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April 10, 2014

Rosa is gone….
I was flipping through my “Storytelling World” magazine – and I saw the announcement. When I read it, I sighed; after all, this was not completely unexpected. She was born in 1931. And she lived a hard life – but still…

Rosa Hicks was the wife and lifetime partner of Ray Hicks, a nationally known teller of Appalachian folk tales. Though Ray died in 2003, for over fifty years, they lived together in a simple frame house on top of Beech Mountain near Ashland, North Carolina. They survived together: the good times when Ray became a well known performer, honored by the Smithsonian and sought out by the media – and the bad – when poverty and hardship dogged them and their families.

When I visited it in the late 1990’s, that little frame house had no indoor plumbing or heating. There were two wood stoves: one in the kitchen and another in the front room. A single bare bulb hung from the ceiling in each room. But riches filled that home:

the smell of apples cooking as Rosa “put up” the crop
the taste of icy cold water from the spring house
the sound of a fire crackling in the ancient wood stove

and the sound of Ray’s voice as he launched into yet another tale, told in an English that’s almost gone now, a blend of  old English/Irish/Scotch/Welch – and a gentle Southern drawl. Watching Ray roll a cigarette and light it as he told was like watching a ballet. He’d pull some loose tobacco out of a battered Prince Albert can, roll it, lick the edge, swipe a match against his overalls and light it – and never miss a beat. When he laughed, his whole face crinkled up. Sometimes he would slap his knee – but that was about the only movement he made – and he held his audiences spellbound.

And all the while that Ray was telling, Rosa would be busy in the kitchen:  peeling, slicing, stirring, fetching water, hanging fresh herbs in the corner, or making medicines out of tree bark or leaves. I remember a wonderful afternoon in that kitchen, slicing peaches and talking “woman talk”.  And all the while we peeled and talked, Rosa was listening….If Ray missed a part of the story (she had heard them all hundreds of times), she would gently correct him.

If there was an audience (one or a dozen), Ray told non-stop – until Rosa called him (and the guests) to supper: cornbread, home cooked beans, vegetables from the garden, and a fresh baked pie Rosa had just “whipped up” that afternoon.

How incredibly lucky I was to be able to sit at that table with Ray and Rosa, eating, talking, and laughing. And how thrilled I was when Rosa wore a blue sweater set, a gift I had sent her, for an annual “Old Christmas” celebration in Tennessee. If I close my eyes, I can hear her soft voice singing one of the “old-timey” songs she loved. How we all will miss her!


Rosa, Ray, and I at his 78th birthday celebration at the Bolick Pottery Barn near Blowing Rock, NC

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