Authors: Olive Ann Burns
Just for instance, her aunt Beppyâthe one they say had the power of levitationâdied with typhoid fever. That by itself wasn't enough to mention. Lots of folks died of the typhoid. But Beppy died at seventeen, on her wedding day. "They give her Bible to Mr. Billy," Granny would say.
She used to tell about a Confederate soldier from Cold Sassy who got sent to Andersonville to guard Yankee prisoners and passed away in the smallpox epidemic there. He was buried at Andersonville. His family never forgave the Confederacy for not marking his grave. "In that cemetery," said Granny, "you couldn't tell Abner from a dead Yankee."
If Aunt Carrie wasn't there, Granny would tell how Carrie's husband, Mr. Horace, went to the War right after they married and never was heard from again. "Everybody figgered he died on some Yankee battlefield, but you cain't be sure for certain," said Granny. She never liked Mr. Horace.
Granny's cousin Selah Toy had been a boatman on the Savannah River and named his daughter Vanna, after the river. Not long after he got the top of his head shot off in the Battle of Chickamauga, Cudn Vanna married an Englishman, a blockade-runner for the Confederates. When the Yankees caught him, they stood him up on a barrelhead and, without a trial or anything, shot him. After the War, Cudn Vanna married three more husbands and lived to bury them all, even the one that was forty years younger than she was.
Uncle Buson was the one I liked to speculate on. He didn't die. He just disappeared.
"We never knowed what happened to him," Granny would say cheerfully, "but he was dead to the fam'ly from the day they read Grandfather's will. Hit said, 'My son Buson has not acted in a becoming manner so I leave him nothing.' That night, Uncle Buson he took off on my granddaddy's best horse and ain't nobody in Cold Sassy ever heard pea-turkey from him since. Somebody said he went out West and married one a-them Mexican women, but we never knowed if it was so or not." Once I asked Granny what Uncle Buson did that was so bad, but she wouldn't tell me. Said I was too young to hear such. It must of really been worth hearing about if it was too awful to mention.
Granny's favorite was the Stokeses. "They was mighty wrought up about the South losin' the War," she would begin. "When the carpetbaggers commenced takin' over, them Stokeses built a rock wall around the fam'ly graveyard and took off for Brazil, lock, stock, and barrel. The whole lot of'm went, and never wrote one word back to Cold Sassy. Hit was like ever last one had passed away."
When Granny passed away herself, I thought how dying was a lot like what happened when the Stokeses went to Brazil or when Uncle Buson rode off into the night. Whether you were up meeting God, down in Brazil hating Yankees, or out West somewhere loving a Mexican woman, to those left behind, you had just plain disappeared.
The morning I was mourning up at Granny's house, I thought how disappointed she would be to of died so ordinary. She wouldn't call heart trouble, a stroke, kidney failure, and malignant spring fever worth mentioning alongside having two funerals, like my great-grandmother Arminda Tweedy, or being buried alongside Yankees at Andersonville, or dying on your wedding day.
But after Grandpa went off to Jefferson in the buggy with Miss Love, it dawned on me that now Granny's passing wasn't so plain after all. Like everybody else in Cold Sassy, she would call it worth mentioning that her husband got married just three weeks after she went to her grave.
URELY ON ACCOUNT OF
being in mourning, my family missed most of the July the Fourth parade.
Grandpa had thought up Southern Independence Day way back in February as a practical joke on the United States of America. Like everybody else in Cold Sassy, he still carried a grudge against the Union, and I reckon he had a right to. Grandpa was just fourteen when hejoined the Army of the South with his daddy. They served all through the War in the same outfit: Echols Battery of Georgia Light Artillery, Company K, 6th Georgia Regiment.
Grandpa went in as a drummer boy, but one morning when the 6th Georgia was in retreat, he put his drum in a supply wagon and took up a gun, and that was the last he saw of the drum.
His lieutenant told them one time not to get captured. Said the Yankees would hang you by your heels and split you down the middle like a dang pig. Grandpa claimed he never believed that. But he believed starving. They got so hungry, one night his daddy roasted a rat and parched some acorns, "and we was glad to git it. But right then I made up my mind, if'n I got home alive, I never was go'n eat nothin' I didn't like agin. And I ain't."
One time when my mother complained about him being so hard to please about food, Papa said, "Hon, what if you'd had to eat a rat?"
