Aunt Sallie McNabb
A Story For Mother’s Day
© Copyright by John Parris "Roaming the Mountains"
Originally published in the Asheville-Citizen Times.
They call her the Madonna of the Balsams, the mother of the mountains.
She is the most famous midwife in all the land.
And tomorrow, when every mother is a Queen of Hearts, the hundreds of children that Sarah McNabb has brought into the world will pause to pay tribute to her.
She is in retirement now, but for more than forty years she followed the stork wherever it flew.
It’s easy to find the home of this fine looking mountain woman who, at eighty-six, has a strong, appealing, sensitive face and who, as she whispers something wise and something humorous into your ear, reminds you of all the mothers in the world.
Inquire of any mountain man, woman or child if you get lost after you turn south from Hazelwood up Allen’s Creek and they will put you straight.
Sarah McNabb brought one or two, or all three of them into the world.
She is “Mother” McNabb to them.
She lives in a weathered frame house that is as old as the story of her service to the mothers of the mountains.
The wind sings in the trees along the creek and there’s the laughter of children in the land.
“They are some of the ones I brought into the world,” Sarah McNabb says. “They are my children.”
She has only memories now, but they are wondrous memories. And as she sits on her porch and rocks away the time, she can look back and know that she was a heroine at least once a month for more than forty years.
“How many babies have I brought into the world? Two hundred,
three hundred, five hundred. More than that, I guess. But what does it matter? I always went when called and that is what counts on the Book.
“Not once in all my life,” she will tell you, “have I failed to go when called. I feel like God gave me that as my mission on this earth. He gave me strength to rise, even when ill, and do my duty.”
And then she whispers a secret, glancing about to see that her daughter does not hear.
“A few years ago I broke both hips and was bed-ridden. My bed was there in the front room near the fire. The others were sleeping in one of the back rooms. Well, one night one of the neighbors up the creek came and begged me to go to his wife.
“Here I was a-bed and could hardly move, but he said he would carry me. So he lifted me out of bed and wrapped me up and carried me out to his car and I went and delivered a baby. He brought me back and the folks here never did know I went out. They don’t know it yet.”
Nothing ever stayed her from her mission.
She went on foot and on horseback, by wagon and by mule, and at times behind oxen.
The remarkable thing about Sarah McNabb’s work is that she never lost a single child or its mother in all the years she was “catching babies.”
“But I am not responsible for that,” she explains. “A Higher Power is always present at so great an event as birth. It is my firm conviction that Divine assistance is always at hand at the coming of another into the world.”
Whenever she crossed her threshold on a mission of mercy she went with a prayer on her lips.
“I asked God to use my strength, my hand, my knowledge to supplement His will, and I continued to pray until I beheld the living, breathing result brought forth in all its loveliness.”
Sarah McNabb is a deeply religious woman and she was instrumental in founding the Rocky Branch Free Will Baptist Church. You can find her there any Sunday, in good weather or bad.
“God,” she will tell you, “made it possible for me to be so successful in my work. The bringing of babies into the world was a talent that God gave me. I had no education, only what God gave me.”
The work she has done in the hills is as fine and as unselfish a
piece of true American endeavor as has ever been done in the mountains of any land.
Through the years, Sarah McNabb worked in a land almost without transportation. A land where the women knew the meaning of suffering.
For more than half her life, through rain or snow, day or night, she has been at the beck and call of her sisters in travail.
Herself mountain born, Sarah McNabb knew years ago what those women of the mountain sections of Allen’s Creek, Quinlantown, Lickstone Mountain and the Balsams were enduring in agony whenever they brought children into the world.
She knew what went on when young mothers of fourteen and old mothers of twenty came to their hour. Lives hung in the balance.
And Sarah McNabb knew the hills.
So, she saw that life came into the world-life in the form of a bouncing boy or girl. She saw to it that each lived.
“That was my duty,” she says. “It was my mission upon the earth. I carried out that mission until I could no longer go. I hope I fulfilled it. Nobody can say I didn’t go when I was called.”
She is quick to tell you that she was merely an instrument to perform a needed service in the mountains, when the midwife was the most important person in the hills.
Sarah McNabb was born here in the mountains, a short piece from here on Pigeon River. At twenty she was married. At forty-two she had been blessed with ten children, and the years since have brought her forty grandchildren, thirty great-grandchildren, and six great-great-grandchildren.
“I brought all of them into the world,” she says with pride. When she was thirty-five she registered in Raleigh as a midwife. “But I began catching babies when my own were little,” she is quick to explain. “Why many’s the time I put my small ones up on the horse behind me and went off to help one of my sisters.”
She is proud of her record with the State Board of Health.
“I never registered anything but Grade A on my tests,” she said. “Dr. Sam Stringfield-he’s dead now-said I was the best midwife in the whole state.”
Until a few years ago she was a familiar figure on the streets of nearby Waynesville at Christmas-time.
The folks of Waynesville called her the “Christmas Wreath Lady” because of the beautiful wreaths she wove out of balsam fir and holly sprigs.
“I made wreaths in lots of a hundred for Mr. James McClure of the Farmers Federation in Asheville,” she said. “I recall once one of his men came to the house when I was about half way through with one lot of wreaths.
“He asked me what I would do if somebody came for me to deliver a baby before I finished the wreaths. 1 told him I’d just lay the wreaths aside and go.
“What about all that money you would lose, he said, and I told him money had no price when one of my sisters needed me.”
For a moment she was silent, and she looked beyond the creek and into space.
“I loved them mothers and them babies,” she said. “And I want the mothers and the children and their children’s children to know that my life is glorified because of theirs.”
Years ago she had expressed a wish that she could shape her destiny “so that even upon the day of my passing it will be possible for me to assist at bringing into this world life.”
“But I reckon,” she says now, “that my days of catching babies is over. With my legs and back in such shape as they are, I think too much of them women to do it.”
Night had come on as we talked.
A great-grandchild toddled in and climbed chortling to the haven that is ever open to children.
The wind still sang in the trees along the creek and there was still the laughter of children in the wind.
Music playing is "Farther Along" sequenced by
a talented Haywood County donor who wishes to remain anonymous.
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