City Cousins in the Country
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
One long weekend during the summer between my 14th and 15th birthdays was one of discovery for me when, along with my 1st cousin, 2 years my junior, we spent a weekend in the ‘real’ country.
Comer, Georgia where my Aunt Eloise and Uncle Jago lived used to be a small bustling town in rural east Georgia, that is until the railroad no longer stopped at the small station to take on passengers, mail, and produce bound for the big city of Atlanta, to the west. The train also disgorged passengers, brought the mail, packages ordered from the mail order catalogs, and farm supplies that were not available locally. Now the small station sat in that half-ruin state where the building still stood, but the roof was full of holes and the windows all broken – a sad sight all over the rural countryside as the automobile and truck, then the passenger plane shoved the railroad trains out of business, or at least deeply cut into their revenue. Small stations all over the United States, not just the south, were left for nature to take their course, and eventually many in Georgia were simply swallowed by kudzu vine.
So far, though, the station in Comer had not lost its identity, although it seemed to shiver on its foundation as the big trains roared past without so much as a reduction of speed since the land was flat, the track straight, and now there was no reason to stop. The old mail hook stood in disuse, and only because my grandfather Bond, Great Aunt Eloise’s brother, had worked on the railroad in the mail car did I know exactly how a mail hook worked. When there was no need to stop, either for passengers or freight, then the train would slow down enough for the railroad man to take a long hook and remove the bag of mail from the tall hook standing by the station. If there were mail to leave, he would toss that bag out of the door of the mail car without a backward glance. It took precise timing to accomplish this feat, and I imagine a good deal of nerve since he had to hang out of the fast moving train. However, those days were long gone in Comer, and the trains still roared through the town, but never stopped. It had been a long time since there had been a need for a stationmaster, and a glance inside the dusty, broken windows of the station indicated that only mice and other varmints littered the wooden floors, played among the wooden church pew benches, and called the old station ‘home’.
Comer now consisted of one of those old general stores that had seen better days. No longer was this the social hall of the small town where a bevy of men held court each evening, playing checkers, testing each other in skills of strength, and generally passing the time away talking about crops, wives, livestock, and of course, the big city folk who had just bought a house nearby. The old general stores were the newsrooms of the rural south, and Walter Cronkite could not have done a better job of reporting the goings on locally than the men who gathered there nightly. Now the old store was well on its way to becoming a pile of well worn lumber, with its rusted screen door, that bore the logo of Coca Cola, half hanging on its hinges, but it was still open for the occasional traveler who needed a drink of that same beverage, or a package of cigarettes. There was not much more inside except a few grocery items, far overpriced from the ‘chain’ grocery in the nearest town of any size, but it still managed to stay open, although there was no doubt when the present owner passed on, the store would follow.
So, it was in this rural, long forgotten, village, that my grandmother and her sister, my Aunt Emma, deposited my cousin and me on their way to the rural home of their mother. Aunt Eloise and Uncle Jay had two adult children, both married, but both without children – the longed for grandchild that had now become just an unrealized dream. Their son was a Col. in the Air Force, and their daughter, well I never knew what she did other than drive a big Cadillac, and this long weekend, my cousin and I would bear witness to all the dreams, and all that any child had missed.
Their old white farmhouse, with its ample farmyard and gardens, was the only house on their side of the road, and if there were houses across the street, they had to have been hidden since I don’t’ remember any being there at all. I know if you walked to the end of their dead end road, there was a path through the woods, but the only thing my cousin and I found there was an old broken down pigsty, long abandoned, but with the still faint odor of pigs lingering in the soil. The path ended with a barbwire fence surrounding a pasture, but we were neither foolhardy nor curious enough to venture beyond the coolness of the woods into the heat of the sun-baked pasture. Instead, we headed back to the old farmhouse, satisfied that, indeed, we had come to the end of civilization, as we knew it.
