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Authors: Olive Ann Burns

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BOOK: Cold Sassy Tree
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He treated Uncle Camp awful during that time. One morning Grandpa pointed to a keg of nails and said, hateful, "Camp, see thet keg? I want you to roll it from one end of the store to the other till I say stop." He made Uncle Camp roll the keg all day long. When Papa asked what it was all about, Grandpa said, "I'm jest sick a-watchin' thet boy do nothin'."

I didn't like my grandfather much that day. But I didn't like Uncle Camp, either. If he'd been a real man, he would of refused, and then either walked out or set to work like his job depended on it.

We soon found out that Grandpa didn't go home at night when he left Aunt Loma's after supper. He went to the cemetery.

"Yore pa walks by here and we're settin' on the veranda but he don't speak or so much as nod in our direction," Miss Alice Ann Boozer told Mama. "He don't even see us. Just turns at them iron gates and disappears like a ghost. We always stay out there till the night air cools off, you know, and many a night he still ain't come back by time we go to bed. It ain't good for Mr. Blakeslee to be by hisself at the cemetery in the pitch-black dark—or in a full moon, either, for that matter."

I've mentioned Miss Effie Belle Tate, who lived next door to Grandpa. She told Mama that sometimes Grandpa's lamp was still on in his bedroom at two and three in the morning. "And lots a-times he goes out there to Miss Mattie Lou's rose garden in the middle of the night to pace them paths. If it's a moon I can see him just a-walkin'. Up and down, down and up. Pore man, he's a-grievin' hisself to death. One night I come close to takin' some sweetmilk and cookies out there to him, but I didn't know what to say. He's shut us all out. I keep out'n his way."

Miss Effie Belle wasn't the only one who didn't know how to take Grandpa.

Folks felt a lot more easy with Mama and Aunt Loma, who would sit and cry with them and carry on about God's will and how He surely had a purpose in letting their ma die or else needed her in Heaven, one. They'd talk on and on about the final illness, the dying, the funeral, and especially about the grave being lined with roses. "Such a sweet thing," folks would say. "Such a sweet thing Mr. Blakeslee done."

Nobody seemed to of been told that I helped.

Then somebody would bring up about Granny's ancestors leading a wagon train from North Carolina, how they camped here on the ridge under some big sassafras trees while they were building their houses. If somebody didn't know how come the settlement was named Cold Sassy, it would be explained that mountain wagoners on the way to market used to call the place "thet cold sassyfras grove" or "them cold sassy trees."

As often as not, before the conversation got back to Granny, somebody would say, "I think we done outgrowed the name Cold Sassy. Hit's old-fashion and tacky. We ought to do like Harmony Grove and git us a name like Commerce."

Then they'd talk a while about how hard Miss Mattie Lou worked all her life, hinting but not exactly saying out loud that she had worked herself into an early grave—which was the same as saying Grandpa could and should of hired her a cook and a colored boy to work her garden.

Nobody mentioned that all my life I had been her colored boy. Knowing Grandpa wouldn't hire anybody, Papa had expected me to put in a piece of every day down there. And I didn't mind. What I did mind, now that she was dead, was being in mourning.

Because of her hair, my sister didn't feel like I did. She was glad to hide at home. What happened, while Granny was on her deathbed, Mama got up a black outfit for Mary Toy to wear to the funeral—black taffeta dress, black stockings, black slippers, and a little black bonnet. "It'll give her something to wear on trips later," said Mama. "If everything is black already, the train sut won't show."

Unfortunately, Aunt Carrie decided early the morning of the funeral that Mary Toy's fiery red hair looked "inappropriate" for such a sad occasion. Her solution was to dye it black. "Just for today, sugarfoot," she said when my sister had a conniption fit. "We'll rinse it out tomorrow." By time Mama heard about it, it was too late to argue. And anyhow, who could argue with Aunt Carrie?

She wasn't really kin to us. She had latched on to Granny's mother long time ago. Granny inherited her, and now she was ours—for Christmas and Thanksgiving and all the Sundays between. She used to be rich, but wasn't anymore, having lost everything during the War, including her husband. But she still acted rich and, like Grandpa, had the manner of one who expects to be obeyed. She lived in an old three-story, rundown plantation house with morning rooms and sun rooms, and porches wrapped around every floor. Aunt Carrie looked rundown herself, in her frayed sweaters and canvas and rubber Keds shoes. She wore her thin hair in a knot, and except in winter always had a flower stuck behind each ear.

