Having picked some tea, she drank it. Then she sprouted wings, and flew to a mansion, to escape the emptiness of the world. ~ C. Jen
As a small child, I experienced a unique teatime in an unlikely place – a creaky old Lincoln County farmhouse. Pure magic was revealed by an austere woman who often wore a suit – woolen and dark – skirt almost to the ankles, topped with a black hat of veil and feathers, along with a striking piece of jewelry. Though after “receiving day”, she dressed plainly in a cotton housedress. Straight down the middle she parted her more than ample white hair pinned back neatly in a bun. Regally she carried herself, with chin up elevating a purple spot on her lip, which oddly increased her air of sophistication. She had eyes of blue – just like my daddy.
Yes, she was kin to Tom Story, and though his family (on both sides!) was Southern born, none spoke her Southern. Heard it was the Carolinian influence carried over the border to Georgia, though it sounded somewhat British – a tad put on. She was well educated, a graduate of Normal.
The first time I remember going to her home was somewhat of an emergency. Mama got an emergency perm, we got emergency new clothes and shoes. Couldn’t show up looking any ol’ way, Helen saw to it by outfitting us at Cofer Brothers on Main in Tucker, Georgia.
Well dressed and packed, we headed east – for the country. Over two hours later Daddy announced, “We’re almost there.” We had long left the country and were in the wilderness; finally, we arrived in a place called, Jawjah.
Her Jawjah home was an unexpected vision, hard to believe. Unpainted clapboard balanced on stacks of rocks. Underneath open, that’s where the chickens lived. Two closet rooms (the library she called ‘em) graced the backyard; girls had a cut out moon on the door, while the boys had a star. Sears and Roebuck catalog used for wiping not buying – in the “library” found on the back side of a gladiola garden – flowers cold weather dead.
Mom gathered us like ducklings as we approached the front porch; Daddy looked straight ahead – big smile. The door opened and there she stood. She didn’t have on her a-goin’-to-Atlanna woolen suit, but rather a mid-calf navy taffeta dress with a “shawt” fur about the shoulders. She welcomed us with open arms as she worried the whereabouts of her nieces. Right behind, Daddy assured. She really wanted to know the where ‘bouts of their husbands ‘cause she had heavy lifting to do.
Daddy thanked her for the letter, said his feelings would’ve been hurt had she not. She thanked him, making apologies for the rheumatism. Daddy laughed it off and hoped six adults and eight kids wouldn’t drive ‘em crazy. She motioned us in with air kisses as we crossed the threshold; it was cold, we did not tarry. Loaded down with dolls and teddy bears we entered her humble abode. It smelled enchantingly of sandalwood and charred embers. A short stairway to the right led to a locked room. Off limits, made clear immediately.
We little cousins speculated about that “off limits” room. Roy thought the Confederate lost gold from the Chenault House was hidden there, while Linda thought it Nancy Bentley’s missing piano. Steve thought it the man’s inside–the-house bedroom. (Hard to believe the man slept in a front porch traveler’s room.) Patricia wondered if an old trunk was locked away containing birth certificates, wills, and deeds. I liked to sit on the stairs and admire the wooden star and crescent moon that hung on the wall, a moon with a staircase and miniature ceramic angels ascending to Heaven. My father made it for the old woman, said it was a way to honor the Brightest Star in Heaven.
She boasted that nephew, Thomas Jonathan Story, gave her “the moon and Nawth star!” Daddy did enjoy star gazing, especially at her place. Stars much brighter there than in “Atlanna,” he’d say. Outside, he often stood alone in the dark, invisible except for the round glow of his Camel unfiltered.
This was the home of Walter and Dieudonne Bentley Steed who lived in the Leathersville Community of Lincoln County. I would learn much about this out of place country woman and odd little husband of hers. Yes, she seemed out of place, like maybe she belonged in a European city like London or Paris but chose to live in the backroads of obscurity – with Waltah. She was old when I met her, a retired schoolteacher who was sweet, then again stiff, and distant.
Walter and Donn were a curiosity to us kids, as much as the high ceiling home furnished with dusty antiques. Well-worn Oriental rugs covered creaky hardwood floors. Books stacked almost to the ceiling, reminded me of an Old English library without bookcases. She needed bookcases, used a rolling ladder to reach high up books. Her table always set with fine china down to the finger bowls; books occupied chairs.
Outside, the chimney was cracked and pulling away from the house. A crack that would’ve gone unnoticed had it not been for us kids pulling down a vine to tie up Uncle Walter, a plan thwarted by the old man himself. But it was the inside fireplace that intrigued me. Impossible to ignore was a large finely framed photograph that hung over the mantel. It was a facial close-up of a pretty girl about sixteen years old, her long hair wisped gently about her face. Was it done in black and white or tones of sepia? Hard to say, for it’s been over six decades since I first laid eyes upon that face. The feeling is far more endured than sight. I felt her presence – something unsaid in her eyes. I studied that pouty face looking for clues, knowing I should know her. As warm as the fireplace appeared, it was colder inside than out. The old woman spoke as though she read my mind.
