Girls Can’t Climb Trees

            On long southern evenings my family would, like many others, sit out on the porch hoping to catch a cooling breeze. To pass the time, the family talked. Stories were told, family lore passed down and memorable moments relived. I put this story together from the stories my grandfather, grandmother and father told (with a little help from the Bureau of Vital Statistics). I remember how Grandma’s eyes twinkled and she smiled as she told the story about climbing the tree. With all this information, I was able to piece together the story of my grandparent’s courtship. I haven’t whitewashed anyone or tried to create a hero. I have just told it as it came together. This story is true. All I did was add the dialogue. I feel humbled and blessed that these people were my forebears. I want to honor them by not letting them be forgotten by history. They lived and breathed, loved and lost. They should be remembered. Here is their story.

Girls Can’t Climb Trees

July 1912

            “Girls can’t climb trees,” Lloyd crowed from one of the lower branches of the chestnut tree.

            “Oh, yes I can,” Mollie declared. Mindless of her dress, the eight-year-old girl clambered up the fat trunk and soon sat beside Lloyd on the limb.

            “You ain’t supposed to do that.”

            “I can do anything you can, Lloyd Bass, and don’t you forget it.”

Vernon

           July 1912  

Ida, my wife, looked out the back window across the yard to the distant woods.

            “Vernon. They’ve run off playing again. I wish we could get rid of that pesky girl. I just know she’ll lead him into trouble.”

            “The children are fine, honey. Leave them be,” I said. My wife tends to fret. “There aren’t many boys around here his age. He needs someone to play with. Mollie’s brothers and John are too old for him.”

            “I suppose. But she’s just so common. He wouldn’t be so set on her if he hadn’t seen her everyday at that school you opened.” Ida looked at me accusingly.

            “We discussed this. Seaboard was too far to go for school every day. Having one on our farm, within sight of the house was the best plan. And the dividend from the state helps our finances.”

            “But did you have to open it up to everyone? Some of those low-class children are filthy and probably have lice and who knows what else,” she shuddered.

            “Lessen we make it a private school we can’t control who comes, you know that. What’s wrong, honeybunch?” I snagged Ida after she set a pot of soaking beans on the table and pulled her onto my lap. Ida had been a plump girl when we married and having four children had not made her any slimmer. I held in a groan as she settled onto my rail thin legs. Ida leaned her head into my neck like when we were just married.

            “I don’t know, Vernon. I just get a bad feeling about that girl. She looks at me so brazenly.”

            “Aw, you’re just imagining things, honey. Mollie’s a sweet girl.”

I knew what the problem was. Mollie was from a family that Ida had identified as beneath her. Sharecroppers. She was still clinging to the old-fashioned notions of class and social standing. All that had been swept away by the Great War and the hardships of Reconstruction. We were both born ten years after the War ended, I thought, but our outlooks are so different. Her grandfather Kee and her father owned large acreages with over 50 slaves to work them. They even had house servants. Part of Ida would always be the lady of the manor, out there on the veranda, serving tea.

            I also knew that Ida looked down on my family. My grandfather may not have been as important as hers, but he had a substantial plantation. He just didn’t believe in slavery, and didn’t need to with nine sons to work the farm. Granddaddy taught his sons to respect all people, regardless of what class they might be. And Daddy always said it was best to help the less fortunate.  And he disliked the Kees for their strong support of slavery.

August 1879

            Little Vernon looked timidly at his mother as she lay in bed. Mama who was always so happy and loving was frightening him. She alternately shivered and sweated as she struggled for each breath. If was stifling hot to him in the closed off bedroom. He wondered why they didn’t open the window and let in some air.

            “Vernie, come to me,” she gasped, managing to slightly raise one arm. He hesitated until Mammy gave him a push. Mama took his hand and he was shocked by how hot her hand was. She coughed into a dishcloth and Vernon could spy red when she pulled it away.

            “My poor baby. I have to leave you. I don’t want to go. Remember always that Mama loves you. You were my life,” she croaked. Such a long speech exhausted her so that she could hardly cover her mouth when the next spasm of coughs wracked her body. Daddy stood by the head of the bed. Vernon had never seen him so sad. Where is Mama going, he wondered. Is Daddy going, too? Who will keep me? Unsure of what was happening, and only four years old, Vernon started crying. His mother stroked his hair once and then let her arm fall limply. She softly whispered, “My poor baby.” Mammy came and pulled him away. Back at her chair she gathered him in her lap. He loved Mammy’s lap. It was soft and he was safe there.  

