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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.
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
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.
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
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
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
He sold the smaller boats for $7 and the larger ones for $14.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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.