A life built on stories

Mar. 19, 2014 @ 06:13 AM

In her room at Gateway Nursing Center in Lenoir, Ethel Crump is passing the last days of her 99th year, full of memories still.

Crump, who will turn 100 on Saturday, spent much of her life in Caldwell County. As a child, she lived in Mortimer. As far as her family knows, she may be the last person surviving who remembers living in Mortimer before it was effectively wiped out by flooding in 1940. As an adult she lived in Lower Creek and the Globe, and until her move to the nursing home she lived on Staircase Mountain with her late husband, Carl.

At nearly 100, it’s harder for Crump to tell her stories. Her family remembers them coming constantly in earlier years, a rain of stories, trickling down through their shared histories. She built her life on them.

Born March 22, 1914, just across the Watauga County line, Crump’s family eventually moved to Mortimer in the mountains of northwestern Caldwell County. She was 12 when she went to work in the cotton mill there, now a ruin with plants climbing up its concrete walls.

“She lived in Mortimer when Mortimer was a town,” said her grandson, Pat Crump.

The Mortimer area still has a scattered handful of residents, but its glory days are long past. Once an area with nearly 1,000 residents -- and a movie theater and symphony orchestra -- the town never recovered from the notorious flood of 1940, or from the departure shortly after of Ritter Lumber, the company that made it a company town.

Crump’s daughter, Frances Walker, doesn’t remember Crump ever telling stories about the 1940 flood but said she had plenty about the 1916 flood -- which roared through when Crump was 2 years old. Crump’s mother wanted to get the children out and leave. But Crump’s father, a preacher, told her that if the good Lord wanted them to be washed away, they’d be washed away.

So they stayed.

Into her 90s, Crump could still draw a picture of Mortimer as it was, pointing out each of the houses and talking about the families who lived there.

She passed those stories through the lines of her family as the years passed and those roots dug deeper into the ground: five children, 20 grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren and a handful of great-great-grandchildren as well.

She always told her family she wanted to make it to 100, and after that she didn’t much care. Now that she’s there, she doesn’t feel much different.

“I just feel like always,” she said with an almost imperceptible shrug.

In 1997, when Carl was still alive, the News-Topic published a story that focused largely on the Crumps and their stories -- and on how unassuming they were.

The story began with a description of the way Carl, when asked whether a reporter could come up the mountain for an interview, said, “Sure, come on up. We’ll be here. But I’m not sure what we’ll talk about.”

And then, after relating the avalanche of stories the Crumps talked about, the article ended with these words:

“As he slowly makes his way back up to the house, Mrs. Crump offers a warm cup of coffee. And they wonder what all the fuss is about.”

From her room in Lenoir, it appears not much has changed. Crump is about to pass a milestone many will never reach. She has seen a town no one will see again. She has lived a life anchored by stories, and stories told aloud -- something that’s increasingly uncommon itself in our world of stories told in pixels, on pages, through screens.

For Ethel Crump, it’s the same as it’s always been.