded the small cemetery.  Sand had been hauled from the beach and placed inside the wall, raising the land's elevation several feet higher than the rest of the yard.  This was to prevent storm tides that normally flooded the yard from covering the graves of Mama’s aunt and uncle who were her cousins’ parents.

Several small pie pans filled with water were sitting on the retaining wall.  Dezzie and Victoria, who enjoyed watching birds, had placed them there to serve as birdbaths.  They took great pleasure in telling us about the different kinds of birds that came to drink and splash in the water. 

A thicket of live oaks shaded the retaining wall around the graveyard.  Several petunia plants with long delicate yellow-green stems and leaves desperately reached toward brighter light as they grew beside the shaded wall.  The small, pale lavender flowers of the sun-deprived plants flooded the surrounding area with a sweet fragrance.

We walked into the yard, stepped up on the side-porch, and knocked on the kitchen door.  Victoria answered the door and greeted us with a big smile. She was wearing a knee-length cotton dress that buttoned in the front.  The material of the homemade dress, limp from years of wear and washing, clung to her thin frame.

"My blessed, look who is here!" she exclaimed.

After hugging each of us as we entered the kitchen, she escorted us to an adjacent small room that served as both a dining and sitting room.

In the kitchen, a kettle of water was boiling on the kerosene cookstove, creating a heavy humid atmosphere.  The fumes from the burning fuel competed for the same space in the room as the water vapor coming from the kettle.

The day's lunch, a can of meat and a can of vegetables, was sitting on the counter near the water bucket.  Even thought Garland had plumbed the house with running water from the cistern, the sister continued to go outside and dip water into a bucket from an opening on the top of the cistern.  Together they would bring the heavy bucket of water into the house. 

Dezzie and Victoria ate only canned foods purchased from Mr. Dan's general store.  That is where their parents had always traded, and Victoria shopped no where else.  Both she and Dezzie were suspicious that someone would slip poison into food that was not canned; consequently, fresh produce and meat were never a part of their diet.  They ate nothing that Garland brought to the house, including canned food unless he assured them that it was purchased at Mr. Dan’s store.

While everyone was being seated in the wooden straight-back dining room chairs that Victoria arranged around the perimeter of the room, she went down the hallway towards the front of the house past the stairs under which the TV set was stored.  She stopped at the base of the stairs near the front door that was never used.

 Holding on the post that supported the banister, she yelled up the stairwell, "Dezzie, come on down.  Naomi, Buddy, Sissy, and Essie are here."  She always called Pop Pop “Buddy” and Grandmom, “Sissy.” Essie was Mama’s sister.  Victoria never mentioned that I was there too.  She returned to the room where we were sitting, and before taking a seat, she tried to get Grandmom to switch from the straight-backed dining room chair in which she was sitting to one of the two unoccupied wooden rocking chairs.  Victoria thought she would be more comfortable in the rocker.  After Grandmom assured her that she was comfortable where she was, Victoria sat down into the rocker that she always sat in when company was not around.  Dezzie regularly sat in the other rocker.

In a jovial and sincere fashion, Victoria was a gracious hostess asking each of us what we had been doing since she last saw us.  The room was filled with chatter in the old Hatteras dialect, as the relatives brought each other up to date with happenings in their lives since they had last been together.  A genuine atmosphere of love and concern permeated the room.

Fifteen minutes passed before Dezzie descended from upstairs where she had been in her bedroom. As she entered the room, she threw both hands in the air, grinned from ear to ear, and exclaimed as if she had no idea we were there, "My blessed, look who is here!"   Immediately the volume of her voice dropped as she apologetically interjected, “Younguns, you’ll have to forgive me for not comin’ right down but I was takin’ a bath.” 

The hugging scene that occurred at the kitchen door with Victoria was repeated in the sitting room with Dezzie.  Before Dezzie sat down and while using the same mannerisms and dialogue as her sister, she offered the remaining rocking chair to Grandmom, who politely refused and insisted again that she was comfortable.  The next 15 minutes was a rerun of what had already been said as Dezzie was brought up to date on the conversation that had preceded her entrance.

Dezzie, the taller of the two sisters, was dressed in a faded cotton frock, which she had made from the material of feedbags that used to hold corn for feeding chickens. The dress was at least 25 years old.

Neither of the sisters wore make-up.  Dezzie's hair was pulled back and twisted in a bun on the back of her head.  On her upper right cheek was a dark brown growth the size of a man's thumb that projected about two inches from her face. It looked rather painful and hideous as it dangled from cheek.  She told us that "ever so often, it falls off, but it grows right back again." 

