Cynthia Ezell : Mountain Laurel
Watching gardeners label their plants
I vow with all beings
To practice the old horticulture
And let the plants identify me
Tennessee is wide east to west and narrow north to south, stretching out towards the Atlantic with one hand and back toward the Mississippi River with another, keening toward water. The eastern edge of the state is cradled by the Appalachian Mountains and the western edge leans into the flat bottom land of Arkansas, just across the Mississippi where cotton and rice grow and have grown for a hundred years and more. My farm is right in the middle of the state. A river, or a lake or a mountain trail is at most a few hours’ drive away.
Smoky Mountain National Park is the jewel of eastern Tennessee. It is the only national park established on land that was chiefly owned by private citizens. A large portion of the funds for the purchase of that land came from a Rockefeller fund donation. Some of the funds came from the state legislatures of Tennessee and North Carolina, and the rest came from private citizens. Tennesseans and North Carolinians held bake sales and spaghetti suppers to raise the money for the park. School children donated their allowances. Some of the land owners were content to sell their property within the proposed park boundaries, and many unhappily accepted what compensation they were offered, having no real choice in the matter, and moved their homes and farms.
The mountain people had been living in the valleys between those huge forests of oak and pine for generations. Like the Cherokee who inhabited these mountains before them, (and were forced off the land as well) they knew these mountains like they knew their own kin. They had names for every tree, every salamander, every flower. When the land for the park had been purchased, the “experts” showed up; botanists, engineers, foresters and scientists, eager to explore the pristine landscape and document and classify the local flora.
Two of the most prodigious plants in the Smoky Mountains are the mountain laurel and the rhododendron. The mountain laurel is a shrub that adorns itself with cup-shaped blossoms every spring. They look like tiny upended pink umbrellas dangling from glossy evergreen foliage. The mountain people called this resilient shrub “Ivy”.
The rhododendron is a cousin to the mountain laurel. It grows mainly in the Appalachian Mountains from Virginia to northern Alabama. What the botanists with their books and charts and fancy degrees insisted was a rhododendron, the locals had been calling Mountain Laurel for generations. Descended from these mountain people and their offspring who moved into the valleys east of the mountains to farm, I was taught to call the rhododendron a mountain laurel, and like them, I have no plans to change that habit. We come to know a thing by what we name it.
It was my father who chose my name. He had read that Cynthia was the name given to the first girl child born in America and perhaps believed it would inspire in me a spirit of adventure or ambition. I did not receive a middle name, thanks to my mother’s insistence that none was needed. “When you get married, your maiden name will be your middle name”, she cooed whenever I protested this serious oversight. It seemed terribly presumptive of her, all this business about getting married and what I would and would not want in the future. When I was nine, in a rare and seldom repeated flash of entitlement, I chose a middle name and gave it to myself. I practiced writing it over and over. I told my teachers on the first day of school, when they called out everyone’s full name, that I did in fact have a middle name and that their records were just plain wrong.
While not having a middle name was an irritation, my last name was truly problematic. My father’s family had emigrated from Germany several generations before my birth. Somewhere along the line, the family name Janke had been Americanized to Yankee. Yes, Yankee, of “Yankee Doodle”, “Yankee go home”, and “Damn Yankee”. Each time I was teased about being a “yankee” a quiet resentment brewed at my father for having such a stupid name. In spite of my mother’s assertions about the utility of using my last name as a middle name, post marriage, I had no plans to hang onto it. The name Yankee was important to my father, however. He was the last son of a son in his branch of the family tree, and the surname Yankee would vanish from Tennessee unless my brother had a son to carry it forward. My father reminded my brother of this duty frequently, as if we were royalty and a male heir was needed to inherit the throne. It was clear that any offspring I might produce would be, like me, merely auxiliary.
The first Yankee on record in America was Micheal, born in the late 1600s and emigrated from Germany to Slabtown, Virginia. He fathered four sons, Micheal, Jonas, William and Jacob. Jonas headed west and was never heard from again. William was killed in the Revolutionary War. Micheal had eleven children as did his brother Jacob. One of Jacob’s sons, Micheal, had thirteen children. His son Henry was my great grandfather. Micheal settled in Kentucky, and the family stayed there for four generations until my father moved with my mother to Tennessee. My grandfather, William Springfield Yankee raised his family on the banks of the Green River, farming land he leased from another man. The Yankees were poor people by and large, but some of my ancestors did own their own land, and some even owned slaves.
A deed of conveyance exists, signed on May 24th, 1854 by my great-great uncle William and his wife Lucinda. It is the deed of sale for Becka Ellen, a fourteen year old girl purchased by Mr. Henry Gray of Boyle County Kentucky.
William and Lucinda sold Becka, “of yellow complexion” and “sound in mind and body and a slave for life” and “her future increases to the only proper use and behoove of said Henry Gray” for eight hundred dollars. With the transfer of cash, and the signature of two white men, Mr. Gray owned Becka Ellen; her body, her life, her future, and the lives of her future children.
My stomach got weird, sort of queasy and slick when I found this “deed” among the papers my father left behind after his death. Southern ancestry often includes the legacy of slavery, either as slave or slave owner, and we deal with it in various ways, mostly abstractly if we happen to be white. Seeing Becka Ellen’s name on that tattered piece of paper put my own heritage squarely in focus. A southern white child of the 5o’s, I had grown up in a segregated world. There were no black children in my school, no black families in our neighborhood, no black faces in the grocery store or local restaurants.
Racism permeated our lives, our thoughts, or habits, and our culpability rumbled underneath the surface of our lives, a fault line that never settled, creating an internal dissonance we could not help feeling, but could not yet name. My Christian parents preached tolerance and equality because it was the right thing to do, not because they really understood what it meant.
I wondered about Becka Ellen’s last name. What was it? Did her owner, William Yankee, confer on her his last name? Did she hate it like I did? Surely, she found it amusing sometime after Emancipation when as a free woman she could choose her own name that her former slave name was Yankee? She would have been twenty-three when slavery was abolished, twenty-five when it was finally made illegal. Did she give herself a new name? Did she write it, or say it, over and over, practicing the sound of it slipping off her tongue like I did with my new middle name? Choosing a name was a childish vanity for me, a wish to be like my friends. For Becka Ellen, it must have been a symbol of a desperate dream, finally realized.
My father’s preoccupation with his name was part of his search for connection, the kind we get with history and relation. What we are named is part of how we know ourselves and how we are known by others. Like the name Janke, names are often co-opted, bastardized, twisted and screwed around with so that the meaning becomes something hardly recognizable to the original. Words like: Patriot. Immigrant. Feminist. Evangelical. Liberal.
Sometimes names get replaced, or re-imagined like the Mountain Laurel. Sometimes they get stolen or displaced for the convenience of another, like Becka Ellen’s real last name that I will never know. Names can be used to keep people out or to pull people in. The get used to create a false sense of danger, or a false sense of familiarity. We tend to name things we want to own, things we don’t understand, and things that frighten us, as if when we can name a thing, we will know where to put ourselves in relation to it, protect ourselves from the aspects of it that we cannot control.
I no longer use the name Yankee, having traded it for the name I took when I first married. My brother, William Henry, is the last Yankee of my great-great grandfather Henry Yankee’s family. The lineage of explorers, farmers, and slave owners dead ends in Lander, Wyoming where my brother is a cattle rancher and painter, contentedly childless.