Mary Elizabeth Todd

Today’s guest, Mary Elizabeth Todd, speaks her life in poems.  If we were to piece together all her poems, her life story would unfurl before our eyes. Most of her poetry is told in the voice of a storyteller born of mountain and hardship, and unselfish love of all living things — for that is who Mary is.  This prompted me to go about her interview differently than my others.    Rather than question-and-answer dialogue, I gleaned portions of Mary’s poems and writings, and have simply invited her to expound on them.   I’m saddened by the fact that I had to pick and choose what to share from her extensive writings and sated life. I hope you enjoy these snippets of our poet friend Mary as much as I have enjoyed stitching them together. 

Mountain Born and Bred

I was born of the mountains
As the Moon is born of the sun-
(From Born of the Mountains © MET)

I grew up with ordinary people
Who told the best stories.
(From Born of the Mountains II © MET)

I was born in Waynesville, North Carolina.  I spent my first eight years there (except for a summer on Lake Huron in Michigan). It was a small town, and I was known in the community because I visited all my neighbors freely. I knew many of the mountain people and learned storytelling from them. I grew up hearing some of the best storytellers. 

I often ate down the street with an Italian family.  Their son Zoli was my first hero because he introduced me to Italian cooking. His father cooked every Saturday, and I sort of invited myself. It was not typical Appalachian small town.

Da (my father) was a road builder.  Until President Kennedy, the men that worked building roads did not have a main office.  There was one in Gatlinburg over Region 15, but there was no office except a plywood building with a window opening, a door opening, a barrel for a fire, and a bathroom out in the woods.  On really bad days, the men who worked for Da worked at our home. During the 1950s, the Parkways were often drawn up on our dining room table.  I was a mascot of sorts. My biggest dream is that I want to ride on the roads my father built, and there is lot of them in many states and one foreign country. I need someone to go with me willing to stop at every overlook, so I can get the names of the places, then I need to research his government records for his work.  I would like to write a book, and I know the name, “The Man who Loved Roads.”

I grew up knowing people of all races and many different religions.  I was encouraged to ask questions, and to be respectful of them. I didn’t know this was not the normal experience for white children. It seemed normal to me to have people from all these backgrounds sit down for a meal with us. We learned to be respectful of other religious eating habits. One Thanksgiving we had a Muslim eat with us.  But my favorite was the year we had beatniks and hard-shell Baptists sitting down with us for Thanksgiving. Conversation was lively, but respectful.

When I was 8, we moved to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Back then it was a tourist resort from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The rest of the year it was a small town in the mountains. 

My brother Joe was shot soon after we moved there, and it was very traumatic for me. He was seriously injured, and in the doctor’s office while waiting for the ambulance to arrive, I saw things that an eight-year-old should never see. When my father was getting ready to get into the ambulance, a man who worked with him offered to take me.  Da agreed. It was at that moment fear was born into my life.

Then we moved to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. I loved living there. We had great neighbors.  One of them took several of us frog gigging one night: Nancy (his niece from New Jersey, who is still my friend), my cousin Beverly, and myself.  We had to catch the frogs with our hands. We laughed and splashed in that mountain creek, and I think we caught only one frog.

Outsiders saw us ignorant,
But we just shook our heads,
Cause it is their recollection of us,
Not how we knew we were.

(From Born of the Mountain II © MET)

“Looking Glass Knob” on Blue Ridge Parkway

I love the mountains. They are rich with history and wonderful people who love music, and faith, and grieve deeply. I am first and foremost a mountain woman. I grew up seeing beauty everywhere. The second house we lived in in Gatlinburg was on a mountain, and I loved to look at the night sky. It had a long patio that went to the edge of the mountain. I loved that place so much I put it in my novel series as my character Sardis’ mountain home.

In 1973, we moved to where I now live in South Carolina. I was twenty-one. If we had not moved then, I probably would have moved back to the mountains after college, and never left.

