The Old Place
By Nita Wilson - aka - youngest daughter and third child of Wynton and Flora Wilson of the Wilson, Byrd, David, O’neal, Downing clan of south Mississippians A family of story tellers and lovers of life
I dreamed last night I was walking up the worn path to the “old place”; the old Victorian farm house of yesterday, complete with gingerbread trim glowing in the moonlight. the home of my people. it stood silent and grand like a little grey school marm waiting for students to file to their seats from recess. I was of no age, nor was I noticed by the happy revelers of another age lounging on the porch. But they were all there, the sweetest people I’ve ever known, the good people, the grownups of my childhood and the builders of me. I could feel the love and the familiar sounds of laughter among family with history.
The first I saw was Aunt Bill, tall and slim; a great story teller, with a joyous sense of humor and a love of life. With just a whisper of a middle aged lady’s mustache, the dainty gray and black whiskers trying to hide in the wrinkles around her mouth; she was smiling and happy. Her hair was short, natural and not afraid of turning gray. She was sitting in one of the old Cypress rockers that had been a part of this very porch since her childhood - left knee pulled into her chest the right leg draped over the arm of the weathered chair; she held an unfiltered cigarette between thumb and first finger. Taking deep draughts of the hot smoke and exhaling through a very tiny hole formed with her lips, she was amused with someone’s just told story and was about to tell the group of siblings and cousins sitting around the porch a sequel to match the one just heard.
And there was my Dad, her first cousin, sitting in the rocker next to hers, left knee over the arm of his chair; trousers hiked showing the top of his trouser sock. Laughing blue eyes and happy face meant he was the proud teller of the latest tale. Unceremoniously tapping his cigarette ashes onto the worn Cypress floor and coughing out a laugh - showing his front teeth, including the half one, missing because of a new Christmas rifle when he was 13; he was in his element. Telling stories and enjoying these people , his kin, his past, on the old family porch all laughing at his mimicry of remembered souls from their youth. He was a happy man smoking and laughing with these his kindred spirits. He was the most honest man I’ve ever known and was born without the mean bone so many of us have and cultivate. He was extremely intelligent, was valedictorian of his high school and until he died, was the funniest man in the world. He considered his cup not only full, but brimming over and filling other’s.
Tom Davis was there, sitting on the ancient swing, gray Fedora cocked at a jaunty angle as always. His left foot and ankle rested over his right knee, and he was holding his cigarette out away from the side of the swing between his thumb and forefinger, so he could flip the ashes and butt into the shrubbery lining the porch when the little white menace had served its purpose. He used his right hand to caress and smooth the sock on his ankle and was looking down chuckling at the latest story. Tom wasn’t a belly laugher like the others, but he always had a twinkle in his eye and loved to be amused and entertained. He usually had a secret, risqué joke he was going to tell if the whimsy struck him and the ladies were in ‘another room’. He was a favorite of the children and knew more songs with funny lyrics than anyone in our world. He was married to Lydean David and was brother in law to Aunt Bill David and her brother Uncle Upton. He’d grown up with them and was a dearly loved member of this family and part of the ‘porch gang’. Kind and gentle he was the closest thing we children knew as an adult “friend”.
Uncle Waldo, my Dad’s older brother, slim and a bit fey for this bunch, with his delicate grace and good nature, sat on the other side of the old wooden swing, gently pushing the swing with a foot, the other foot pulled up on the swing with him, one hand resting on the swing chain, the other one tucked slightly between his western shirt with bolo tie, and the belt of his trousers. When he laughed his body would nervously move about; as, I’m told, it had since childhood. As he laughed, he’d almost get up and then sit back down so that he was continually changing positions on the swing during a happy moment. He’d just finished this bit of theatrics and had settled into the afore mentioned latest position readying himself for the next story. He loved these visits once a year from his home in Arizona; the only vacations he ever wanted to take. He and my Aunt Zula Mae would drive from the West in the spring or fall and stop first in Shreveport and visit with her folks; and then on to Mississippi and his favorite people, his Brothers and Cousins. He regaled the porch on more than one occasion with tales of the west and how it had changed since the 1930’s when he first got there. We kids loved his tales of the colorful Navajos with whom he worked and the incredible Apaches and their strange customs. For us, he was the voice of the West and the real Cowboys and Indians.
Uncle Russell sat in a straight backed chair leaning on two legs against the wall of the house, arms crossed and feet just touching the porch floor- the light from the porch window at his back. He was the youngest of the Wilson brothers and David cousins and wasn’t much for telling stories, but he loved to listen and laugh. As any youngest member of an old established family hierarchy, he made himself heard with only a few additions or adjustments to a story and kept a happy smile on his face at all times. Once when I fell off of my bike, he came out to the dusty drive to see if I needed help, he was laughing and smiling and I couldn’t forgive him for years for not showing my accident the respect I thought it deserved. My Dad always approached such a spill with a worried and serious face allowing me the dignity of my disaster.