One summer she held weekly "cultural gatherings" for children. You had to recite a poem to get in. She gave us lectures on women's suffrage, Shakespeare, Beethoven, English history, and horticulture, and always had two freezers of homemade ice cream, which was why we all went. Her last lecture was on what she called "human excrement." Taking a rose out of her hair, she said it wouldn't be nearly so lovely if it weren't for human excrement, and told us children to go home and get our folks to empty our slop jars into our manure piles. Nobody let their children go to Aunt Carrie's gatherings after that, but she kept letting everybody know what happened to the excrement at her house. Aunt Carrie was stubborn.

Which is why nobody thought to argue with her when she decided to dye Mary Toy's hair black for Granny's funeral.

Halfway through the service Mary Toy got to sweating. Trickles of black liquid started running down her face. Seeing it, the preacher could hardly keep his mind on how good Granny had been or how it was God's will and all. Mama kept glancing at Mary Toy and finally dabbed at her face with a lace handkerchief.

About then, Mary Toy noticed the black that was smearing off her hair onto her sweaty arms. Thinking it was black blood, she went to wailing. People in the pew behind the family said later they thought she was just missing her granny, pore child.

Soon as we got to Grandpa's from the cemetery, Mama took Mary Toy's taffeta dress off and stuck her head in the wash basin on the back porch. The black leached right out, just like Aunt Carrie said it would. Only thing, her hair wasn't red anymore. It was purple. Soon as she looked in the mirror, Mary Toy went into mourning for her hair. She cried for hours and then days. It was a relief to everybody when, after our Glorious Fourth celebration, Cudn Temp said to her, "Sugarfoot, come on home with me and stay till the color grows out." Cudn Temp lived out on a farm in Banks County.

Like Mary Toy, my mother was partly in mourning for herself. Because of Granny's dying, she couldn't go to New York City with Papa on the buying trip they'd been planning ever since February, when a wholesale house in New York offered the store two free tickets on the boat from Savannah and Grandpa said for
Mama to go. The morning after the funeral, she insisted she wouldn't even want to go now. But tears were brimming in her eyes and all of a sudden she left the room and ran upstairs, I guess to cry. I felt sorry for her, and I knew she couldn't help feeling sorry for herself. Mama had never been anywhere much except to Atlanta, once to Raleigh, and once to Social Circle, Georgia, for a two-week visit the summer before she married.

At first I didn't mind being in mourning. I didn't want to do anything anyhow but think about Granny. It was like I was trying to memorize her.

One thing I already missed was pork. Granny had been providing me with ham and sausage ever since Papa decided if the Lord thought hog meat was bad for the Jews, then we weren't going to eat it, either. "Southern Presbyterians are as much God's Chosen People as Jews are," he said.

Grandpa had laughed about that. Said he heard Presbyterians were God's Frozen People, haw. He and I thought that was funny, but Papa didn't. Anyhow, we gave up pork and got sanctified. I reckon us and Mr. Izzie, Cold Sassy's only Jew, were the only folks in town who never ate a piece of fried ham for breakfast. Well, and my friend Pink Predmore's mother. Pork gave her the trots. Mrs. Predmore was the last of seventeen children and always said the family gave out of strong stomachs before it got to her.

Well, Granny saw to it that Mary Toy and I had our share of hog meat. After Papa's big decision, she kept leftover sausage or ham or fried streak-a-lean in her warming oven in case we came by after school. Pork didn't matter all that much to me, but the fact Granny saved me some mattered a lot. It was like getting hugged, or knowing that at the Friday speakings she would be out there in the schoolyard with Mama, sitting on a sawmill puncheon and perking up when it was Mary Toy's turn to quote from "Lord Ullin's Daughter" or my turn to give an oration from Demosthenes. No matter how bad we recited, Granny always clapped loud.

I went up to her house about a week after her passing. I guess I hoped she would seem less dead there.

Everything was a mess. Grandpa's bed looked like he got caught in the cover when he flopped out that morning. The top
sheet trailed onto the floor. His bureau drawers were all open, and the clothes jumbled. His spit cup on the night stand was full of stale tobacco juice and smelled awful. A pile of
Atlanta Constitution Tri-Weeklys,
littered the floor by the cane-back rocker.

In the kitchen I found coffee grounds spilled all over the table and burned toast in a pan on the cold stove.