Always a reader, I had brought my bag of books and my cousin his deck of cards, hoping to lure me away from the magic of James Street to the dull world of Canasta. I knew if I played one or two hands, he would get bored because I always won, and leave me alone, to while away the hours peacefully, reading in one of the swings on the huge porch that surrounded the old house on three sides. It did not take long for me to escape to the world of bayous and ‘rosebuds’, Street’s definition of undeveloped breasts, and I could have just as well been back in Atlanta, and eventually, feeling guilty, I would mark my page and go look for my cousin. Usually, I would find him helping Aunt Eloise in the garden, picking green beans, squash, okra, tomatoes, or one of the other summer-ripe vegetables that grew in a remarkable amount and array for two who lived quite alone.
The garden was not my favorite place since just touching most of the vines left my skin feeling itchy, and much in need of a cool bath, so I usually hung around on the edges, searching for forgotten fruit – my sole contribution. Afterwards, I would be just as rewarded as my more ambitious cousin with cold lemonade and fresh baked cookies. After our refreshment, Aunt Eloise would gather green beans, lima beans, corn, or peas into a half bushel basket, and my cousin would carry it to the front porch while my aunt and I followed behind with enameled bowls and a grocery bag for discarded husks and pods. Patiently, my aunt showed us how to string the beans, husk the corn, and shell the peas, while telling us all about how she and our grandfather, and their siblings spent the summer days of their youth. I enjoyed this special time, and I believe it was during these warm late summer afternoons, I began my life-long enjoyment of stories about my ancestors, which would send me on a remarkable quest later in life.
I particularly loved the stories about how little girls were expected to dress and behave when my aunt was very small. She talked about all her pretty dresses, her piano and elocution lessons, and how she was spoiled as the only girl who lived past the first birthday in a houseful of boys. She talked about her dolls, their heads, hands, and feet made of delicate porcelain, and about how her mother made clothes for them, just as she made clothes for her only daughter, and for the two other baby girls who died before they could even wear them. My great grandmother would say that she might as well make mourning garments rather than clothes for baby girls, both buried in their elaborate christening gowns. Aunt Eloise still had the ‘store bought’ dollhouse she received for her 10th Christmas. Elegantly furnished with the tiniest of perfect beds with real woven bedspreads, lace curtains, and old-fashioned toilets and tubs. The four bedrooms, living room, kitchen, dining room, and the playroom in the attic were like a dream for any little girl, however I was now a teenager and not prone to ‘pretend’ play anymore. Although I have to admit, if I were just 10 years-old, I would have found it the stage for innumerable hours of play. Even the porches on the dollhouse were remarkably similar to the farmhouse where my aunt had lived all of her married, life, except the dollhouse had two stories and her home, just one.
We would talk about family, and living without electric stoves, refrigerators, radios, or television, and my aunt would always say how far ‘we’ had come since her childhood days. She had grown up in a house that had indoor bathrooms, but she told us about the little house out back at the homes of some of her cousins. However, we knew all about the forbidding ‘outhouse’ since our other great grandmother still did not have running water or indoor plumbing! I hated to go in there so bad, I would try to ‘hold it’ until we got home, and you would never have caught me spending a long weekend at her house! Even though the house was almost identical to the house of my great aunt and uncle, it was not until they finally had a real bathroom that it held any charm for me.
We would still be sitting on the porch, husking, and shelling when Uncle Jay arrived home. He did not keep long hours in the summer since there was no great need for dry-cleaning during the hot weather, and the laundry business had not yet caught on in the Deep South. There was not much need since there was always an abundance of ‘colored’ ladies looking for work – cleaning, doing laundry, taking care of children, almost anything that stay-at-home mothers did for themselves in the next generation.
Even Aunt Eloise, in her big but empty farmhouse, had a lady who came in three days a week. She had been working for my aunt since the children were small, and I don’t think my aunt had the heart to tell her she was no longer needed. She would dust mop the wooden floors, so worn they had developed a sheen of their own. Then she would polish the already over-polished heavy wooden furniture, with the complicated curlicues of the Victorian era. She would clean the bathtub, sinks, and toilet until they sparkled and clean windows when it was time for spring or fall cleaning. She came extra days when it was time to ‘put up’ the summer produce, or make jam, or can tomatoes. No matter how ‘poor’ the family, if they could not afford a ‘maid’, at the very least, wicker baskets would be driven to ‘colored town’ where they would be left to be starched and ironed. Uncle Jay always hired ‘colored ladies’ to work in his shop, and every night, he came home with freshly laundered bed linens.
