Editor’s Note: Jim Casada has been a friend, advisor and colleague since what I believe was my third day covering the outdoors. In the 20 years since then, we’ve spent time together, although not nearly as much as I’d have liked. Today, our news section reports that Jim’s been recognized - again- for his excellence as a writer. His winning essay “Sweet Soul of the Smokies” is, as our friend Scott Mayer says “a hell of a good, heartfelt read.” So good that we both agreed you should have the opportunity to read it as well. Thanks to Sporting Classics for allowing us to share this. And our thanks to Jim Casada for writing it. Well done, friend.
"Aunt Mag's" house is visible in the cleft of the hills in the background.
Maggie “Aunt Mag” Williams (1863-1961)
In the halcyon days of childhood, most of us had the distinct privilege, although we might not have recognized it at the time, of being in close contact with older folks who merited the description of being “a genuine character.” Certainly such was the case in my youth. I knew and interacted with a bunch of distinctive and decidedly different individuals, and one of the most interesting of them was Maggie “Aunt Mag” Williams.
There has never been a sizeable African-American population in the place where I grew up, the North Carolina portion of the Smokies, and details of black history in the region are sparse. Yet blacks loomed large in my youth, at least in part because of the close proximity of our family home to area where they lived. Our home, along with several others, was in effect sandwiched between two small enclaves of African-Americans. As a result, I had daily interaction with and knew the names of virtually every local black. Of all them, the one with whom I was closest was known to me simply as Aunt Mag.
The “Aunt” was an honorific associated with her advanced years and the high esteem in which she was held not only in the black community but by everyone who knew her. My parents thought the world of her and regularly did things to help her and her niece, Elma, out in what was an ongoing struggle just to survive. Sadly, most biographical details on the wonderful old lady have vanished like milkweed spores driven by a chill autumn wind. Uncertainty marks much of her life, with census records disagreeing on the place and date of her birth, offering no evidence on her maiden name, and until quite recently, her grave was marked only by a tin funeral home plaque.
Aunt Mag was already an elderly woman when I first remember her, and she had an impact on my life literally almost from the day I was born. According to my parents, she washed my diapers when I was a baby, back in the days when the convenient disposable ones were unknown. She accomplished that task outdoors using a huge cast iron pot sitting atop a wood fire, stirring the hot, soapy water and beating the soiled cotton with a stout hickory stick bleached white from long use. After washing, the diapers were rinsed in a separate kettle filled with water she changed with each new batch of clothing. She would then hang the cleaned diapers to dry on a wire suspended between trees. Obviously, I don’t recall my own diapers being done, but she was still handling laundry that way a decade later when my brother was born.
Daddy loved his interaction with Aunt Mag when fall rolled around every year. We had a small apple orchard on the hillside below our home, and most years it produced far more apples than we needed. Any surplus went to Aunt Mag to dry and can for winter. Similarly, Daddy always planted a much bigger crop of turnips and mustard greens than we could consume, knowing Aunt Mag would make her way 150 or so yards up the hill to our place, talk a bit and eventually ask if she could pick “a mess of them fine greens.” This tickled Daddy, because her request invariably concluded with the same phrase, “I’ve always said if it ain’t worth asking for it ain’t worth having.”
Early on I discovered Aunt Mag’s wizardry as a cook, and from that point forward I visited her at every opportunity. On more than one occasion, slipping off down there to sample and savor whatever she had available to eat got me into trouble. Yet who could resist a delightful old woman who always had soup or stew simmering atop her wood-burning stove, fluffy biscuits with homemade jelly or maybe a big chunk of cracklin’ cornbread slathered with butter there for the asking?
It never occurred to this greedy-gut youngster than Aunt Mag was poor as Job’s turkey, although the dots were there to be connected had I simply thought of it. She always welcomed surplus vegetables from Daddy’s productive garden, and he got a kick out of her showing up periodically to check on whether there were any extras. Although she repeatedly had been told to help herself, she never failed to ask permission to gather a mess of whatever was in season. She would knock on the door, inquire as to whether it would be all right to gather some vegetables, and talk a few moments before getting down to the business of harvesting. She never entered our house. Apparently it was an invisible social line or barrier she was unwilling to breach, although she was unfailingly invited to “come on in.”
Every spring I sold her big #8 paper pokes stuffed with poke salad for a dime a bag (for the uninitiated, a “poke” is a grocery bag while poke salad is a wild green). Looking back, I suspect that the ten cents was a bit of a budgetary strain, never mind that my going rate for a poke of poke was a quarter. Aunt Mag often paid with two nickels or a nickel and five pennies, and invariably she did so with the admonition, “Now boy, you spend that money wisely.”
Later, about the age twelve or thirteen, I began to do some trapping and was successful enough to catch the occasional muskrat. Their pelts were worth $3 or a bit more in the mid-1950s, big money for a boy whose allowance was a quarter a week. When I discovered Aunt Mag would pay fifteen cents of what she termed “cash money” for the muskrat carcasses, I was sure enough in high cotton.
