Aunt Bessie rode into our sleepy little Indiana town sometime back in the 1930's in the back seat of a dust covered Model T Ford that had seen better days.
Since I hadn't been born yet, I was told later she had come up from somewhere down South, from a place called Flat Creek.
Evidently, Flat Creek must have had its share of unsavory characters because I remember her later warning all of us about certain people.
"They're part of that Flat Creek bunch," she would say, "You stay away from them."
To be identified as one of the Flat Creek bunch, was like receiving the kiss of death as far as Aunt Bessie was concern.
Aunt Bessie held some pretty strong opinions and beliefs. The weird thing—this amazing woman was usually right.
Not much is known about Aunt Bessie during her first year; but then the story picks up when she meets her future husband.
The story goes when she first met him; she mistakenly thought he was one of the Baker boys, one of the sons of a family of wealthy farmers who lived in the area.
Well, what can I tell you? Her future husband, Desmond, though poor as one of Job's turkeys, was one handsome man, a hard worker, and a gentle guy. Besides, he loved to sing old Jimmy Rodger's songs. He actually sounded a bit like the old Singing Brakeman himself. In addition, as Aunt Bessie was heard to say more than once about Jimmie Rodgers.
"He's just one of my favorites!"
Aunt Bessie, along with her other attributes, knew a good man when she saw one. Not only did she put her new boyfriend, Desmond in that select group—she moved him right to the top of her list.
Within three months, the two Sweethearts were married and settled down in a little rental house about fourteen miles out of town.
Several years went by—the struggle continued. Depression gripped the land; and, they along with other poor white folks up from the South, scratched out a living at whatever job they could find.
Though times were hard, —life was rich and full. I remember how their house was always filled with cousins, sisters, brothers and just people who loved to hang out at their place.
Aunt Bessie presided over it all, holding court; dispensing with advice, presiding over family disputes, acting as a marriage counselor to her many nephews and nieces... and yes, sometimes to outright strangers. Such was the confidence people had in her excellent judgment.
She had a deep and abiding love for the younger people. Coming up hard herself, had given her that most precious of gift—The gift of understanding.
The years of the 1930's passed slowly. All the families developed a closeness. No one had much but they were always willing to share what they did have with others.
Aunt Bessie in time became the go-to person when anyone was ill. She knew how to help deliver babies, nurse people back to health. People trusted her judgment in most everything else as well.
I could go on forever writing about Aunt Bessie's amazing acts as a mother, caregiver, counselor, and most of all a friend; but one unforgettable incident—though the decades have come and gone—remains forever fresh in my memory.
I guess at this point, it's time for me to clear something up. I'm one of the few people who didn't call her Aunt Bessie.
You see—the person everyone called Aunt Bessie—Well, I called her Mom.
The Winter of 1938
Winters in the Midwest are always bitter cold. That winter we were eking out a hard-bitten existence. Fortunately, all summer long we had cut and stacked firewood down one side of our old house, so we stayed warm and cozy.
In addition, my mother, like every other year, had spent the summer canning hundreds of Mason jars filled with beans, tomatoes, peaches, and other items.
Anyway, on a bitter cold windy Saturday morning, with the wind howling outside, my Uncle Hank knocked on our door. His daughter Frances' little girl had died.
He had come to ask Dad to help him dig the grave.
"Why don't you come along, Son," my Dad said to me, "Once your Uncle Hank and I break through the frozen ground, you can help us with the digging.
By the time we got to North Union Cemetery, I was freezing. We were out there in the dead of winter—the wind howling around us with no protection from the elements.
In addition, we had one pair of gloves between us that we passed back and forth. Who ever was doing the digging at the moment, got to wear the gloves.
The only conversation I remember us having was when I told Dad how cold I was. Looking back, I'm sure Uncle Hank and my Dad were just as cold.
However, in that gently way he had, Dad explained to me.
"Son, as soon as we dig the grave a little deeper and you get down in there, it will block the wind and you won't be so cold."
Sure enough, a short time later, down in the empty grave, I begin to feel almost warm. Within a few more minutes, we had finished the digging. We piled into Uncle Hank's Model A Ford. He dropped us off at home a short time later.
A Sunday Funeral
The day of the little girl's funeral, the skies were cloudy, somber, and gray. I remember a makeshift Tent had been erected over the gravesite for the family to gather underneath to get out of the weather.
With everyone so grief-stricken, it fell to my mother to take charge. I remember feeling an indescribable sadness at seeing my cousin Frances and her husband weeping.
Grownup in our family usually didn't cry. Even at my young age, I knew this was something completely different. This was a new experience for me.
The undertaker, Mr. Ellerman, once the Service started, stood off to the side waiting impatiently for it to be over. After all, I think he must have reasoned, since these were poor people up from the South, with very little means, why should he put himself out.
Finally, the Service was over. As is customary, the casket was then opened for one last view of the deceased.
When Mr. Ellerman opened the little girl's casket, where she lay in a simple white dress in final repose, a tragic sight greeted all the Mourners. The little girl had been placed in a cheap little casket too small—even for her tiny body.
True Story /