|Vol. IV, No. 2, Fall 1990|
by Ellen Gray Massey
In the mid 1930s, living in the isolated hamlet of Oasis, Missouri, in southwestern Taney County, Mary Elizabeth Mahnkey wrote:
I stick smart weed and beggar lice
In with my bouquet
And then I smile
When my friends say,
"How beautiful, how delicate!
What can these blossoms be?"
Mary Elizabeth knew very well what these blossoms were. They were the common plants most people avoided along the roadsides and weed patches of the Ozarks. But Mary Elizabeth was different. A keen observer of both nature and people, she found, even in smart weed and beggar lice, a beauty and meaning. Her ability to express in her writing this insight into commonplace things has continued to influence and touch her readers for over fifty years.
The rest of the poem reveals her mission.
"O yes," I say, "O yes,
But it takes one just like me
To show you all
That common things
Have beauty, charm, and grace,
But not until you see them Stuck in a crystal vase."
Today no one questions the beauty of the Ozarks or the value of what remains of the older way of life of the Ozarks people--their crafts, sayings, philosophies, traditions, and beliefs. Therefore, it is difficult for new converts to the area and the thousands of tourists who enjoy the Ozarks every year to realize that th is beauty and richness was ignored for over a hundred years.
Even as late as the 1940s and 1950s anyone using the words beauty, charm, and grace to describe the Ozarks would have been ridiculed. What beauty was there in the rough, dusty roads? Charm in tobacco-spitting farmers sitting around a hot stove in an unpainted crossroads store? Grace in spotted, wrinkled hands stirring up the interminable cornbread and pouring out cups of strong black coffee? Much of the rest of the country, and even the rest of Missouri, dismissed the Ozarks as backwoods and characterized its people as backward, illiterate, and lazy.
What the world read about the Ozarks was from outsiders' points of view, often slanted to meet editors' demands for humorous stories. Writers and journalists who visited the area wrote as if they were experts and knew the people, when in actuality few outsiders really got to know and appreciate the Ozarks people and their way of life. Some newcomers saw through the dust-fogged roads and beyond the sprout-filled field to the wild natural beauty of the land, but few recognized any charm or grace in everyday living.
Even the native Ozarks people themselves rarely thought about the natural beauty around them or realized the richness of their way of life. They were too busy surviving on their wooded hills and small valley farms. Always surrounded by the blue hills, they daily forded the crystal creeks to get the cows. From childhood they were so used to grandma's cooking that its special flavor did not impress them. They'd heard grandpa's wry wit and stories untold times. This was commonplace.
Can commonplace things have beauty? Can appreciating common things help us understand our place in life? "O Yes! O Yes," said Mary Elizabeth Mahnkey who spent her seventy-one years deep in the hills of Taney County. Sharing this literal and spiritual beauty through her writ-lng was almost a mission, as she explained in a letter in 1936. "Sometimes I feel a vague hurt, almost physical pain, that people fail to realize the real beauty in these little simple things."
This voice from the hills enlightened her readers to the real beauty of their native Ozarks countryside, the charm of the Ozarks way of life, and the grace of living and being an Ozarker. First the rural folk of Taney County and later her wider audience throughout the Ozarks and beyond, especially the homebound women, learned to say with her:
I have found beauty
In commonplace things,
In a blue gingham apron
With crisply tied strings,
In freshly washed windows,
With checked curtains brief,
In the mottled rose gray
Of a frost-bitten leaf,
Ruby red velvet
In a tiny toad stool,
Silky green plush
In a polliwog pool.
