George and Corrine
It’s our first day in the field and we start, as expected, at the beginning. But the beginning in the case of the footbridges isn’t so easy to find, since the bridge foreman who worked for the state at the time is no longer alive. George held the position more than 38 years and his wife, Corrine, still lives in Tinyville near the fire department and old Taylor Togs factory. I arranged the interview with her in advance, thinking this would be as good a place to start as any.
Shane and I fuel up at Dot’s Café and drive out of town to her home, a beige and green mobile home on the side of a hill, perfectly manicured lawn framed by humble rows of flowers.
“You look just like my grandson,” Corrine says to Shane. I’ve offered her my hand to shake but in her excitement, she doesn’t see it. “’Except he has no hair left and you’ve got plenty, I see…Now come on in.” She leads us to the kitchen where two chairs have been arranged in anticipation of our visit. A small stack of books on footbridges sits in the center of the table.
“Corrine, thank you so much for giving us your time this morning,” I say. “This is Shane, the photographer. He’s just going to move around while we’re talking, if you don’t mind. Let’s turn this light on here for him and we’ll get started.”
Her memory is slim, as I suspected, and her son. James, who was supposed to come to the interview this morning (all the way from Marion), had to cancel at the last minute. I make a note to call him later, then get down to business.
“We’d like the story to focus as much on your husband as possible,” I say. “And if we can get enough information we’ll be able to acknowledge all that he did to make these bridges possible.” George, it turns out, surveyed, designed, made the blueprints for, and built 14 bridges in Yancey, Mitchell, and Avery counties combined. Of these, we’ll be studying 11 in Yancey and Mitchell counties, the oldest being 61 years old.
When I ask Corrine what George was like at the end of the day, she says “Tired, real, real tired.” When I ask her if he had any phrases or sayings he liked to use when talking about his work or after he’d had an especially long day, she shakes her head, she says, “He liked to keep a good yard. I got one little patch for my flowers because what he loved more than anything else was grass.” When I inquire about his work ethic, she smiles. “He was a hard worker. A hard, hard worker.”
Meanwhile, early morning sunlight pours in through the windows, alighting seafoam trim and white curtains, backlighting Corrine’s white hair just so. Shane takes a few shots here and there, but he’s shooting standard film today so each shot runs at about 90 cents a pop. He turns to capture her kitchen, kitch as can be and equally well-lit, and Corrine snaps to attention to speak up.
“You taking pictures of my dirty kitchen, there?” The trace lines of her eyebrows are raised, crinkling her spotted forehead in a ripple of lines. A half smile forms across her face.
Shane laughs. “It’s just the light…and the color…,” he says, then turns back to us respectfully. “I almost couldn’t help it.”
Corrine lifts her hands from her lap and taps the DOT publications she’s saved for me to look at. “Here,” she says. “These are my books about the flood. It was a real wreck, I’ll tell you. George was real disheartened.”
Later, she’ll tell us about her children, grand children, and great grand children. She’s had a recent hip replacement surgery and is battling skin cancer one mole and scraping at a time. “I’m worried,” she says. “I’m worried these days because the keep finding more. Next, I’ve got to get one taken off my shoulder here, and I don’t think I’m going to like those stitches much.”
“I bet you’ll surprise yourself,” I say. “You’ll get those stitches out before you even have time to notice them. I wouldn’t worry about a thing, Corrine.”
“George was a self-made man,” she says. “Only educated through the third grade, but he made his way…” she trails off.
I smile. I’m not sure where this is going but I need everything I can get and I’ve tried every trick I know to jog her memory or pin he down to specifics. So far, she hasn’t said much that I can quote directly in the article and her memory is too fuzzy on dates and times, or even anecdotes about her husband.
“Well then, how did you and George meet?” I ask.
Ding! She lights up, mouth forming into a soft O, her lower lip sinking back a little. Her eyes grow wide as a doe’s and then she bursts into smile. “Well then, he grew up with his family on one side of Pumpkin Patch Mountain and I grew up on the other,” she says. “And we used to take our corn and our grain down there to the old red mill by Loafer’s Glory, not far from here, and that’s where we’d get our grits made. It’s different now, though. Now we’re heading into a depression. I live through that Great Depression, you know, I lived through it. Looks like we’re having another one here, yes, it’s looking like that more and more everyday.”
I ask Corrine when her husband died, she shifts her bright teal eyes to the table and draws her hand to her face. “Oh honey, I can’t. I can’t think real good, you know…I just can’t think.” Shane snaps the photo: her hand, her hair, the flowers behind her, the way the light bends through the curtains and spreads onto the table.
It’s hard but this says so much. When I asked her about the floods, she told me about her skin cancer. When I asked her about George dying, she had to stop thinking. And as we were leaving, when I told her the magazine article would come out September 2009, she said she was worried again, that who knew what next. More than any phrase she offered about her husband being a hard worker and a self-made man, these things tell me their love was deep. It tells me parts of the past run muddy into puddles where she can’t see anything and parts of the future look uncertain and dim.
After a few more questions, she gets up and shows us the rest of her house, including pictures of George and his awards from the state. Her back room has piles of hand-crocheted scarves and she insists that Shane and I pick one out for ourselves.
“Oh no,” I say. “Oh no, no, no. I couldn’t. No, thank you, that is very sweet but N—“
“Go on then,” Corrine interrupts. “Go on, take one. Now. Take one. Go on.” She’s firm as a tree trunk on this one, and Shane at I exchange glances, then pick matching scarves to commemorate our work together.
“I felt bad,” Shane said later about the picture. “But I had the shot framed, it was there. Then you asked the question and she couldn’t stop herself. That hand, the way she lifted it.”
“I know,” I told him. “And don’t feel bad. I mean, I did too, but that’s just how it goes. You never know what you’re going to get when people let you into their lives like that. We’ll come back by next week though, and return those books. We ought to bring her something though…”
“Yeah, we should. She was sweet as could be.”
“Flowers, we’ll bring her flowers. George liked the grass but she loved the flowers.”
“Perfect,” he says. “Perfect.”