Mom taught me my letters and how to sound-spell and I would puzzle out some of the shorter words, getting good enough that with my supply of imagination, a lot of people thought I could read. By the middle of the following summer, before my fifth birthday, I really could though I still needed help with some of the harder words.
A few things happened before that next birthday that I particularly remember, though. The biggest was probably that Hank Williams died. Mom, Dad and I and about forty aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and friends were at Ma and Pa Dale’s for a New Years Day feast.
Uncle Charley, Pa Dale’s eldest brother, was there. I described Pa Dale earlier as looking sort of like a taller Stan Laurel playing Jed Clampett. Uncle Charley looked like Benny Hill dressed for pickin’ and grinnin’ and he clowned for us little kids with all the enthusiasm of Pee Wee Herman.
He would get down in the floor and wool us around like a big dog and we would laugh until some of us needed diapers changed. He’d pick us up in his mouth by the back of our bibs and carry us around while we squealed and giggled. He was about to turn 76; he still had all of his own teeth, but only a little fringe of white hair around his ears.
Pa was a clown, too — pulling faces, telling stories complete with silly voices, and making toys for us from old spools; dollies for the girls and little tractors for the boys. He and Uncle Charley both got down in the floor and pretended to bury us in the linoleum. Pa had false teeth so he couldn’t do the trick with carrying us in his mouth.
In the middle of this hilarity while getting ready for the big festivities, somebody came in, I think Uncle Ross, my Mom’s brother, and told everyone that Hank Williams had died. The big radio in Ma and Pa’s living room was turned on and everyone had to be quiet while the grownups who had been sitting on the front porch in cane-bottom chairs chawing terbacky and dipping snuff listened to the news.
Hank Williams, the biggest star on the radio, had died in the back of a Cadillac while being driven from one show to another. The women cried and the men looked solemn. I started to cry, too. “Was he Mr. Williams or Uncle Hank?” I asked. Everyone seemed so upset I thought he must have been a relative I hadn’t met yet.
There were four of us cousins less than six years old but old enough to walk and talk. We had rooms full of grown-ups ready to spoil us when Uncle Hank had to go and die and put a damper on the party.
Brenda, Roger and I were all born in the same summer only weeks apart. Roger’s sister Kay was six and had started first grade a year early at five by following her older brother to school and refusing to go home. So she sort of counted as a big kid to us. Roger’s little brother Bill was two and talked around the fooler in his mouth. A fooler is a baby’s pacifier, binky, or maggie, if you’re wondering.
Bill looked like a miniature Uncle Charley, complete with fringe of white hair around his ears, except that he didn’t have all his teeth yet. He was a smart little guy though and had already become locally famous for a few zingers.
Like what happened when Ma Dale had introduced him to her quilting circle as her “Little Bimbo” after a popular song of the time about a little boy who had a lot of girlfriends. Bill had removed his fooler and announced to the old ladies that, “Bimbo is a little shit-ass.”
And even with very few teeth, he could bite like a snapping turtle and so had our respect.
Bill’s actual name was Roland, and his brother Roger was usually called Bud. Their oldest brother, Robert, was called Robert, though, presumably to avoid confusion. Their mother, Aunt Ava, had a Mississippi drawl as broad as the river, along with blue-eyed blonde cheerleader looks and a bouncy, good-natured enthusiasm that didn’t seem to go with being a mother of four at the age of 25.
My mother and my Aunt Myrtle probably distrusted Aunt Ava’s flatlander origins and her roping their brother Ross into marriage to a teenager but they traded barbs and quips with her exactly like they did with each other.
Aunt Myrtle had clearly inherited her sense of humor from whatever strand of ancestry had supplied Uncle Charlie’s; she had the kind of earthy humor that might suggest plugging an electric blanket into an unlikely place if the power went out. Mom had a quick sarcastic turn of phrase like a Katherine Hepburn character; but Aunt Ava could hold her own with a sly grin, a wink, a giggle and an occasional zinger of her own. She was Bill’s mother after all.
They all worked in the big farmhouse kitchen beside Ma Dale, a tiny woman with her hair up in a bun. If she let it down, it would lay on the floor for almost three feet and it stayed black for more than sixty years. Ma’s own grandmother had taught her some rather German twists on things like spice cake, egg noodles and potato pancakes. She cooked with enthusiasm and skill and liked nothing much better than a lot of people to show up and eat what she had prepared.
She knew how to handle a passel of daughter and daughter-in-law helpers but people kept arriving on hearing of the death of Hank Williams and the frying of Ma’s chickens along with the pans of cornbread, biscuits and cobbler, the pots of beans, black-eyed peas and cream corn, and the plates of winter vegetables like onions, potatoes and turnips. Thirty or forty people had been expected but the feast grew to more than seventy and went on for two days, with another day just for clean-up.