Of course she cooked the muskrat, and eventually I discovered that the meat was absolutely delicious. The occasion of that culinary epiphany, along with Daddy’s red-eyed hissy over the thought of me eating “rat” remains a treasured memory. This revelation came on a bitterly cold January day when, thanks to a deep snow, I was out of school and had been rabbit hunting all day.
On the way home I stopped by Aunt Mag’s. As soon as I opened the door a wonderful aroma greeted me. Inquiring as to what was cooking, I received her standard enthusiastic response. “I’ve got me a big pot of stew going, get you a bowl and have some.” I did just that and my, was it fine. Carrots, onions, and potatoes, along with tender chunks of meat of unfamiliar color and texture, floated in rich gravy, and the savory dish was so scrumptious I had a second helping.
Finally, as mystified by the meat as I was mesmerized by the stew’s taste, I inquired, “What am I eating?”
Aunt Mag had been quietly waiting for that moment. Cackling in sheer delight, with every one of her few remaining teeth gleaming, she replied, “Why boy, you be eating muskrat.” I should have known, since I realized that the carcasses of the muskrats I trapped and skinned were being turned into table fare. It was a wonderful example of the old-time way of living off the land, and it taught me a valuable lesson about the way we sometimes turn our nose up at the good earth’s simple bounty. Every time I think of that nourishing, delicious stew from a cold winter’s day it tickles my fancy, as does memory of my father’s astounded reaction when he eventually learned of the episode.
Similar warmth infuses my soul when it comes to my links to Aunt Mag in regard to fishing. With the possible exception of my mother, Aunt Mag loved to eat fish more than anyone I’ve ever known. Both of them considered a platter of fish all dressed up in golden brown cornbread dinner jackets, flanked by dishes of fried potatoes, slaw and cornbread or hush puppies, about as close to culinary heaven as anyone needed to be.
By happy chance the place where Aunt Mag lived included a patch of ground that was pure paradise for fishing worms. A quarter hour with a mattock spent in the shady portion of her chicken lot where she watered her yard birds produced enough worms for a couple of days fishing—big red wigglers and a smaller member of the worm family which was sort of yellow in color. She was quite happy for me to farm her worm garden, albeit with the unspoken yet mutually understood agreement that some of the fish I caught with those worms would end up at her house. She didn’t mind cleaning them, though more often than not I took care of that chore.
The nature of the catch didn’t seem to matter a great deal. She was equally happy with a stringer of knotty heads, a bunch of catfish, panfish or on an increasingly frequent basis as my fly-fishing skills improved, trout. The latter weren’t caught on worms, and Mom insisted on first dibs when it came to trout. Still, any time there were two or three days in a row when I brought home a limit, which was then ten trout, she would suggest it would be a generous gesture to give Aunt Mag a mess.
So it went, summer after summer, from the time I began fly fishing in earnest around the age of ten or eleven until I headed off to college. Aunt Mag, worms and fish were an integral part of my boyhood summers. Seldom did a span of more than three days pass when I didn’t present her with a stringer of fish. On one memorable occasion, however, there was an unfortunate break in what had become established ritual. I dug worms in Aunt Mag’s chicken lot for three days running but failed to deliver any fish during that period. The fourth day I showed up she politely inquired, “Have you not been catching any?”
I allowed as how I had actually caught a bunch earlier that day, but all of them had been quite small bream which I released to grow a bit. She looked at me in a perplexed fashion and a hint of dismay, then asked, “Were they bigger than a butter bean?” I acknowledged that, while small, the bream were indeed appreciably larger than a legume. “Well,” Aunt Mag said, “I’ll eat a butter bean.”
Her message had been delivered in clear fashion. If a fish was big enough to bite a hook baited with one of her worms, it was big enough for me to keep and for her to eat. I never again made the mistake of practicing catch and release where Aunt Mag was part of the equation. She was a committed believer in release to grease.
Aunt Mag died while I was away college, and by then those innocent days of boyhood were part of a world I had forever lost. Yet my friendship with this simple, impoverished black woman was among the brightest facets of my boyhood. I often reflect wistfully on times spent with her, for she was one of the special characters who breathed life and joy into my youth.
As goodhearted a soul as ever graced the earth, she was poor but upstanding, no stranger to hard work and constitutionally unwilling to seek a handout of any kind. Yet Aunt Mag managed just fine, working at simple tasks with a will, growing much in the way of her basic food needs, harvesting still more in the form of nature’s wild bounty and periodically getting some help from neighbors such as gleanings from our garden. Aunt Mag was a sterling example of an admirable work ethic, giving spirit and deep-rooted integrity. Her life and lifestyle, while never ones of treasures and pearls, remain exemplars of all that is good and gracious, enduring and endearing, in the high country ways I knew as a lad.
— Jim Casada