Wild dogwoods were in bloom when Mama’s Aunt Cil died in spring 1968, and it nearly broke her heart. Aunt Cil was her last physical connection to her mama, Granny Ruth, and with those two matriarchs gone, Mama’s world just crumbled around her.
Frank, Linda and I had spent a good bit of time at Aunt Cil’s after Daddy died. Mama would drop us off at her farmhouse whenever she had errands to run. Cil, short for Lucille, was a squatty woman, with thick arms, thick legs, and broad shoulders. She had hair as white and fine as powdered sugar. It hung clean to her waist, but she wore it in braids, twisted up into a hair net. She looked like a Native American because she was, partly. Granny Ruth and Aunt Cil’s mother, Louisa, was an Englishwoman, but their father was reportedly a Cherokee. Mama says she never met him and can’t remember his name, but the grave marker for Louisa at the Tennessee cemetery identifies her as Louisa Matilda Hobbs, wife of Bill Sopshire. Mama’s birth certificate spells the name Shropshire. There were five kids in all, Ruth, Lucille, Pearlie, Ann, and Pet. Pet was the only boy in the bunch; Mama said her uncle was a traveling man who never settled down anywhere. Grandma Louisa lived with Aunt Cil at Christian Bend; Aunt Ann lived at Big Stone Gap; Aunt Pearlie married and moved to Toppenish, Washington; and Granny Ruth settled in Rogersville.
Aunt Cil married a man named Doc Christian. She told me once he wasn’t really a doctor. “That’s just what everybody called him,” she said. Doc already had a son, Lon, from a previous marriage. Lon was the first deaf mute I ever met. A tall, lanky fella, he was about as old as Cil. Lon wore denim coveralls and tended to the hogs. He filled the water pail from the well every afternoon after dinner and again after supper. Lon seemed to know that his inability to talk made us kids nervous, so he smiled at us a lot and nodded hellos and good-byes.
“People think because he don’t speak that Lon’s retarded,” Cil said one day as we sat on the front porch, rocking and waiting for our dinner of green beans, ham, and biscuits to settle. “He’s not retarded. Lon’s smart. He just can’t talk, that’s all.”
After that I wasn’t afraid of Lon so much. Sometimes Frank and I would climb the rail fence and watch as Lon slopped the hogs. Or we would follow him through the rows of cornstalks out back and watch as he inspected the cobs. Sometimes he would reach up to the apple tree’s tallest branches and pluck us the choicest fruit. When Linda and I would tickle each other to tears, Lon would laugh right along with us. Only we couldn’t hear his laughter. And he couldn’t hear ours.
The other children raised in Christian Bend weren’t the least bit afraid of Lon. Patsy Patterson Miller, who grew up in the house down the road from Cil’s, remembers the day Lon loaded her up in a wheelbarrow and carried her out of the holler.
“We had a bulldog pup that had crawled up under the house, “ Patsy recalled. “It was a rainy day. He was whimpering so I crawled under there to fetch him. I was barefoot and cut my foot on a broken fruit jar.”
She was thirteen then and too big to be carried out of the holler by her daddy. Cars couldn’t get back in the holler in those days, so Patsy needed to be carted out to the road that leads into Church Hill. Somebody ran down to Aunt Cil’s and asked Lon to come help. Patsy said her daddy could communicate with Lon even though he was a mute. “Lon loaded me up in that wooden wheelbarrow of his and carried me out of the holler,” she said. “All of us kids thought the world of Lon. Whenever there was any sort of sickness or mess to clean up, folks in the holler sent for Lon.”
Aunt Cil was revered for her cooking. “She was a really good cook,” Pasty said. “I ate there several times. Lon would pick blackberries for her, and she’d make pies and jellies with ‘em.”
Patsy loved growing up at Christian Bend, next to Aunt Cil and Lon. “I was a tomboy and we lived way back in the holler,” she said. “It was great.”
Daddy’s death tore up Aunt Cil. She and Frank got into a row one afternoon because he wanted to watch a World War II movie and she forbade it.
“I won’t have no war movies in my home!” she declared, ordering Frank to flip the television’s station. He protested, but Aunt Cil wouldn’t budge. Finally, he turned to a western.
“But Aunt Cil,” I said, intervening on Frank’s behalf, “they got guns in westerns, too.”
“It ain’t the same,” she said. “I can’t tolerate no talk of war since Dave died.”
I didn’t argue with her. And Frank never did ask again to watch a war movie in Cil’s house.
Aunt Cil had a simple house. It had no foundation and was held up off the ground by stilt like posts. “That’s so snakes don’t get in the house,” Cil explained.