The house I live in now is filled with memories of all those I love that are gone. My brother Joe was the architect of the house, and my parents did all the rockwork, including a fireplace with a staircase. I live in an 86-acre forest. I have, at one time or another, roamed the entire forest.

86 acres Mary has lifetime rights to. Amazing view from drone.

Poet and Storyteller of Appalachian Persuasion

While I wait,
I will open the gate,
And see the sea,
And the lea.

(Mary Todd, Age 10)

When I was in the fifth grade Mrs. Lane was my teacher. She was wonderful. She looked to the talent of her students. She had us write a poem to read in front of the class, and that is what I wrote.

After that, I kept a notebook where I wrote my poems – about 200 of them. I am known for keeping a poetry notebook with me at all times. I have also used napkins and whatever scrap of paper to write. I take notes; I lose notes.

I do have an office.  It’s very small and holds a myriad of things.  My father’s slides, about 3,000 plus.  Two piles of genealogy material. A yellow box my father made and about 50 years ago I painted yellow and within it is old letters from friends. I have my father’s engineering tools he used.  A pair of antique handcuffs. One metal thermos in a leather container that I have carried up a couple of mountains. I have my very funky earring collection.  I like the kind that dangle.  I have lots of paper. On the bookcase above me I have my desk name tag from my days of working. I also have a place for my cat Binkey to sleep.  Under my desk is where Gus used to sleep, and Tillie sometimes joins me. Gus knew my ways and whenever I would stop writing and lean back to think, he would pop out his head and talk to me…I miss that the most of him being gone.

I grew up with poetry. My father wrote poetry. He could recite about 20 of his near 200 poems. I can still see him standing with his arms behind him and holding his fedora, as we are about to leave and someone saying, “Joe, recite one of your poems.” He always did.

When I was a freshman in high school, I placed third in poetry for high school students for the state of Tennessee. I like poetry because I can play around with the way it is presented. I had a whole e.e. cummings era. In the end, free verse fits me best. I was the kid who liked to color outside the lines. I can do some form poems, but my wild nature feels like I am scratching my fingers on a chalkboard.  Still, I am determined to eventually master the sestina. I also write my poetry on hard subjects because there are people who need to hear that I have overcome those difficulties, and just maybe they can also. I believe that poetry should be for the masses, and not just locked away in colleges.  I learned this watching people love my father’s poems. I also get rap, and like some of it.  It speaks to people. 

I also write essays, and do some critical studies of the Bible for Lent each year.  I have enjoyed those studies, for they have helped me grasp a new view.  When I lost 12 people in two years, I could not find a way to grieve. Every one of them was important to me, plus I became the last remaining member of my immediate family. I did a book called “The Time I Did Not Dance…” It is an odd book, and doesn’t fit in exactly.  It is a book of poetry and essays on each stage of grief.  The essays address how I dealt with that stage of grief, and the poetry deals with my emotions at that time. Some of my best poetry is in that book. It healed me … still heals me. If it is never published, it has did what I wanted it to do.

Soon after I started writing poetry, I also began a novel. I wrote on it every night from the age of 11 until I was 18.  In one of the most stupid moves of my life, I burned them all just before I went to college.

I have also written a couple of short stories. I have found them more difficult to write than a novel. I think I would like to do more.

I do know this: Whatever I write when I sit down to write, I have no idea where it will take me. I have an idea, and the idea gets fleshed out and sometimes goes nowhere I had planned it to go. 

There were two times I stopped writing. The first time was when I dated a man who told me my writing was not of God, and therefore I should give them up.  I was young and stupid and did not write.  He wanted a submissive woman.  The thing is, I wasn’t.  He decided on another woman, and sent me a Dear John letter. I told him I would not have married him anyway. Then I wrote the first poem I had written in two years.  It was about being free.

The second time I stopped writing was after the death of my father. After he died, it took me three years and a trip to Scotland to get me writing again.