“As Ah said, we’re running shawt on fi’ah-wood.”
“We’ll take care of that, don’t you worry, Aunt Donn.” Daddy’s reassuring voice floated in from the front hall where he was preoccupied with an old document hanging on the wall. Donn followed his voice, leaving me alone. I focused on two tiny teacups and saucers which set near the photo. What was an old woman doing with a child’s tea set? While I dared touch a cup – gently with one finger – Aunt Donn’s voice floated in from the hall.
“Oh, Tom, Ah just cannot get ovah how much you favah fathah. You make me think of him so. One day Ah’ll gift the Declaration to you. Ah know you cherish it as he.”
Hearing approaching footsteps, I quickly retreated from the touch of cold porcelain. I stood back while they held hands looking at the pretty girl in the photograph. I soon learned that no matter how stiff the old woman appeared, when she stood before the photo and tea set, she melted like soft butter.
Oddly, every time someone knocked on the door, Donn straightened her clothes, admired herself in the front hall mirror, reached into a “voz” for lipstick – carefully smeared her lips red. Who was she dressing up for way out here? Strangely, it was Uncle Walter who did the knocking.
Though we were just a few hours from Atlanta, Lincoln County seemed like another country. And what could eight cousins under the age of nine do in a place with no television, no radio, and no running water?
Plenty! Let’s start with Uncle Walter.
Walter was an odd character – quiet and avoided crowds. He did not chop wood. He limped in the background with a cane – guarding a washtub of rainwater. My cousins Roy and Steve, sailed curly leaf boats in that water. That made him unhappy. We chased chickens, just wanted to pet ‘em. That made him unhappy. We bowled with chicken eggs. That made him unhappy. Chickens stopped laying. That made him unhappy. We hollered down the well. That made him unhappy. We slammed the “library” doors. That made him unhappy. We played hide-and-go-seek in the dead flower garden. That made him unhappy.
What made Walter Steed happy was to report mischief. Despite that, we did him a big favor. We cured his rheumatism, evident when he chased us while waving that cane in the air, a miracle no doubt.
While there, I feigned cleanliness ‘cause no real bathroom. But when Mama found chicken poo on my legs, she dragged a metal tub from the back-porch to the kitchen. She carried buckets of Uncle Walter’s precious rainwater to heat on a wood burning stove. Exhausted, she handed a bar of red soap to me. The soap burned, so I used little. Mama noticed. She lathered up the rag and gave me a good once over. Burning, itching, I became one big red welt.
“No worry, now Helen, let me take care of that chile. All she needs is a little buddah-milk. That’s what Doctah John B. Bentley would prescribe.”
Mama rolled her eyes. Aunt Donn patted me dry, dressed me in white “step-ins” and socks, dabbed thick cold buttermilk on my nakedness. (No refrigerator, no need. Buttermilk kept in ceramic pitcher covered with cheesecloth on the partially enclosed back-porch.) Mama pulled the scarf off her new perm; she and her two sisters-in-law made a get-away to a general store for lotion. Truth be known, Mama was tired of dusting books and batting away cobwebs. I’ve never seen her work so hard, especially in church clothes and high heel shoes.
The men chopped firewood. Kids played outside. Walter stood guard over the chickens and rainwater tub. I was alone with her. She made tea, then covered the settee with a quilt and sheet. She motioned me to sit. I was timid, reluctant. Condemning eyes, she cast upon me until I moved.
“Sit here near the fiah and be sweet. All this running around,I do declay-yah! Aren’t you the one who just overed Scawlett fevah?”
“And running the chickens? See what happens? The good Lawd knows when you need rest. Yoah body breaks down – one way or t’othah. Anothah thing, don’t evah leave black eyed peas on yoah plate again. Can’t live on peach pie alone.”
Every time Aunt Donn saw a crack in my buttermilk cast, she dabbed me. I sat there cold, shivering. I winced when she touched me, which aggravated her for some reason.
“Now, young lady, you sit still. This does not hu’t a bit.”
“It’s cold and smells funny.”
“You must take yoah medicine . . .”
“Buttermilk is not medicine!”
She grimaced as she looked me over making sure I was well covered, then sat in the Queen Anne chair near the fire. She sipped tea from the tiny cup – matching cup still on the mantel.
“All this jumping into automobiles and running up and down the road. My grandfathah was a doctah and . . .”
“The doctah who,” I rolled my eyes just like Mama, “cured people with buttermilk?”
