by Grace Wakeman
Way down younder in Yankity Yank where bull frogs jump from bank to bank, I went to school where we sang "The Preposition
Song" to the tune of "Yankee Doodle":
With on for after at by in
Against instead of near between
Through over up according to
Around among beyond into
License My Roving Hands
As I take the elevator up to the second floor of the Blowing Rock Extended Care Center, I take a deep breath
and try to prepare myself for the overwhelming hospital atmosphere. I steady my gaze and speak to the folks confined to wheelchairs
along the corridor who stare back at me from empty, sad eyes. I put my head down and hurry to the last room on the left, the
home of Juanita Tobin, beloved poet, friend, and columnist for the Blowing Rocket, who turned ninety in February.
I tap on her door, "Juanita, it’s me, Grace."
"Oh Grace, come on in."
Juanita’s voice resonates with warmth and invitation like pearls on black velvet. So focused on seeing
my friend, I fail to notice the ceiling filled with brightly colored fans twirling from wire mobiles. With the enthusiasm
that is uniquely Juanita, she invites me to take a look with a wave of her dove like hand. "When my eyesight began to fail,
I didn’t know what I would do to fill the time," she said. "I began to make these fans from magazines people donate
to Extended Arms; you know that’s what I call this facility. I tear out and use the most colorful pages from the most
expensive ones, only quality paper will do. An artist friend arranged them on the mobiles for me. I have made hundreds and
given them away. You know fans are the language of romance."
No vacant stare here.
I have known Juanita for five years. She first won my heart in the year 2000, when I heard her read Woman’s
Work from her newly published License My Roving Hands. She was eighty five. We were in a meeting of the High Country
Writers in Boone. She stood, leaned on her walker for support, waited until the room was quiet and began:
Mama asked to have the bread tray
Brought to her bed…
She took the bread tray
And made up biscuits
For the family
After having baby brother
During the night
and I stood guard
over the bread to scare
the flies away
with a peafowl fan.
This petite woman, dressed in a free-flowing "hippie" dress held her audience in quiet expectation. She reminded
me of my own grandmother, but with all of the sass, and zest for life that I only wished my grandmother could have enjoyed.
Juanita’s "romance" with words allows her to find poetry in the raw, the wicked and the beauty she
has observed and collected over her long life.
Not long after this first meeting, Juanita invited me to go with her to receive the Paul Green Multimedia
Award from the North Carolina Historic Society. We rode down the mountain to Hickory with a Buddhist monk who drove like a
bat-out-of-hell, and her long time good friend Alice Naylor, the Appalachian University professor who she dedicated her book
License My Roving Hands to. Her friends are as diverse, interesting, and fun as her poetry.
The audience gave her a standing ovation that day after her reading, just as, I would learn later, the audience
at Princeton University did many years ago.
After that day, I begin to visit her often at "Extended Arms." However I soon realized when she asked me
what I was working on, she was not fooling around. She took my work and published it in her column the following week. Being
a very timid, want-a-be writer, I hesitated to go see her without a story, or with one. Not ready for prime time, I stopped
going to see her. My life took off in other directions.
The years passed and she stopped coming to the High Country Writer’s meetings; I missed her. And heard
she was not well. I wanted to go see her, but I didn’t have anything to offer. While I thrashed about for a story, my
just-turned-ten year old granddaughter read one of her stories to me. Ok, Juanita, I though, I’ve got you a story. I
took it to her. She put it in the paper.
Several times a week now, I go to see her with my digital recorder, go home, and burn her history onto a
compact disk. The tables are turned. Now I ask her if she has a story for me, and I am never disappointed. I get to be in
her company and her story will be added to the Oral History Archives at ASU.
Although Juanita is clinically blind now, her ability to see continues, along with her ability to transform
life into art, and a hospital room into a salon where people from all walks of life come to tell her their stories.
Juanita has published eight books of poetry and is still called upon to read from her works as she continues
to write: Ransom Street Quartet Poems & Stories, License My Roving Hands, and, white family saga are
Jerry Burns, editor of The Blowing Rocket newspaper, recognized Juanita’s talent and has published
her weekly column since 1989. He writes about her:
"From lessons in life to lessons in language, Juanita is a person who has mastered the art of communication,
and age is not a barrier to her appeal. From a group of school children, to the life of the party at a social gathering with
friends, she is comfortable and anxious to strike up a conversation."
Recently, she told Burns that she would no longer be able to continue her column. He refused her resignation.
"Jerry asked me, ‘Don’t you have a few poems?’ I told him, ‘Why yes, about eighty four."
"Well then, we will publish your poems each week."
Our interviews began on a typical mountain morning, fog and a cold misty rain insulated us from the world.
It was the first week in March with no signs of spring.
G: When did you know you were a poet?
J: I don’t know that I am. If I am, it’s because Sam Ragan convinced me I should write poetry.
I was forty two and I was taking a class from him at State College in Raleigh. I was working as a psychiatric nurse at Dorothea
Dix Hospital. I thought if I could learn to write, I could teach some of my patients. I felt like that would help them.
G: Did it?
J: Yes, I think it did. I hated to put my name on the poems I wrote at that time, because I took the words
right from my patients. Just recently, Janice Fuller called me and wanted to know if she could use some of my hospital poems
in a play she is writing.
G: When did you sturdy with Stephen Dunn?
J: When I was living in New Jersey where I had gone to take care of my son Paul’s children.
G: Dunn speaks highly of your work in the forward from Ransom Street Quartet. He wrote: "…some
of us may be aware of the art in the poems apparently off-hand, down-home storytelling. Or, better yet, we’re not aware
of it; we feel swept along by someone who doesn’t now how not to be interesting…Juanita Tobin holds us
with tone and voice as much as she does with content…we hear the wink in her delivery, the wry smile behind her arrangement
of detail and incident."