In the October 1930 issue of Missouri Magazine, Mary Elizabeth reminisced about her childhood awareness of the beauty of simple things. "Warmly dad, we played outdoors all winter long-and does anyone else remember the copper-toed shoes of that long ago rural childhood? Often with moistened fingers and much labor did we rub those copper toes until they turned to glistening yellow gold. Magic alchemy of childhood! But often since those halcyon days, by using plenty of elbow grease and imagination have I transformed the commonest of commonplace things into silver and gold." Mary Elizabeth Prather Mahnkey experienced a typical life of an Ozarks girl and woman. Born in Arkansas, she lived from the age of three most of the time in Taney County. As was typical, she came from a large family, learning to work, going to school sporadically, and participating in the social life of the community. She married Pres Mahnkey, a childhood friend, became her husband's helpmate, both on the farm and later in their crossroads store business. She had four children, kept house, cared for the chickens, milked the cows, tended the gardens, canned, and sewed. Perhaps even more than most, because of her position in the country store where she heard all the news and was one of the first to get a telephone, she helped out in the community, nursing the sick, sitting up with the dead, teaching a Sunday school class and being clerk of the school district.
Though in many ways Mary Elizabeth lived a typical life, she was not a typical woman. Her parents, who were highly educated for the times, continually stressed reading. Nothing was so precious to her as a book."When I was a girl," she wrote in The Country Home, April 8, 1933, "books were scarce, but I grew up with the tattered remains of a grand old library that toured the Ozark hills with us. So I revered a book and would walk miles to where folks lived who had books, thinking they would loan me one. But one unseeing soul gave me a cabbage to carry home instead of a 'blame book.' I never did like her."
Her first day of school when the teacher asked if she could read, she nodded eagerly. "What have you read?" he asked. "Pilgrim's Progress, The Vicar of Wakefield..." she began but sat down humiliated when the teacher handed her a first reader. At home that night her older brother laughed when recounting the incident, not at little Mary Elizabeth, though she did not know it then, but at the teacher because he did not know those books. During a time when girls rarely received more than a basic education in the local school, Mary Elizabeth attended teachers institutes in Bradleyville and Protem, and a business school in Springfield.
The typical girl married in her teens and spent the rest of her life as a farm wife; Mary Elizabeth combined a career with homemaking. Postponing marrying until twenty-one, she first taught three terms of school. Then after her marriage she was business partner with her husband as storekeeper and postmaster in Mincy, Oasis, and Melba.
Most atypical of an Ozark woman was her work as a writer. Creative, original, sensitive, for fifty-six years she recorded daily life and customs as a weekly rural correspondent. In 1935 she received nation-wide publicity during her award-winning trip to New York City sponsored by the Crowell Publishing Company, whose editors elected her the best rural correspondent in the United States and Canada.
For eighteen years (1930-1948) her monthly column, "In the Hills" appeared in "The Waste Basket" section in the Springfield dailies. She contributed articles and poetry, to The Country Home magazine, Missouri Magazine, and the White River Electrical Cooperative publication. She received an occasional five dollar check for some special writing assignments to newspapers, such as the St. Louis Post Dispatch, or a two-dollar check from someone reading one of her poems on the radio, like Mirandy of Persimmon Hollow, the National Farm and Home Hour personality from Chicago. Almost a year after her trip she wrote in her journal that she made "$524.64 income from writing since June 1935. Pretty good for an old bird like me." Local credit and recognition came to her in 1934 when the Taneyhills Study Club published Ozark Lyrics, a small volume of her poems. She donated her poems for the club to raise money to begin the Branson library. Several editions of this book were published, including two by the School of the Ozarks in 1972 and 1980.
And perhaps best of all for those of us wishing to understand her life, she left many journals (thirteen extant) and numerous scrapbooks and workbooks.
Mary Elizabeth's contribution to our understanding of the Ozark way of life is incalculable. When most writers of the Ozarks were male outsiders, her voice, as a woman born into the culture, immersed in it, and possessing both realistic and poetic insight into the land and its people, lets us envision the true Ozarks.
Mary Elizabeth's need to write began in her childhood when she and her little brother made their own pens from chicken feathers and their own ink from blackjack oak sprouts. Mary Elizabeth wrote one novel after another, and then tore them up.
