May, 2010

One of the big double doors slammed shut. I knew who it was. Most people try to sneak in quietly when they are late for church – but not Lil-Webb. Everybody called her Lil-Webb, not Ms. Webb or Lil or Lillian, but always Lil-Webb.
I caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of my left eye as she made her way down the aisle. I dared not turn my head to look at Lil-Webb. I knew Mama was watching me. And Mama could say, “don’t stare at her!” with her mouth and her eyes. I watched Lil-Webb with one eye and Mama with the other.
She sat down on the front row – always on the right side of the church. No matter where we were in the service – singing, praying or preaching, Lil-Webb always did the same thing. She laid down her black umbrella – the one she carried rain or shine, placed her brown paper bag on the pew and straightened up her black netted hat and brushed off her long black dress. Though she was an elderly lady, she had the air of being a proper young lady. She studied her dress and smooth out the hem. Eventually she licked her hands and slicked up her high top black shoes – shoes that belonged to a past century. Lil-Webb looked as though she had lost her way and belonged to a different place and time.
Once she settled down on her pew, she opened her brown paper bag – which always made a lot of noise – and helped herself to a picnic all by herself. It usually consisted of cookies and a glass jug of orange drink. She spun the top off the jar and poured the orange drink into a glass.
When Lil-Webb finished her snack, she washed her face and hands with a lace napkin. She really worked at cleaning up for a good long while. As always I knew when her visit was over, because I could hear the paper bag getting rolled down tight.
Lil-Webb did not talk to anyone though I know she was a friendly person. She always shook hands with the preacher before she left – whether he was finished with the sermon or not. Preacher Johnson always took a moment to shake hands with her and sent her on her way with a “May God bless your heart, Lil-Webb.” She then exited the side door to the right next to the choir and made her way to the cemetery.
I was a small child in the fifties and made myself ready to spy on her by slipping hymnals under my bottom to peer out the clear window panes. And there she was – always looking at the tombstones – one after the other – and looking about the ground as though searching for a lost item. I watched her and frantically counted the tombstones and studied her course. I retraced her steps but never found anything – not even a clue.
This was a solid routine for Lil-Webb. She was a mystery to us all.
My cousin Roy said, “I bet she lost a hundred dollar bill.”
My cousin Linda said, “It must be a diamond ring she lost – a purple diamond!”
My cousin David wished she would share her cookies with him. While my cousin Steve said, “I heard she’s rich – but the money turned out to be Confederate money.”
Roy said, “She’s old, but nobody is that old. Can’t be.”
My older sister, Pat, said, “Stop looking at her!”
I could not.
And no matter what the weather, Lil-Webb walked everywhere she went – alone. Quite often well meaning church members would offer her a ride home or to church – she always refused.
We would pass by Lil-Webb’s house on the way to visit Aunt Grace or Uncle Robert. Daddy always slowed down when approaching her house, because she might dart out across the street at any time. Her house was an old wooden clapboard type home with an over-run yard. I never saw anyone there. It seemed abandoned. But a strange thing happened one summer. The house was overtaken by red roses – lovely red roses. Next to the weathered brown boards, the roses appeared evermore regal. They seemed to caress the house like a red velvet blanket. I used to think maybe it was a gift from God to Lil-Webb or maybe it was her gift to us. Or could it be a reminder to everyone – including Lil-Webb – of the days when she planted those roses?
Back to a time when she was young and productive.
Everything about Lil-Webb was a mystery. But one thing was not a mystery – if she was ever seen walking toward Tucker with Gwinnett County to her back – her destination was known by all – the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church.

Irene Voyles-Allen

Irene Voyles-Allen

Irene Voyles-Allen was my mother’s father’s sister. I never knew her to own a home or a car, but believe me, she got around. She was a downtown person who worked at places like the Atlanta Journal Constitution. She was a woman who knew the bus routes by heart. Seldom did she call to announce her visits, but rather surprised us, when she stepped off the bus at the corner of Lawrenceville Highway and Main Street – Tucker. She walked up Main Street and took a left onto LaVista, then made her way down Morgan Road. She took that path in hopes of passing by Aunt Sarah’s house for a quick hello wave. Irene was always a welcome sight.

Irene sometimes stayed with her daughter, Doris who lived in a log cabin house on Superior Avenue in Decatur. And then again, she may stay with Cousin Anna and Aunt Tillie in a big high ceiling house in West End. It was fun to talk to her about what goes on in Atlanta and Decatur. Irene also had a fashion model daughter who lived in the DC area with her husband, an editor for a news magazine. And her son was a career soldier who traveled the world, and married a lady from Germany. She knew all about what went on outside of Tucker, and took her time with details.

