On a Tuesday afternoon during my sophomore year in high school I was accompanying a choir rehearsal of junior high students. The director, a man in his late 50s, had apparently made a mistake and said, “I’m sorry.” One of the young singers replied, “You sure are.” That was 50 years ago and, either because of the rudeness or cleverness of the remark, I have never forgotten it.
I suspect the disrespect is what struck me, primarily because of the way my parents reared me. That is another word with a dual meaning. My mother often used the word “rear,” whereas most people would use “raise,” as in raising their children. Apparently people “reared” their offspring in Mama’s native northern Arkansas.
Probably the most distinctive expression I ever heard my mother use was, “I’ll bet you a pretty.” I have never heard anyone else use it. Ever. And I really cannot provide a specific example of her saying it, but a fabricated one might be, “I’ll bet you a pretty that it rains tomorrow.”
Mama had a sister-in-law (Aunt Lillian) in north Arkansas who used a word as part of her every day speech that I may have heard Mama’s sister use one time. The word was “yonder.” Most people know the word, and it appears in a hymn and a song I know, but “yonder” is rarely a part of one’s normal vocabulary. It conveys a sense of distance as in “over yonder” or “down yonder.” The old hymn I know in the Baptist hymnal of my childhood is “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder.”
All the members of my mother’s generation have gone “up yonder,” and with them has passed a colorful way of life. Uncle J.L. answered the telephone by almost shouting “Alright” into the receiver, held at arm’s length. Aunt Lillian would say that she would do something “d’rectly.” We washed the family car in the creek that ran not far from their house. The children slept on “pallets” in the middle of their house because that was simply the way it was. We ate Aunt Lillian’s dill pickles made from cucumbers they, of course, had grown in their garden. Mama and Daddy played the card game “Rook” with Uncle J.L. and Aunt Lillian in the evening. Nowhere else did our parents play “Rook.” (There is a sophisticated English anthem with the word “rook” in its title and I think of Uncle J.L. and Aunt Lillian every time I see that piece of music.) We visited Bear Creek Cemetery where Mama’s parents and some of her brothers are buried.
Perhaps the primary reason that Uncle J.L. and Aunt Lillian were our very favorite relatives to visit was because they alone had an outhouse. One of my fondest memories is of going into the backyard to “help” Uncle J.L. get water from the well. He would drop a cylinder on a chain into the well and I would listen for that cylinder to hit bottom and gurgle full. I “helped” by trying to pull it up, but left Uncle J.L. to do it by himself after maybe one tug. The very first time I saw running water in their house was in August of 1974. I was driving from Waco, Texas to Ann Arbor, Michigan to attend the University of Michigan so I stopped by to spend the night with them because they were on the way. Memories of my time with them helped me through my early days “up north.”
There is a story in our family lore that when my sister and I were about 3 or 4 years old, Carolyn was apparently looking around their house and said, with the innocence of a child, “Y’all are poor, aren’t’ you,” I cry now when I think of how rich they were, and how abundantly wealthy I am for being their nephew.
We were not able to attend Aunt Lillian’s funeral so Carolyn and I sent a spray of flowers. When the florist asked me how much I wanted to spend, I almost yelled, “I don’t care!” Our relationship with them was priceless. We learned all about the abundance of life from Uncle J.L. and Aunt Lillian, and the only thing I am sorry about is that we did not see them more often.