The car — I put gas in it yesterday — has only one small suitcase and two audiobooks. I packed lightly; it’ll only be an overnight.
But my heart and mind are much more densely packed for this brief trip, to Sevierville, Tennessee. To see Hattie Mae.
1986. We used to say, of Dairy Hollow House, “It’s Eureka’s best inn, 2/10ths of a mile down Eureka’s worst road.” No one drove that bumpy, rocky 2/10ths of a mile unintentionally. So whenever Ned or I heard a car, even if we had no guests due in, we came out to see whoever it was.
One quiet midweek morning, a gray day in early spring, I was alone, writing. and heard a car pull up.
Barely had I stepped off the porch, and before I could even say “Hi, may I help you?” a 60-ish woman hopped out of a boat-like Buick with Mississippi plates. She looked like you’d expect a 60-ish woman getting out of a Buick with Mississippi plates in 1986 to look like. She was wearing a pink polyester pants suit. Her gray hair was short and neat. She was neither plump nor thin. She wore no makeup.
She said, “I’m Hattie Mae Cox, from Jackson, Mississippi, and I have just moved to Eureka Springs. I’ve been taking the Times-Echo for two years, and I decided that before I look for a job up here, I would take one week and just visit every single place I had heard of. And Dairy Hollow House was right at the top of my list.”
She was low-key, confident and charming, warm and unshow-offy. Intelligence quietly radiating out of that Southern Baptist-looking package. Her lovely inflected speech and gentle tones melted into the listener like soft butter on a hot biscuit.
“Well,” I said, “Thank you so much, Ms. Cox. I’m Crescent Dragonwagon, and we don’t have any guests at the moment, so I’d be happy to take you through.”
The inn was tiny then; just one building, a simple three-room farmhouse in the style my preservationist husband used to call “Ozark Vernacular.” We hadn’t yet purchased the larger house, up on Spring Street, which would become our Main House; we hadn’t opened the restaurant.
Hattie Mae admired and noticed everything: the etched glass transom window with the iris on it, above the door in the Iris Room; the skirt-like, full ruffle-edged curtains in the Tulip Room (I’d had them made; they combined five different calico prints, all with red in them, which I’d bought from the remnant table at Carr’s Dry Goods in Berryville, Arkansas). She noticed the children’s book art; that the Rose Room‘s fresh flowers were all in shades of pink while those in Iris were all blue. She oo’ed and ah’ed and appreciated.
Back out on the driveway, Hattie Mae thanked me profusely. She said, “It is just lovely, Crescent. And it feels so good and welcoming.”
I said, “Well, as to how it feels, we’ve had exceptional guests, too. I think that adds to the …” I paused. I did not say ‘vibe.’ I said “…atmosphere. We’ve been very lucky.”
Hattie Mae looked at me. No, more correctly she twinkled at me. Flashy was not Hattie’s way, but this was definite, a star-sparkly twinkle coming right out of those straight-forward hazel eyes.
And she said, “I have a feeling it was more than just luck.”
I looked back at her. I said, “Do you have a job here yet?”
Thus Hattie Mae (who it turned out had overseen 36 people in a car-leasing company, her former job), came to work for me, Dairy Hollow House, and Ned, for more than six years.
The nature of the good old days is that, while you live them in their full flow and freshet, you may know they are “good”, but you rarely consider them “days,” plural, lost as you are in each particular day’s challenges and activities. It certain doesn’t dawn on you that at some point they will be not only pluralized collectively but have become”old.”
And the nature of golden eras is that you rarely recognize them as eras — with beginnings and ends — at all. Let alone as golden ones, which can and will never repeat.
A few Hattie Mae-and-Crescent moments, among dozens I recall:
Beanblossom, my cat, curled up in Hattie Mae’s lap as Hattie worked by hand on the books in a ruled, bound ledger, its paper light green. This was in a tiny office next to the innkeeper’s house, a cottage heated cozily with a small wood-stove.
Hattie Mae and Ned calling me to come look in the garden outside this office, where they had somehow discovered a lizard hatching out of an egg.
A guest arriving distraught because the airline had lost his luggage and Hattie Mae simply not giving up, making phone call after phone call, until it had been found and delivered to the inn.
Hattie Mae, never instructionally but simply by example, getting all of us at the inn to say “Yes, Sir,” and “Yes, M’am.”
The time her aged father, adult daughters and son, assorted spouses and grandchildren, all came to visit. We went on a picnic at Pivot Rock. At one point there were five Coxes on one bench of a picnic table, The last person on the bench on the other side got up to refill a plate. The picnic table tipped over and all five Coxes, surprised but unhurt, were on their backs, and a few beats later, laughing.
