The Occasional Pie
In Praise of Ambergris

Hidden Joy

Blue Ridge Mountains

Nothing is Lost
- by Noel Coward -

Deep in our sub-conscious, we are told
Lie all our memories, lie all the notes
Of all the music we have ever heard
And all the phrases those we loved have spoken,
Sorrows and losses time has since consoled,
Family jokes, out-moded anecdotes
Each sentimental souvenir and token
Everything seen, experienced, each word
Addressed to us in infancy, before
Before we could even know or understand
The implications of that wonderland.
There they all are, the legendary lies
The birthday treats, the sights, the sounds, the tears
Forgotten debris of forgotten years
Waiting to be recalled, waiting to rise
Before our world dissolves before our eyes
Waiting for some small, intimate reminder,
A word, a tune, a known familiar scent
An echo from the past when, innocent
We looked upon the present with delight
And doubted not the future would be kinder
And never knew the loneliness of night.

From Collected Verse edited by Graham Payn & Martin Tickner, Graywolf Press, 2000.  Electronic text via The Writer's Almanac

Grandma_andrews_1964 I held a bottle of real perfume for the first time when I was six or seven years old.  I found it in my grandmother's bedroom drawer and I was amazed at that tiny bottle with the word JOY imprinted on the label.  It was a strange, beautiful object made even stranger by the fact that nothing about my grandmother seemed joyful or elegant or even pleasant to me at that time. 

She loved her children and grandchildren, me included, but I always feared her hardness and I loved my grandaddy, to whom she never showed any affection.  Because he was so sweet and dear to me, she was my enemy.  It would take many years for me to understand her, and to understand that bottle of perfume hidden carefully in her underclothes.

My grandmother, Janet, (pronounced "Jennet") was basically sold by her moonshiner father to another local moonshiner in 1932.  She'd grown up in the mountains of Bath County, Virginia, oldest daughter of a Cherokee woman and a notoriously violent mountain man, a "law unto himself," Charles Fisher.  One of nine to fourteen children (the reports vary), she'd grown up in a mountain hollow all her life and had become a beautiful young woman with her mother's high forehead, prominent cheekbones, and long black hair.  I imagine she was both spirited and headstrong, and she loved her brothers and sisters fiercely.

Just after her eighteenth birthday, 30-year old Payne "Andy" Andrews came to call on her with an engagement ring.  He'd known her all her life; he had wanted to marry her since she was a little girl and he'd waited till she was eighteen to court her.Moonshine Still But Janet wanted nothing to do with Payne. He was a moonshiner just like her father and she'd had enough of moonshining. She intended to move out of the mountains, live a little bit, maybe become a missionary.   She had no intention of raising another bunch of kids in the same hole of misery she'd grown up in.  No, she said, she was not marrying anybody on that mountain.

Payne went back to Janet's father, Charles, and asked for his help. I imagine, knowing my grandfather, that he would have given anything for the woman he'd loved all his life and he wasn't ready to take no for Homestead Resort, Hot Springsan answer just yet.  Charles had wanted to get Andy into a partnership for years because Andy had some of the best moonshine on the mountain - it was so good that he steadily supplied The Homestead, a nearby mountain resort favored by presidents and dignitaries, with moonshine throughout prohibition. He used copper still parts and the best ingredients; nobody else's was nearly as good.  And because his reputation and the quality of his whiskey was exceptional, he was able to pay off the law men all the way down the mountain to make sure that his whiskey still (located in a hollowed-out space under a neighbor's barn) was never located by the axe-wielding revenue men.

Charles went to his daughter and told her she was going to marry Andy. "No," she said, "I'm not marrying Payne Andrews.  He's an old man."