"You should let a doctor take a look at it," Mama said, worried that her cousin might have cancer.

"Why honey," Dezzie replied, "it ain't nothing but a seed wart of some kind.  One of these days it is going to fall off, and the Lord willing, it ain’t never going to grow back. "

Mama knew not to push the matter, since her advice was falling on deaf ears. She knew Dezzie did not leave home anyway. For years Dezzie had not left home for anything, not since Victoria returned home the morning after her wedding. Mama knew that it would take more than a "seed wart" to make her leave home. Seeing a doctor about it was completely out of the question.

Garland tried desperately to get his sisters to go visit neighbors and family but they would not comply.  They were always very friendly to those who visited them, but they refused to return the visit.

Both sisters liked to talk about the past and always purposefully steered the conversation in that direction. It usually centered on their family life prior to Victoria's marriage, although that event was never mentioned.  It was usually about "the good old days" when their parents were living.  I enjoyed hearing their stories about their "poppie" and "mommie" as much as they enjoyed telling them. Dezzie's reminiscence was more serious in nature, while Victoria's was more jovial and humorous.

As 10:30 a.m. approached, Grandmom became restless.  She said that it was time for us to go home.  She liked to serve dinner at 11 o’clock, not a minute before or a minute after.  Since the walk home was about half a mile on a deep sandy road, it was obvious that dinner was not going to be on time. 

"Why younguns, there is no need for you to go.  Why don't you stay and eat with us?" Dezzie politely begged as we made our way to the door. 

"Merciful fathers, honey, I couldn’t eat a maful if I had to," Grandmom responded.  "Besides, we need to get on back up the road."  I was sure Grandmom lied about not being hungry, because she preferred not eating at someone else’s home.

Even if we had accepted their polite invitation, there was only enough food for a couple of people in the two cans sitting on the kitchen counter.

Both sisters gave us a big goodbye hug as we walked outside. Before following us on the porch, each one covered her head with an old-fashioned sunbonnet that hung from a nail by the back door. It was obvious from their pale skin that Dezzie and Victoria were not sun worshipers.  Looking much like subjects in an old tin-type photograph, they stood on the porch and watched us as we made our way from their yard down the path that emptied us back into the present and on the road that led to Grandmom's house.

On the way home, I asked Grandmom what a “maful” was.  She said it was slang for mouthful. 

“Oh, yea?  I thought it was somethin’ that Dezzie and Victoria was fixin’ for dinner,” I said.

After Grandmom and Pop Pop died, I continued to visit his nieces.  Visiting with them was as enjoyable as watching the rerun of a favorite old movie.

Each time I called on them, Victoria always greeted me at the kitchen door with a big smile and a hug.  She always escorted me to the sitting room through the burned kerosene fumes and humid kitchen.  There were always two cans of food sitting near the water bucket and waiting to be warmed and served for the next meal.  Across the room was the kerosene cookstove that sat next to a more modern gas range that Garland purchased for her and Dezzie back in the 1960s.  It was as grease free as it was the day it was carried into the house.  It was never used. Dezzie continued to take 15 minutes to come downstairs from her bedroom after Victoria told her that I was there.  It made no difference what time of the day I visited, she always used the excuse of “takin’ a bath” for not promptly coming when Victoria announced my visit from the base of the stairs.  Sometimes the “seed wart” had fallen off her frail cheek and only a scar was visible where it had been attached.  Other times, it was as large and grotesque as ever.  Our conversation was always filled with laughter and concern about family.  Each time I would leave, they continued to follow me on the back porch and to watch as I entered the path that, even today, remains a conveyance that shuttles me between the past and the present.

I went back to visit again this morning. Everything still looks the same.  The only exception is that Garland and his two sisters are buried beside each other and near their “mommie” and “poppie” in the higher portion of the yard within the now crumbling, concrete, moss-covered blocks of the retaining wall. Like the coconut tree in the front yard, the recently erected granite headstones look foreign in the surrounding old maritime thicket. The pale lavender petunia flowers continue to fill the air with their sweet fragrance as they reach from the shade toward a nearby sunny spot in the yard.  In the solitude beside their graves, where the only sound was an ocean breeze gently rustling the leaves of the nearby salt-pruned trees and shrubs, I brought Mama’s cousins up to date on the latest chapter in the family history.  Mama had recently passed away, and I knew they would want to know.

        

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