            “Press, y’all are frightening the child. He shouldn’t be here,” Mammy complained, using his Daddy’s nickname.

            Daddy’s voice trembled. “I want him to remember his mama’s death. And that bastard Jim Kee wouldn’t even come see his own daughter as she lay dying. I hope he burns in hell.”

            “Shhh, son. Remember the boy,” Mammy soothed him.

He had almost drifted off to sleep when he heard his daddy shout Mama’s name several times and then begin sobbing. Daddy’s never done that before, he thought. Something bad has happened. I’m afraid, and he began crying again, joining his father in mourning the death of his mother. She was only 25.

October 1897

            “Surely you two understand how important this is to us all.” Uncle Robert Kee used his most persuasive voice. They had called a “family meeting” to discuss my future. Or actually, our future. Beside me on the settee was Ida Kee, my cousin and close friend. Uncle Robert was an uncle to both of us.

It had only dawned on me a year ago why Ida and I were always paired by the families whenever possible. Daddy had then talked to me about my duties and responsibilities to the families involved. It was only six of them in the room, but the little parlor felt crowded. Ida’s parents, Aunt Sarah and Uncle Dick sat across from us. Aunt Sarah is Daddy’s sister, and Uncle Dick is Mama’s uncle. My real Mama, not Aunt Mollie, I thought. Daddy and Uncle Robert sat in the other two overstuffed chairs. Aunt Mollie wasn’t included, at my insistence. She may be Daddy’s wife, but she’s not my mother. I was only four when she died, but I wouldn’t call another woman ‘Mama’. Daddy married her not two years after Mama died, and she won’t but 16. He was only 28 but still the neighbors laughed behind their hands and counted the months until my sister Betty’s birth. Not quite nine.

            “The Bass and Kee families have feuded for generations,” Uncle Robert continued. “We are the two most prominent families in this part of the county, have the biggest businesses in Seaboard and Gumberry. The infighting is doing no one any good and I think most of us hate just for the sake of hating and don’t even remember why. Press tells me he’s told you all this.”  Uncle Robert’s right about that, I thought. I’m kinda hazy on why our families don’t get along. Daddy’s a Bass and Mama was a Kee. But Grandpa Kee disowned her when she married Daddy. Just like Grandpa Bass disowned Aunt Frank when she married Uncle Jim Kee. He probably would have disowned Daddy too had he still been living. But Mammy put her foot down. No more of this disowning business. Daddy was her youngest child and favorite. He could do no wrong in her eyes.

            “Uncle Jim has agreed to this,” Uncle Robert added. This was a surprise to everyone. James Add Kee, patriarch of the large Kee clan was notorious in his hatred of the Basses. His wife, Aunt Frank was Daddy’s older sister. Older by about twenty years. She had been disowned by Granddaddy Bass when they married. That was way back before the Great War, in the 1840s. But last Sunday after church he had chatted with Mammy Bass in a cordial manner and escorted her to her buggy like a dutiful son-in-law. Everyone took notice.

            “You two marrying will be the signal to this generation that the feud is over. It’s almost the twentieth century now. It’s time to stop acting like hillbillies. With Uncle and your Mammy at the wedding everyone will know we are now in accord with one another. Two families working for one future.” Uncle Robert could charm the birds out of the trees, I thought.

            Ida and I had remained silent through all this. I looked over at her. She was no beauty and a little on the plump side, but I knew her so well. I did love her in a way.

            “Well, Idie. What do you think?” I asked.

            “Not exactly the proposal I was hoping for.” I realized she was all in favor also. I had known, or at least suspected, that she fancied me, and hope was now written all over her face. I knew what was required. I slipped off the settee and settled on one knee before her.

            “Virginia Ida Kee, will you do me the great honor of becoming my wife?”

            “Yes, Vernon. Oh, yes.” She leaned forward and gave me a chaste kiss on my cheek and dabbed at her eyes with her lace hanky.

July 1912

            “My goodness, look at the time,” Ida exclaimed, hopping out of my lap. “If I don’t get these beans on now we’ll be eating in the dark.” I sighed as the blood rushed back into my legs. Using my cane, I pushed myself erect. Not yet forty and I’m on a cane, I chided myself. But that was Jim’s fault.

