Authors: Olive Ann Burns
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY
Copyright © 1984 by Olive Ann Bums
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from this book, write to Permissions,
Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue South,
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Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Burns, Olive Ann.
Cold Sassy tree.
ps3552.u73248c6 1984 813'.54 84-8570
Printed in the United States of America
30 29 28 27 26 25 24 23 22
To Becky and John
Our grown children
And to my father
Who was fourteen in 1906
is a lot like Commerce, Georgia, at the turn of the century. I couldn't have understood small-town life in that era without the oft-told tales of my late father, William Arnold Burns. He grew up in Commerce, was fourteen in 1906, and, like Will Tweedy, could always make a good story better in the telling. Another rich source of information was the delightful
History of Harmony Grove-Commerce, Jackson County, Georgia, 1810–1949,
by Thomas Colquitt Hardman. I am indebted to the Atlanta Historical Society for access to old Atlanta newspapers, and to C. Vann Woodward's
Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel
(The Macmillan Company, New York, 1938) for filling the gaps in my knowledge of conditions in Georgia at the time of this book.
I have many reasons to thank my husband, Andrew Sparks; also the children's book author Wylly Folk St. John, who for years urged me to try a novel; Norma Duncan, my neighbor, who saw what was right and wrong with the early manuscript; Eleanor Torrey West at Ossabaw Island, Mary Nikas at the Hambidge Center, and Dr. and Mrs. T. E. Reeve, who provided places where occasionally I could get away from home to write; Menakhem Perry, literary critic and University of Tel Aviv professor, who read the first four hundred pages and helped me believe it was good; Anne Edwards, author of
Road to Tara,
who recommended it to her publisher, Ticknor & Fields; Chester Kerr, former president of Ticknor & Fields, and his wife, Joan, without whose encouragement I would still be finishing the manuscript; Katrina Kenison, my editor at Ticknor & Fields, and Frances Apt, manuscript editor, both of whom helped make
Cold Sassy Tree
what it is today.
after Granny Blakeslee died, Grandpa came to our house for his early morning snort of whiskey, as usual, and said to me, "Will Tweedy? Go find yore mama, then run up to yore Aunt Loma's and tell her I said git on down here. I got something to say. And I ain't a-go'n say it but once't."
"Make haste, son. I got to git on to the store."
Mama made me wait till she pinned the black mourning band for Granny on my shirt sleeve. Then I was off. Any time Grandpa had something to say, it was something you couldn't wait to hear.
That was eight years ago on a Thursday morning, when Grandpa Blakeslee was fifty-nine and I was fourteen. The date was July 5, 1906. I know because Grandpa put it down in the family Bible, and also Toddy Hughes wrote up for the Atlanta paper what happened to me on the train trestle that day and I still have the clipping. Besides that, I remember it was right after our July the Fourth celebration—the first one held in Cold Sassy, Georgia, since the War Between the States.
July 5, 1906, was three months after the big earthquake in San Francisco and about two months after a stranger drove through Cold Sassy in a Pope-Waverley electric automobile that got stalled trying to cross the railroad tracks. I pushed it up the incline and the man let me ride as far as the Athens highway.
July 5, 1906, was a year after my great-grandmother on the Tweedy side died for the second and last time out in Banks County. It was six months after my best friend, Bluford Jackson, got firecrackers for Christmas and burned his hand on one and died of lockjaw ten days later. And like I said, it was only three weeks after Granny Blakeslee went to the grave.
During those three weeks, Grandpa Blakeslee had sort of drawn back inside his own skin. Acted like I didn't mean any more to him than a stick of stovewood. On the morning of July 5th, he stalked through the house and into our company room without even speaking to me.
Granny never would let him keep his corn whiskey at home. He kept it in the company room at our house, which was between the depot and downtown, and came by for a snort every morning on his way to work. I and my little redheaded sister, Mary Toy, always followed him down the hall, and he usually gave us each a stick of penny candy before shutting the company room door in our faces. While our spit swam over hoarhound or peppermint, we'd hear the floorboards creak in the closet, then a silence, then a big "H-rumph!" and a big satisfied "Ah-h-h-h!" He would come out smiling, ready for the day, and pat Mary Toy's head as he went past her.
But this particular morning was different. For one thing, Mary Toy had gone home with Cudn Temp the day before. And Grandpa, instead of coming out feeling good, looked like somebody itching for a fight. That's when he said, "Will Tweedy?" (He always called me both names except when he called me son.) Said, "Will Tweedy? Go find yore mama, then run up to yore Aunt Loma's and tell her I said git on down here."
Lots of people in Cold Sassy had a telephone, including us. Grandpa didn't. He had one at the store so he could phone orders to the wholesale house in Athens, but he was too stingy to pay for one at home. Aunt Loma didn't have a phone, either. She and Uncle Camp were too poor. That's why I had to go tell her.
I ran all the way, my brown and white bird dog, T.R., bounding ahead. As usual when we got to Aunt Loma's, the dog plopped down on the dirt sidewalk in front of her house to wait. He couldn't go up in the dern yard because of the dern cats, of which there were eighteen or twenty at least. They would scratch his eyes out if he went any closer.
I found Aunt Loma sitting at the kitchen table, her long curly red hair still loose and tousled, the dirty breakfast dishes pushed back to clear a space. With one cat in her lap and another licking an oatmeal bowl on the table, she sat drinking coffee and reading a book of theater plays.
Mama never knew how often Aunt Loma put pleasure before duty like that. Mama liked to stay in front of her work. But then Loma was young—just twenty—and sloven.
When I told her what Grandpa said, she slammed her book down so hard, the cat leaped off the table. "Why don't you just tell him I'm busy." But even as she spoke she stood up, gulped some coffee, set down the cup still half full, and rushed upstairs to change into a black dress on account of her mother having just died and all. When she came down, carrying fat, sleepy Campbell Junior, her mass of red hair was combed, pinned up, and draped with what she called "my genteel black veil."