She didn’t have any indoor plumbing, so water had to be pumped from a well in the front yard. And for many years there wasn’t any electricity. Even when we were kids, the light in the house came from single electric bulbs hanging from the center of each room. I’d have to climb on a stool, hold the lightbulb and jerk on a chain to turn the light on. Cil cooked everything in her wood stove. She heated the house the same way. Cil kept a porcelain pot under her bed for night. During the day, there was a two-seater outhouse back by the apple grove. Linda and I would never go in there alone, so we always made the other one tag along. Discarded magazines served as wipes. Once, while Linda was doing her business, curiosity got the better of me. “Wonder how far this thing goes down,” I said, plunging my head momentarily into the black hole.I jerked it right back out.
“Whad’ya see?” Linda asked.
I didn’t have enough breath to answer her. Pushing the door open, I fell out into the ground, gasping.
“SHUT THAT DOOR!” Linda screamed. “You’re letting the flies in!”
Cil performed the same bedtime ritual every night. She’d put on a cotton gown, take out her hair net, and unwrap her braids. Then she’d take a silver-handled brush and run it through her hair for a hundred strokes. “If you’ll brush your hair one hundred times each night, it’ll keep healthy,” she explained. Linda and I would sit on the edge of Cil’s bed and count the strokes with her, seventy-nine, eighty, eighty-one. Then we’d borrow her brush and do the same to our hair.
When we finished, Cil would pull out her black Bible with the words of Jesus printed in red and read us a story. Usually it was a tale from the Old Testament, the story of a flood, a plague, a king, or a whale. Cil shied away from the battle stories. Then she’d drop to her knees by her bed and Linda and I would follow suit. We’d fold our hands and listen quietly as Cil asked for God’s blessing on us, on Lon, on Frank, on Mama and Grandpa Harve and all her mountain neighbors. Then Linda would crawl into bed with Cil and I would sleep on a cot next to her bed.
Cil died in that bed. She died the same way she lived, gracefully and peacefully. When Mama got word, she loaded us into the 1967 Chevy Malibu that she’d traded her Corvair in for, and drove through the night with her friend Dave Gibbons at her side. As we drove over the bridge that spans Tennessee’s Holston River, toward Christian Bend, Dave turned and chided us kids for cutting up in the back. “Listen, you kids need to calm down. Can’t you see how upset your mother is?”
I stopped tickling Linda long enough to study Mama’s face. Her forehead was bunched up, her dark eyes troubled, her lips drawn taut. She was chewing on the inside of her cheek, her habitual worry gristle. She hadn’t said much of anything since we left Columbus some eight or nine hours earlier. She hadn’t even told us kids to knock off our messing around like she usually did. It was as if she was in another place, another time, with other people. And I suppose that’s exactly where she was, in a place of remembrance. Thinking about all the times she and her mama used to board the ferry for the trip across the Holston River. When Mama was a little girl, there wasn’t a bridge across the shiny silver waters. So she and Granny Ruth would have to hop a ferry, then walk the five or six miles to Cil’s.
The road, which is paved now, was a dusty shoelace pathway in those days. It wrapped around the muddy banks of the Holston and sometimes, especially during spring runoff, water would spill out over the road until there was no sign of it. On those trips, mud would cake Mama’s legs like dark stockings. She didn’t always like the journey, but Mama loved the time she spent with Aunt Cil. Cil had what country folks called the joy of the Lord. She could always find something to laugh about. Her joy was infectious. With Cil nearby, a person just couldn’t have a bad day.
Later, as I peered into her casket at the altar of the Freewill Baptist Church at Christian Bend, I thought how lovely Cil looked. I hadn’t thought a dead person could be pretty, but Cil looked beautiful. She wore a pale pink cotton gown. Her white hair was parted down the middle and two long white braids hung to her waist. The hands that had kneaded flour into biscuits, sliced and mashed apples into sauce, brushed and twisted hair, and embraced family and friends in prayers and love lay folded against her heart. A white Bible was tucked beneath them.
That moment was totally unlike the moment two years earlier when I’d stood on my tiptoes peering into Daddy’s casket. Daddy had looked so gawd-awful, not at all like himself, that I couldn’t help but cry. But Cil looked exactly like herself, only better. Happier, more at peace than ever before. I was convinced she was in heaven because she looked so angelic lying there. It got me to wondering if the way a person dies determines her disposition in the ever after. If a person dies angry, or violently, maybe he wakes up in a bad mood for all eternity. And if a person dies in his sleep, while in the midst of a really good dream, maybe he wakes up in eternity singing songs about bluebirds and sunny days. Grandpa Harve came back to Georgia to live with us after Aunt Cil died. Lon moved in with some of Doc’s family and I never saw him again.
Karen Zacharias is a Gold Star daughter and author of AFTER THE FLAG HAS BEEN FOLDED (Wm. Morrow). The above is an excerpt from that memoir, which is available on Kindle & in paperback.