In 1891, at age fourteen, she began her weekly correspondent column, rarely missing a week until three weeks before her death in 1948, a total of almost 3,000. Writing the columns was as routine as the weekly wash. Yet, for her lifetime of writing, of which much was published, she received less than a thousand dollars total payment. The majority of that income came after she was fifty-seven--the Crowell Publishing Company award of $50 and the flurry of demand following the publicity of her award trip to New York City. Modest about her writings, she didn't consider them literature, nor did she think of herself as a journalist. While in New York, the noted columnist, Haywood Broun, learning that she did not write about crime and, pointing out that her pay consisted only of a subscription to the paper and writing paper and stamps, intimated that she was not a real newspaper woman. "Well," she said, "if this Mr. Broun lived in a place of twenty-seven people and was married to the proprietor of the general store, maybe he wouldn't be so quick to send in stories that reflected on the residents."
She wrote for her neighbors. "If something I could write would brighten up the columns or make someone laugh or please some little child or some old, old person, I'd try to do that," she said.
Her neighbors were satisfied. Many clipped out her columns, or some special poem to display on their walls. I've talked to older people who still treasure the clippings from her writings they have saved in scrapbooks and still remember some favorite poems. But what is more remarkable, young people today, exposed for the first time to her poems are still moved. I've used her poetry when speaking about the Ozarks to people from age four to ninety-four, to native Ozarkers and those who know nothing of the area. All come away understanding better the beauty of the human condition and our land.
Perhaps her appeal, then and now, is that she wrote of the commonplace, the familiar. She said simply and beautifully what we almost know, but need to put into words. May Kennedy McCord, radio personality at KWTO in Springfield, was one of her admirers and good friends. After her first visit with Mary Elizabeth in Oasis, she wrote, "We came away silent and admiring, withal a bit subdued, but with no words to describe this woman with the light in her face from the candle within her soul."
Mary Elizabeth often made light of her "pomes," as she called them. One of her verses describes her feeling:
"Do you write of moods?"
"No, I write of woods
Or dogs or an old stone wall.
By this you know,
Ere you further go,
That I am no poet at all."
Criticism did hurt her. Though written in the third person, this poem certainly is autobiographical:
Illiterate, he? and yet he sees
Wild gnomes and harps in leafless trees
And pale gold stars bend low to tell
The secret of this strange, bright spell.
Yet, some disdained his lyric song
For meter, verb, and tense were wrong.
In addition to May Kennedy McCord, there were other literary people in her own time who appreciated her work. Folklorist Vance Randolph wrote of her poems, "They are the only verses in which I have ever heard the authentic music of the Ozark hills." Marion B. Pickens, Editor of Missouri Magazine, wrote in 1934, "...through the varied text the rich simplicities of nature run like a golden thread and withal a quiet contentment, a wholesome creed of living, that reaches out from the printed pages and soothes."
Even Mary Elizabeth's own mother, Ada Maria (Betsy) Prather, recognized that her daughter was the best in their family of writers. In 1934 she wrote from her home in California, "Dick [Mary Elizabeth's brother] and your father wrote a good deal, but your writings beat anything they ever did. One thing I admire about your articles they are so common, sensible. No high falutin' flowery heights of language that is far above the comprehension of common people."
Though Mary Elizabeth's poetry covers many subjects, al lis woven with the threads of woman-hood--how a woman perceived life, how she coped in the male-oriented society of her time, how she survived the rugged life and the hardships that today boggle our minds.
I think the poem that best expresses Mary Elizabeth's life and philosophy is "Hollyhock Tea." What could be more commonplace than hollyhocks, often the only bloom that survived in the grassless, chicken-roaming yards of the Ozark farmhouse?
Or turnips? During the drought years of the 1930s, which also coincided with the Depression years, about the only garden product that could be stored and eaten all winter was turnips.
When I grow old, I'll raise turnips
And try to like turnip stew,
But now while I'm young, I raise hollyhocks
And asters and marigolds too.
For raising turnips is sadness.
That is why I dread growing old.
Do you think I could live on hollyhock tea
Or shop with the marigold gold?
Perhaps my flowers will remember
And make intercession for me,
And old age will come along gaily
And help me make hollyhock tea.
Ellen Massey taught English at the Lebanon, Missouri, High School, where for ten years her classes produced Bittersweet, an Ozarks quarterly magazine. She is now on the adjunct faculty of Drury College.