Once home he would always pause on the front porch, take a seat in the wicker rocking chair, and while Aunt Eloise fetched cold lemonade for him, he asked about our day. He would always give us ‘hints’ of what country children did with their summers, but about all we ever saw them do was work! We were on vacation! There were no ‘crawdad’ streams nearby where we could chase minnows, and about the most exciting thing we had done was put pennies on the railroad tracks, and hope the train would flatten them. We were three for five in this pursuit, and with half a dozen apiece, even that had lost its appeal. Good thing Uncle Jay had a few days off! Aunt Eloise was running out of ideas.
However, Uncle Jago knew just the place to take two hot, bored children, the next morning with a huge picnic basket filled with sandwiches, fresh baked cookies, and other treats, Uncle Jago loaded us in the back seat while Aunt Eloise sat in the front. "She’s my special helper," he said, "if it weren’t for your aunt I would always get lost!" But a big wink in her direction confirmed this was not the truth, just that being married to each for so many years, she was always by his side, even in the car.
The lake was not too far away, not long enough a drive for me to become ill from riding in the backseat, but the windows in the big car were all open, and I knew as long as the hot wind hit my face I would be fine. Doug had to pipe and say, "Diane barfs when she rides in the backseat!" and my aunt turned around and asked about every 10 minutes if I was O.K. – did I need my uncle to stop for awhile – and so on. However, I always answered in the negative and soon we were driving along the edge of a huge lake – larger than any lake I had seen before, and the lake view put the thought of my grumbling tummy right out of my mind. Uncle Jago pulled into the public boat landing, and while the rest of us got out of the car, he slowly and carefully backed the trailer into the lake. Once the boat was fully floating, he pulled up his emergency brake, pulled off his shoes, rolled up his pants, and stepped out into water just deep enough to lap at his bare, white knees. He then threw a rope to Aunt Eloise, and with our help, she pulled the boat over past the end of the trailer until it was completely clear. Only then did Uncle Jay climb down out of the boat, walk back to the car, and pulled it up into a safe parking space. The boat was floating and I was wondering if I would become seasick!
Well, maybe if I didn’t think about it! So I got busy helping Uncle Jay and Aunt Eloise unload the big basket, and piles of towels and a huge quilt, plus two large inner tubes Uncle Jay kept for visiting children. Carefully, he packed the rods and reels down along the side of the boat, told us all to climb aboard, and we were off – at first, very slowly since we were just pulling around to the other side of the landing to the gas station on the dock. Here Uncle Jay filled up the tank and a spare can of gas, and then bought out ‘bait’, which I did not want to see since I knew it was something alive, slimy, and dirty! If anyone wanted me to fish, someone would have to bait my hook! I was not about to hold a squiggly worm and thread it onto a barbed hook! What a horrible thing to do, but I consoled myself that the worm would soon drown and be out of his misery!
I had a willing assistant with Uncle Jay, as he threaded the first worm onto my hook, then one for Doug, and his worm was sacrificed last. Aunt Eloise said she would rather read, however after we fished awhile here, she wanted Uncle Jay to find that nice white beach where they camped out, and where she could set up for serving our meals. She was going to fry our fish right here, right on the bank of the lake, for our supper, and somehow I just knew it would be the very best fish I had ever tasted! We fished in that first spot for about an hour and I caught the first fish – a nice sized bream – good enough to keep for supper. Doug had a few bites but could not get any one of them hooked. Then I caught a 2nd bream, another ‘keeper’, and Uncle Jay took it off the hook and threw it into this hole in the bottom of the boat that was under water, and the fish would stay alive and fresh until we were ready for supper. Just as Doug lost another fish, Aunt Eloise closed her book with a ‘slap’, and said, "O.K. Jay, its time to feed these children some lunch and you can fish again later." So Uncle Jay pulled up the anchor, stowed the rods, and off we went to look for the beach Aunt Eloise had talked about.