"You've got until the end of this year," he told her, probably accompanied by violence, which was his preferred method of communication.  He left no doubt that if she was not married to Andy by the end of the year, she'd never see the beginning of the next one.  (I asked my mother why grandma didn't just leave.  "How was she going to go anywere?" She said. "She was up on the mountain.  She didn't have any car or any money, she didn't even have any clothes to take with her." ) Falling Spring, Alleghany County

So on December 31, 1932, my grandmother married my grandfather in the town of Hot Springs, deep in the Blue Ridge mountains.  I've heard she put her hair up with iron nails and chewed tobacco through the ceremony in protest.  She would never love him.  He hoped she would maybe fall in love with him in time, but he saw the possibility that she wouldn't and offered her a deal: if she would just stay and give it a chance for a year, he'd let her go after that.  She could move out of the mountains and do whatever she wanted, but he wanted one year of her time.  No matter what, he would go on taking care of her family as he'd promised. 

She agreed, and moved into his family home to take care of his brothers and sisters, running the household as Andy was out moonshining to support both his family and hers.  His father had died when he was eleven and he'd been the man of the house ever since.  His mother hated her new daughter-in-law; she hated her frankness and she hated her for not loving her son and she hated all the Fishers because she knew the kind of man Charles was.

But at the end of the year, something else had happened that made leaving Payne impossible:  Janet was pregnant.  She raised her first two boys in that home with her husband, his siblings, and his mother.  At Chicken Coop in Virginiasome point, she talked him into moving down from the mountain into a valley, where they made their new home in a wooden chicken coop on another family's farm.  Her father eventually moved his family into that little shack, too. Charles was still making moonshine for locals and for travelers, but it was not good moonshine.  In contrast to Payne, who paid careful attention to the quality of his product, my mother said that Charles "would use anything - he didn't care."  There's a lot that can go wrong with moonshine in the process of making it, and it seems that Charles only cared that he got his money for it when it was done distilling.

One day he gave his son, Charlie, some moonshine that was poisonous.  Janet watched her little brother die a horrific death, his eyes turning milky white as the moonshine cooked him from inside out. 

She made a decision: there would not be another death from moonshine in that family.  Payne would have to get a job on the railroad -- the moonshining was over. 

When Charles heard that his daughter had put a stop to the family's source of income, he was furious. To his son-in-law, he sneered, "Are you going to let that bitch tell you what to do?" 

"She's my wife," he responded, "and she doesn't want to see any of these kids die like Charlie. If she wants me to get a job on the railroad, I'm going to get a job on the railroad." 

Charles exploded; he cornered Janet but when he went to hit her, she looked him straight in the eye.

"If you are gonna hit me," she said, "you better make it a good one because it's gonna be the last." 

She put her hand on her iron skillet and continued: "No matter how hard you hit me, you're going to have to go to sleep sometime, and when you do, I'm coming to find you and I'm bringing this here iron skillet.  You're not gonna hurt another of these kids and there's not going to be any more moonshining in this family." 

My mother says that old Charles Fisher realized right then that he was looking at himself in female form.  He knew that his daughter Janet was determined to put an end to the moonshine and, if necessary, to him. That was the last Covington Paper Milltime he ever raised a hand to her or to his wife (whom he had abused mercilessly for years) or to any of his other kids.  And that was the end of the moonshine.

Eventually, they all moved out of the chicken coop in the mountains and into the hills above the city of Covington, where my grandad got a job at the Westvaco paper mill, which perfumed the air with such rancid nastiness that I can still smell it when I look at the pictures.  After twenty-two years of millwork, ten children of their own, three more adopted from other family members, and scores of other children that they took in and raised, heGrandaddy, 1977 retired to work in his garden and live off his Westvaco pension. Chanel No 5Every year for her birthday, he walked down into the town and bought "Sissy" a new blouse and a bottle of Chanel No. 5.  She loved perfume.

By the time I was born, grandaddy was spending most of his time in his garden, raising vegetables and berries and nightcrawlers both to feed his own family and to sell to the families that lived around them on the hill.  He collected pop bottles and carted them down the hill for the deposit money, and every time my mom and dad brought us home to Covington to visit the grandparents, grandaddy made sure he had a box of strawberry pop-tarts waiting for us kids.  He was a wonderful, sweet, gentle man and I adored him, but my grandmother was severe with him in a way that never made any sense to me.  I think that she never forgave him for her life, even though the family that came from that union was her greatest pleasure. 

