The Worry Months

Today’s guest post was written by Dean Rathbone.

very old photo of men and women

My great grandparents, John McElrath and Dorcas Quilliams McElrath. Grandpa Charlie,
Minnie, Fanny, and Rachel. They are in front of their little cabin by the
Fincher Spring, just around from the Crawford Gap

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been suffering with sciatic nerve pain caused by scar tissue. It put me in the bed for the first day or two. I worried about my soon to be 95 year old mother and whether I would be able to help her. I soon found that my worries were unfounded. She insisted on stepping back into the household routine just like she was 50 years younger. Of course my sister and I helped her with a few chores, but for the most part, she has been amazing. I’ve probably gained 10lbs from her good cooking! It has seemed to give her a new purpose and lease on life. I always try to look for the positive side of any situation, no matter how unpleasant it is. My inability to get out of the house much has allowed my Mother and I to talk more. She would pop a big bowl of popcorn and we would sit beside the warm fire, eat it, and remember. She said something this morning that made me think. She said, “If we can both get through the worry months, we’ll be alright.” I asked her what she meant by “worry months” and this is what she shared with me.

When I was a little girl back in the 1930s, the old people would call January and February the worry months. They both end in worry fer a reason, you know. People today just don’t understand how hard it was fer the settlers here in the mountains to survive. Poppie was born in 1878 and he said the 1930s was just as bad as the 1880s here in the mountains. The Depression made em fall back to the old way of doin’ things. Ye had a lot of things to worry about durin’ January and February.

If the growin’ season the year before had been bad, ye worried about whether ye had enough food put up to get ye by. If it had frosted late into the Spring the year before, then the berry and apple crops were scarce. We canned and dried anything that we could get our hands on, but if it wasn’t there to gather, ye worried about havin’ enough to get you through the winter. The weather always got worse in January and February. Ye worried about havin’ enough feed fer the livestock, or if it snowed, how would ye get out to feed em or water em. Nobody had electricity back then, so ye heated with a fireplace. If the temperature dropped below zero, the water froze in the water buckets and ye canned goods froze and broke. That was a big loss.

But, the biggest worry was fer the sickness. We didn’t have the antibiotics back then that ye have today. We just had sulfur drugs. A bad cold could kill ye back then. The bad diseases seemed to strike durin’ January and February. Everybody stayed inside by the fire more and the diseases spread among the family members. Ye worried about the old people and the very young a makin’ it through the worry months. 

We always tried to look fer the brighter things in life durin’ the worry months. We would sit around the fireplace and sing, or Poppie would read us a story from a book or magazine. We’d eat popcorn just like we are now and tell stories. Poppie never told many stories; he was a quiet man. But, he told one story about the worry months that I will always remember.

He said that one year back in the 1880s January and February were really bad. They lived way up yonder on the mountain in a high mountain cove, around from the Crawford Gap. It has snowed and snowed up there until the snow was over 4ft deep. Then the temperature dropped below zero. They were all stuck in their little log cabin when they all come down with the flu. They couldn’t get out to get wood, so they were about to freeze to death. But, neighbors watched out fer one another back then. Poppie said that there were about as many Cherokee families livin’ around here back then, as settlers. His mommie was part Cherokee and their closest neighbors were Cherokee. He said that they noticed that something wasn’t right at their cabin, so they stood in the door and asked what was wrong. They told them that they were all sick. So, their Cherokee neighbors took care of the livestock, kept them supplied with firewood and they brought food to them until Poppie’s family could take over the work.  The Cherokee  kept them alive durin’ those worry months.

It was the same way back in the 1930s. People looked after one another. People say that people won’t help one another today, but I think they are wrong. We are just too proud now to let somebody help us. Our neighbors would stand with ye if we would just let em. Look at the help we’ve had while you’ve been down. People still have a heart. And then, there is always Spring. Things always get better in the Spring. Come Spring, these old worry months will just be a memory.”

I’m just about back to my old self, but I understand what the worry months are now. I saw my mother gain a new lease on life in response to the worry months. I’ve learned that people still have a good heart. 

I hope you enjoyed Dean’s post as much as I did. I will always think of January and February as the worry months after reading it.


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  • Reply
    February 22, 2022 at 9:35 pm

    I’m never heard the reference to the worry months, but it certainly makes sense to me!

  • Reply
    February 22, 2022 at 8:38 pm

    Tipper, thank you for sharing this. I really enjoyed reading it. It brought an awareness to me and made me a lot more thankful for the life we have now. 🙂 I was raised up hard and we were taught to use up everything we had and not to waste anything. I appreciate the life I’ve lived but I wouldn’t want to go back to using an outhouse, heating up water to take a bath in a metal wash tub, and having to get up to a cold house warmed by an old Warm Morning heating stove. I love to read about the Amish and I admire their simple way of living, but I wouldn’t want to give up my electric and modern conveniences. 🙂

  • Reply
    Ron Bass
    February 22, 2022 at 6:45 pm

    Great post Tipper and Dean. I really enjoyed reading it.
    I planted arsh taters yesterday, a little early but I take a chance on it every year. Most years they do fine, sometimes a late frost will burn them to the ground but they’ll come back. I seldom let weather dictate what I do. I’ve dove hunted in a tropical storm and fished in pouring rain.
    God Bless You Tipper for the enjoyment you bring to people daily.

