Norma showed up at my grandparents’ house sometime in the late 1940s. In her teens, she had left her home in rural southwestern Virginia the day before, catching the bus to Knoxville in hopes of finding a job.
The trip was Norma’s first to Knoxville, and she had exited the bus when it reached Burlington, mistakenly believing the business bustle she was seeing meant that she had reached the city. The highway, U.S. 11, became Magnolia Avenue at Burlington, morphing into a prosperous-looking four-lane. She was unaware that she was still several miles from downtown. Noticing a help-wanted sign in the window of Kay’s ice-cream parlor at Magnolia and Crawford Avenue, she walked in and applied. She was immediately hired as counter help.
Next, she needed a place to live, and my grandparents’ house was only a block from her new place of employment.
My grandmother let Norma stay in her spare bedroom, and she helped around the house for her board. Soon, she was helping my mother, who was trying to manage me, a handful like most toddlers, and my new baby sister. Norma began spending a lot of time at our place, within walking distance of my grandparents’ house. And she soon added another job, working the night shift at Standard Knitting Mills—she could get there on the city bus that stopped in front of Kay’s, exiting at Winona Street and walking a few blocks north to the Standard plant.
I was too young to understand all this, and my memories of Norma from that time aren’t clear. But I knew that she was important to our household, and to my grandmother’s as well.
But Norma’s ambition went beyond the mill and the ice-cream counter. She saved her money until she had enough to enroll in beauty school. By the time I was a student at Park Junior High School in Park City, she had married and was the proprietor of her own beauty salon in Burlington. Soon, she was rearing her own family.
Years later, my mother and dad provided details about Norma, whose tale was typical of the time and place. It was a hard-scrabble story of want, ambition, and determination.
Norma Jean Lee had grown up in Rose Hill, Va, and did not see a future in what was around her. Belying its name, Rose Hill is a mean stop in coal-mining country, another ridge-side Appalachian hamlet where residents eke out a living as best they can. There were several brothers and sisters. And, according to my mother, the family did not want Norma Jean heading south to the metropolis of Knoxville.
A couple of months after her arrival in Burlington, my dad said, Norma was confronted by her mother, who had ridden the bus to Knoxville to take her daughter back home. Norma refused and there were shouts and then tears. When her mother left, my dad remembered, Norma looked at him and said, “I don’t care if they do come after me, I’m never going back to Rose Hill.”
Next, a younger sister came down to see if she could persuade Norma to return. She succumbed to Knoxville’s city charms.
“Norma took her on the bus downtown to the movie at the Tennessee Theater,” my mother said. “They got caught in the rain, and got soaked. Norma’s sister only had the dress she was wearing, so she had to stay another day until her dress dried out.” She caught the Trailways back to Rose Hill the next day, returning without her sister.
Appalachia’s isolated hills and valleys are dotted with Rose Hills, places where the rock-encrusted land surrendered a limited living to its occupiers, grudgingly providing just enough for a family to survive. The jobs that were available—involving coal primarily—were backbreaking and dangerous. Post-World War II, many of the natives had witnessed the larger world and wanted a piece of it.
Many, like Norma, were successful in escaping, even if was only a hundred miles away to Knoxville, the unofficial capital of Appalachia. True to her vow, Norma only returned when she died in 1991, aged 62, to be buried in Rose Hill’s Daniels Cemetery.
Chris Wohlwend's Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s. He spent 35 years working for newspapers and magazines in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. As an editor, he was involved in winning several national awards. He returned to Knoxville in the late 1990s and now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee. His freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous other publications.
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