Soon, we saw a strip of real sand lying alongside the lake, and Uncle Jay steered the boat straight for the sand. Slowly, and carefully, he drove the bow up on the white beach, then pulled up the engine so it would not get clogged, then he rolled up his pants, pulled off this shoes, and jumped overboard to moor the boat as close as possible to the shore. Still, Aunt Eloise was going to have to get wet here, so she took off her sandals, rolled up her pants, and lifted herself overboard into knee-deep water. Doug and I followed, Uncle Jay gave each of us some of the items from the boat, and we waded ashore. Doug went back to help Uncle Jay finish mooring the boat, and also to bring up the last of the baskets Aunt Eloise had so carefully packed, and the cooler, which I knew was full of ice-cold Coca Colas! I could hardly wait! Fishing was thirsty business!
Doug and I helped Aunt Eloise lay the big quilt down on the soft sand, and once we were all seated, she opened the big basket and took out the sandwiches. Big fat sandwiches filled with cream cheese and olives, pimento cheese, and ham! With such a variety, no one would go hungry! There was a big bag of Lay’s potato chips, big golden Georgia peaches with just enough ‘blush’ to be perfectly ripe! There were homemade bread and butter sweet pickles, and for dessert, the chocolate chip cookies I had smelled baking just that morning. This was a feast! And Doug and I wasted no time diving into our favorite sandwiches! I hardly knew what to try first, but the cream cheese and olive had always been a favorite, and not often available in our home, so that is what I chose first – just ½ so I would have plenty of room for the tangy pimento cheese, but if I wanted cookies, the ham would have to wait.
After lunch, with everyone having eaten too much, Uncle Jay lay back on the quilt, pulled his straw hat over his eyes, and took a nap. Aunt Eloise said that Doug and I could get into the water only if we stayed in the inner tubes for an hour since she did not want us to drown after all the sandwiches and cookies we had eaten, and I was so full I did not think I could swim anyway. We grabbed a tube, filled with air just that morning, and towed them into the shallow water, and I warned Doug to flip his over so it would not burn his skin, but he never listened to me, at least not often. Even though I was older, I was just a girl, and girls did not know anything important, so I flipped my tube, and then dived under the water to come up in the center. Just as I cleared the water I heard Doug scream as his skin touched the hot tube, and shaking my head, I ignored him, for once not saying ‘I told you so!’ The water was very calm in this isolate cove, although we could see other boats far out in the lake, so it was not often that we floated far enough away to have to paddle back towards the shore. I must have fallen asleep when deep in my sedated mind, I heard a voice, and finally knew the voice was calling to me! I woke with a start and realized I had drifted far from the shore, and my aunt and uncle were standing on the sand calling to me. "Get the boat and go get her, Jay." I heard my aunt plead, but he said, "She got herself out there, she can get herself back," and I did in 10 minutes.
Once back on the shore, I apologized to my worried aunt and slightly irate uncle, and told them that I had fallen to sleep and did not realize I was so far from shore. Uncle Jay said that since we both had such nice naps, it was time to fish again, and that we hardly had enough dinner for one person, much less four! Back in the boat, Uncle Jay followed the shoreline until he found some trees with their roots growing down into the lake. He told us this was his ‘lucky’ fishing hole, and began baiting the lines again. I had barely tossed my hook in the water when I had a fish, and this time I knew this was not a bream! This fish wanted to pull me out of the boat and took off with the line unwinding quickly out of the reel, so Uncle Jay seeming my dilemma, took my rod and began pulling the big fish towards the boat. Even he did not have an easy time, and when he finally pulled the big bass in, he said this was the largest he had caught in this lake, but when Aunt Eloise looked at him over the top of her glasses, he changed his statement saying this was the largest fish WE had caught! Aunt Eloise claimed this one would feed two, so we almost had enough, but Uncle Jay had not had enough fishing time. We continued for toss our lines out, lose some bait, tangle some lines in the roots of the trees, and after we had enough for supper, and enough to take back home to freeze for more meals, Uncle Jay began turning the bream and small bass loose after he pulled out the hook. There were not more ‘whoppers’, but I could almost smell that fish frying and surprisingly was getting hungry again! Yes, fishing was ‘hungry business’!
