Thursday, November 19, 2009

They Call Me Aunt Orlene

In a private woodland setting on a warm August afternoon, Phyllis Stump transformed herself into Orlene Puckett, the legendary local midwife. For nearly two hours, Ms. Stump, a storyteller and actress, held the attention of approximately 15 of us who attended her one-woman play. Under an open tent, to protect us from the bright sun, we laughed and cried as “Aunt Orlene” revealed the story of her life.

She was born Orlene Hawks in 1837 and is believed to have lived to be 102 years old, but not all the records agree. Regarding those discrepancies, Ms. Stump, as Aunt Orlene, explains, “I’ve lived long enough, and you have too, to be mighty skeptical of anything the government tries to tell you, especially if it comes to facts and figures.” About the death of her first child from diphtheria at the age of seven months, she lowered her head, leaned on her walking stick and said this: “I can tell you for sure that the pain of bringing a baby into this world don’t compare to losing a child, even if you know she’s going to heaven.”

Orlene Puckett bore and lost a total of 24 babies. Some were stillborn; others lived a few hours or a number of days. Ironically, at the age of 50 she took up midwifery, traveling by horse, mule, carriage, or on foot all over Carroll, Patrick, and Floyd County to deliver over 1000 healthy babies.

Schooled by her mother, Orlene lived a typical 19th century rural mountain lifestyle. Her family didn’t have much money. They made what they needed and grew what they ate, supplementing their diet with foraged food and herbal medicine. Her life spanned the Civil War and WWI, right up to the late 1930s, when construction of The Blue Ridge Parkway forced her out of her mountaintop cabin. She died weeks after that move.

So believable was Ms. Stump’s performance as Aunt Orlene that when the play was over and Ms. Stump donned her modern-day clothes and spoke in her own voice, I was jarred. Once I was able to make the transition, accepting that Aunt Orlene was a character portrayal, I approached Ms. Stump with two questions. The first was one that many have asked, back in Orlene’s time and still today.

“How is it possible that all of Orlene Puckett’s babies died?” I wanted to know.

Her answer was the same one given by Karen Cecil Smith in her book, Orlean Puckett: the Life of a Mountain Midwife; RH disease, which meant an incompatibility between Orlene’s blood type and her babies.

My next question was one pertaining to the old black bag that Ms. Stump used in her play. It was authentic, Orlene Puckett’s, lent to Ms. Stump by a family member of Orlene’s.

“Can I peek inside?” I asked curiously. She obligingly flicked it open and I peered in. The sateen fabric was frayed and torn. I saw a daisy flower and a soldier’s emblem.

“It’s probably from WWI,” Ms. Stump told me.

My curiosity was not abated, and so days later I called Ms. Stump, using the phone number on the business card she gave me. I told her how convincing her performance had been and how well written the script was.

“How did you come to do this particular play?” I asked.

“We bought a house in 2001 off the Blue Ridge Parkway,” she answered, “a half mile from the Puckett cabin." She was standing in front of the cabin with her husband one day when she said to him, determinedly, “I’m going to come up here and be Orlene Puckett.”

After taking a year to do research and write the script, Ms. Stump has realized her goal. “They Call Me Aunt Orlene” is a captivating play, one that is likely to become a regional classic.

The above was published in the Floyd Press in September 2006.

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