Hattie Mae and I putting together a back-friendly ergonomic green leather recliner chair, the first piece of new furniture I had ever bought and by far the most expensive, in the living room of Ned’s and my little house. Disassembled, the chair and its packaging occupied the room so fully we could barely navigate to put it together. Not only was the scene physically chaotic, I was nearly hyperventilating at spending that much money on a piece of furniture; Hattie not only took the lead in deconstructing the impossible-to-follow chair assembly directions, she kept calming me down.
The look Hattie Mae and I exchanged when she, I, Ned and my father, floated the King’s River together, my father insisting (petulantly) that we pull off the river we had only just gotten onto 20 minutes earlier: to eat lunch, though it was only 11:00.
Before we finalized Hattie Mae’s coming to work, she and I had what passed for a job interview.
I asked her what else she had done in her week in Eureka. She walked me through step by step, concluding, “And then on Sunday I went to First Baptist and everyone was just so nice to me. And the preacher and his wife invited me to dinner next Sunday.”
I said, “Hattie Mae…” I paused. “You know, people are — we — I — well, this is a little town, and I’m a bit well-known here, and people are going to tell you things about me and Dairy Hollow House, or ask you if such-and-such is true, and… ”
Hattie looked at me. She tipped her head to one side like a bird and gave me the twinkle again. “Crescent, are you sayin’ the preacher idn’t going to invite me for Sunday dinner any more if I come and work for you?”
She never once proselytized to me. She never once asked about why I went to India or what my spiritual practice consisted of, and I never told her. It was if we agreed, almost before we knew each other, to live in the same room, and there was no point in discussing the different doors by which we entered that room, nor what name we gave it.
Here are some of the things the future would turn out to hold.
At sixteen, Hattie Mae’s beloved grandaughter, Callie, was killed by a drunk driver.
Hattie Mae moved back not to Jackson, but to Sevierville, Tennessee, to live near her aging father, who also eventually died.
As did my father.
Ned and I closed Dairy Hollow House in 1998.
Ned died in an accident in 2000.
Hattie Mae drove back across the country after his death to help me. We sat across from each other at the old maple table a week or ten days after his death, going through Ned’s idiosyncratic bookkeeping. I periodically fell into whirlpools of uncontrollable and uncontrolled grief. She said to me each time, firmly, “You will get through this, Crescent. You will get through this.”
In 2007, I was in Nashville, Tennessee, on the book tour for my just-published book, The Cornbread Gospels. I had an extra day, and I invited Hattie Mae to come down (I did not realize it was a 3 1/2 hour drive, but then, she liked long drives and was known to be a bit heavy of foot on the gas pedal; Ned sometimes called her “Hot Rod Hattie.”). She got up early to meet me and David, the man I was by then living with, at the Cheekwood Botanical Gardens. David took some pictures of us, then sensitively left us alone to catch up and went off exploring on his own. Hattie Mae and I walked that beautiful place, slowly, and at the end of the morning had lunch together at the restaurant. Then we hugged and said goodbye.
“Till next time,” she said.
“Till next time,” I said.
I looked at her. She looked at me. We looked across all we had shared, all we had lost, all we knew and all we knew we didn’t and could never know, or, at least, understand. Clearly, there might not be a next time.
“Or not,” I said.
Meaning, we’re aging, and we don’t live near each other. Meaning, in case we never see each other again, know I love you and always have, and I know you love me, and hasn’t the part of the journey we took together been terrific.
“Or not,” she repeated, nodding. We were both laughing and crying, just a little. “Or not!” she said again, with a cheerful shrug and a little smile, and yes, that twinkle. And we hugged again, understanding each other perfectly.
It’s now thirteen years later. I find myself in Nashville. I haven’t heard from or about Hattie Mae in awhile, and I am almost afraid to ask, but I find I cannot stop thinking about her. I finally Facebook her daughter Delaine, Callie’s mom, and ask.
Delaine: My sister Tricia moved from Michigan last May to live with her full time so she could stay here in her beloved Smoky Mountains. She’s still in Sevierville. She is relatively very healthy but her mind has gone down hill with her Alzheimer’s. I feel sure that she would love to hear from you.
Me: Do you think she would know me if I came to visit, Delaine? I am in Nashville this month…
Delaine: Yes. You might have to tell her who you were but she is fairly clear most mornings.
I just showed her your pic and she knew you immediately by name…I told her that you might come see her and she got so excited.
That was on Saturday. Now it’s Monday, and I’m getting ready to go to Sevierville to see Hattie Mae, who is now 85.
To see her, I am almost certain, for the last time.