Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  In February 1902, when he was twenty-two, he married Florence Fain on the North Carolina-Tennessee line, just four days after her twentieth birthday. Afterward they moved to Murphy, North Carolina, to live on Fain Mountain, named for her family. They raised ten children there when they weren’t following Papa’s blacksmithing work over to Copperhill, Tennessee, or Ducktown, Tennessee, or up to Woodfin near Asheville, North Carolina, where he helped to forge Beaucatcher Tunnel and sculpt the andirons for the great fireplaces in the lobby of the Grove Park Inn.

  My Granddaddy Jack, their sixth child, was—by his strong, take-charge, confident nature—the family leader. He grew up in hand-me-downs. He and his brothers and sisters were turned loose on the mountains that were always a part of their lives in some way, whether they were living on Fain Mountain or in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee or in the Black Mountains of Asheville. When Granddaddy was older—when I knew him—he dressed impeccably, in beautiful, expensive, tailored clothing. He was the only one of his siblings who went to college, something the family, to this day, is still immensely proud of. He was a fine athlete and a successful businessman. He married a glamour girl from Florida—my grandmother, Cleo, with red hair and lots of va-va-voom. She was a city girl, part Italian, part Irish. She was one of ten children herself and—her in-laws said in hushed tones—“came from money.” My father, Jack Jr., their only child, was born in Manhattan. But Granddaddy never forgot his Appalachian roots.

  I didn’t know most of this until I started writing this book. Velva Jean herself was first born in a short story of my mother’s. From the short story, she evolved into a short film I made, in 1995, while a graduate student at the American Film Institute. I knew then that I wanted to develop her story into something more, but I had to wait to do so until I knew what that story was.

  North Carolina and the mountains have always been a part of my life. I divided every childhood and teenage summer between my Niven grandparents in Waxhaw, a tiny town outside Charlotte, North Carolina, and my McJunkin grandparents in Asheville. Each year one of the highlights was driving the Blue Ridge Parkway with Grandmama and Granddaddy McJunkin, who told me some of its history. Granddaddy’s brother Sam had worked to help build the parkway. I always felt at home with my grandparents, at home in the mountains. But while I felt I knew everything there was to know about the Niven side of my family—the story of where they had come from, of how they happened to settle in Waxhaw—I knew little about my McJunkin ancestors.

  As I began writing this book, and as I became more and more immersed in the culture and world of the Carolina mountains, I became more curious about those mysterious McJunkins. They were my Appalachian link, my mountain people. Although he and my grandmother eventually settled in Asheville, Granddaddy talked little about his roots. I never knew his parents because they died before I was born. My own father was never very interested in family history. Granddaddy died in 1987, Grandmama in 1995, my dad in 2002.

  In late 2006, I dug through a box of old photographs that had belonged to Granddaddy and found a single picture of his mother—Mama, as the family calls her. She never drove an automobile, but in the picture she sits in a rocking chair up on Fain Mountain—her family’s mountain—a car in the background. My father and grandfather were very into cars. They loved old classic cars, fancy cars, fast cars. That was my granddaddy’s car in the picture. He had driven it up there to show Mama. She thought it was beautiful. But she didn’t want to ride in it. She did, however, agree to have her picture made in front of it. That picture sat on my desk while I wrote this book.

  By the time the photograph was taken, Mama had raised ten children and lost one. There was an eleventh child, a boy, born in 1926, who died a few days after delivery. Mama was in the hospital then. Papa nearly lost his mind. He loved her more than anything (he called her BeeBee; she called him Old Mule). He was barely literate and had no real education. There is, as far as we know, a single handwritten letter that survives him. In it, he is trying desperately to care for the woman he loves—the one he sometimes had to leave, the one he sometimes had to uproot and unsettle and upset by his very nature—to find a way to help her and protect her and make her well again. It is this letter I have quoted in part when Lincoln Sr. is writing to his nephew Toss Bailey.

  I discovered all of this when I discovered my family history through wonderful cousins, nieces of my granddaddy, who found me through my Web site and led me to the rest of the warm and sprawling McJunkin clan.

  But the eerie thing was that so much of what they helped me find mirrored what had already been written, by then, in these pages. I just came along afterward and filled things in a bit. We have a friend who describes it as “bone memory,” a way of remembering and knowing something that is deep in your blood and in your bones—the places and people you come from—even if you haven’t yet consciously learned about those places or people or experienced them. That is what this novel is for me, even though it is, for the most part, a work of fiction.

  It is Velva Jean’s story, first and foremost. I owed it to her to finish what I started. It is something I promised her years ago. She has waited a long time. But it is also a story of bone memory.



  Jennifer Niven, Velva Jean Learns to Drive

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