Besides losing his appetite and his drum, Grandpa always said the War cost him half his left arm. He claimed a damnyankee shot it off. Granny told me it happened in a sawmill accident after the War. "But they ain't a bit of use mentionin' that in front of your granddaddy," she said. "For one thang, it don't matter. For another, you know how he is. He tells a thang a few times, he believes it hisself. For another, when that-air arm goes to hurtin' on a cold winter night, it's a comfort to him to cuss the Yankees. A man cain't hardly cuss no sawmill."
Be that as it may, 1906 was the first and only year we've ever celebrated the Glorious Fourth. Usually nobody even mentions it.
Cold Sassy is the kind of town where schoolteachers spend two months every fall drilling on Greek and Roman gods, the kings and queens of England, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, Marco Polo, Magellan, Columbus, the first Thanksgiving, Oglethorpe settling Georgia, and how happy the slaves were before the War. A good teacher could cover the history of the whole world in two months and spend the rest of the school year on the War of the Sixties and how the Union ground its heel in our faces after it knocked us down. Seems like we never got much past the invasion of Yankee carpetbaggers before school let out for the summer.
The Declaration of Independence and the Revolution were mentioned at school, of course, but just barely. In Cold Sassy, nobody under forty had ever made or waved an American Flag. Even today, in 1914, there's not but one United States flag in the whole town. The post office being in one corner of the drug store, Dr. Clark is required to fly a U.S. flag. On July 4, 1906, he put it down to half-mast.
Just the way Grandpa planned it, all the stores closed that day, and folks white and colored lined North Main and South Main, waving their Confederate flags. The parade was led by the town band and the Negro band, which rode in a mule-drawn wagon. Both bands were playing "Dixie," but not in the same style.
Our cook's husband, a giant, tar-black Negro named Loomis Toy, blew the alto horn in the Negro band. His trick was to sit with the horn in his lap for the first half of a piece, then start at the beginning and, tooting double time, hit the last note right with the others.
Behind the bands came a big cotton wagon draped with Confederate bunting and pulled by a double team of mules. It carried Cold Sassy's disabled veterans and the moldy old ones. Most were in uniform, sitting up there stiff and proud in rows of chairs. As the wagon rolled slowly along, grown men and women watched silent, with tears in their eyes.
Next came old Ab Pulliam in his goat cart, the pants of his gray uniform folded under his thigh stubs. He had a double sign hung across the goat's back that said,
WE LOST THE WAR BUT WE AINT ON OUR LAST LEGS!
Behind him walked Miss Love Simpson and Aunt Carrie, Cold Sassy's only suffragettes. The banner stretched between them read, "Ladies, How Long Must We Wait for Liberty? Demand the Right to Vote!"
Grandpa Blakeslee was supposed to be next, leading the column of younger, gun-toting veterans who were to charge up North Main Street, playing like this was the Battle of Gettysburg. He had planned on riding a bicycle, just to be funny, and even went so far as to order one from Sears, Roebuck and Co. But him never having ridden anything smaller than a horse, buggy, or train, the bicycle scared him to death. After one try, he fell off and wouldn't get back on. Said he would lead the charge bareback on old Jack, his mouse-colored horse-mule.
In the planning stage, Grandpa said I could be the drummer boy and march right behind him. As it was, because of our being in mourning for Granny, Mama wouldn't let me so much as follow the army downtown, much less beat the drum. I just watched what I could from our front veranda.
Grandpa wasn't in the parade, either. When Granny took sick, he said he didn't have any heart for the battle and wouldn't be in it. Mr. Toot Withers took his place, riding a high-stepping white stallion, and waving a sword in one hand and a big Confederate flag in the other. Mr. Toot being drunk, as usual, nobody knew how he stayed on a horse that didn't like rebel yells, drumbeats, rifle fire, or firecrackers, all of which erupted when he shouted "Charge!" and the marching soldiers went into actionâdashing, tottering, or limping back and forth across the railroad tracks, firing their guns toward the sky and poking bayonets at imaginary damnyankees.
It was a grand sight!
At that point I do believe Grandpa would have left our porch swing and joined in if he could of found his uniform right quick. But only Granny knew where she had packed it away, and Granny was dead.
The very next day, Grandpa got married.
didn't come down to dinner at all after Papa told her Grandpa and Miss Love had run off to Jefferson together.