  • Reply
    February 22, 2022 at 5:14 pm

    Thank you, Dean & Tipper!

    Was just saying I sometimes resist &/or resent so much change….
    Now these words have reminded me of the changes for which we are grateful ❤️

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    February 22, 2022 at 3:27 pm

    Wow, that’s really something to think about! We sure have it easy in comparison! I’m going to try and remember this post next time I think I don’t have enough of something!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    February 22, 2022 at 3:05 pm

    The names is Mr. Rathbone’s story caught my attention mightily this morning. McElrath and Quilliams are in my family tree. Not “blood” but kin no less. John and Dorcas? Yep! and Charlie! But there is stops. So who is Dean Rathbone? Perhaps Carroll Dean Rathbone? Father – Glenn Rathbone? Mother – Leona? Leona – born 1928 to Charlie McElrath and Hattie Ann Ledford? Got him! Mr. Rathbone is a 2nd cousin of the wife of my 2nd cousin 2x removed.

    January and February are the months that end in “worry” but also the two months with the least amount of sunshine. Their days are no shorter than November and December but are typically more much more cold, cloudy and gloomy. It has been proven that people need sunshine. Not only to produce vitamin D but fight back the depression which being indoors in the dark induces in many, if not most, people. So Jan-you-worry and Feb-you-worry is an apt description of those months. Yeah, I know February has that extra r that nobody uses. In fact most people I know just say Febworry!

    PS: Dean’s mother Leona had a brother Ammons McElrath. That’s my surname and his given name! Wonder how that happened?

  • Reply
    February 22, 2022 at 2:49 pm

    Wow. Just … sigh… Reading this reinforces my mother’s stories of growing up hungry during the 1930s. Thank goodness for community.

  • Reply
    February 22, 2022 at 2:43 pm

    That was a great tale. Thank you, Dean, for sharing it and you, Tipper, for bringing it to us.

    My parents were born in the 1890s, my Pa in Swain County, although he left it before 1900 to go into the orphanage because his father died of ‘consumption’ (we know it today as tuberculosis) at the age of 40.

    My mama always dreaded January. Her father and younger brother died of the Spanish flu, both in January. My Pa and an older brother both died in January about 25 years later. She loved December and celebrating Christmas with her children; but she began to become quiet and reserved afterward, waiting to see what dire things January would bring. It certainly was a ‘worry month’ for her.

    She passed in March, ’84.

    • Reply
      February 22, 2022 at 2:46 pm

      Sorry, I mis-typed above. Mama’s husband and a son died about 35 years after her daddy and younger brother.

  • Reply
    Sharon Cole
    February 22, 2022 at 10:55 am

    Oh what we take for granted! I don’t think we have anything to complain about. I will always remember this story and the worry months. Thanks, Tipper, for sharing. Take care and God bless!

  • Reply
    Liz Hart
    February 22, 2022 at 9:53 am

    Does any else ever give and then mentally kick yourself? Calling yourself “SUCKER”! But after I give it’s in God’s hands. Just thankful I am able to give as others have given to me.

    Would like to find some books to read about that era.

  • Reply
    February 22, 2022 at 9:36 am

    My ex-husband called November, December and January the winter months. February was called the dreaded month. He said the shortest month seems to be the longest as we wait for spring. A few years ago, I discovered my entire green bean patch had been eaten by deer. I asked my sister what mom and mammy would have done if that had happened to their garden. She said they would have depended on family and neighbors to share any extras they might have.

  • Reply
    Donna Brewton
    February 22, 2022 at 8:56 am

    The “Worry Months” essay just made my heartache. Appalachia, the plains of Iowa or the frontier of Texas, many must have struggled just as Grandma recalled. It is a blessing to hear these stories because they can give someone struggling today hope. Hope and courage. Thank you, Donna B.

  • Reply
    Darlene Boyd
    February 22, 2022 at 8:46 am

    Thank you for sharing… my father says if we can just get thru December, January and Februay we can blow thru March. I can’t wait to share this story with him. He is 87 and has shared so many depression era stories with me. He has a mind like a steel trap! God bless you.

  • Reply
    Martha Justice
    February 22, 2022 at 8:33 am

    I enjoyed Dean’s post so very much. Makes us realize that we don’t have near as much to “worry”about these days as they had. Thank God !❤

  • Reply
    February 22, 2022 at 8:31 am

    That was a wonderful story. He’s right people back in the day helped each other. Sadly, in today’s world nobody wants to be bothered with others no matter what age they are. He is blessed he had his mother there to help him and share her life experiences with him too.