            Jim Bass was my half-brother, nearly ten years younger. And an evil snake in the grass if there ever was one, I might add. He’s always been jealous of me. As our father had turned more and more of the business over to me, Jim’s jealousy had grown, fed by his mother Aunt Mollie. He missed no opportunity to discredit or discomfort me. But I’m the child of Daddy’s first love, Suky Kee. I was always his favorite.

September 1909

            By early afternoon the rain had given up its assault on the land and turned to a fine mist. It managed to seep in everywhere and kept everything damp. The humidity was oppressive. The rain had done nothing to relieve us of this summer’s brutal heat. The ground was saturated. The sextons had to use staves to shore up the sides of the grave. I was still concerned it might collapse at any moment.

            We all stood on the back porch waiting for the hearse. The porch offered little protection from the wet as the mist wrapped us all in a white shroud, saturating our black dress. I felt it was as if Heaven itself were weeping. Solona, my baby sister, my little Lonie was only twenty, my heart cried out. She was taken much too soon.

            Soon we heard the soft plod. At first we could barely see it as it appeared out of the mist. Four black horses in black rigging slowly pulled the black carriage past the porch toward the little cemetery. There were black sacks tied to their feet to soften the sound, a consideration to the family. As it passed, Daddy and the rest of us stepped down off the porch to follow. He faltered after a few steps, so I took his arm to support him. This had aged him. Little Lona was his angel. After losing Aunt Mollie last year, this blow came too soon. We continued toward the graveyard, the little cortege of me and my half-siblings. A few family friends were with us, including Miz Grizzard and two of her children, Paul and Mollie. Me and my three half-brothers, Jim, Charlie and Boss plus two of my cousins were pall bearers. We slid the coffin out of the hearse and slowly walked it to the gaping pit. Once it was sitting beside the grave, Reverend Studenbrook lifted it open to offer his last prayer. Lona lay there as beautiful as ever, shining with the waxy pallor of the dead. Cradled in her arms was the small baby she died giving birth to. Unfortunately, the child did not survive the ordeal either. Their two souls will go on to Heaven intertwined. Little Mollie Grizzard was startled by the macabre tableau and shrieked. My half-sisters Josie and Lucy began wailing. My son Lloyd, only five, placed his arms around Lucy and Mollie while Ida consoled Josie. Phil Barkley, the widower, stood a little apart, crying silently.

            Daddy stood there, rain and tears running down his face, hat in his hand. The life had gone out of him. It was being interred here with the people he loved. Daddy was an old man, nearly sixty. I feared the wet weather on his uncovered head would get into his lungs and carry him away also. It turned out I was right. Within a week Daddy was bedridden. He rallied and relapsed over and again all through the fall into winter. By the first week of March he seemed to have survived the worst of it. His strength grew with the warming weather. He was out of his bed, even walking about the yard enjoying the first flowers of the season. The whole family breathed a sigh of relief.

            March 20 was like any other day. Daddy was in good spirits. He dressed and he and Josie went to the henhouse to collect eggs. Suddenly Josie came running shouting that Daddy was in trouble. We raced to his aid and found him sitting on a stump in the chicken yard. He said he couldn’t stand. Charlie on one side and me on the other, we walked him back to his bed. Once there his hands began scrabbling and he was moving his mouth as if speaking but made no sound. His eyes were closed as if asleep or unconscious yet we couldn’t rouse him. Lucy said Boss had already left on a horse to fetch Doctor Blowe.     

            It was the doctor’s opinion that Daddy had suffered a stroke. Only time would tell if it was fatal. This was its own kind of death, however as time seemed to stand still as the family began its vigil.

            A few mornings later Daddy was found unresponsive and cold to the touch. It was apparent he had died in the night. I worried for my half-siblings. Most of them were minors and now orphans. What would become of them? Would they be split up? Only Betty, Jim and I were married. But what of Charlie and Boss or Buddy and Richard. Josie was just sixteen and Lucy the youngest was eight. Maybe the court would let them go live with Betty. I couldn’t take them in. I already was overcrowded in the home Daddy was letting me use with four children. And no sane judge would place a child with Jim Bass. It was its own blessing that he and Allie remained childless.

Once I determined Daddy was indeed dead, I asked my sisters to sit with him until the undertaker could come.           

