If you grew up in a large, boisterous Appalachian family like I did then you realize how memories are passed from generation to generation. How the memories become stories that are told over and over until they are a part of your heritage. My father was an Ashe County native, one of 11 children. My mother came from further across the mountain near Marion Va., a small place called Seven Mile Ford, one of thirteen children. With that many people it seemed someone was always remembering and telling the story. A piece of material reminded Granny of a dress her grandmother made for her out of a feed sack, and it was the only dress Granny owned. She was so proud of it. A stiff legged walk, being practiced for use at Halloween, reminded Poppy of the stiff legged walk Uncle Joshua used when he fell out of a apple tree, head first, after grabbing a snake tail instead of a tree limb. Uncle Joshua walked stiff legged for a month of Sundays. So it was this process that brought about a favorite story from my mother. If me or my sister became angry or sassy as it was called, then my mother gave us a stern look and remarked something along the line like, “You two are turning into smarty pants. No doubt you’ll be worse than Aunt Marg.” We mostly didn’t argue because if we sat quietly then we would hear the well remembered story of Aunt Marg.
Aunt Marg was really a couple of generations removed and should have had a great or two or three in front of her title for it to be proper, but through the years it had grown confusing and so she was just known by all generations of the family as Aunt Marg. It seemed that throughout the small community Aunt Marg was known for being a mean and cantankerous woman. She was always described as, wearing a scandalous amount of jewelry, rings on every finger, wide gaudy bracelets and pierced earrings. I thought pierced earrings didn’t come into being until the 1970’s but Aunt Marg was wearing them a hundred years before. A silver sword was carried on her hip for protection and most thought that knowing the personality of Marg, it had drawn blood many times. Stories seemed a little vague on details as to what Marg actually did that was so mean, but apparently her meanness went beyond the ordinary kind as she almost bordered on evil. Those who lived around about Marg, including her family, knew that she communed with the devil. Her brother-in-law reported that coming out the front door of his house, late one evening, he saw Marg’s house a short distance away and one end was engulfed in flames. The brother-in-law called for the rest of the family and they came running. All witnessed the flaming house and grabbed buckets to go and try to stop the flames. However, when they reached the house, the flames were all gone and there was no sign of fire. Upon entering the house, in the end that had flamed, all was there was Aunt Marg sitting calmly at a table with a book. All that witnessed it allowed that Marg had been doing some communing.
For all the interesting details of Aunt Marg’s life, the thing I loved to hear the most was about her daughter Annie. Annie really set my imagination to going. She was born with a beard or at least she developed one shortly after birth. I had never heard of this and could hardly imagine it. The story went that when she was a child Annie was kidnapped by a circus and Aunt Marg didn’t know where she was for a couple of years. Hearing that a child like Annie was being displayed by a circus several states away, Aunt Marg traveled there, but both parties claimed Annie as their own. Finally, a court case ensued to prove with whom Annie belonged and being as most children, she recognized her mother in court and settled the case. Later however, Annie did work in the circus of her own volition. I spent hours though wondering such things as if other children were mean to Annie because she looked different. Was Annie terrified when she was kidnapped by strangers? Maybe Annie could just have shaved her beard like men do and have had a normal life. I often wanted to see a photo of Annie, but my Mom said she remembered no photos, as they were scarce in those days. She did remember seeing a circus flier with Annie on it, but didn’t know what became of it. So I had to be content that I would this little bit of information would be all I ever knew and I would never know what Annie looked like.
A few years later I was reading through a book that someone had loaned me called, Circus Freaks and Other Weirdos, and I glimpsed a chapter called “Hairy Annie”. That was the name my long lost relative had used when she traveled with the circus, but surely our Annie wouldn’t be in a book. I turned over to the chapter and there it was, Annie Jones born in Smythe County, Virginia to Margaret Smith. Best of all there were photographs, lots of photographs. I could see Annie as a child and as a young woman and it was unbelievable. Annie it seemed hadn’t just joined any circus, but was a member of P.T. Barnum’s show. She became the top bearded lady in the U.S. and became a spokeswoman for removal of the word freak as a description for someone who was born different. She traveled to many foreign countries, married twice, the last time to her childhood sweetheart. So maybe little Annie didn’t have such a bad life after all. I’m sure at that time period and being different was a difficult expierence, but it seems she had people who loved her, she was able to support herself quite well, to travel and to fight for the rights of herself and others. These some amazing accomplishments for a woman born in 1865.
I’ll never forget the memories of Aunt Marg or Annie. It was great to find some corroboration in written text. But I feel as if it is my responsibility to take these memories on to the next generation just as they were given to me. To show that these people who were a part of our past, were real people living real lives. That their traditions, their beliefs, their experiences led to who we are today and they deserve to be remembered.