“They-yah aw certain prope’ties in buddah-milk . . .” She stopped midstream and shook her head as though she was the most misunderstood person in the world. “Why do Ah bothah? Donnie, why do Ah bothah?”
I shrugged my shoulders because I didn’t know what she was talking about. Appalled she was – set her teacup down.
“My deah little lady! Did you just sh’ug yoah shouldahs at me? Is that proppah behave-yah for a chile?”
(I guess not.) “No ma’am.”
“Well, that’s more like it,” Aunt Donn settled down. After a while, she spoke into thin air. “They all used to live heah you know. Heah, in Lincoln County – Leathahsville – on beautiful fawms. Doctah John B. Bentley, my grandfathah, the doctah, and yes, he cured with buddah-milk. And, young lady, do not evah roll yoah eyes at me, ‘less you meet my rule!”
I drew up in a tight ball trying to disappear. She took a deep breath – got back to talking to empty space as she picked up the little teacup.
“All lived heah – then they left, one by one. Ah stayed because this is home.”
Aunt Donn stared into space as though expecting the air to speak. She stood momentarily poking the smoldering ash, then allowed the Queen Anne to hold her as she stared into the awakened fire. Her smile was distant as though she’d just met a faded memory. The room so quiet, I felt obliged to say something. I asked the only question I could think of to bring her around, you know, change the subject.
“Ma’am, is Lincolnton named after Abraham Lincoln? Is this where President Lincoln lived?” I asked looking about at the old house that could’ve been as old as Abe. She quickly snapped back, was very pleasant. I soon learned the way to regain her good mood was to simply allow her to flourish in her element, teaching.
“Well, no Donnie, Lincolnton, Jawjah, was named fo’ a man f’om Massachusetts, Benjamin Lincoln, bawn in 1733. He was a majah general in the Revolution.” She smiled. “So, Ah see you have interest in histo’y. Got that from yoah fathah. Abraham Lincoln was bawn in Kentucky and lived in Illinois befo’e becoming president long aftah the Revolution.”
After a bit of silence, Aunt Donn posed a question. “What’s on yoah mind? You look like you want to say something, my sweet.”
“Well, ma’am, I hate to tell you, but Augusta is not the capital.”
“Ah know that. Now why would you think othah-wise?”
“When you told us about Elijah Clarke, you said Augusta was the capital.”
She sipped tea, eyeing me closely as though trying to figure me out.
“My deah, Jawjah has had several capitals, the present – Atlanna. When Elijah run off the British, it was Augusta.”
“Ma’am, why do you have so many books?”
She looked about assessing my question as though the first time such a thought had occurred to her.
“Well, my deah, ‘to travel fah, there is no bettah ship than a book,’ so said Emily Dickinson. And she was right, as was Douglass, ‘Once you learn to read, you will be forevah free.’ Donnie, books aw my best friends.” She sipped tea. An occasional crackle-pop of burning wood drew her deep into a stare of the fire. I wondered how the girl came to be on the mantel. Again, magically Donn knew my mind.
“She grew up heah in Leathasville, moved a shawt piece down the road when she married Lawton Storee.”
“Story? That’s my name . . .”
Aunt Donn held her hand up like a stop sign. “Of cou’se it is. Donnie, do not interrupt an adult.” She took a deep breath, then spoke as though telling a fairytale.
“Once upon a time, in the Storee home, they stawted a family, then fell on hawd times. Truth be known, Lawton was not the fawmah his fathah was. Lawton was beatin’ the rocks, but the boll weevil and asthma proved mo’e challenging. His fawm condemned, was to become pawt of the lake. They moved west like the rest of them, and fawm’d out they-yah.”
(I forgot myself.) “That’s not out west!”
She did not approve of a child correcting an adult and said so with her eyes and uppity tone and choice of words.
“It is fah, you little whippahsnappah! With no telephone nor automobile, it may as well be Califo’nia!” Aunt Donn regained her composure as a tiny smile melted her face, the look that said – I’m proud of you.
“Donnie, Ah commend you on yoah knowledge of geog’aphy. My little deah, how old are you now, six?”
“That’s well indeed! Little lady, Ah see you are quite bright. You aw simply disobedient. How many times has Waltah told you to stop chasin’ the chickens?”
Before I could get it counted, she asked another question, “Weren’t you the one who nelly drown in Clarks Hill?”
“Do you see what happens when you do not obey?”
“And why would one want to leave Lincoln County?” Aunt Donn poured more tea. “Yes, they went west. We have Athens just a stone throws away, the home of furst and lawgest unive’sity in Jawjah.” She shook her head as though irritated about something. “They hurry so now a days. Jump in an automobile, go, go, go!”
“Actually, we got airplanes in Atlanta. We watch ‘em take off all the time.”