Of Heart and Hurdle

Seeing him cry those silent tears
Crushed my heart for I loved this man, my father.
I closed my eyes and said, “Da,”
He turned and said, “Don’t worry
I am visiting the ghosts
Who died here.”

I heard the story
Many men and women lynched
For the color of their skin
By people whose blood
Runs through me.

(Above passages from Visiting the Ghosts My Ancestors Killed, © MET)

A novel series I am writing is based on a dark history of my family:  My paternal grandfather murdered a black man named Utz Earl. Writing it has gutted me, and yet has made me euphoric. When I finished the first novel in the series, I was floating on air. I could not believe I had actually finished it. I wanted to do a non-fiction book about it, but there is simply not enough info.  My father suffered much because of this family history. My grandfather was convicted in South Carolina in 1921, and sentenced to three to five years on the chain gang. Grannie became the cook and laundress for the chain gang, and my father and his sister grew up living in tents, traveling around South Carolina all year long.

He stood in the doorway
Of an old barn, he was safe with me,
He let his tears fall silently.
I knew he kept secrets;
I kept them also.
He did not know mine
I did not know his.
We were good at keeping secrets.
Our childhoods had scarred us both.
(From Visiting the Ghosts My Ancestors Killed, ©  MET)


I am said to be a loyal person.
It is the code I learned in childhood,
And somehow or other I became
A foreigner in my own family
As I became more ingrained
In what it means to be Appalachian.

(From Born of the Mountain II © MET)

I was told by Grannie that my family did not love me and would give me away if they could, and the physical abuse was bad … the edges of my retinas in my eyes are dead, due to being shaken by her when I was about three years old. She placed hate and anger in my heart. My parents did not know the worst of it. They found out at four I was being locked under the stairwell when I was left in her care. She was sent to my aunts for almost a year.  When she came back, in an effort to keep from her, I did not eat at the table with my family, but in the kitchen alone. When she was not there, I slept in the bedroom she had, but when she was there it got complicated.  Da was gone a lot so when he was gone, I slept on a cot in my parents’ room. Otherwise, I slept on the couch. I had no place that I belonged. I was a nomad in my own house. Da realized that, and put a bar crosswise under his shirts. He took me to their closet and said, “I can’t give you a bed, but I can give you a place to put your dresses.” In later years, as a caseworker, it helped me to understand how the children I worked with felt.

What Grannie did was teach me to keep secrets. It laid a groundwork for keeping quiet when I was bullied at school, when I was sexually abused from ten to fifteen, when I was made to sit in the dining hall until the end of the day for refusing to eat certain foods in the fourth grade, when I was physically and emotionally abused by a teacher … I said nothing. I speak out now, but it took me decades to get to that point. Because I did try to tell a few people, and they told me to say nothing or treated me like I was a slut. I learned to be silent. Even though I am telling you some of what happened, there are parts of it I will not discuss.

Then I heard Jesus, as he washed my wounds and hurts,
“Why did you think you must do this alone?
I said I would be with you.”
He pulled the splinters from my hands and they healed as he said,
“Here. Let me help you carry this.
I have been there, and I know the way.”
He wiped the tears from my eyes and said,
“Come and rejoice; it is a beautiful day.”
He smiled and I smiled.
We picked up the cross … I knew I would follow Him anywhere.
(From Were You There, (c), MET)

I am a person of faith, and it has been a journey of renewal of myself. I had planned to go to seminary in Boston, but that fell by the wayside. My mother did not want a daughter who was a preacher. It didn’t matter that I wanted to be a Chaplin. My father was getting ill, and my mother didn’t drive. So, I stayed to care for them.

I know in this life I need to be kind and patient. Kindness most of the time I do, but patience will take a little time. I believe faith has to be worked on and tuned up, and I need to learn more … so I seek knowledge. I am connected to the Northumbrian Community, in that I try to follow their rules of life:  To be available to God and others, and to be vulnerable to God and others. 