  • Reply
    February 22, 2022 at 8:27 am

    This post brings a hard, bright focus on the underlying theme of survival in the subsistence lifeway. The life-threatening challenges they faced are so foreign to most of us now. It had not come home to me before how a bad growing season cast a long shadow over a hard winter though it is so obvious. By July, if not sooner, they would have seen worry looming. I had never even had the thought either that canned food freezing and bursting could be a tragedy. And even each of those pale compared to sickness in the dead of winter. Small wonder most of those folks had a strong faith. They needed it each and every day, from the first seed in the ground till the next spring.

  • Reply
    February 22, 2022 at 8:00 am

    Thank you so much, Dean. I love the stories of the old timers and how they lived. Even now, sometimes January and February can be hard on folks. Christmas is over, and there seems a big letdown with a tightening of the budget follows for many. That is such a simple problem when compared to the hardships faced by our ancestors. When I think of humble living I oft remember my grandmother offering me some turtle meat. Since I had complete and blind faith in my grandmother, I tried it. She told me that it was said that turtle had the taste of several kinds of meat I am thinking she said five. My cousin still chops wood for the Winter, and he was 80 a couple of months ago. I am sure he is wondering if it will last. There is a purity of spirit in those folks that suffered hard times, and how I love to talk to those that are left.
    I look forward each day as Tipper brings us these gems from those who share their experiences and family history in these mountains. I remember the mountain spring water, the taste of gamey food, and the old folks with hearts of gold. Most of all I remember staying up late and listening quietly (quiet for once) to their old stories sometimes lived in the late 1800s and early 1900’s. I sometimes go on a search based on just a thread of conversation heard those long years ago. I dig into documents and old census records and find the lives they spoke about. These bits and pieces become lives of the great Appalachian folks who lived their lives so many years ago. and I am fascinated by their stories! The worry months have become something I look forward to.

  • Reply
    Margie G
    February 22, 2022 at 7:58 am

    I did very much enjoy Dean’s post this rainy, somewhat warm late February day and I’d agree I do a tremendous amount of worrying in Jan and Feb – most likely cause I’m getting cabin fever BAD!!! Lol Yesterday I opened my doors and sat outside for about an hour which is all more fresh and good air than I’ve experienced since last year!!! It was nice for a change and I couldn’t help but think about my perspective plants and where they’d go, new ideas for my yard, etc. Ain’t y’all about worried out??? I’m ready to get out and get busy doing something. BTW, if politics isn’t enough to make you commit Harry Carry with worry attempted overload these painful days, what is? Lol

  • Reply
    Rita gilbert
    February 22, 2022 at 7:36 am

    Loved it made a lot of sense thank you

  • Reply
    February 22, 2022 at 7:34 am

    Thanks for sharing that story. Gives me new appreciation for life in the Appalachians. And especially for the “worry months.” And also, ‘getting it now’ why I have been able to step up to the plate when need comes knocking.

  • Reply
    February 22, 2022 at 7:32 am

    I too Tipper will now always think of January and February as the worry months. It seems to me people have replaced many of those worries with new ones, but spring does bring new hope. Thanks, Dean, for your story.

    My Mamaw Lewis always called her father Poppie.

  • Reply
    February 22, 2022 at 7:27 am

    I’ve never thought of January and February as ending with “worry” but after reading your post it makes perfect sense. Life back then was hard but they also had things we don’t have much of today, a lifestyle that wasn’t geared toward obtaining more stuff, neighbors helping neighbors, etc. Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong time period but then I have to remember that God put me where I am supposed to be because His timing is perfect.

  • Reply
    Susan Robinson
    February 22, 2022 at 7:25 am

    I love this post, Tipper! My former mother-in-law who was born in 1910 said her brother died of strep throat because of no antibiotics. I was so surprised that a simple case of strep would mean the death of someone. How they must have worried about these diseases that we think of as minor today.

  • Reply
    February 22, 2022 at 7:06 am

    Really enjoyed this morning post.
    Appilchian people had it hard without the depression, that just made it harder. It was nice to see neighbors helping out.
    Wonder if that would be the case in this day and time. Most of us don’t even know their neighbors name anymore.

  • Reply
    donna sue
    February 22, 2022 at 6:26 am

    I really enjoyed Dean Rathbone’s guest post. Like you, I will always think of January and February as the Worry Months from now on, too. Our worries may be slightly different than years ago, but there we have a lot of similarities, too. And we each have our own difficulties that are different than the next person’s. This post can really put our cares into perspective – someone always has it worse than we do. And it also reminds us that we need to help each other, even with the mundane little things, sometimes more than just once – until they can stand on their own again. Helping others is not always just a one time only event. It can mean several days, weeks or months of showing up for them. I am very thankful for a loving God who is always there for me during the good times and the bad times. I need to serve Him by being there for others. Repeatedly. Thank you for a great post!

    Donna. : )

    • Reply
      Sheryl Paul
      February 22, 2022 at 9:29 am

      I also will think of Jan and Feb as worry months. I think with Covid being so prevelant we have all seen the kindness of our neighbors. To refuse a kindness is horrible and cruel. People do care

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