Sundae Horn
Della signed books and visited with customers on the porch of Books to Be Red during the Ocrafolk Festival last weekend.
Della signed books and visited with customers on the porch of Books to Be Red during the Ocrafolk Festival last weekend.

She tells it all in A Blessed Life: Growing up on Ocracoke Island.

Della Williams Gaskill was born on Ocracoke in 1937 "in the old home place near the Lighthouse" and has lived here all her life. Her family tree has roots going back to the first settlers on the island. The story of her life is also the story of Ocracoke over the last 76 years – what it was like during her childhood, and all the ways it has changed since then. 

If you've ever chatted with Della in person, what you'll notice about her book is that she writes just like she talks. Her voice is rich with all the cadences of the Ocracoke Brogue, and it rings through the pages as you read. 

Interspersed with a plentiful helping of old photos, A Blessed Life offers today's Ocracoke resident or visitor a glimpse into the past before ferries, paved roads, and a tourist-based economy. Della describes what is was like to live during WWII on Ocracoke, and how her family rode out the storm of '44. Different chapters tell about fishing (Della's daddy was a fisherman), going to school, being scared by the wild ponies roaming the island, and riding around in trucks with her future husband (and hoping her daddy wouldn't find out!) She writes about her close friendship with her sister, Elizabeth, who lives just down the street, and about marrying Owen, and raising their son, Monroe. 

Fig preserves. Get yours at Woccocon Gifts.
Fig preserves. Get yours at Woccocon Gifts.

My favorite chapter is "Figs, Figs, and More Figs," in which Della declares that "fig cooking is one of the greatest things that I think you can get into. I love to cook figs." I can relate. Della's certainly made a name for herself cooking figs – her preserves are an island favorite, and she has shipped her homemade fig cakes to happy customers all over the country. 

Della's stories focus on family, faith, and a great love for this little island where she was born and raised. Her friends and customers have suggested she collect all her stories in one place, and lucky for us, she did. 

"When I was a child, for some reason I said that I would write a book. It were something that come into my mind at the time," she said in a recent interview. "I never dreamed I would've wrote a book, but I have!" 

Della on the cover of her book.
Della on the cover of her book.

She started working on A Blessed Life three years ago, after trying to record her stories for posterity on audio tapes. 

"I started doing tapes," she said. "But it was much easier and much better to write." With some editing help and encouragement from Pat Garber and Ruth Fordon, Della's dream of writing a book became the island's latest bestseller.

You can get your copy at Books to Be Red, the OPS Museum Gift Shop, or other island bookshelves. Books to Be Red is hosting a booksigning event for Della on Thursday, June 20th, starting at 2:30pm. 

Della's shop is open every day (except Sunday), 10 – 5. She says she has added some nice jewelry, including Pandora brand, to her inventory this year. Her sister, Elizabeth Parsons, has a shop a little farther down on Lighthouse Road. Pamlico Gifts is also open every day (except Sunday), 10 – 5. 

Author's note: The following is a story I wrote about Della  and her shop in 2007. It originally appeared in the now-defunct "Ocracoker" weekly. 

Woccocon Gifts 

Tucked away on Lighthouse Road is the little shop that Della Gaskill has been operating for twelve years.

“Some of the local people don’t even know I’m back here,” she laughed.

That’s a shame, because Woccocon Nursery and Gifts is a little treasure trove of handcrafted gifts and delicious homemade preserves. Della makes fig, peach, strawberry, and plum preserves, as well as pumpkin butter and hot pepper vinegar. She recently received an order from a woman in Virginia for  “3 jars of the world’s best fig preserves,” which Della happily shipped to her.

Della also loves to do crafts. “I like to stay busy and it keeps me out of trouble,” she said. She makes custom silk flower arrangements and provides Ocracoke Assembly of God with altar flowers. Della makes and sells woven handbags, woven and crocheted potholders, wall hangings, wreaths, jewelry, Christmas ornaments and chenille bunnies. Woccocon Nusery and Gifts specializes in Christmas and Easter decorations.

Della also has a green thumb and she shares her expertise and her secret: fish emulsion, which is available for purchase, along with some favorite plants. Della’s garden is awash in color, and shoppers walk by several beautiful shrubs and flower beds on the way down the driveway to the shop.

Della grew up on Ocracoke, just a little ways farther down Lighthouse Road. She was Della Williams until she married Owen Gaskill in 1954. They had one son, Monroe, who lives in Della’s childhood home. Della enjoys spending time with her four-year-old grandson, Parker, and visiting with the folks who come to her shop.

Della’s been working in Woccocon Nursery and Gifts fulltime since she retired from Ferry Division in 2002, where she worked for twenty-four years. Before that she cooked for island restaurants, and worked for Sam Jones. Della also owns the Williams’ cottages, two rental properties across the street from her home on Lighthouse Road. Ocracoke residents and visitors fondly remember the Della’s front yard as the site of Owen’s Veggies, a produce stand that Owen and Monroe operated for over a decade.