The sun was beginning to slip down into the horizon when Uncle Jay and Doug moored the boat on the edge of the sandy beach, and while Uncle Jay cleaned fish ‘downstream’ from our swimming hole, Doug, and I grabbed the tubes and headed out into the cool water. This time, I noticed that Doug carefully turned his tube over before he climbed into it. I wanted to swim, not float, so I spent some time showing off all the strokes I had learned at the Y.W.C.A., and then turned over and floated on my back, watching the blue sky rapidly turn to purple as the sun slipped lower on the horizon. Soon, the mouth watering aroma of fresh fish frying reached me, and I grabbed my cousin’s tube and pulled him into shore.
"Hmmm, seems like our water babies are ready to eat," Aunt Eloise said to Uncle Jay, and then told us it would not be long. Having been taught manners by my grandmother, and having been told at least a dozen times to ‘help’ my aunt, I asked her if there was anything I could do, and she told me fill the plastic cups with ice for fresh lemonade. I had seen the big white crock, but had no idea what was in it, but Coca-Cola had been fine for me. Now, I thought the lemonade would be perfect with the fish. While Doug and I were swimming, my uncle had found enough driftwood to make a roaring bonfire and set up a big black iron pot which my aunt filled with Crisco, and now the filleted strips of fish were dancing in the oil and making me hungrier by the minute!
Soon, we were all seated on the quilt again while my aunt heaped potato salad, sliced fresh tomatoes, and fresh fish on each plate, and we all dug in! Oh boy that was the best fish I had ever tasted in my entire life! Or maybe I was just very hungry. Fresh air, water, fishing, and swimming made us even more hungry that usual, and my uncle had filleted each piece perfectly – not one single bone was found by any of us! For dessert my aunt had baked a pound cake, which she had carefully sliced and wrapped each piece in waxed paper, and with the cake, there were cubes of fresh watermelon that had been kept perfectly in the cooler. I thought I had never eaten any two better meals, and now I was sad we would be leaving the next day. My grandmother was supposed to be there for Sunday lunch, which I knew would be fried chicken, fresh vegetables cooked until the pot likker would be perfect for homemade soup. I had learned a lot from my aunt during our now too short visit, but I still didn’t think I would want to live in the country! We had never seen one other child while we had been there, but my uncle had told us that country kids worked hard in the summer. That one statement convinced me that living in the country was not for me! Summer vacation meant just that – vacation!
When the light on the inside of the car lit up as my uncle opened the station wagon’s door, I knew we were ‘home’, woke up, and sleepily rubbed my eyes. "No baths tonight!" my aunt said, "the two of you are plenty clean from all that swimming, so just go on to bed."
I never once woke up that night, but slept so soundly, the next morning my sheets were barely rumpled. Then it dawned on me, we had to leave today!
Finding fresh towels on the chair by the door, I slipped into the shower, then dressed, and went into the kitchen where my aunt was busily preparing Sunday dinner. Uncle Jay taught Sunday school, and Aunt Eloise usually met him for the church service, but today she was staying home to prepare what I knew would be the perfect meal. Although Sunday dinners rarely varied in any household, there was always plenty to eat, particularly during the summer with all the fresh vegetables from the garden. I found a box of cereal and slices of fresh bacon on the table, and that was enough breakfast for anyone after the sandwiches and fish from the day before, and then Sunday dinner, which was always served right after church ended. My father always used the excuse that he had to fix Sunday dinner to avoid going to church, but when he was drunk, he called all ‘Baptist’, hypocrites. We were not Baptist, but Methodist, and I had been told from the time I was very small that my father’s grandfather had given land to the Methodist to build a church since he did not want his children raised Baptist! Later, I found the story was quite true, and in fact, both of my father’s grandfathers had given land to the Methodists! I knew most of my ‘kin’ were Baptists, but not my family, and my grandmother was Methodist too, often taking me with her to night service at the old red brick Grace Methodist Church in Atlanta.
When I finished my cereal and juice, my cousin still had not shown up, so my aunt sent me to wake him. I saw the cooler from the lake sitting by the steps to the basement, to be stored for another fishing trip, but there was still ice inside, and I knew I had to use it to wake my cousin! Quietly, I filled my hand with the rapidly melting ice, slipped into my cousin’s bedroom, and softly lifted the sheets. I found his stinky feet and opening my fist, I poured the ice over his toes, and he shrieked, jumping out of the bed as if he had a snapping turtle on his toes! I j just roared with laughter, and ran from the room as he began to come after me, but with his legs tangled in the cover, he tripped, and I made good my escape. By the time he had showered, and came into the kitchen, I was seated at the table, stringing green beans with an angelic smile on my face. He came after me to grab my ponytail, but just then, Uncle Jay, home from church, came up the stairs from the basement and asked him what the thought he was doing! Uncle Jay began to lecture Doug on how to keep God’s day Holy, while the angelic smile remained on my face and my attention on the beans.
