In 2003 my husband Kenny and I bought an old, hand built cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains, hoping to recreate some of the magic of my childhood exploits there for our own children. One of my primary goals was to teach them the fine points of tubing the falls on the rivers and streams that wound down from the summits.
Whenever the water was reasonably high we took fat black inner tubes and plunged into the frigid flow, shrieking at the temperature and alive with goosebumps, excitement and the tinge of dread that accompanies any daring activity that my sensible grandmother, Mama D would have strongly advised against. One summer my mother was visiting and, to my children’s shock and delight, not only did she not dissuade us, she requested a tube of her own and joined us. We parked by the Little Pigeon River—which may be a haven for little pigeons, but is itself quite large and features the giant boulders that make the chutes—and the thrills. My mother stepped into the water first and, lacking water shoes, simply wore her strappy black patent leather sandals to protect her feet. We followed her course as she sailed down the rapids, her shiny shoes and cherry red painted toe nails, parting the water like twin figureheads. I don’t remember if her sandals survived the trip but she returned to California a hero in the eyes of her young grandchildren.
I asked Burney recently if she had a favorite adventure and she recalled a weekend in 1953 while she was abroad at the University of Edinburgh. She boarded a train to Newhaven—bound for Paris where she would meet two classmates from Sweetbriar, her college in Virginia. Her friends, Nella and Newell were studying at the University of Paris. From there they would travel on to Megeve, a ski resort in the French Alps.
My mother could scarcely believe the enchanted plans unfolding before her: Paris! Her first ski trip! Christmas in an Alpine village! In Newhaven she stepped in line for a ferry crossing the English Channel to the French port of Dieppe. When she reached the head of the line the agent sternly quizzed her as to why she wasn’t in the queue marked ‘Aliens’. She replied that she was not an alien and therefore belonged in the citizen queue. To the great amusement of her fellow passengers he explained that she was not a citizen of Great Britain, therefore, wherever she might be in the Empire, she was an alien. Red-faced at the revelation of her country cousin ways, she recovered herself and turned her provincial gaze towards the City of Lights.
She’d dusted off her high school French and thought her accent sounded quite authentic. Her taxi driver in Paris thought otherwise and pretended not to understand her. He insisted she write out the address of her destination where her friends were waiting. Undaunted, she spent the ride absorbing every passing glimpse of romance and mystique belonging to the city that spread before her until she was happily reunited with her companions.
She emerged the following morning for the trip to Megeve in her carefully planned travel outfit: black wool turtleneck, black, white and red poodle skirt, black suede stiletto heels. But her heart sank when she spotted her friends, kitted out in ski wear, ski boots and wooly caps. She thought of an evening at Sweetbriar where she sought fashion advice from her older sister Betsy’s suite-mate, a style savvy girl from New York. She took one look at my mother’s cotton print sundress paired with white sandals and said with a sigh, “Strictly rural.”
But suitable or not, she had no time to change that morning in Paris in order to reach, Le Gare—the train station on time. It was mobbed with other skiers, all dressed alike and ready for the slopes—except for my mother who was easier to locate than Waldo. In addition there were farmers bringing their flocks and wares to the various stops along the route.
The doors to the train cars were so jammed that they worried they might not be able to board. Nella’s friend Thor—who met them at the station to join the excursion—suggested a short cut. There was a large window opening onto a vestibule between cars and he suggested that he hoist each of the women through the window. My mother gamely offered to go first and away she sailed, 135 pounds of flesh, bone, poodle skirt and two layers of crinoline petticoats. But rather than landing lightly on her stilettoed toes, she catapulted into a large crate of live turkeys. They exploded into flapping and gobbling protests while the farmer shouted and cursed and the rest of the passengers howled. In this instance I do not think they were laughing with her.
Burney recovered herself sufficiently to call out: “Excusez moi! Would someone help me out of this crate s’il vous plait?” On her feet at last, she staggered to her seat shedding feathers along the way.
I used to be game for anything—any thing—but I was usually drinking. In sobriety it’s a different story. I typically prefer structure to adventure and have obsessive thoughts about my beloved routine as if the outside order will cure the inner freak out. It doesn’t, of course, but it does help. Too much structure though will leech the color and spontaneity out of any life and replace it with stodginess—a word that means exactly what it sounds like.
My mother has stayed in touch with her college friend Nella through the years and called her again after telling me this story to verify a few details of her train adventure from Paris. Nella laughed and said what she remembered was that Burney had arrived from Edinburgh with a strange Scots/English accent and I thought to myself, ‘I am so glad I didn’t have to hear that….’ Nella also told her that Thor, the man who had inadvertently tossed her into the crate of turkeys, went on to become a 4 star Admiral and director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The upshot of their conversation was, of course, another adventure. So my mother and I are headed to Charleston to visit Nella who lives in the center of that jewel box city on Society Street. I am depressed to think that it takes an 85 year old lady and the promise of low country grits to coax me out of my beloved routine but in truth it was my idea. I know I need it and I’ll return home with another story to tell, another memory of my mother, her world and the great characters that inhabit it.