Campbell Junior pulled at the veil all the way to our house, and Aunt Loma fussed all the way. When we got there, she handed the baby over to our cook, Queenie, and hurried in where Grandpa was pacing the front hall, his high-top black shoes squeaking as he walked.
I couldn't help noticing how in only three weeks as a widower he already looked like one. His dark bushy hair and long gray beard were tangled. The heavy, droopy mustache had some dried food stuck on it. His black hat, pants, and vest were dusty and the homemade white shirt rusty with tobacco juice. Granny always prided herself on keeping his wild hair and beard trimmed, his shirts clean, his pants brushed and "nice." Now that she was gone, he couldn't do for himself very well, having only the one hand, but he wouldn't let Mama or Aunt Loma do for him.
"Mornin', Pa," Aunt Loma grumped.
"Is that y'all, Will?" Mama called from the dining room, where she was closing windows and pulling down shades to keep out the morning sun. We waited in the front hall till she hurried in, her hair still in a thick plait down one side of her neck. I always thought she looked pretty with it like that—almost like a young girl. Mama was a plain person, like Granny, and didn't dress fancy the way Aunt Loma did every time she stuck her nose out of the house. Even at home Aunt Loma was fancy. She
wouldn't of been caught dead in an apron made out of a flour sack, whereas Mama had on one that still read
Try Skylark Self-Rising Flour
right across the chest. The words hadn't washed out yet, which I was sure Aunt Loma noticed as she said crossly, "Mornin', Sister."
Taking off the apron as if we had real company, Mama said to me, "Son, you go gather the eggs, hear? With Mary Toy gone, you got to gather the eggs."
"Yes'm." My feet dragged me toward the back hall.
"Let them aiggs wait, Mary Willis," Grandpa ordered. "I want Will Tweedy to hear what I come to say. He'll know soon enough anyways." Then he stomped toward the open front door and put his hand on the knob as if all he planned to say was good-bye—or maybe more like he was fixing to put a match to a string of firecrackers and then run before they went off.
My mother asked, nervous-like, "You want us to all go sit in the parlor, sir?"
He shook his head. "Naw, Mary Willis, it won't take long enough to set down for." He took off his black hat and laid it on the table, pulled at his mustache, scratched through the white streak in his beard, and turned those deep blue eyes on Mama and Aunt Loma, his grown children, standing together puzzled and uneasy. When he began his announcement, you could tell he had practiced it. "Now, daughters, you know I was true to yore mother. Miss Mattie Lou was a fine wife. A good cook. A real good woman. Beloved by all in this here town, and by me, as y'all know."
Hearing Grandpa go on about Granny made my throat ache. Mama and Aunt Loma went to sobbing out loud, their arms around each other.
"Now quit yore blubberin', Mary Willis. Hesh up, Loma. I ain't finished." Then his voice softened. "Since yore ma's passin' I been a-studyin' on our life together. Thirty-six year we had, and they was good years. I want y'all to know I ain't never go'n forget her."
"Course you w-won't, Pa," said my mother, sobbing.
"But she's gone, just like this here hand a-mine." He held up his left arm, the shirt sleeve knotted as usual just below the elbow. Grandpa's blue eyes were suddenly glassy with unspilled tears. He
struggled to get aholt of himself, then went on. "Like I said, she's gone now. So I been studyin' on what to do. How to make out. Well, I done decided, and when I say what I come to say I want y'all to know they ain't no disrespect to her intended." Grandpa opened the door wider. He was about to light his firecrackers.
"Now what I come to say," he blurted out, "is I'm aimin' to marry Miss Love Simpson."
Mama's and Aunt Loma's mouths dropped open and their faces went white. They both cried out, "Pa, you cain't!"
"I done ast her and she's done said yes. And Loma, they ain't a bloomin' thang you can do bout it."
Aunt Loma's face got as red as if she'd been on the river all day, but it was Mama who finally spoke. In a timid voice she said, "Sir, Love Simpson's young enough to be your daughter! She's not more'n thirty-three or -four years old!"
"Thet ain't got a thang to do with it."
Mama put both hands up to her mouth. With a sort of whimper, she said, "Pa, don't you care what folks are go'n say?"
"I care bout you carin' what they'll say, Mary Willis. But I care a heap more bout not bein' no burden on y'all. So hesh up."
Aunt Loma was bout to burst. "Think, Pa!" she ordered, tears streaming down her face. "Just think. Ma hasn't been d-dead but three w-w-weeks!"
"Well, good gosh a'mighty!" he thundered. "She's dead as she'll ever be, ain't she? Well, ain't she?"
Mama was going to faint. She stumbled toward her daddy, arms outstretched, but Grandpa glared at her and she stepped back.
"I'm lonesome." He said it kind of quiet. Then he hugged each weeping daughter and walked out the door, hitching up his trousers with the stub of his left arm.
On the veranda, Grandpa turned back and spoke his defense. "I ain't go'n be no burden on y'all. Not ever. Which means I got to hire me a colored woman or git married, one, and tell you the truth, hit's jest cheaper to have a wife. So I'm a-go'n marry Miss Love. And I ain't got but one more thang to say. All y'all be nice to her. You hear?" He said
but it was Aunt Loma he glared at when he said it.
With that, my grandfather stalked tall down the steps. We watched as he strode past Mama's pots of pink begonias and Papa's life-size iron stag and walked through the iron gate. Banging it shut, he passed the tall pink crepe myrtles that lined the dirt sidewalk in front of our house, crossed the dirt street called South Main, went over the railroad tracks onto North Main, and headed for the store.