“Where’s Jim,” I asked Charlie. “We need to go to Jackson and report that Daddy has died. I’ve got the will already.”

            “He went out early to oversee them planting the corn.”

            “Well, I don’t have time to wait for him. If he comes in let him know I’m on the way to court.”

            Jackson Courthouse was seven miles away so it would take a little over an hour by buggy, but I wasn’t in any hurry. I grieved Daddy’s passing but realized he had no joy in life. He had been living a half life for months. I believe he had lost his will to live. I thought I had grieved as much as I would, but every now and then, a traitorous tear would slide down my face.

            I suddenly heard the clatter of hooves on the hardpack gravel road behind me. Someone was coming, and they were coming fast. I looked over my shoulder as my half-brother Jim came around the turn. He had a face of grim determination. I brought the buggy to a halt to allow Jim to catch up. Perhaps we could ride together. I don’t care much for Jim but grief brings families together. Jim jumped off his horse not five yards away and charged the buggy. I only then became alarmed. Jim grabbed my arm and violently pulled me out of the buggy and to the ground. He jumped on me and we rolled about, each getting an occasional punch in, but mostly wrestling.

            “Where is it, damn you? Where is it?”

            “What?” I was astonished at my half-brother’s violence. Jim was in his prime at twenty-five and weighed a good fifty pounds more than me. As my stamina failed, Jim twisted my arm back and hauled me into a standing position. He slapped me several times, hard.

            “Where’s the goddamn will?”

            “In the buggy.” Jim roughly shoved me so that I tripped over some roots and fell to the ground. He found my valise on the seat and quickly pulled out the will inside. I watched with horror as Jim struck a match and set the will afire.

            “Jim, what are you doing? That’s Daddy’s last will. What’s the matter with you?”

            “YOU are what’s the matter with me. It’s always ‘Yes, Daddy’ and ‘No, Daddy’ and ‘Let me help, Daddy’. You poisoned him against me. You were always his favorite, damn you. He’s left you everything. But I have another will. You and my bitch of a sister Betty are cut out. As next in line I get guardianship of my brothers and sisters and will control their shares of the estate. I’ll be in total control of everything. And my first act will be to kick you out of Father’s house. Then I’m going to take the farm and the company. You’ll have nothing then. I’ll see you in the Poor House.”

            Before I could even think of a reply Jim was on his horse and on the way to Jackson. I knew there was bad blood but I never sensed that level of hatred from Jim before. I wondered if he had gone mad?

            Jim’s clumsy attempt at forgery was quickly discovered by the clerk of court. A judge declared it null and ordered the entire estate sold. With a loan from Mont Daniel, I purchased the entire estate — house, farm and company. This enraged Jim who swore eternal hatred for me. I eventually had to threaten him that if he approached my house I would shoot him.

Jim was given guardianship of our brothers and sisters who all got cash settlements from the sale of the estate. The court monitored the disbursement of the money of the minors and required periodic accounting until they became adults. Jim could only employ minor schemes to line his pockets with his siblings’ inheritance. My half-sister Josie refused to be his ward. She ended up becoming the ward of our cousin, Boss Dred Bass. By the next year they were married. Jim tried to turn Lucy and my other half-brothers against me but they all could see that he was consumed with his own rage.

March 1918

            The building of the new church was coming along apace. My cousin Thomas Edwards had given us a little piece of land when we split with Elam back December before last. Bethel Church was going to be a beautiful country church with a tall steeple. And I was to be one of the first deacons.

            “Good morning, Mr. V.I.” one of the workers called as I walked my horse onto the grounds.

            “Morning, Phil. And to the rest of y’all. Not much longer now.”

            “No sir, not long at all. She should be ready for the first service by June.”

            “Well, carry on,” I said, suddenly feeling useless sitting there on my big horse. I turned him and cantered back home, which was within sight of the new church. In fact, the church was just across the road from our little schoolhouse. My finest accomplishments were all in my little neighborhood, visible from my front porch. The preacher says Jesus wants us to do good works at home. I’m doing my part. The church, the school and, of course, the Negro school. Not everyone was in favor of that. Some of the men spat at me and called me “nigger lover” and worse. Ida was livid when I told her I was going to do it. She feared for our reputation among the county families.

