The Face in the Well
The Face in the Well

Sandra Nipper Ratledge

Granny grew up in the 1880s with a certain old wives' tale. Truth or fantasy -- no matter -- she truly believed it because this tale turned out as truth for her! This particular story concerned precognition of one's future spouse. It was a tale told and retold by giggling little girls and old biddies alike in the hills and creek bottom lands of Clearwater and Rogers' Creek communities in McMinn County, Tennessee. There Granny had spent her childhood with loving parents, James Willis and Sarah Jane (McDonald) Tucker, and had grown into a lovely young lady under the watchful eyes of her maternal grandparents, David William and Rachel Mariah (McNeil) McDonald.

Sometime during her twentieth year, Margaret Elizabeth "Bessie" Tucker fell in love with her future husband, William "Bill" Thomas McKeehan, and they were wed on February 24, 1901, by Justice of the Peace William Harrod in McMinn County. Long before their wedding day, Bessie had felt destined to marry Bill. In fact, since their introduction, she believed their marriage a certainty because of the similarity between events in the tale and the unfolding events in her own life.

According to Granny McKeehan, this often repeated tale began with a young maiden tossing a pebble into a well. The setting was spring when clouds carried abundant showers, creeks swelled, springs gushed, wells rose, and love blossomed along with the flowering dogwoods and redbuds. In this season, water would rise high enough in the well to reflect and ricochet sunlight as the pebble rippled its dark, glassy surface. After casting a pebble, the maiden had to bend over the well and study the curvatures and patterns of light and darkness reflected in the pool below. If she could perceive the shape of a face in the watery ripples, then she would know the face of her future husband.

With her younger sister, Sally Tucker standing close by, Bessie dropped a pebble into their well. Afterwards, indeed, she vowed that she had seen an unfamiliar face in the water! Scientists refer to such perceptual closure as pareidolia. Perception of this sort is similar to envisioning faces of Indians in the sharply protruding rocks along the Ocoee River Gorge in Polk County. This experience is one familiar to most residents of Southeast Tennessee. Whatever the psychological process involved, Granny swore that she saw a man's face in the well.

More than fifty-five years later, she shared the old tale with me, her great-granddaughter. Sitting in her wooden porch swing beside me one summer afternoon, Granny finished her story as follows: "The very day I seen the face in our well, Bill come walking down the dusty road by our house. I'd never seen him before, but his face was the same as the face in the well! That's how I knowed he was the one I'd marry. Bill stopped and talked a while to me and Sister Sally. That was the first time we met. 'Course, we married, and so that's how it all worked out for me."

Ever so slowly, the sun had slipped behind Granny's house, and shade had crept upon us. Her sky-blue eyes keenly scrutinized the old silver maple tree now cooling us and her entire front porch with its shade. A refreshing breeze had broken the spell of the sultry summer afternoon. She tucked a waving wisp of her snow white hair behind her ear and wound it into the small bun at the back of her head. Then she pointed with the index finger of her good right hand to the treetop above. "Look!" she warned. "The wind is a-turnin' up the leaves on the silver maple. When you can see the silver undersides of the leaves more than the dark green tops, then a storm is a-brewin' nearby. Mark my words, Sander, we'll git a good rain out o' this."

"But, Granny, is that all of the story?" I asked impatiently.

Even today, I can still hear her familiar phrase gently echoing in my mind like the beloved refrain of an old, sweet song. Granny closed as always by saying, "And, that's all she wrote."

to be scanned:
photo of Granny and me by her old-timey flower garden
photo of Granny holding me atop her antique mailbox
photo of Granny and me on a poke salad hunt
Margaret Elizabeth "Bessie" (Tucker) McKeehan and her parents and sisters

This site is dedicated to the memory of my parents, Tommy and Beulah (Cline) Nipper.

©1999--present year by Sandra N. Ratledge. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Any reproduction or inclusion of this website's contents in publication whether online or in print is prohibited. Do NOT copy photographs and upload on Find a Grave or any other internet websites, blogs, attach to family trees, or print in publications. Do NOT copy stories, articles, documents, sketches, anecdotes, letters, obituaries, content data, etc. and attach to family trees or upload on other websites of any kind.

Sandra Ratledge

All you kinfolks, put some mail in that old box!