Irene never got in a hurry – she was slow yet deliberate – thorough and methodical. Whether it cool or warm, she most always wore a long sweater with over-sized pockets. If she didn’t have on her sweater, she wore dresses with big pockets. Her eyes always sharp looking for a four-leaf clover, a special acorn or an unusual rock. I loved to sit on the front porch with her, and listen to her stories about the goings on in my yard. I never saw things that way until she pointed it out, then it was clear as could be.

One spring when I was very young, I witnessed a phenomenal sight in my yard, all on my own – a mother robin building a nest. Mother Robin worked hard and long for days carrying twigs and brush to construct her new home located on my swing-set. I could hardly wait for the next visit from Aunt Irene to show off my find. I watched daily for a glimpse of her coming down Morgan Road, but Irene did not come. Mother Robin finished her nest, and one day three tiny blue green eggs appeared all nestled together. What a sight! How absolutely beautiful! And where was Irene?

As I sat on my front porch one afternoon, I saw her. There she came, strolling along, not in a hurry for anything. I squealed with delight as I ran to meet her. I grabbed her hand to hurry her along. Irene laughed at me and pulled back, “What in the Sam-Hill? Don’t you want to see what is in my pockets?” Irene mused.

“No m’am, not today. Wait ‘till you see what I have,” I answered back. I led her cheerfully around to the backyard, by-passing her front-door family greeting. She laughed with delight and picked up her pace with anticipation. We finally arrived at the swing set.

I could hardly catch my breath as I spoke, “See, see that? Three eggs – robin eggs – not two – but three! I watched the mother build the nest and everything, and now, there they are, three tiny eggs!”

As I reached for the nest, Irene grabbed my hand. Seriousness replaced her joy, “Must never touch.”

Sensing something wrong, I looked at her and said, “I waited for you. I waited a long time.”

Irene relaxed as her sweet smile returned, though she continued to hold my hand firmly inside of hers. She turned to the robin’s nest and admired my rare find, and asked, “Where’s Mother Robin?”
I shrugged my shoulders unknowingly. Then Irene slowly led me to the back-porch steps. We sat there for a few minutes while searching the sky for the mother. It began to sprinkle rain, and Irene still held my hand. We sat there in silence until finally, she spoke.

“They are robin eggs alright, Diane. What a treasure! Indeed!”
I sat there happy to share this moment with her as she talked on, “You know – you must never touch a bird’s nest…”
“What about the eggs?”
“Especially the eggs.”


Irene didn’t answer right away, but turned her face up to the cloudy sky and allowed the drizzle of rain to wet her face. “Have you ever wondered why it rains?” Irene asked.

“No, not really.”
“Everyone needs to know why the sky weeps,” she said as she held my captured hand close to her chest. She spoke in a soft whisper as she always did when she wanted me to listen. I drew closer to her to hear every word. “Well, my Dear, sometimes the sky rains because the world loses the life of precious beings, precious creatures, you know, like birds.”
“Like robins?”
“Especially robins. You see, a mother robin will build her nest in anticipation of having a family, a place to lay her little eggs. They are babies you know. But not until she sits on them for a while, a good long while. That’s her job – the job nature gave to her. Oh, she may fly away for a moment, but she’s never far away. I’ll bet you by George, she never takes her eyes off those eggs. But even if she’s not looking, she knows when a human hand has touched her nest or eggs. She knows. And when that happens she will desert her eggs, she will no longer claim them, and they will never hatch, never become little birds.”

“Because, she senses danger. She will not sit on a touched nest. She’ll fly away.” Irene pointed to the rambling rain clouds and continued, “The clouds move about over head, they spread the news through-out the sky.”
“What news?”
“That a mother has abandoned her young…”
“She’ll never come back?”

Irene continued, “And finally the winds cannot take the sadness any longer, and the sky opens up and down comes the rain.”
“That’s sad for the sky.”
“It’s sad for the mother and baby birds, but sadder for the world,” Irene tried to explain.
“Why is it sadder for the world?”

“Because the world has lost its young.”

Aunt Irene let go of my hand and put her arms around me. We sat there a long while, even though it rained a little harder. We were sad together, because we knew the world was less three robins.

“No, Diane, I don’t want to go to that grocery store. Let’s go to the one near the church,” said Mama.
“Why? Are they having a sale?”
“No, not that I know of, I just like it better.” Giving me her I know best look, Mama continued, ”they have a guard at the front door with a gun.”
“A gun?” I asked.
“Yes, a loaded gun…”
“How do you know that – that it’s loaded?”
“I asked the guard himself, and he said so. I feel much safer with him there – with that gun.”
“Do you really think you are safer there?”
“Oh yes, the other grocery store has a guard, but he doesn’t carry a gun.”
“Let me see that list,” after looking over her list I suggested, “You know, we don’t need to go to either grocery store. Let’s go to Walmart. You can get everything on this list, and we can look around at other stuff while we are there.”
“Well, alright, I guess…” Mama gave in reluctantly.