As my mother was dying, the Celtic Daily Prayer Book kept me going. I did not come willingly to God. I fought him all the way, but He gave me what I call a 2×4 moment and it woke up my soul’s desire to be connected to God through his son Jesus Christ.

Then one day I remembered
The last words you spoke to me.
You struggled to speak and
When you did your voice was raspy raw.
I felt my tears pool in my eyes
To see you struggle so hard-
I wanted to tell you not to try, but I knew
What you needed to say was important.
Then this rough voice said, “I love you.”

I felt the world stand still for a moment,
For within those words spoken
Was the history of our lives.
(From The Guilt of Relief, © MET)

These were the last words Ma spoke to me.  In fact, it was the only time she ever told me she loved me. 

The day she died, all of my immediate family was gone, and I was alone in this world. You don’t realize it until you are there, that when your immediate family is all gone but you, there is no one to discuss your memories with about how it was to live as a family. At the same time, I lost the last of my uncles and my aunts. I was close to them all. I visited many of them every week for decades. Their houses were sold, and I could no longer go visit familiar and loved places. I had to rebuild my society.  When you are in your late 50s it is a daunting task, but I do have good friends.

The Inheritance

Ma left me memories, and cats…

I named them the Inheritance.

When times got rough, and

I had to decide to feed the cats or me…

I fed them for I made a promise.

I never break promises.
(From A Promise Kept; A Purpose Lost, © MET)

“I want you to take care of my cats when I am gone.”

Ma said the words that I knew was coming. She had dementia, and she was fading.  She would be gone soon. I closed my eyes for my heart wanted to cry, but I needed to be present in her life at this moment. It was not my loss but her need that was important.

 “Ma I will care for your cats.”

She then said to me firmly, “Promise me!”

That is when the tears came to my eyes. I knew in that instance that a part of her still knew me. She knew I did not take promises lightly. It was a point of honor with me. It had been part of me since I was about ten years old. I rarely make a promise unless I can keep it. Because come hell or high water that promise is going to be kept. It is so engrained in me that Ma knew that about me. She knew that when others tried to get me to say I promise that I won’t do it because I am also stubborn. Ma knew in asking me that night to promise her she was asking me to keep what I was saying. It was April 8, 2008 at 2 AM that I said, “I promise.” My fate was sealed. Ma had given me an Inheritance of cats.  I sat with her as she fell into a peaceful sleep. I kissed her forehead.

I went outside and cried into the cool spring night. I looked into the beautiful night sky, because to me the night sky even when overcast is beautiful. I love the inky dark blue of night.  I began to laugh, for my life now belonged to forty-six cats.

(Above adapted from Mary’s Christmas Story, 2019)

Those cats became my purpose, and they saved me. As I went through years of poverty, I made choices to make sure they were fed. I would be cold or hot or hungry, but those cats were fed. In 2018, they died. My purpose died with them.

Servant Warrior

This toddler empress
With her dark nearly black eyes
And smooth dark chocolate skin
Had a presence at three.
She was regal,
As she held her back
Ramrod straight

“No, it is dark.” Her voice deliberate,
As she repeated her answer.
I knew Victoria knew the color.
She, also at this young age,
Knew she was called black,
And she wasn’t the color
Of that crayon.
I studied her a minute and then asked,
“Victoria, is this the color of your room
When the lights go out for you to sleep.”
She smiled and nodded her head,
“Yes, Dark!”

{Above passages from The Color Dark, © MET)

All claiming to know what is best what is right…
None of them hearing the lost child
Where there is no place or no home…
The only one that hears
Is the one who sits beside them
On their moves from place to place,
knowing what damage this new move will do.
(From When There Is No Home [for the foster children], © MET)

I believe strongly that each and every one of us has service to do while we live, and that purpose is not to serve ourselves but to serve others. When I got the job as a foster care worker, I wanted to do the best that I could do.  I loved the work I did. I did not have children of my own, but I got to love over 800 children.  I miss having children in my life, but I am thankful for each of them that crossed my path. Every child, even the difficult ones, were a gift to my life.  I tried my best to find the key to help each child individually. I loved my work.