            “I don’t give a damn about reputation,” I roared. I had never cursed at her before and it caused her to shrink back. “I’m sorry, my love, but you are just wrong. The coloreds are God’s children just like anyone else. We held them in bondage so long, we owe them so much. Teaching them to read and write will help them to get jobs beyond field hand. They can participate in public life, vote responsibly. Even become businessmen maybe.”

            “A colored business? That’ll be the day. And if there is, I’ll not darken their door.”

            “Educated colored people are what we need. Look at Melvin Freeman. He came by the store today.”

            “How is Melvin? He’s such a nice colored boy.”

            “Hardly a boy anymore. He’s got children of his own now. He came by to pay his bill. Paid it in full, on time with cash. A lot of the other businessmen told me I was a fool to give a colored man a charge account, but I’ve known Melvin since he was a child. I knew he had character and wouldn’t do me wrong. He’s just starting out in life and it was the right thing to do. I bet it won’t be long now before old man Daniel does the same.”

            “But you do so much for them. Maybe you should slow down. Let everybody else catch up.”

            “Well, honeybunch. It’s a done deal. I applied to Raleigh for the license and they approved it. The old Massey house has a large central room. It’s been standing vacant. It’s ideal for the purpose.” Especially since it was across the road from Jim Bass’ house. How he would hate that.

            “On the main road? Right in the middle of our community? What next, Vernon? Are you going to invite them to dinner and to sleep in our bed?”

            “Calm down. It will be alright. Reverend Studenbrook said it was the Christian thing to do.”

            “Studenbrook! I don’t care a thing for him. He caused all the trouble at Elam and made us leave. Our families have been members there since it started, more than a hundred years. Both our great great grandparents gave the land it’s built on. And we just walk away? Studenbrook is no friend of Elam or your new-fangled Bethel.”

            I pulled her into my arms.

            “Shhh, my love. Everything will be alright.”

Lloyd

April 1918

            “Y’all are all goin’ to Hell! Gambling in church.” Fen snatched up the dice and threw them into my face. “I’m gonna tell the preacher, Lloyd. Tell on all of ya.”

            “Well, it ain’t exactly a church yet. It ain’t even got a roof,” I said.

            “Just the same. It’s gonna be a church. And y’all dicing here like a den of thieves. It’s a sin!”

            Fen was always a bit dramatic and churchy. Him and his little brother Alvin were the closest boys to my house, sharecroppers like the Grizzards. They were younger than me so I didn’t play much with them when we were small. Even at 13 Fen was so immature. Me and Russell were 14 and Rufus was 15. We was just dicing and cutting the fool in back of the new church building. Russ even had a flask of his granddaddy’s moonshine he’d snuck out. Luckily he hid it when we saw Fen and Alvin coming.

            “Hell, Fen. Go do your Bible thumping somewhere else,” I said.

            “I know about you,” he fumed, pointing a finger at me. “You think you’re better than us. But your daddy ain’t nothing but a yellow-bellied nigger lover. My daddy said so!”

            I was up in a flash and got one good right to his jaw before Russ and Rufe held me back.

            “Go on! Get outta here! You done done enough trouble,” Rufe yelled at him. Fen grabbed Alvin by the arm and ran off.

            “You think he’s gonna tell?” asked Russ.

            “Probably, but who cares? Playing with dice ain’t no sin.” Rufe seemed sure of himself. He always seemed older than he was. He walked with swagger. Yeah, his family had money but it was more than just that. He had confidence. His folks were also good family friends. His granddaddy helped Papa buy the farm, and rumor was that Rufe was sweet on my cousin Mamie.

            “What would Mamie say?” I asked, not willing to let the opportunity to tease him go by. His ears turned red. Yes, he liked her.

            “You got no room to talk. I seen the way you look at Mollie. Like you want to eat her up.” The fight went out of me. Mollie was a whole other fight. I might be able to convince Papa to let me court Mollie, but Mama will never agree. We are in a fix.

