We listened while the women talked


That’s me in the foreground at the left and my sister’s head in the right foreground. Marquetta (Aunt Katherine’s daughter-in-law in the white dress) is at the back standing beside my great-grandmother Narcie Smith in sunglasses. Elsie Brown, Narcie’s best friend, sits in a blue polyester dress that would later go into an all polyester quilt which I now look after. Elsie Brown walked more than any person I’ve ever known. She wore orthopedic shoes which I stared at as I listened under the kitchen table while the women talked.

As I sit looking out my window at a leaden Lancashire sky, Mawmaw’s house in Appalachia can seem very far away. The houses here, like many in Britain, are made of a grey and brown stone which matches the sky. Cold rain streams down my window. Just half a mile from my house, there’s the River Keer which flows into the Kent Estuary and Morecambe Bay. Along the river, I can see marsh-grazing sheep and cows, lambs jumping straight up into the air just like they do, and damson trees quietly mustering themselves to make fruit for later in the summer. I do often walk in the rain because if you don’t walk in the rain in Britain you won’t find yourself taking many walks. But today the rain is relentless and the wind is blowing it sideways. So, I’m in my studio, workshop, and wondarium thinking about home.

It’s strange to have spent so much of my life living away from the mountains of Southwest Virginia where I was born and spent every childhood summer with my grandmothers. The educational and career choices that my parents made and then I made meant that I’ve lived in cities and towns or in my Airstream in campgrounds, parking lots, and driveways for most of my life. But perhaps because of my physical distance from Mawmaw’s house in the wilderness, my spiritual distance is only the length of a thought or a photograph, a song or a strand of thread. I can sit with Mawmaw in my thoughts so quickly just by remembering a story she told me that I’ve yet to work into a song. I can also call her and, if she’s home, I can hear her voice which is the voice of my heart.

But Mawmaw is the busiest ninety-year old woman in Tazewell County, gallivanting around with Aunt Princess or going down to Kingsport to see Aunt Bonnie. So, sometimes I just leave a message on her answering machine or I drop a card in the mail to say that she was on my mind at that very moment.

I don’t feel homesick, exactly, or melancholy on these rainy days. It’s more like I’m sitting with my family in my mind. Some of the people I sit with, I’ve never met, some have passed away, and then there’s Mawmaw and my Mom and sister, aunts and cousins. It’s as though they live in a dollhouse in my mind where some folks are sewing, some are singing, and some are planting in the little garden.

When I was an undergraduate at Davidson College, I read a book in Elizabeth Mills’ “Women in Literature” class called Fair and Tender Ladies. Lee Smith wrote the book and I’ve mentioned this before because it was the first time I saw the name of the town where I was born – Richlands – in a story. A seed was planted in me at that moment and I would eventually write many songs and tell lots of stories about home. I even wrote a song inspired by Lee Smith’s writing, sent it to her, and received the most wonderful reply.¹

But I also took a course at Davidson College with Medievalist Gail Gibson.² We studied “Women, Mysticism, and Authority.” It was in this seminar that I began to understand the mysticism in my own family and of my grandmothers. Mawmaw and her mother, Narcie, lived in a world where “there was no promise of tomorrow” and where their aunts did the washing, cooking, and tending “God willing.”³

When I was a child, sometimes I felt anxious about the mysteries of church as my grandmothers knew it. There were calls to the altar, speaking in tongues, laying on of hands, anointing with oil, the raising of hands to Heaven, and falling down in the spirit. Because I went to a Scottish Presbyterian Church with my parents during the school year, I wasn’t accustomed to demonstrative and charismatic faith. It’s like a friend told me: when they went to see the Beatles, they were afraid because everyone was crying and yelling. They were worried that something bad might happen. I sometimes felt the same in church at Mawmaw’s.

In Gail’s seminar, I learned to see charismatic expression of faith differently. Visions and visitations, direct communication with Jesus, a God who would walk and talk with you in the garden was entirely natural and desirable. Fear became awe and anxiety became expectation – a hope for transformation through transmissions direct from Heaven. Mawmaw could say that she had a vision as comfortably as she could tell you she was going outside to fill the bird feeders. The re-telling of Aunt Nannie falling against the stove in the log cabin church and not getting burned was confirmation that she was chosen.

For me, these revelations of grace all took place in hot summer vacations with no air conditioning where the green of the trees along Virginia Route 67 seemed to press into me almost like it would reach right inside Mawmaw’s boat-like Buick. The adults smoked countless cigarettes and women went on black coffee diets. Narcie, my great-grandmother, planted a huge garden of corn, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and runner beans. She was always hoeing something and wearing a devastated straw hat. “Shhhhewwwww, it’s hot,” she’d say as she wiped her brow with a crumbling tissue.