In 2004 I was named Social Worker of The Year by the SC Foster Care Association.

Award Night, 2004

Quick note from Marie:  There is far too much to be said and shared regarding the sacrificial work Mary has done for children in the foster care system.  I would encourage everyone to seek out her poems on this topic.  There are many … all heartrending, and all fill me with awe and respect for Mary. We need more Mary Elizabeth Todds in our midst.  

My friends tell me
That I have always heard
A different drum.
I think it is a different
But same difference.

I am a warrior in spirit.  I have to have a purpose.

Now, my purpose is to write. Where it will take me in this life, I have no idea, but it is my purpose. It is what I am here for at this moment. It fulfills me like all those previous purposes.

I danced with death
On three occasions…
Saw the dead visit me,
Walked in a cloud of unknown colors, and
Said to those come for me
My dance in life is not done.

(Above passages from The Way I Dance Through This World, © MET)

Mary, it has been a pleasure presenting you, here. I’d like to end with this sassy, pretty photo of you. May you forever be kindhearted and adventurous, and may you get to travel the roads of your father’s making.

Oh! And keep dancing, Mary. 😉

More from Mary may be found on her blog at: Poetry, Faith, Projects, Growing up Mountain


  1. Oh my, Mary, how full of luscious flavor can a life be? You’ve shared just a spoonful of God’s recipe for you here, and how it makes me want to have a bowl full, so where do we find your writings on this savored life you live?

  2. An incredible interview! Your have remarkable courage, Mary! The way you express your experiences is powerful and poignant. Your strength is to be applauded and your service to children was wonderful. Children need such heartfelt advocates such as yourself. You have taken hardships and found a way to work through them with your writing and your words. Your writing serves you so well. Thank you for sharing so freely here. This was beautifully done.

  3. Mary & Marie, FANTASTIC word weaving about a remarkable woman and writer. I have devoured literature on Appalachia & especially mountain women since my University days–when I so wanted to join VISTA but life intervened…. Am currently reading two memoir/histories that span from the 30s to present and they only serve to reinforce how lucky I am to know you through your storytelling and writing. If I may offer my opinion, in your work and what I read, there is evident that there is an incredible “mountain spirit” that in so many cases proves resilient beyond imagination and hardship. We are so privileged to have your authentic voice writing with us, and Marie, this is some of your best work ever!! THANK YOU BOTH!

  4. MEG, I remember when you interviewed me, you told Walt to hold on to his hat. Well, I hope he had two hats, because this is spectacular in its revealing. I think it’s true that the best interviewer is the one who knows how to receive.
    MET, there are so many words I could use to describe you and your words but I see clearly that everything you have written is simply your life, beautifully, sometimes painfully expressed. And what a life, full of the the complete range of emotions. Child of nature, of the mountains and the forest, a gift from God.

  5. What an incredible interview, Marie. Your intuition on how to present it was perfect.

    Mary, you possess the talents of a true teller of tales, and amazingly, they are all about your colorful life, though you certainly had hardships. You always come through as a compassionate, honest person, as I’m sure the many children that passed through your care, would confirm. You are special.

  6. Mary, thank you for sharing yourself and your writing so deeply and openly. Your work is inspirational and selfless, and I admire it even more as someone studying and hoping to create a career in child development/psychology. I love all the shared pieces of your writing here, and so much of it resonates.
    “It was at that moment fear was born into my life” is such a powerful line, and one that I can understand wholeheartedly. I felt the same when my brother was diagnosed with cancer – I had known of anxiety and worry before, but never FEAR in so raw a form. It is a powerful emotion that leads to powerful decisions and circumstances. I am happy to share this writing space with you, I feel honored and humbled in your presence. Thank you again for sharing ❤

Plant your poem or comment here!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s