Joy Their daughter, Janet, lived her mother's dream and went to the city, got a good job, and lived on her own for a while before she fell in love and got married to my uncle Bob.  She brought home that bottle of Jean Patou Joy, which was so much more expensive than Chanel No. 5, for her mother. 

I think grandma hid her perfume in the drawer simply because it was precious to her, and because with a house constantly full of kids and relatives and neighbors, it was safer out of sight.  But I still remember the puzzlement with which I held that beautiful, angular bottle up to the light and sniffed the stopper.   I thought it smelled strange and horrible (my mother almost never wore scent) but at the same time, I was fascinated with this part of my grandmother I'd never seen: a part that didn't originate in the mountains, a part that had nothing to do with pinto beans or fatback or skinned rabbits or the stench of mills and cigarettes.  I saw her, almost my entire life, as an ignorant mountain woman who'd always been mean and got meaner with every year.

It has taken me until right now to understand: I could have been her - in many ways I am her.  I could not have loved a man that I couldn't pick of my own free will, no matter how kind or gentle he might be, no matter how much he might love me, and no matter what the consequences.  My grandad loved his wife completely, but she never let him into her heart.  And in my childish misunderstanding, I stood before the great mirror on her dresser and wondered why such a hard-hearted woman even had something like this bottle of Joy

When I lift Joy to my nose now, I remember Noel Coward's poignant lines,

    I return to a moment in which a known familiar scent
    An echo from the past when, innocent
    We looked upon the present with delight
    And doubted not the future would be kinder
    And never knew the loneliness of night.

She must have felt that way at some point in her youth, as hard as it was.   She dreamed of leaving the mountain, having an independent life, enjoying beautiful and unnecessary things, and sharing her love with people of her own choosing. 

I understand her a little more now, and I'm ashamed to have hated her for so long, especially when she lived with us in her old age, after strokes and heart attacks had taken part of her mind and most of the  independence she had left.  We passed each other with our similar mouths set in a hard, thin lines.  We stared at each other, each guarded and brave and daring the other to challenge our formidable wills, each of us longing for the joy of freedom.



"Nothing Lost" by Noel Coward, from Collected Verse edited by Graham Payn & Martin Tickner, Graywolf Press, 2000.  Electronic text via The Writer's Almanac


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Do these people look and sound filmiliar to you in this story?


Brandon Fisher

I am also descended from the Baron via my great grandfather. The little blurb you posted about his son Adam intrigued me. I would love to know more about his descendants and their lives. My grandmother has got me hooked on my family history. :) If you can point me to resources or maybe provide me with any additional information, that would be great! Thank you!


Thank you so much, Patricia, for taking the time to read and comment. I'm afraid my sensitivity skills work better in hindsight; I was never very kind to my grandmother and though I wouldn't say I regret much about my life, I am powerfully aware of my shortcomings ... but that awareness doesn't always come at a time when I can make amends for my poor choices.


Well, I'm a stranger here and just tripped over this touching, personal but completely, for me, relevant family story. The way in which your grandmother, Janet, found herself trapped repeatedly throughout her life..never letting her guard down for Payne but loving the children they had together I can understand. There is a real sense of confusion and inner conflict that comes from having children you love dearly (would die for if necessary)with a man you don't and can't ever love. I know this from personal experience.

I didn't intend to read a story but yours captured my attention. I was slightly (resisted actually crying) wet eyed for your grandmother at your story's end. You are very observant of and sensitive to others, such as your grandmother, Heather. Also, I am remotely descended from Georgia Cherokees and my son dates a part Apache girl. Native Americans I have known can be very decided in holding a good (deserved) grudge. A long memory keeps one safe from being taken advantage of again and again. Thank you for your family story!


Katheryn: It's a pleasure to meet you here. I think that my great-grandfather didn't so much change his ways as see the importance of survival under a roof that was not his own. I believe he died in a mental institution, long before I was born. Still, he's one of the most interesting characters in my family, and he had a huge impact on everyone all the way down to me.