Narcie Smith in her kitchen, the center of all power and revelation, in the 1960s.

My sister and I watched Days of Our Lives with her and she’d inevitably close her eyes and fall asleep. It was our work to keep track of Hope, Bo, and the evil old Stefano. There were twin sisters you never knew about and characters who came back from the dead. English literature was no revelation after a childhood spent in front of soap operas and Laverne and Shirley. I was ready for tragedy or comedy and any plot twist Charles Dickens could devise.

We listened to the obituaries on the radio while we ate saltine crackers with pineapple and cottage cheese salads and discussed whether we’d be attending the “viewing” of the body. The women sat at the kitchen table and talked. Nothing seemed to get done in a hurry. It was too hot. There was so much to tell. But meals were cooked, quilts were made, hair was braided, and tears were dried.

The men just seemed to drift occasionally in and out of this world of women where the talking never stopped. Babies, divorce, funerals, weddings, the dream she had last night, and the sound of the police scanner, telephone, and TV buzzing under and through it all.

I was just part of the flux in my sundress and red Keds with a Barbie in one hand and a popsicle in the other. I’d sit on the kitchen rug staring at Elsie Brown’s orthopedic shoes and listen.

I wasn’t going to be left out of having curlers in my hair. Note the Raggedy Ann dress. My favorite. Also, that’s the Hankins gap in my front teeth. Still have it.

Any songs I’ve had in me came from the words these women wrote in the air with their southern voices. Sometimes, they frustrated me, embarrassed me, loved me too fiercely, and bossed me until I was exasperated, but that’s childhood. I also received their enduring transmissions which lie deep in a book of myself from which songs, stitches, and tears spring. Even on the greyest of English March days, I can be watching Mawmaw put the curlers in her hair while the smell of biscuits fills the house.

“Picnic in the Sky” is a song about all of this, about the power in the blood. I think it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever written. It was transmitted to me in the middle of the night. I wrote it down in my journal in the dark. The next day, Billy Kemp helped me put a tune to it. The Big Picnic Band and producer Dave Way brought it to life out in Los Angeles in 2013.

Dad said, “I hope you never explain this song because it just is.” And I can’t sufficiently explain it. It’s simply a manifestation of my raising. The first time I sang it to him, my cousin Shad said through his tears, “You’ve written our whole childhood just how it was.”

No review could ever top that. This is for you Shad, five years gone, far too soon, from this earthly plane, but forever at the family table. We listened to the women talk and the voice said, “These are the Days of Our Lives.”

Picnic in the Sky
by Jeni Hankins & Billy Kemp © 2013
I pulled up the milkweed, hid 'neath the willow tree
from the church bell and the mystery
‘cause I did not understand
Christ Jesus’ victory and how that he loved –
the tears and the tongues, the power in the blood.

Frozen dinners were a special treat,
listening to radio obituaries.
Great grandma hoed the yellow squash.
We listened while the women talked
and the voice said, “These are the Days of Our Lives.”
I wondered did they go to the picnic in the sky
while I braided sister’s hair, watched the biscuits rise.
Oh, do this in remembrance of me.

The men washed their faces, removing the traces
of the local mining industry –
years of working underground
to get at the low seam, to pick out the old dream
of a house and some land, a heavenly reward.

The miner now a memory, in the same place as little me
fussin' with my dolly and singing
the old rugged cross,
listening to the women speak of patchwork and recipes –
the power in the blood, the power in the blood.

The recording you can hear at the top of this letter is from the 2014 Jeni & Billy album, Picnic in the Sky. On this song, the players are:
Jeni Hankins: Vocals 
Billy Kemp:  Guitar & Harmony Vocals
Craig Eastman: Lap Steel, Slide Guitar & Mandolin 
David Jackson: Upright Bass 
Denny Weston Jr: Drums & Percussion
Dillon O’Brian: Organ & Harmony Vocals

You can hear my song “The Ballad of Sally Kincaid” about a girl from Grundy, where Lee Smith grew up, by following this link.


Gail McMurray-Gibson is the author of The Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages and for thirty years she inspired countless students at Davidson College to be awake to mystery and devotion in their own lives. She is a also keen photographer of birds and has had to contend with a hungry bear on her porch. 


You can read a complete story about Nannie’s miracle here.


You can hear me tell a version of this story about soap operas and radio obituaries at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica. The audience got really tickled because some of them were actors in soap operas! 

Two new songs to hear and stories to read – a bonus for reading all the way to the bottom!

Ice Cream Will Always Be Here (January 2024 New Song)


Damson and Peach (February 2024 New Song)


Find me on InstagramFacebookYouTube, and Modern Daily Knitting.

I write about found things, knitting, sewing, doll rescue, Mawmaw, and what I see.

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