You have lived all over, where do you call home?
J: I’ve always said my office was in my shoes and anywhere my shoes are, I’m at work. I’m
thinking of poetry or thinking about a story I’m writing for the paper, or thinking about something I want to read from
Word and Witness A Hundred Years of NC Poets.
G: When did you come back to your Mother’s home on Ransom Street here in Blowing Rock?
J: It was in the ‘80’s. I came back to take care of my Motha. She died in 1989 at the age of
ninety four. I have two brothas still living. I’m the oldest. My youngest brotha is a psychiatrist, retired now. He’s
seventeen years younger than I.
G: Did your career as a psychiatric nurse influence him?
J: No, I just think it was because we were all so full of guilt we wanted to save everybody in the world.
G: Why were you so filled with guilt?
J: I guess from being a Presbyterian. It’s the truth. I’ve told you every time I went to church
I felt like everybody saw a big red A on my chest. My brother in Florida said any woman that’s been to New York and
stays there any length of time is a whore.
G: That’s an awful thing to say.
J: I didn’t argue with him. I did sell myself once for two dollars in order to eat.
G: Well they got a bargain.
J: I know they did. I didn’t know you could charge twenty or even a hundred.
G: What year were you born Juanita?
J: 1915. In Nashville, Tennessee. My motha’s name was Harriet Lee Young Brown. My Father's name was
Charles Fisk Brown. Motha was sixteen and he was nineteen. There was a sawmill near here in Mortimer and he would come and
eat at my Grandmother’s boarding house. He saw my Motha and fell in love with her, and seduced her. Her teacher at Emily
Prudence’s school, Sky Land Academy, wanted to take her to Paris to study music. But she chose to marry the sawmill
man. He was a charmer, a drinker and he loved to dance.
G: You must have inherited his charm and love of life. And your mother’s gift for music.
J: I thought I did. That’s why I went to New York. I made the rounds from Ten Pan Alley to Broadway
seeing all the agents along the way. Finally after seeing one of them two or three times, he said to me, "Doll, let me tell
you something. Talent like yours is a dime a dozen. Go Home."
G: That must have been devastating. How old were you?
J: I was nineteen and had two hundred dollar I had saved working in a cafeteria there in Nashville and had
just graduated from high school. I wanted to be a singer.
G: You were living with your father’s mother there?
J: Yes. She too ran a boarding house there in Nashville. When the flood washed the boarding house away in
Mortimer, my mother went to Florida to run the farm at a hunting lodge for millionaires, owned by the same man who had owned
the boarding house in Mortimer. I lived between my grandmothers’s. My parents had a stormy marriage and the only time
my mother was happy was when she came back to Blowing Rock. She later worked at a high class dress shop on Main Street here
as a seamstress. That was back when there were opera singers and famous people coming here with their silks and furs. She
was very artistic and could make a size twelve dress fit a size sixteen body. That would have been in the early twenties and
G: That was a time when artist, writers and the famous were coming to the mountains, to Ashville and here.
J: Yes that was when the Roosevelt’s would come to the Green Park Inn. That was before the Mayview
Manor was torn down. I clerked at the Green Park Inn.
G: I’m having a time keeping up with you. You’re here, in Nashville, in New York.
J: I don’t know how to make it simple. One year I was with my motha and fatha. I changed schools every
time he changed jobs. I changed schools four times that year. I grieved so for my friends, seatmates at school, you know we
shared seats back then, our lice and itch. Everything is so clean today, but not back then.
Our interviews continue at this writing and will be on record at ASU. When I asked her about her spiritual
life she replied:
"Having spent so years being pinched and paddled and forced to go to church, I don’t have much spiritual."
You say that but I have never met a woman who had more respect for others. Or who has spent more time caring
for the sick as a nurse at the Dorothea Dix Home the Insane, and being on call for family needs.
So many or her poems are an expression for those who never had a chance in life. I suspect Juanita’s
religion is her poetry.
In her poems she will take you to all that was lovely in her child hood growing up between Blowing Rock and
Nashville, Alabama and Blowing Rock, Florida and Blowing Rock; and just as you relax into her nostalgia, she comes as you
with Church-Going People:
The land went from one generation
to another, never leaving the family
in a place where you never know if
if you’re talking to a preacher
or a bootlegger and the men stayed
out all night six days a week
but were home in time to go
to church on Sunday morning.
Juanita’s poems go from nostalgia to funny, to down right bawdy in a way that catches the reader off
guard, as in the following lines from her poem, In the Beginning:
This brings from the forgotten past a people whose lives
were simple as a sunbeam. They were raised together and
remain together in the Cemetery of the Crooked Pine.
Grandma fed her chickens, throwing a few grains here,
there, and over yonder to exercise them. She didn’t want to
make it too easy but she sang to them and carried on so
long she knew every chicken’s personally, She collected
their eggs in a white oak basket…
Grandpa had a grindstone to grind axes and a cake of
Beeswax for waxing plow lines. Sometimes he sang an old
Hymn, "I Will Not Be Denied," to Grandma. Grandma was
Easy to take offense. They slept in a featherbed.
Early on, Juanita was advised that a poem was a story written on a page using wide margins. She took that
advice to heart both in poetry and in life.
Her love of words and singing began early in life when she was taught to sing the Preposition Song to the
tune of Yankee Doodle and has continued throughout her ninety years.
She is as honest as a sunrise, as rugged as the chin on Grandfather Mountain, as clear as the creek she played
in as a girl behind her grandmother’s house on Ransom Street, and as wild with color as her flower garden. Her poems
share her life experience with a sense of humor and an unguarded soul, yet she never backs away from the dark side of human