Nena Woody is a connection. Sure, at 94 years of age she connects us with a previous era, but she also connects us with something timeless, something we've moved away from, something maybe we should get back to. Nena Woody connects us with ideas of making things by hand, cooking from scratch, eating from your garden, living a full life rather than a frantic one, enrichment instead of depletion.
Nena lives in tobacco country of North Carolina's rural Piedmont, near Siler City. Nearing her home I turned down Woody Store Road (yes, named after her family's business) and pulled into the parking lot of the variety store that is owned by her son, Julius, who lives with her in the house next to it. I was nervous--I'm not southern, old-fashioned, or religious. But Nena's charm and hospitality instantly melted my fears, and we were soon sitting at her table eating pan-fried cornbread and tomatoes fresh from her organic garden. I spent the afternoon in her basement full of fruits and vegetables she'd been canning all summer and trying to keep up with her in her backyard garden, listening the entire time to her rich stories and beautiful laughter.
She told me she now lives a little over a mile from where she was born and raised with one sister and two brothers, on a farm that produced wheat, corn, tobacco, and cotton to be sold, sweet potatoes, peanuts, onions, apples, grapes, peaches, tomatoes, oats, beans, and peas to be eaten at home. "We planted cane and made molasses," she said, "and it was good. At least I thought it was back then--anything eats good to a youngin'." She told me how she married in 1928 to a man named Newton and as a wedding gift from her parents was given "a cow, eight hens, a rooster, and bedroom suite." She told me how Julius, after he came back from the Korean War, started raising hogs, but it wasn't profitable so the store was opened as a replacement, built by her brothers. She told me how for 20 years she worked at Rose's department store in Siler City "in the winter, and farmed in the summer, of course." They continued to raise corn and tobacco. Newton passed away several years ago and she told me she now spends her time gardening and hostessing her numerous visitors: "They love my vegetables--'cause people don't cook old-fashioned no more."
On a recent visit to see her my previous fears were distant, almost shameful, memories. I walked into her home and she was there wearing her apron and her smile. She put her arms out to the side and I walked into them, hugging her small, strong body.
—Brad Horn, 2003