With the beans in the pressure cooker so they could cook quickly, my aunt asked both of us to set the table, but Doug snuck out the door to help my uncle pick tomatoes! I had barely finished setting the big dining room table where my aunt and uncle always ate Sunday dinner, even when there was just the two of them, when I heard a car pull up in the driveway. That had to be my grandmother! Rushing to the door, I saw her old car, the ‘chug buggy’, the name my cousins and I called her 1949 black Dodge. She drove a car until its death and my mother and aunt, Doug’s mother, had been trying to get her to trade it in for years, but she had grown during the depression, and we knew she would drive it until it died. With her arms open for a hug, my grandmother asked if I had behaved myself, and my aunt, wiping her hands on her apron said we had both been as good as could be, and had helped her a lot. Just what I knew my grandmother wanted to hear! However, I had a feeling that even if we had not behaved, Aunt Eloise would not have said a word.
"Ready to go home?" my grandmother asked? And I didn’t know what to say. Yes, I was bored with daily country life, but no, I didn’t want to leave this quiet farmhouse and my kind great aunt and uncle. I would miss the crisp white sheets, the huge bedroom with the open windows and the white curtains blowing in the cross breeze, but I knew it was time to return to the reality that was life in an alcoholic home, my clarinet lessons, and soon, an All-star band performance at the opening football game at Georgia Tech. Yes, I had plenty to do when I got home, but I hated to leave too.
Ignoring my silence, my aunt led my grandmother inside to the kitchen where she gave her a cold glass of iced tea. Soon, my uncle came inside laden with fresh tomatoes, followed by my cousin, and to my surprise, my grandmother’s younger sister! I didn’t know she would be with us! Now I had to sit in the back seat! Maybe I would throw up just to mean! My uncle greeted my grandmother, told her he had put some fresh vegetables in her car, although I knew she had bagsful from her mother’s farm. She would be busy canning and freezing before she had to go back to work.
Dinner was ready soon, and there was a steaming platter of fried chicken in the middle of the big table, Bowls filled with fried fresh corn, green beans cooked with ‘fatback’, potato salad, pickled peaches, black olives, and other delicacies served only for Sunday dinner, holidays, or when company was coming. There were platters of fresh sliced tomatoes, stuffed celery, and homemade rolls – enough food to feed an army! Dessert was more pound cake served with fresh peaches, and to my delight, homemade vanilla ice cream! That was what Uncle Jay and Doug had been doing! They had been turning the crank on the freezer to make ice cream! I never ate anything but chocolate unless it was fresh, and I ate any flavor of the rich, creamy dessert.
I was so full I did not think I could ever eat again, but soon my cousin and I were sent to pack our suitcases, it was time to go home. I did not know how to express my appreciation to my aunt and uncle, no one had ever been as kind, and generous as they had been during this too short a visit. So, with a big hug for both of them, I told them I had a wonderful time, had never eaten so much or such good food, and I particularly thanked them for taking us fishing. My grandmother seemed please, although my cousin just said, "me too." As my grandmother’s ‘chug buggy’ pulled out onto the highway, I looked back and saw my aunt and uncle standing on the porch still waving, and my uncle had his arm around her waist. I don’t think, at the time, I realized how much they missed having grandchildren, but now as a grandmother myself, I cannot imagine not having these little people in my life.
Aunt Eloise and Uncle Jay never did have any grandchildren, I watched sadly, as my aunt slipped into the incoherence of Alzheimer’s, and Uncle Jay took care of her as if she were his child. His heart gave out not long after I last saw them at my uncle’s funeral, and my aunt was put into a nursing home. They were wonderful Christian people who deserved to have a dozen grandchildren, but the closest they came was the summer two city children spent a fun-filled week with them.