Katheryn Fisher

Interesting and heartbreaking account of a family's history. A shame what liquor and hard living can do. Glad he changed his ways. My husband is also descended from Baron Johann Adam Fischer von Fischerbach.


:) Thank you for your generosity and for sharing your beautiful texts with us!


Nathalie: This is my book, and I'm giving it all away for free to anyone hungry enough to stop by.


I had goosebumps reading this beautiful and moving post. It is always so special to spend a moment here on your blog Heather, there always a lot of emotions flowing through me as a read you. I think you should write a book...


Rita: I just read your post at and it is luminously beautiful. I commented there but I'll say it here, too, she shines through you. You are wise and kind to honor her while it can still touch her life as well as the lives of those who read you.


I just discovered this amazing post by you while I am catching up on your blog since I was away. Almost syncronious posting on grandmas,and I wish I would have read this before I posted mine. It is wonderful.


boomtownboudoir: I think my whole family is pretty talkative about these characters. After all, it's easy to look good when measuring oneself against murderers, addicts, and lunatics. Talking about these people makes the rest of us feel relatively normal. And as is probably the case with any family, the stuff we don't talk about openly is the scariest.


I will have to ask my grandfather about that... he's the family genealogist.

Re-reading this, I am completely jealous that you can get this much information out of your folks. Mine are fairly tight-lipped, although as I've gotten older, they've loosened up a bit. What a wealth of knowledge to have!


Chris: Thank you very much for this. I know you're on intimate terms with bringing a difficult backstory into the present, and I am honored by your presence here.


Heather, this was quite the treat. I relate to the hard edges, the mouth set into a tight, thin line. I see it in myself, too. That bottle of Joy says so much, in such an economy of image. Thanks for putting us in touch with part of yourself in this particularly satisfying way.


Suzanne: I think the essay improved over the first two days. It needed a little more time to cook. Your comment is encouraging: it's good to know that others perceive me to be more open than I know I once was. Thank you for reflecting that back at me. It feels really, really great.


Mesmerizing. I actually read this a couple days ago and came back to read it again.

Heather, you say you are like your Grandmother, that you have "hard edges" (and indeed, it sounds like your grandmother had hard edges, with good reason, as you've discovered), but your writing reflects a person who is expansive, intensely curious, and willing to explore a number of viewpoints to gain an understanding of things. I have a feeling that you inherited grit and determination from your grandmother, but your heart and mind are open. You put them on the page for us to see each week, and it's always an amazing experience.


boomtownboudoir: In researching all this, I was astonished to find that my grandmother, through her father and back through successive generations of Fishers, actually descended from a German royal (Baron Johann Adam Fischer von Fischerbach) whose son Adam was exiled for killing one of the emperor's deer. Adam came to America in the early 1700's and settled near Philadelphia. Died of smallpox in 1757 but not before populating Appalachia with what would eventually be thousands of descendants, including me. Got any Fishers in your woodpile?


Goddamn, that was powerful. My hat's over my heart.


Divina: Thank you for your willingness to join me. Your comments are always so touching and I'm very glad you enjoyed this little excursion into the mountains.

sweetlife: Deepest thanks to you. As you may have guessed, this post would not have appeared without several of our recent conversations. Thank you for lending me your courage, and for the gift of your constant encouragement.

It amazes me that my grandfather died over thirty years ago and I still miss him to tears. He was easy to love, but I'm a lot like my grandmother. I have hard edges. I think I owed her the dignity of recognition, and it was long overdue.


What a brave and moving essay.

I think we carry the unfinished business of those who came before us, for better or worse. I hope that by understanding your grandmother better you can borrow from her strength and make that ancestral work a little lighter, a little easier.

I'll be thinking for the rest of the day about what that bottle of Joy meant to her...


Utterly fascinating... You have a way with words that makes me forget about the stress of the day and having to rush rush rush, and I just lose myself for a little precious time in your stories. Thank you for inviting us in.

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