Uncle Upton David, tall, handsome and dignified sat in one of the porch chairs, long, long, Gary Cooper legs crossed with both feet hitting the floor at the same time. Hands folded in his lap, full lips curled in a delighted smile; he was, as always the most wonderful host in the world. As I grew older and read books about my southern people and customs, I was to recognize him and the others as true Southern Gentlemen. He could tell the funniest stories of all and he and my Dad would mimic the star or hero of the tale which brought even harder laughter from the small audience. He was the Patriarch of this porch and any other gathering for this family. Not only because of age, but the grace in which he conducted his life. We children looked up to him as a great man. One of the biggest compliments I ever received was his telling me after I moved to New York. ”You’ve gotten too far away. We miss you.” I didn’t even know he thought of me other than the little girl hiding under my dad’s chair listening to the stories on nights like these on the porch.
I passed on into the house and down the long, wide center hall into the kitchen. Light and friendly chatter met me there. Aunt Adeline, Uncle Upton’s wife and the sweetest of all hostesses was at the sink finishing the dishes. She was tall and willowy, well educated and every inch the Southern Lady in the best sense. When she spoke, it was quietly and gently and she always had something worth saying. She was the perfect “straight man” to Uncle Upton’s humor. I never heard her raise her voice, nor did I ever hear her gossip. We children always tried to mind our manners and be on good behavior around her, not an easy task for the hooligans we were.
Aunt Zula Mae was steadily and sweetly complaining of her constipation -created by the long drive and a hard automobile seat across the country. Strangely, of all my wonderful memories of her; that one is the strongest. Maybe a cushion would’ve helped during the long drive? She resembled Eleanor Roosevelt and like the others, spoke in a very thick, slow southern accent with perfect grammar. She never had children and it was her heart break. She loved children and she loved all of us and doted on us to the point of spoiling us had she been allowed. She had the reputation of having chased Uncle Waldo until she caught him, but years later visiting with him, he told of how in love with her he’d been and what a sweet wife she made. I was glad to hear it.
Dorothy, Aunt Bill’s companion of 30yrs. I was grown before I approached a different scenario with my parents, but was met with adamant denial. Seems there was a boyfriend who was killed in the war. That was good enough for my Dad. No one much liked the ‘roommate’ Dorothy. She was a whiner. We children stayed away from her since she didn’t seem to care for children, and always had a complaint going. She was always there with Aunt Bill and we just accepted it for what it wasn’t. Even as a very small girl, I felt that she was Aunt Bill’s “wife”. She must have had something good, because Aunt Bill considered her a great friend. One day though, I caught Aunt Bill and Tom Davis making a little joke about Dorothy as two husbands would do about one’s nagging wife. What ever it was, they both found it amusing. Even though we didn’t care much for her, she was a part of this group as surely as if she’d been born to them. When aunt Bill died, she was inconsolable.
Mother and Lydean were just each opening a beer and headed to the story telling on the porch as I entered the kitchen. Lydean was Uncle Upton and Aunt Bill’s sister, Tom Davis’ wife and my Mother’s best friend. Lydean was the only perfect human being i ever knew. She never showed me or anyone else a bad side of that sweet yet funny personality. As I looked back down the hall and out the front door, she and Mother were sitting on either side of the front steps, pedal pushers showing slender legs, delicately sipping beer with one hand dragging on a rarely smoked cigarette with the other and laughing with their family. They believed kitchen duty was something you did because customs dictated, but as soon as you could, you hit the porch and the fun stuff.
Aunt Marion stayed in the kitchen with the ‘women folk’. She was Uncle Russell’s wife and a constant counter of imagined slights dealt by my Mother and Aunt Zula Mae, her sisters in law. She was the youngest of nine children raised by a maiden aunt and never quite understood that her sisters in law were not out to ‘get her’ or cause her mischief . to the children, Aunt Marion was a delight. She knew a million jokes fit for kids and took pride in any thing we ever said or accomplished and bragged about each of us until her death a few years ago.
I went back out onto the porch only to see I had become too grown to hide under my Dad’s chair .
I walked down the path and stood at the old gate looking back at the house. The wonderful old place stood as gray as only weathered Cypress can , gingerbread bordering the corners of the porch and the dormer windows of the second floor. Light coming out of the windows gave the old place a party atmosphere and made me feel such a bittersweet welcome I thought I couldn’t breathe. I watched my favorite people laughing on the porch and didn’t want to leave. As I walked down the country road lined with Pecan trees and century old Azaleas, I turned to look again. The house stood empty and quiet - a gray bastion of loneliness , beauty and lives dead and gone in the moonlight, the only sound was the wind in the great pines hovering behind the house. . Looking over at my right, the little cemetery slept in the moonlight, tall cedars standing guard over the ancient stones like sentinels. I knew Uncle Upton lay there with dead family I never knew, including the dead uncle killed in France in WWI. It should ‘ve given me peace, but knowing he was there without his favorite people… but when I looked again, the porch was lighted again and I realized, they were all there. I had stepped into a world where they are all waiting. Maybe for all of us or just some, I sure hope I ‘m one.
Not long after I wrote this memory, Aunt Adeline died and was buried under the cedars next to Uncle Upton. Maybe they were waiting for her. She was the last of the ‘porch gang’ to go. My cousins and I are now the old, the wise, the ones telling funny stories and laughing at times gone away. The house was filled with children at the funeral. The next generation of ‘porch gang’ coming into and making Vestry, Mississippi’s history.