August 1919

            I sat slumped in my seat with my knees up against the back of the seat in front of me. I had my jacket off but was still sweating bullets. Lordy, but it’s hot in here. I cut my eyes around at the crowd. Men sitting erect, mothers shushing unruly children, old ladies fanning themselves with fans advertising a funeral home. The preacher was thundering out fire and brimstone, hell and damnation. It was what was expected for Summer Revival. At the end they’d sing a weepy hymn and all the old ladies would go up to cry on the preacher’s shoulder. Every night for a week. Only the Baptists could come up with something this evil. It did have one bright spot. A very bright spot. Mollie’s family, although members of Spring Church, came to Revival every night. I spotted her immediately but didn’t dare go sit with her. Mama would have a cow. So I just sat and wondered at her beauty. I had one of the new hymnals in my lap. It was mainly so the other boys beside me wouldn’t see my erection. I pulled a pencil stub out of my pocket and doodled on the back page of the hymnal. Mama said I’d go to hell for messing up “God’s Holy Word”. If what the preacher says is true, I’m going anyway on account of my lecherous thoughts. Lecherous is a word we learned last month. The preacher called me and all the rest of the boys together to have a lesson about the sin of Onan. Damn, everything fun is against God’s Word. But I cain’t help how I feel when I see Mollie. She just does it for me. Loving her seems so natural. Why does God hate me for something so natural? Something I can’t control?

After a while I looked and realized without thinking about it I had drawn a heart. I pondered on it for a minute then thought “what the hell”. I wrote in block letters under it “LLOYD LOVES MOLLIE”. There. Preserved for all time in the church.

            Mollie had told me she would be there. The Saturday night before services began on Sunday she had slipped up on me while I was doing my evening chores of slopping the hogs and settling them for the night. She occasionally sneaked over and helped with this chore. Her house was less than a half mile away across the fields. She would secure the gate while I poured out the corn and water. I could linger about fifteen to twenty minutes but no longer or Mama would ask questions. Mollie had asked that night if we would be attending Revival.

            “Papa’s a deacon. What do you think?” When she said she would be coming I got so excited and made her promise to slip away to see me each night after service.

Mama was also aware Mollie was there and kept an eagle eye on me. But Mama had to socialize after the service and I easily slipped away. I caught Mollie’s attention and we walked off a bit and stood under the huge elm tree by the church drive. Even with a full moon it was very dark under the tree. As soon as we had cover I pulled Mollie in for a kiss. She responded, enthusiastic as ever for a moment but then pushed me away.

            “Lloyd, don’t. You’ll wrinkle my dress.”

            “Hell with the dress.”

            “But the wrinkles will make Mama notice, and then she’ll look at my face, and then she’ll know.”

            “Your Mama don’t care. She likes me, thinks we’re a good match.” Miz Grizzard was tops in my book.

            “She’s afraid. If anything happens between us she’s afraid Mister V.I. won’t let her work for him no more. And she told me not to be a hussy.”

            “What’s a hussy?”

            “I ain’t sure. But it ain’t good.”

            “It don’t matter. Papa ain’t like that. He wouldn’t do nothing against your mama.”

            “He might not want to, but everybody knows Miss Ida usually gets what she wants. If she sets in on him, he’ll cave in and put my mama out.”

            “I won’t let him.”

            “I don’t think that’s something you can promise.”

            “I’ll tell him it ain’t Christian. That always works.”

            “Oh, Lloyd. What are we gonna do?”

            “How about this?” And I leaned in for another kiss.

            She came every night that week and it was wonderful. Seeing her everyday I knew we were meant to be together. The third night I led her under the elm tree and pressed her fingers against the trunk.

            “What?” she asked.

            “Feel that?”

            “Yeah. It’s a tree, silly.”

            “Feel closer. It’s letters carved into the tree. I carved LB+MG this afternoon. This tree will be here forever, and our love will be here forever on this tree. Can’t no one keep us apart. We’ll find a way.”

March 1921

            “Now, I want you to sit with your cousin Annie Kee in church today,”

            “I don’t want to sit with her. All the other boys will laugh at me. I want to sit with them.”

            “You will sit with your cousin. You can meet your hooligan friends anytime. It’s Easter Sunday and my brother Jim says she’s going to be wearing a new dress and a flower corsage. She’ll be beautiful and needs a swain to escort her in,” Mama said in her fake sweet voice.

            “Whatever a swain is, I ain’t it.” I wasn’t having any part of it. I knew what she was after.

            “Honey, listen to me. You need to get that trashy Grizzard girl out of your mind. Annie’s just a few years older than you and a perfect match. They’re coming over from Elam today special because I told him you would be interested in sitting with Annie.”

