(Large photo) Margaret “Mom” Rumley (right), her daughter Shirley Broome, and author at the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market, Greensboro, North Carolina. (Small photo) Lady Orchid peonies.
In fall 1970 I leaned forward at my desk, listening to University of Virginia creative writing professor John Coleman read the opening lines of the title story of Sherwood Anderson’s Death in the Woods and Other Stories (1933).
“She was an old woman and lived on a farm near the town in which I lived. All country and small-town people have seen such old women, but no one knows much about them.”
Those words filled me with hope. Anderson had written about the kinds of people I had grown up among in the mountains of Virginia, people whose lives seemed unremarkable, but in truth were filled with significance and meaning.
Last night I got a phone call from a friend, someone I’ve known only a couple of months. Her name is Shirley Broome. I thought about her call quite a while that evening.
I met Shirley when I was assigned a story for the June issue of O. Henry magazine about her mother, Margaret Rumley, whom everyone calls “Mom.” Mom is 90 years old and has been selling cut flowers and plants at the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market since she was a seven-year-old girl.
As I interviewed Mom and Shirley for the story, memories of my youth flooded my mind. They’re piedmont Carolina girls through and through, but Mom and Shirley call a small stream a “branch,” a term I had not heard since I left the Blue Ridge. And their quiet dignity reminded me of my college aspirations to write about individuals Anderson called “simply ordinary people.”
In our phone conversation Shirley told me she and Mom had a very busy day at the Saturday farmers market. (This weekend I’m in Virginia at the Wythe County Library, promoting my novel Forsaken.) She said customers asked Mom to autograph their copies of O. Henry. She refused at first, then relented, signing copy after copy.
“Some folks teased her about being a star,” Shirley said. “I think this recognition is the highlight of her life.”
I’m honored to know Mom and Shirley. Thanks to them, I learned about Carolina allspice, and will be planting one from their Rumley Cottage Farm next to the front porch of my home.
Mom and Shirley embody true grit. Genuine compassion. Calm independence. They are women regal as any queen, noble as any countess.
Please read about these simply ordinary women here.