State

Dot Jackson in 2006: ‘Refuge’ from a wild life as a newspaper columnist

Jackson in March 2006, when her novel “Refuge” was complete.
Jackson in March 2006, when her novel “Refuge” was complete. Observer file photo

This was originally published April 23, 2006.

Dot Jackson lives in a trailer in the middle of a wood with a golden eagle and a vacant, ramshackle house as neighbors.

After years of being in the public eye as a newspaper columnist, after times of deep sorrow, it’s her paradise. A refuge.

At 73, she is on her second pacemaker. She walks with painful knees. She calls herself “a buxom cadaver,” “crazy as a loon,” “broke as a haint.” Then she squints her eyes, throws her hands over her mouth and plugs a shrieking giggle.

Her claim to fame these days is her debut novel, “Refuge.” But no book, no matter how good, could be a richer story than the author herself.

Bluets and crows

Dot Jackson grew up on a patch of Miami sand. She says her parents, both from the S.C. mountains, moved there after a family feud ended in gunfire. They kept a house in Florida for 60 years, but home was always in the uplands.

Young Dot taught school and dance, then moved with her first husband to Charlotte and sold girdles in the basement of Belk.

She started as a proofreader at the Observer in 1967 and eventually became a columnist.

She covered preachers and polluters and city hall politicians. But her best stories drew from a love affair with the mountains.

Dot took readers to Dirty Ankle, Rocky Bottom, Cool Spring. She showed them bluets and berries and crows “with one eye cocked for somebody to be out planting corn.” She led them to Fonzo Turner, a farmer; “Miss Lunch,” a cafeteria worker; and Dewey Moose, who turned mountain maple and spruce into violins.

‘Nobody stays’

Her sense of humor was big. So were her theatrics. On one April 1, a friend remembers, she dressed up in a straw hat, flimsy dress, slippers and white anklets. With a dribble of snuff on her chin, she cashed her paycheck in $1 bills and set out for shopping at ritzy Montaldo’s.

Even her home life was dramatic. Her southeast Charlotte house, she says, was haunted by a ghost that whistled in the basement, knocked on walls and played with the bedclothes while Dot slept.

Dishes would shatter, Dot remembers. Lights flickered. A soft, feminine voice would speak.

Curious neighbors predicted Dot wouldn’t stay. Nobody does, Dot says they told her.

But Dot lived there for more than a decade.

‘An adventure of the heart’

That haunted house, she says, was the birthplace for her novel.

For 15 years, starting in the 1960s, Dot wrote in feverish spurts, typing on an ancient typewriter. Her story was about Mary Seneca Steele, a young mother who would flee her home in Charleston and move into a weathered old house in the mountains.

The book, about family and land and love, ends with Steele, an old woman, living by herself in the mountains. Her only company is a bird.

“Nature,” the character says, “is just about oblivious to human tragedy and gloom.”

Based on a relative who had allowed herself “an adventure of the heart,” Dot says the character possessed her.

She rewrote, divided the manuscript in half, put it back together – then rewrote again.

Editors in the big publishing houses were interested, but nothing happened. Dot turned to a psychic. Will my book ever get published?

Yes, she remembers the psychic said. But not until you’ve lost everything.

Patching leaks

She lost her job at the paper in June 1982 in a dispute that she says was partly her fault.

“This is the best blackberry year in ages,” she wrote in her last column, “and we mean to live it to the fullest.”

She calls the ordeal “a horrible hurrah.”

With her second marriage failing, she took a job at the Greenville (S.C.) News-Piedmont.

In 1989, her middle child, Tom, died while he was a student at Western Carolina University.

Ten months later, her grandchild died.

Dot says she left the Greenville job “without knowing what in this world I was going to do.”

The early 1990s found her living alone in Six Mile, S.C., near Clemson, patching leaks in the roof of her little house with a tar bucket and broom. She drove a Nova that started only in the sun.

“I think about all the horrible times when that little house in those woods sheltered me,” she says. “When you get through something like that, you come out feeling pretty good because you’ve survived.”

She kept her novel about Mary Seneca Steele in a friend’s refrigerator, “cold as a frog,” to keep it safe from varmints.

A possible retreat

Dot moved to Pumpkintown, north of Pickens, in 2001.

She and three friends, all board members of the S.C. Academy of Authors, had been hunting for a possible retreat. “A place where we could get together to write and talk and focus on things that interested us,” says Tom Johnson, a poet and retired special collections librarian.

They settled on a few overgrown acres with a 200-year-old house and a view of Table Rock Mountain. Dot had known the spot nearly all her life.

Their original dream evolved. The plan now is to renovate the vandalized house and raise money to turn it into a home for the Birchwood Center for Arts and Folklife, a nonprofit that Dot and her friends founded.

Johnson says the group, already active in arts education, conservation and preservation, envisions creating a kitchen where locals can bake bread and make jams; they see studios for weavers and potters.

‘All I ask’

Dot, living in a trailer, is the on-site manager.

“And do I ever love it,” she says. “Most everything works. It keeps the rain off my head and my papers – all I ask of a domicile.”

The old house next door looks as if it will fall to pieces before it’s restored, but Dot promises it won’t. She remembers when it was a treasure and believes it will be again.

“Don’t you fall down on me,” she tells it. “You have to outlive me, Baby.”

Of her own precarious state of health, Dot says she’s too busy to pay it any mind.

In 2005, a friend wrote Dot’s advance obituary and asked Dot to read it.

“Darling girl,” Dot wrote back, “this is so dear and flattering and wonderful I can’t wait to die! Now, what I have to do is aim for a really slow news day.”

Postscript

This month, after decades of waiting, Dot Jackson has finally seen her manuscript become a published novel. “Refuge” is being published by the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County through its nonprofit Novello Festival Press, which publishes two to four books a year, mostly from Carolinas authors.

Frye Gaillard, Novello’s co-founder, had read snippets of “Refuge” years ago when he worked with Dot at the Observer. He persuaded her to fetch the manuscript from the refrigerator.

The first printing is 3,500 copies. Dot says she is thrilled.

“Mountain people like to think that when they are gone, something will be left behind,” she once wrote in the newspaper. “Something of the spirit.”

  Comments