            “What’d you do that for? I don’t want to sit with her. She’s got buck teeth. And she smells funny. And you got no right to call Mollie trashy.”

            “Lloyd Alton Bass, you will sit with her in church today. End of discussion.” And she marched out of my bedroom.

“No!” I shouted.

Papa appeared at my door.

“I don’t reckon I heard that clearly. You said you’d be doing what your mama asked, didn’t you?”

“Yes, Papa.” I bowed my head. Papa talked softly, but I knew he’d brook no argument.

January 1923

            “You sure about this?” I asked her.

            “No.”

            “We got to decide now. Ain’t no going back.”

            “But it’s such a big step. It affects so many people. I’m scared.”

            “I’m scared too, honey. I can’t do this without you. And I won’t make you do it. You got to be in all the way or we can stop where we are. We can still back out.”

            We were standing outside in the road in front of Mr. Massey’s house at 3 a.m. It was about halfway between Mollie’s house and mine. Mollie was bundled in a thick coat but still shivered. I don’t know if it was from the chill or what we were about to do. Probably both.

            “What do you want most in the world?” I asked her.

            “You, of course.”

            “And I live for you. Ain’t no way we ever going to be together lessen we do this.”

            “You’re right. Let’s go.” She climbed up in the carriage. I tucked the quilt tight around her and pulled it over my lap. Mollie had a carpet satchel with her. I had Papa’s valise with a change of clothes and the family Bible.  I flicked the whip and Betsy set off at a trot. My horse was none too happy about being up at this hour of the morning but I had made sure she had rest all day and extra food at supper. It was ten miles to Emporia. At an easy walk we could make it in three hours.

            “Your Mama’s gonna kill us,” Mollie fretted.

            “Mama will learn to live with it.”

            We rolled into Emporia just after sun up. Old Betsy was dragging so I found a livery and paid them a quarter to let her rest. Mollie and I went to the Emporia Hotel and I bought us the dollar breakfast.

            “Our wedding breakfast, honey,” I whispered to her. She managed a smile.

            “Your folks will be up by now. They know we’re gone.”

            “Ain’t nothing they can do about it. They’ll expect we went to Jackson Courthouse. Mama will call up Aunt Ro to send somebody to the courthouse to stop us. They won’t think about Emporia.” I suddenly realized I liked rebelling against Mama’s control more than I was afraid of her. Take that, ha!

            The Justice of the Peace was a mean looking fellow. I imagine crooks didn’t much like facing him. He looked as if he didn’t care much for us, either. We presented our documents showing I was all of eighteen years and four months old and Mollie was nineteen years and five months. He gave us a look that said he considered we were making the biggest mistake of our young lives. After the brief ceremony we went back to the Emporia Hotel and booked a room.

            “We gotta finalize it or they can still pull us apart.” I said.  She wrapped her arms around my neck. “Oh, Lloyd. This is the best part.” And then she giggled.

            I dropped off Mollie at her mama’s house before I went home. I figured Mama would have a lot to say and none of it good. Mollie didn’t need to hear what Mama might say when she was mad. Yeah, I knew there’d be hell to pay.

            It was as bad as I expected. Mama was red faced in no time. She threw a few words at me that I didn’t even think she knew. Then she started in on Mollie. I got right in her face then and told her she was not allowed to talk like that about my wife. Then she ordered me out of her house. At this point Papa stepped in.

            “Give us a few minutes, son. Go water the horses.” I could hear her shouting all the way down at the stables.

            About twenty minutes later Papa came and found me by the stable, brushing Betsy. He sat on a block of wood.

            “You done did it now,” he said. I looked at him and saw he was grinning. “I can’t say I’m surprised. Everybody knew you were all about Mollie. You need to give your mama some time. I think I put the fire out for now. She’s like a storm. She has to blow for a while, but then she’ll settle. She’ll go for guilt next. Say you broke her heart and all.”

            “I’m sorry, Papa. I didn’t want to hurt y’all but it was the only way.”

            “I know, son. I know.” He seemed to consider. Then he continued.

            “You got plans now? You risked burning this bridge. I hope you know how you’ll support your new family.”

            “Miz Grizzard said we can use her attic for a time. There’s plenty of sharecropper cabins. Mr. Daniel needs farm hands. We’ll get by.”