(Wrong subject, change it.) “My father calls me Donnie because he wanted a boy when I was born. My real name is Diane.”
“Ah know yoah real name, Diane. And Ah have my doubts about that.”
“Doubts about what, ma’am?”
“That yoah fathah wanted a boy when you were bawn. He adores his gulls, Helen and his sistahs, and Lawd knows he loved his mothah. Tom is a woman’s man, always has been.”
(Woman’s man?) “Well ma’am, how did you get your name, Donn? That’s a man’s name. Are you a man’s woman?” She placed her teacup down hard enough to rattle the saucer; her eyes burnt a hole through me.
“Donn is a shawt version of my given name, a French name. Yoah fathah and his siblings made chopped livvah out of it. So, Ah asked them to call me Donn.”
“Yes, Dieudonne, it’s a lovely name. It means Gift of the Lawd.”
“Donnie, Ah detest that wo’d.”
Which word? Surprised, my eyes widened. She returned my stare.
“W-O-W, not to be used in my presence.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I held the stare. I didn’t want to drop my eyes for fear she’d discover what happened to her “rule.” This morning when no one was looking, I slipped it down the side of her chair under the cushion. That way when she found it, she’d think she lost it, and no one would be punished. Never saw her hit anyone, but I didn’t want to be first. I stared her down. She stared back until tears filled her eyes.
“You are much like her, especially about the eyes, same shade of blue. Yes, and she was a whippahsnappah, and Mothah dabbed her with buttah-milk many a time.”
The old woman dropped her stare and focused on the crackling fire. Her tongue still for a long while. I broke the spell.
“Were you talking about the pretty girl in the picture, ma’am?”
“Yes, the pretty girl in the picture,” she answered softly. She stood and walked to the mantel. With her right hand behind her, she motioned me to join her. I dared not. Impatiently, she wiggled her fingers. I obeyed walking slowly, careful not to crack my buttermilk cast. We stood together. My eyes on the old woman, her eyes on the picture. Again, her face melted magically like soft butter.
“She was about sixteen when this was made. She was fathah’s favorite you know; she’s named after his mothah, Nancy Elizabeth Paschal. Now here we stand, Donn and Donnie.” As a tear slid down her face, she whispered, “We’re heah, Sistah.”
“She’s your sister, ma’am?”
“Yes, my little sistah. At yoah age, she rode Dulce the Pony. With a little gitty up, that pony would take her anywhere she wanted to go – quickly!” She gave my hand a squeeze, “My deah, she is yoah fathah’s mothah – yoah grandmothah.”
We made many trips to Lincoln County to visit Aunt Donn and Uncle Walter, but none compared to the day she introduced me to Nancy Elizabeth Bentley. On our way home, Daddy stopped at a general store; he thought Coke would help me get over the buttermilk treatment. Mama wanted to get home, but Daddy said the gulls needed a souvenir to remember Lincolnton; he bought a ceramic wishing well.
“Helen, every time we look at this, we’ll be thankful we didn’t lose a young ‘un in the well. And look here, finger bowls. I know you want these.”
“Tom Story, don’t even think about it.”
“What do you think gulls? Finger bowls? That way we can keep clean at the table.” Daddy threw his head back and laughed. (We knew better.)
We followed Atlanta Westbound signs.
“Gulls . . .”
“Tom, there is an r in girls.”
“Ah know, Helen, that’s what I said. Gulls did you have a good time? What’d you learn?” Slow to answer, all tired. “You had to learn something from Aunt Donn. What was it?”
My eight-year-old sister, Patricia, answered first, “Drawing circles will strengthen muscles and I’ll have better penmanship.”
“What about you, Bob?”
“Stay away from the chickens,” Barbara answered.
“That’d make Uncle Walter happy! Wouldn’t it, Bob?”
“Well, what about you, Donnie? Ah bet you learned to appreciate buttermilk,” he teased.
“After we moved to Atlanna, we took turns staying with Aunt Donn for the summer. Whoever stayed, skipped a grade that fall. You had to learn at least one thing. What was it?”
“I learned that Nancy Elizabeth Bentley was a “whippahsnappah” and Aunt Donn drinks tea from a toy teacup when she misses her.”
Never forgotten, that place called Jawjah, or the toy teacups on the mantel of that magical old house, the place where I stood with Dieudonnee Randolph Bentley Steed – a woman who was truly a Gift of God.
Aunt Donn passed away; she was eighty-seven. She arranged her own funeral, every word, flower, song, and of course, her outfit and piece of striking jewelry. Donn and Walter are buried near her parents: Dennis Brantley Bentley and Grace Amelia Ramsey at Salem Baptist. My father, Tom Story, attended Aunt Donn’s funeral and watched her buried. He left Lincoln County to never return.