Nellie Canterbury was born in 1933 in a mountain home above the railroad town of Hinton. She was the fifth of six girls and today is the last surviving sister from her family. She is also a writer.
In her book “The Visit,” she writes about her family from the time her parents met to when her mother died. It is a family love story, told as she and one of her sisters sit down for a visit to discuss their lives. The story goes into detail about their farm lives, growing up, preparing their meals and going to church.
Aunt Nellie, as she prefers to be called, explained that she changed the names of the characters in the book slightly, but it is based on her own life and a series of actual visits with her older sister.
Eric Douglas spoke with her over Zoom to learn more about the book and her life.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: When you were writing “The Visit,” coming up with the story, you go into a tremendous amount of detail about their lives, about their courting, how they got together, and all of that sort of thing. Tell me tell me where all that came from?
Canterbury: Well, I had four older sisters. They told me a lot of these things. And of course, my mom talked about it a lot, too.
Douglas: These are the family stories that were passed down over the years, and you decided to write them all down?
Canterbury: Oh, it’s the truth. When she (my sister) was born, her name was Thelma Ann, but she didn’t like her name so she called herself Peggy. She was No. 3 of the six girls and I was No. 5. I visited her when she lived in Arizona for many years. And I visited with her when we were there and she would tell these stories and talk about her past and all that.
Douglas: These are the things you remember and then the family stories that were passed down.
Canterbury: It was just the way we lived. It was the times that I grew up in. And the area, you know. It makes you think and it makes you appreciate what you do have.
Douglas: So tell me a little bit more about your parents. You talk about the way they met in the book and go into a lot of detail.
Canterbury: My daddy was a veteran of World War I. My mother was a schoolteacher. My daddy had been discharged from the service and was walking along a dirt country road and passed by the schoolhouse and my mother was the teacher there. They were having recess and he was singing the song “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” He went on down the road and she ran as far as she could in the schoolyard and hopped up on a log or stump and watched him until he walked out of sight. They were just attracted to each other immediately.
My mom was a little fluffy. She was a little on the fluffy side. And she loved to cook. She was the backbone of the couple, because I’ve seen her help my daddy do things that most men did. I’ve seen her shoe horses, pick up their big hind legs and nail a horseshoe to their hoof and then trim it down. She was an all around woman. She wasn’t masculine. She was feminine. But she worked hard. She could do just about anything any man around could do.
Douglas: She was fairly young. She was a school teacher, but she was 17 or 18 when she started the school?
Canterbury: Probably about 18 years old. You could go to the county seat and take a written test and if you passed, they would grant you a teaching certificate. In the little one-room country schools you had grades one through eight.
Douglas: Did you go to a one room schoolhouse, too?
Canterbury: The school that I was raised in was called the Canterbury School. My daddy went to the Board of Education. There were a lot of children that lived back in those halls then and they needed a school so they built a school. My daddy gave them an acre or two of ground for the school with the condition that if it were ever abandoned, the land would revert back to his farm, which it did.
Douglas: What’s fascinating about this book is that you do have such detail that historians can read this and learn from it to understand what life was like 102 years ago. The way they cooked meals and all the work that they did around the farm just to survive.
Canterbury: When we lived on the farm on the mountain, we had to work like boys. We raised fields of corn because we had our corn ground and the corn meal. We had wheat fields. We had wheat ground into flour. And my dad, he would cut timber. We had some boundaries and virgin timber and he would cut timber.
“The Visit” is available through Pocahontas Press.
This story is part of a series of interviews with authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.