            “You’ll do nothing of the kind. I’ll not have any son of mine turned into a sharecropping field hand. You will continue here as you always have. I’ll pay you a fair wage. Your brother John’s got no interest in farming. Since the last War in Europe ended he took Ruth and moved to Norfolk. We don’t hardly see him no more. Howard can’t on account of he’s deaf. Virginia’s just a little girl. I depend on you. I’ll give you half of this year’s profits on the hogs as a wedding present and over time give over most of the farm to you. I got the store in Seaboard to keep me busy.”

            “Papa? You sure? I mean, yeah, I want to. But will Mama allow it?”

            “Leave your mama to me. I’ve spent my life making her see which side of history she needs to be on. I guess one more battle won’t hurt. And I don’t want you staying in that rattletrap shack of the Grizzards any longer than you have to. The Shaw cabin down behind the colored school has been vacant a couple of years. You and Mollie could fix it up in no time. Make a real nice little love nest for the two of you. It is just the two of you? No six month surprises on the way?”

            “No, Papa. We did everything proper. No matter what Mama thinks, Mollie is a real lady.”

            “You know that’s the next thing your Mama will be on about. Thinking you got the girl in a family way. Well, a few more months and she’ll see.”

            “Papa, thank you for this. And thank you for everything. I’ll try to make you proud.”

            “Son, I already am proud. You didn’t exactly pick the easiest road, but I think you picked the best one we left open. You followed your heart. I never had that kind of courage. Yes, son. You do me proud.” He put his arm across my shoulders. That’s about as physical as Papa ever got, but it meant so much to me.

2014

            Lloyd and Mollie’s love story continued in spite of all obstacles. Through the Great Depression and another World War they stuck it out. They brought five children into the world and raised them to adults. Ida Bass never truly accepted Mollie. The closest she came was when she told Mollie that she would be the second Mollie Bass to be mistress of the house which Vernon had passed to him, in reference to Vernon’s step-mother. And several times a month Lloyd and his growing brood would sit around Vernon’s table at Sunday dinner.

            Karma is an ironic thing.  Vernon and Ida had four children. Only Lloyd and Mollie provided grandchildren. Grandpa loved his grandchildren but Grandma was a bit tepid. It was heartbreaking to me when my Dad said, “My grandmother never loved me.” I had such bountiful love from my grandmother that this was inconceivable. And when great grandchildren came along, Grandpa loved to dandle them on his knee. They tell me he was especially proud to hold me in his lap. I wish I could remember but he passed away right after I turned two. Ida passed away in 1950. Vernon continued along. When he fell too ill to care for himself in 1958 the question arose as to who would care for him. None of his children spoke up at the family meeting. Mollie Bass stood and said she was ashamed of them all and that Grandpa would come to her house.

            “You sure, honeybunch?” Lloyd asked.

            “Of course I’m sure. He’s your daddy. It’s what any daughter and good Christian would do.” Lloyd’s siblings refused to make eye contact and quickly left fearing she might change her mind. Grandpa moved in with his son and Mollie tended him as if he were her own father until he quietly passed away in January 1959.

            Lloyd and Mollie’s remarkable marriage survived nearly 65 years and their love story spanned almost 80 years until he succumbed in 1987. Mollie followed him in 2001. They rest side by side near the little church where he diced with his friends. A few feet away is the huge elm with the faintly discernable LB+MG on the side. In the annex the church has preserved the hymnal proclaiming his love for Mollie.

            I visit the community once in awhile to reconnect with my father. We like to take walks. Sometimes we walk past the old house his great grandfather built. The house Dad grew up in and where I passed many hours of my youth. It is deserted now and sits forlornly on its hilltop. We sometimes sit on the porch and he will reminisce about the love and joy that inhabited this house. Sometimes we walk under the old pecan trees near the cemetery where Solona and so many other family members are buried and fill our pockets with pecans, just because. And sometimes we walk down to the old stand of trees where I played as a child, as did my father and grandfather and every child in our family back to when we bought the land in 1811. We will step into the cool shade of the woods and become quiet in reverence of nature. I will smell the sweet tang of pines, and rich rotting of leaves. I will feel the soft breeze as it cools my face. I will hear the scolding of a squirrel for invading his home and the gentle buzzing from the bees who have hived in the hollow chestnut tree. And if I listen closely, I can barely hear it, as if from far away, a tiny voice “Girls can’t climb trees.” Always followed by “Oh yes I can.”

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