Like I said, it had never been a spic-and-span house. Granny wasn't much for cleaning up. But though her windows didn't shine and her curtains drooped with dust and nobody could of eaten off her floors, she kept the bed made, the dishes washed, and things in place. She always said if a house looked neat, folks didn't notice cobwebs in the corners or dust on the mantelpiece.

Well, it was a sight now. I guess Grandpa had been looked after for so long, he didn't know how to do for himself. Mama had tried to help him. A week after the funeral she went up there and cleaned, but next morning when Grandpa came by for his snort, he told her she had her own place to see after "and anyways, I ain't a-go'n let you work like a colored woman at my house. Hit was yore ma's duty. Hit ain't yore'n." The place looked so lonesome without Granny that I couldn't stand it. My feeling was that if I called out, she would answer from the next room. But my knowledge was that I could go from room to room all day long and never catch up with her.

Despite I used to scour the porch for Granny and row her garden and all, I'd never done woman's work there or anywhere. But I did it that day. I wiped the kitchen table, rinsed out the spit cup, put clean sheets on Grandpa's bed, picked up clothes and newspapers. After which I just had to get out.

In the backyard, the hens clucked and murmured as they scratched for bugs or pecked at the last dirty crumbs of wet cornmeal that Grandpa had put out for them. The chickens didn't seem to miss Granny. The garden and the flower beds did. It being June, nothing looked tired of growing yet, but it all looked neglected.

I should of gone to weeding. Instead, I got Granny's gallberry brush-broom off the back porch and swept the dirt clean around the steps. Then I sat down on the bottom step, put my face in my hands, and commenced to mourn.

To mourn
is not the same as
to be in mourning,
which means wearing a black armband and sitting in the parlor, talking to people who call on the bereaved. At first you feel important. The armband makes you special, like having on a badge. But after a day or two it stops meaning anything.

But
to
mourn, that's different.
To
mourn is to be eaten alive with homesickness for the person. That day, I mourned mostly for Granny, who had lost more than any of us, but also for Grandpa, for Mama, and for myself. I didn't want to visit Granny at the cemetery like Grandpa was doing. That was just her empty shell over there, whereas here I could touch things she had touched, look out on the flowering plants she had looked at, and walk through her house. Of course, it never dawned on me then that another woman was about to come in and take over.

This had been the Toy home place ever since it was built in 1837. Granny lived here till she got married. It was still a farmhouse in 1890, when her daddy died and her stepmother went to live with a grown son, Mr. French Gordy. Granny moved back there with Grandpa and Loma, who was four years old at the time. Mama had already married, so she never lived in this house.

A long time later, when I was telling Miss Love about the home place, she asked me what happened to all the Toy farmland.

"Grandpa chopped it to pieces," I said. "He'd always made his livin' sellin' things, so when all that land was left on his hands, why, the only thing he knew to do with it was sell it." The railroad was finished in 1877 or around then, I explained, and with new businesses starting and folks wanting house lots close to town, the Toy farm that used to yield cotton was soon sprouting homes, outhouses, gardens, stables, and small pastures.

Granny never questioned Grandpa's selling her land or using the money to build the brick store. But as she once admitted to me, "I looked at him kinda hard one day and said, 'Cain't we use part a-that money to make the house modrun?'" She had been cooking in the dining room fireplace—that was easier than going outdoors to the old kitchen—and she wanted to join the old kitchen to the house. So it was placed on logs and rolled close to the dining room, and what they called a "butler's pantry" was built between. While he was at it, Grandpa also bought her a new walnut bedroom suit and a big iron coal-burning stove. He put in a nice new privy, and had a new well dug right by the back porch so you didn't have to go in the yard to draw water.

But that was the last time he ever put a dime into improvements.

Now that Granny was dead, you'd think he'd ask the Lord to forgive him for not letting her have plumbing, electricity, and a telephone. But I doubted he could repent of that. He had skimped so long to get ahead, he didn't even notice how stingy he was—something like the way my daddy had gotten everything wholesale through the store for so long that he didn't notice how much he spent anymore; just noticed how much he saved over retail. When Grandpa wouldn't even put in one bathroom, my daddy had put in two—one on the porch upstairs and another on the porch near the kitchen. The same year, Papa replaced our old-fashioned white picket fence with a fancy iron one and set up the iron stag between the pittosporum bush and the elaeagnus.

BOOK: Cold Sassy Tree
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