Wednesday, May 19, 2010
The Living Room Bed: Birthing, Healing, and Dying in Traditional
It is standard ethnographic procedure for anthropologists to perform participant observation studies on those “far and away” exotic places. In the course of doing so, that anthropologist lives among the “natives” for a year or two to better understand the culture. The Living Room Bed is an ethnographic study from a life time of participant observation. Peggy Ann Shifflett has her pulse on a culture that is so rapidly changing that it has become unrecognizable within a generation. Between these covers she has captured the essence of a by-gone era.
I grew up 325 miles away from Peggy Shifflett but, yet, in the same neighborhood. We had a living room bed, so I come to find out as I read her book. Like a fish not realizing the water around him, Dr. Shifflett’s culture surrounds me. Many of the customs and traditions she presents in this book began coursing back through my memory as I read of lullabies (hush little baby don’t say a word) and folk remedies, Lucky Strike butts (without filters) to being the youngest child (as I was), and to pulling the quilts mother made tightly around my chin as the snow flew outside to the fly swatter arsenal against a sortie of flies coming in through our screen door long needing repair.
Told from a uniquely female perspective I learned the depth of things from which I only saw the surface as a child. If you experienced any semblance of these traditions, such as your deceased father lying for visitation in your living room as mine did, or if you are from another place and time entirely, this ethnography of birthing, living, and dying in a now gone culture is full of joy and full of sorrow and full of everything that fills in between, all of which is delightful in its presentation.
Dr. Stevan R. Jackson
Anthropologist, Virginia Tech
Dr. Stevan Jackson, Anthropologist at Virginia Tech, reviewed my second book-- Mom’s Family Pie: Memories of Food Traditions and Family in Appalachia, Shifflett tells the story of the seasonal quest for food to feed the families in Hopkins Gap, a small Appalachian community in
In early May, the families gathered wild asparagus spread along the fence rows where the wind had dropped the seeds.
Wild strawberries in May, sweet and sour cherries in June, blackberries in July—the families in Hopkins Gap searched for what nature provided as well as planting and harvesting bountiful gardens.
Shifflett, her siblings, and her ninety-nine first cousins were directly involved in the quest for food. Putting food on the table was a family job. Many of the childhood adventures surrounding food are shared in small vignettes throughout the book. Special characters and stories are interspersed with recipes and descriptions of the food quest.
This book is a “must read” for those folks interested in the interrelationship of food, family, and Appalachian culture. Your senses will fill with aromas and tastes when you partake of Mom’s Family Pie. It is no mere recipe book with a few stories here and there. Neither is this book simply about food within a particular culture. The book is about the culture of food; food becomes the medium in which to learn about a remarkable group of people. Like your own Mom’s family pie, you can’t put Mom’s Family Pie down after just one helping.
Monday, May 17, 2010
In this book, Peggy shares her memories of growing up in Hopkins Gap, a small
Peggy spotlights real people with real names and real faces One interesting character is Peggy paternal grandmother, Molly Shifflett. She was the community healer or granny woman. Grandma Molly explains how she acquired magical powers to heal babies, grownups, cows, and even horses. “She claimed her power to be a granny woman came from being born after her father drowned in a creek when flooding waters washed his horse and wagon downstream. She talked about her powers as if to legitimize her skills, much the same as modern doctors display diplomas on the walls of their offices. She often said, ‘Here’s how you can get the powers. You can be born the seventh child in the family, you can be born the seventh child of the seventh child, you can be born on Christmas day, or you can be born after the death of your father. That’s how I got my powers. I was born after my daddy died’.”
Peggy shares her memories of watching her extended family collaborate, cooperate, and get a job done on hog butchering day. All the sights, sounds, and smells that take us from the hog on the hoof to the pork on the plate are vividly presented.
Throughout the book the “red flannel rag” appears as a symbol of “healing and purity.” First, it appeared around the neck of Cousin Virgil where his mother placed it on the first cold morning in October. It later appears as a filter to cleanse the impurities from moonshine whiskey. Peggy’s mother used a “red flannel rag” to heal pneumonia. Finally, it was tied in the mane of a mule to prevent a local witch from causing the animal to balk.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the way in which Peggy presents the logic behind Grandma Molly’s healing powers and the logic behind the use of the “red flannel rag.” She traces the practices all the way back to Celtic tradition, so that the reader can understand why the “red flannel rag” was used in a variety of contexts. In her review of The Red Flannel Rag, Dr. Grace Toney Edwards, Director of Appalachian Studies at Radford University, said, “For the reader just looking for a leisurely Sunday afternoon read, The Red Flannel Rag will hold you in your chair as it offers you a pocketful of laughs, an occasional tear in the eye, and a heart full of memories from an Appalachian past.
This book is available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.