We pulled into the Walmart parking lot. Mama handed me her handicap sticker to hang on the rear-view mirror. Mama then slowly made her way out of the car and took her cane in hand. I helped my asthmatic-arthritic-aged mother across the drive-way to the front door as she took a stroll down memory lane.
“This used to be the old Cofer home-place. Why, I used to roller skate with Betty Ann in the foy-ya of that big house. I guess it was the only house in Tucker back then with a foy-ya. That’s where I learned that word. Now—-it’s Walmart. My, my how things have changed,” said Mama, “I’ve eaten a many a peanut butter jelly sandwich at the bottom of that big stairway – in the foy-ya. Now, it’s gone, my, my.”
“Mama, you’re not breathing well today. Do you want me to get the stuff while you wait here on the bench?”
“No, just give me one of those buggies. I’ll lean on it while I push. I’ll be alright then,” said Mama. Shaking her head in disbelief Mama continued, “I haven’t been in this place since the police stormed it and shot that man dead.”
“No, Mama, the police didn’t shoot him. The news said the man shot himself.”
“Oh, that’s right. Excuse me. I haven’t been in this place since the police stormed the building and that man shot himself dead!” Mama pushed her buggy as she spoke pleasantly to the Walmart greeter. Suddenly she stopped and pointed to the restroom sign. “And right there is where a man came out of the restroom only to find the police had the drop on him – with loaded guns! All aimed at him!”
“The man who died?”
“No, just a regular guy – innocent.” Mama shook her head in dismay, “It was a good thing the gentleman had just relieved himself.”

Our Walmart outing proved to be too much for Mama today. She abandoned me at the check-out counter and found her way to the once rejected bench near the front door. We sat there together for about twenty minutes as she sipped on her Dr. Pepper. She was ready to go and again reached for the buggy to lean on. I ran ahead to open the trunk of the car, only to see Mama swoon. I ran back to help her into the car and quickly placed her groceries on the back car-seat – forgetting about the unlocked trunk.
“I’m worried about you, Mama.”
“Oh, I’m alright. I just need some air,” Mama said as she turned the AC vents toward her face, “Just turn it up full force.”

I turned up the air and waited until Mama gave me the hand signal to carry on. I cranked up my Camry and gingerly backed out of the parking space and joined the long line of traffic leading to Lawrenceville Highway. Just as I stepped on the gas, ready to take off, the trunk of my car flew open.
“What in the world?” cried Mama.
“Uh oh,” I slammed on the brakes. “I forgot I opened the trunk. I’ll fix it,” I said as I quickly jumped out of the car and waved at the anxious couple behind to pass us. The driver, a very angry man laid down on his horn and squalled tires as he swirled around us in a big fancy silver truck. His female companion shouted obscenities at us as they passed by. Quickly, I jumped back into my car a little shaken. “Can you believe that?”
“Are you alright Diane? So rude…”
“Yes, I’m okay. People are just in a big hurry these days, Mama.”

Obviously upset, Mama leaned toward the AC vents struggling for air as her voice trembled, “Years ago, why, a man would have pulled over and asked if he could help, but not now. Not these days. No sirree – not these days. And did you hear the words coming out of that woman’s mouth? A pretty woman too – I just don’t understand it. I don’t know what’s happened to my pertty little Tucker.”

Sometime later, Saturday night, I set my alarm clock to get up early – early enough to drive from Forsyth County to make it to church in Tucker. Sometimes I wonder why I drive so far. I pass dozens of perfectly good churches along the way. I hurry in Pleasant Hill Baptist- late again – the singing already started – to sit next to my ninety year old aunt, Sarah. No worry, I know exactly where to find her – third pew from the front right side, corner of that pew, near the window. She quickly slides deeper into her corner to make room, as another elderly woman reluctantly slides the opposite way.
“Here, you sit here next to Sarah. She’d have a fit if you don’t sit next to her,” said the woman. “You know, I’ve known Sarah all my life. She’s a dear friend.”
“Really? Did you know my father?”
The woman looked startled, “Who’s your father?”
“Tom Story, Sarah’s brother.”
“All my life! Knew him and loved him! I’m Mary Massey, Paul’s wife. I lived up on Chamblee Tucker Road for years. And how I loved Tom Story – and loathed the day he left this world.” Mary reached across me to get Aunt Sarah’s attention, “Sarah, I just figured out who this girl is!”
“That’s Tom’s girl, Donnie, my baby brother’s second daughter,” proudly replied Sarah as she pointed to the page number of the hymn being sung. Mary and I got the message and quickly found the song and joined in – “this is my story, this is my song…”
How wonderful to be here. The trip is truly worth it. There is no other place in the whole wide world where I can have this conversation. It’s still “pertty” little Tucker to me.