This one photograph got me to thinking about family, familial relationships, and specifically my ancestors and the land we’ve all shared. From that one image, The Funeral Dress took root.
Read It Forward: Is there a Cullen, Tennessee, and if so, was there a shirt factory there?
Susan Gregg Gilmore: Cullen is fictional. But I did spend time researching in Dunlap, Tennessee, just about thirty minutes from my Chattanooga home. In fact, some of my most favorite days while writing the book were those spent with my friend and Dunlap native Vallerie Greer. She’d pick me up and we’d drive over Signal Mountain down into the Sequatchie Valley.
We spent countless hours walking through cemeteries, driving deep into hollers, and talking to people about their lives there at the southernmost tip of the Appalachian Mountains. And we always finished the day with a late lunch at the Cookie Jar, where you can get some of the best chicken ‘n’ dumplings and lemon meringue pie.
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There was an operating shirt factory in Dunlap at one time, and I spent a wonderful afternoon with Marea Barker, a twenty-nine-year veteran lapel maker. I kept asking Marea, had she found the work monotonous, tedious, boring? Thinking surely she must have. But she just looked at me as if she didn’t understand the question.
For Marea, working at the shirt factory meant community and friendship and some financial independence. Sadly, Marea died not long after our last visit together, but she was sewing quilts for her family up until the very end.
RIF: Do you sew?
SGG: Oh, no. I can place a button if need be or a very simple hem, but I had to take sewing lessons to understand the proper construction of a dress. I was making a linen dress as part of my research. Unfortunately, I cut it too short. But it still hangs in my closet, reminding me of what’s possible if you really put your mind to it . . . and have a great teacher.
RIF: Do you think, as Leona does, that redbirds bring good luck?
SGG: Of course! My daddy taught me that when I was a little girl. When you spot a redbird, you make a wish and blow a kiss. When I first moved back to Tennessee after ten years in California, I would see redbirds everywhere and was convinced that every one of them was a sign from my father. Maybe they were, but I’ve come to realize that there are a lot of redbirds in Tennessee. But it’s still a comforting thought.
RIF: Do you have any ideas about your own funeral; what you’d like? What kind of dress you want to wear?
SGG: Sure. I have a growing file where I put songs I’d like sung or verses I’d like read. But I know I want it in a church, and I want someone who really knows me delivering the eulogy. I don’t want money spent on an expensive casket. I would just as soon be wrapped in a white sheet and cremated or placed in a pine box and buried in the quiet Tennessee woods.
But if I’m going to get all gussied up for the affair, I want a simple dress, tailored, not black, but something that still complements my white hair! Maybe even pants and a nice top. And of course good food and good fellowship afterward. Other than that, it can all be a surprise.
RIF: While you were writing, did you identify with Leona or Emmalee or both?
SGG: I identified with both women but definitely felt more connected to Leona. Truth be told, it was probably more of a bonding. Leona had worked so hard all of her life and was still longing for something more. Even though I try very hard to find peace in the moment, no matter the circumstance, I understand that longing, that desperate need for something not yet attained.
Even now, I find myself thinking about Leona and wondering what her life would have been like, with or without Curtis, had her situation been different. I hope she’s well wherever she is!
RIF: You write eloquently about the difficulties of raising a baby. Do you have children? Do you think having a new- born is overwhelming no matter what the circumstances?
SGG: Thank you, and I do have children. I have three amazing daughters and several nieces and nephews that I love on, too, as if they are mine. I do think having a newborn can be very overwhelming even with a good support system in place. When my second was born, she was small and struggled to nurse. They called her a nip-and-napper like Kelly Faye.
Had it not been for a community of women here in Chattanooga that reached out and supported me, encouraged me, cooked for me, I probably would have quit breastfeeding. That’s a very physically demanding experience for a new mother, and I so empathized with Emmalee, who had no one teaching her, coaching her, loving on her.
My oldest niece, Mary, had a baby while I was writing The Funeral Dress, and I went to help her for a few days. Boy, that brought back a lot of memories, and I felt Emma- lee was there with us, watching our every move, soaking it all in.