I wasn't hungry, and Papa's appetite was down, too, judging by the way he picked at his food and picked at making conversation.
He had a habit at meals of telling things he'd heard at the store or read in the paper. But whereas I thought the big news today was Grandpa's eloping, the first thing Papa said was something about the average life span in America being forty-seven years.
Thinking any minute he would tell me what was really on his mind, I just said, "I declare." But what little he talked, it was about other things. Like for instance Papa said old man Plunket told him the train hit a mule and a cow at the same time yesterday just outside of Cold Sassy. "Killed'm both," Papa said, and reached for the pully-bone, my favorite piece of fried chicken except for the head. "And might-near wrecked the train."
By then I was just barely listening, because it had dawned on me that our time of mourning must be about over. If Grandpa could go get married, maybe I could go fishing.
Well, I'd just go. Today. I'd go to Cussin' Creek. Leave just soon as Papa went back to the store.
I never did like to fish by myself. So after whistling my dog out of the garden, where he was digging a hole to lay in and get cool, I went by the Predmore house to find Pink.
"He ain't to home," his little brother Harkness told me. "Him and Daddy rode the train down to Athens this mornin'."
Pink's mother was in the yard, hanging out clothes. "I was hopin' Pink could go fishin' with me," I told her.
"Well, he's gone to Athens."
"That's what Harkness said."
Mrs. Predmore didn't even mention Grandpa and Miss Love, so likely Mama was all wrong about folks being scandalized.
But when I got to Smiley Snodgrass's house I found out Mama was likely right. "What's this I heerd 'bout yore granddaddy, Will?" asked Mrs. Snodgrass, wiping her hands on her long white apron as she came to the door.
I couldn't tell how much she knew, so I just said, "I don't know'm."
"When they gittin' hitched? Not any time soon, I reckon."
"I don't know'm." They were already hitched, more than likely.
"I hear tell Loma's bad-mouthin' thet Simpson woman all over town. You cain't blame her." She waited for me to say something. When I didn't, she said, "Pore Loma. Pore Mary Willis. What a cross to bear, and Miss Mattie Lou not hardly cold in the grave. How's yore ma a-takin' it, Will?"
I couldn't make out whether Mrs. Snodgrass was embarrassed for pore Loma and pore Mary Willis or if she was thinking Mama and Aunt Loma would be pore in the future if Miss Love got aholt of their inheritance. One thing I did know, my mother sure would be upset when she found out Aunt Loma was talking outside the familyâespecially now that there wasn't any chance of changing Grandpa's mind. Mama thought private family matters ought to be just that. Private.
"Mama's takin' it all right, I s'pose," I said, as if widowers getting hitched right after the funeral was an everyday thing.
"I betcher Son Black's madder'n a wet hen, losin' Miss Love to a old man."
"I don't know'm.... Miz Snodgrass, where's Smiley at?"
"Down to the barn, cleanin' out the stalls. Bein' punished for back talk, so don't you go git him to slip off. You hear?"
"Oh, no, ma'am." I backed off the porch. Knowing that Mrs. Snodgrass would likely watch to make sure I left, I struck off down the street, pitching sticks for T.R. to go fetch. But after passing by the French Gordy house next door, I ducked around back to the Gordy stable and went through it to the pasture.
Mr. French had three cows. One of them, a tan Jersey named Blind Tillie, was Cold Sassy's champion milk producer. Born with milk-glass eyes, she was named for Blind Tillie Creek, where I sometimes fished. She always walked with her chin resting on the rump of another cow. That day, Tillie and the other two cows and I were all headed for a big oak tree near the barb wire fence, on the other side of which the Snodgrass's mule-headed Jersey cow had already laid down to chew her cud in the shade.
I crawled under the barb wire, stepped around a wet cow splat, and headed for the Snodgrass barn. There was old Smiley, leaning against a fence beside a big pile of manure, staring at the sky with his mouth open and his hands resting on the pitchfork handleâdreaming about girls, most likely. Seeing a pile of dried horse biscuits, I got me one and threw it just as Smiley's mouth stretched in a wide yawn. It went in nice and neat, like a baseball into a glove.
Boy, was he mad. He and I had us a great manure war then, throwing dried cow cushions and sheep pills and horse biscuits at each other and dying laughing. Just as I was fixing to talk about fishing, Mrs. Snodgrass yelled from over near the smokehouse for Smiley to come catch her a chicken. So that was the end of that.