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Ruth arrived at Wheaton College in 1937. Three years later, she met the man everyone was talking about. He captured her heart and they married in 1943 in Montreat. The honeymoon in Blowing Rock was short and sweet before the couple began a 750 mile trek to their new home in Hinsdale, Illinois. He answered a call from a small congregation at a salary of fifty-five dollars a week.
Early in 1945, lonely and often alone while her new husband traveled the country with ever increasing invitations to say the words, Ruth was thrilled when he agreed that she should be close to her parents while he traveled. Home became an upstairs bedroom at the Bell’s house. He traveled to virtually ever large city in the country. She stayed right there in Montreat.
In September that year, the first child was born, and in the fall of 1947, another baby was on the way. They bought a two story summer house across the street from the Bells; the monthly payments, forty-five dollars. A third daughter was born in 1950, and though the girls demanded much of the young mother’s time, the first son was born in 1952.
By 1954, there was little privacy on Assembly Drive. He was famous for speaking the words and she struggled to live through the unexpected and unwanted notoriety. I’ve tacked Private, No Admittance over my life, and it won’t work. I belong to God and He placed me here, and He will undertake for me and give me poise, grace, love, wisdom all I need to bring Him honor in the life He has appointed. Then she began a search.
She worried about the children having a normal childhood. She heard people talk. There they go, those are his children. They must be perfect. It’s an odd kind of cross to bear, yet those who have not been through it would consider it some kind of glory.
That year, Ruth stumbled upon a beautiful 150 acre cove just two miles from their house on Assembly Drive, and, although he had seen and surveyed the property on one of his brief stints at home, he was nonetheless shocked to discover on his return from a trip to the West Coast that he owned Little Piney Cove, Ruth having borrowed the $4300 purchase price from a local bank. I arrived in Asheville at 1 AM on a Friday. I stretched out to sleep but thoughts raced through my mind, thinking about the next morning; would he be on the mountain. I trusted her, but she was nearly eighty. Maybe she forgot, or simply didn’t tell him. I had made it clear over the phone that I would be there Saturday morning. But if he knew some stranger was coming to measure his nose, he might just conveniently disappear for a walk on the mountain. You tried to do a portrait of who?
In the morning, I felt drained yet stimulated to forge ahead. I looked in the motel mirror. Tired face. But the bust made the trip fine, no sign of road weariness or wear. The angles were still bold, the eyes intense.
We made it over to Black Mountain in about thirty minutes. I drove and he rode with Eudora in the back seat, both clay heads sitting on a flat platform rigged up for the trip. Andy’s bronze head was in the trunk. I turned left at Black Mountain and drove on up to Montreat. The stone entry arch was unchanged from the time that the newlyweds left for Blowing Rock five decades earlier. After a year long journey, I had arrived on the mountain. What were you thinking?
When I passed the Montreat Presbyterian Church, I called her from my cell phone.
“Hello”, I heard the familiar voice.
“Good morning, Miz Ruth.” Could she have forgotten about my arrival? I had spoken to her two days before.
“Well, good morning.”
“I’m here in Montreat with the bust and I thought I’d check and see what your schedule is.”
“You’re here on the mountain?” she sounded almost surprised. We will pray for you.
“That’s right. It’s beautiful.”
“Oh, isn’t it lovely? Do you know how to get to the gate?” I didn’t even know there was a gate, much less where it was.
“No maam, I’ve never been up here.” Uncharted waters. Negative thoughts seeped in. What if he didn’t like it? Now who is this supposed to be? Apparently she became know over much of western North Carolina in the mid 1950’s, not as his wife, but as the little woman buying run down, often uninhabitable log cabins, parts of other old buildings, and, more often than not, inspecting the materials and doing the deal herself.
Ruth was building her dream house, secluded comfort and stimulation for the whole family while waiting for him to return from some other place. For her it would be the epitome of fine living, the older the material the better, an architectural and building philosophy way before its time. As a matter of fact, some of the finish carpenters quit the job because they wouldn’t build a house where the new lumber was used for framing.
I can’t build no house where you use that hunerd year old stuff on the outside where everbody cin see it. Could rern a man’s reputation, Miz Ruth.
Her visiting husband, gone as much as he was home, had other ideas about luxury, something along the lines of hotel living. But he eventually compromised by asking and getting a comfortable chair and good lighting.
So there I was navigating the same mountain and arriving at the gate, honking my horn twice, and watching the barrier part. I was going to the mountaintop.
The last quarter of a mile before reaching the house was steep, so steep I’m not sure I could have ridden a bike to the top. It’s a rather strenuous trek up to the house but the walk down can be tricky too. They had made the walk more than a few times over the years.
I rounded the last turn and above me I could see the cabin, rustic yet elegant, sitting on the site just like she had seen it in her mind. I eased on up the hill imagining a thirty-four year old Ruth, with an inward beauty she would deny possessing and that stunning outward beauty that she spent a lifetime trying to ignore, hiking up the same hill and finding her refuge from a rapidly growing family celebrity.
There was something special about the place. I could sense that with no effort. Little Piney Cove. I told her I would be there on Saturday morning. I was. Surely she had told him. “Is this OK?” I spoke through the car window to a man, fiftyish, solid build, but not really big. He quietly appeared from behind a small garden house when I pulled into the drive by the house. “How you doin’?” I reached out to shake his hand.
“Welcome to Little Piney Cove. I’m Bill,” he smiled and I felt a strong grip. “She’s expecting you.” There was a pleasant business tone about him. What had she told him? Probably nothing I wanted to hear.
Bill and I walked over towards the door and the stone step platform. I wondered how they got all the huge logs up that steep slope. The door opened and there she stood, petite, white hair, sharp features covered with aging skin, and wearing a floor length house coat and house slippers. Seventy-eight years old. The beauty was hard to hide.