Selected Poems of Mary Elizabeth Prather Mahnkey
Loving nature, she personified her as a homemaker.
First she used her broom
To sweep the trash away.
Then came floods of April suds
To finish cleaning day.
The Decorator next appeared
With flowers and bowers so gay.
We soon beheld a dazzling world
And knew that it was May.
Living in stark, unpainted or tarpaper-cov-ered homes, the Ozarks woman used whatever scraps of materials she could find to make her own beauty.
"If I'd a-had a bit uv pink
My aster quilt would be I think
As purty as the ones I seen
All flowery gay in pink an' green.
"But I jest use what scraps I find
In my scrapbag, an' to my mind
My aster quilt is jest as bright
As if I had all colors right."
Compensating for their lack of time to enjoy or make artistic things, women became artists in their daily cooking.
She scanned the table with keen old eyes--
There was the brown fried chicken
The creamy custard pies
The cool bright green of pickles
And the ruby glow of jell.
Then she hastened to the cellar
Before she rang the bell
And brought the golden butter
With its drops of frosty dew
Chilled and sweet and delicate
In a deep bowl of old blue.
Mary Elizabeth showed understanding and tolerance in a time when a girl was ruined for fife if she had a "woods colt", or a child out of wedlock.
I had three dresses
But now I've got two,
For the plain little white one Trimmed in bright blue
I cut into garments,
So tiny and small
For my poor little baby A-comin' this fall.
The boy that I worshipped Told me black lies
An' run off an' left me With tears in my eyes.
O, poor little baby
With no name at all,
Maybe God will forgive me
And help me this fall.
Women often had to display their strengths through their men.
She was a trader.
She was the one
Who told him to swap
For that long ole gun.
An' I'll swear, by gonny,
The next thing we knowed
He had swapped that gun
To a guy on the road,
One uv these touristes A-passing by,
Fer a new ottymatick
Er I hope I may die.
That danged fine gun
Soon went fer a cow.
Now follow me clost
Fer I'm tellin' you how
They kept on tradin'
'Til now they own
A good little farm
An' have money to loan.
She was the trader
An' watches him yit
When they gather aroun'
To whittle an' spit.
Hits often the talk
Uv the settlement
That he's the only Hudson
Plum to the top
In this game uv life,
An' we know 't'wuz because
Uv his watchful wife.
To survive in their secondary place in society women had to develop a philosophy.
I've made one thousand pies
Without a crust crimper,
Took one thousand knocks
Without a whimper.
Please do not look to me for wisdom.
All that I learned in three score years
Was that my flowers would not blossom
Watered with remorseful tears.
Mary Elizabeth's advice, and the example that she rived, was this that she gave to a lady filled with self-pity.
TO A MELANCHOLY LADY
Raise some guineas
Raise some gourds.
Make a little gesture towards
A richer life in service passed
To leave some imprint that may last.
If not great deeds
Or golden words,
Then raise some guineas
Raise some gourds.
In great literature life has been compared to many things--a road in the yellow wood, a candle that bums at both ends, to name two famous metaphors. Mary Elizabeth saw life as a worn fabric.
Life's fabric has worn thin;
'Tis darned and patched and tied;
It has been turned so many times
To show the brighter side.
But despite the many turnings and patchings, rife is good. Therefore, she says,
LET'S BE CHEERFUL
Let's be cheerful
Let's be gay
For life was meant
To be that way.
Songs are sweet
And flowers are bright
And silver stars
Come with the night.
So do not frown
And do not sigh
But laugh and love
As we pass by,
For birds will sing
And flowers will bloom.
Only bats and owls
Rejoice in gloom.
And perhaps someday--
Perhaps sometime, somewhere, some place,
Beside a distant shining sea,
We may be judged, not as we are,
But as we've tried to be.
Even contemplating her own death she was still attentive to the usefulness and importance of commonplace things:
When they put away my silken scarf
My beads and thin worn rings,
Will they think of my old washtub
My broom and other things?
The little hoe I kept for flowers
The basket for dead leaves--
No one will use them any more
And so my spirit grieves.
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