By John Hassell Yeatts © 1983-2012
Issue: March, 1983
(An excerpt from the book REMEMBERING OLD MAYBERRY by John H. Yeatts)
Of all my numerous aunts, I remember Aunt Julia the best, perhaps because she almost constantly smoked a pipe. Actually, she had been married to my grandmother’s brother, a Civil War soldier who died before my memory, and somehow she wasn’t regarded like the brothers and sisters of my Pa and Ma. But then, I guess great aunts never are, particularly aunts by marriage. But I did have a kind of love for Aunt Jule that was something between affection, fascination and fondness, or maybe containing all three.
When she made her infrequent visits to Mayberry Store the day became practically like a holiday. People would come but few, if any, would leave until Aunt Jule left. She would place herself cautiously atop a nail keg, carefully lift her skirt from the floor to escape ambeer and other dirt, and lapse into a story that might take hours. There were rarely any interruptions; even Mr. Scott would cease his usual puttering and arranging merchandise and stand motionless behind the counter, peeping over his small spectacles with a fascinated smile that would often spread into a wide grin as the details of her stories became more and more humorous. Sometimes the sessions would continue into the evening, and then Aunt Jule would have to borrow another kerosene lantern from Mr. Scott to light her pathway up the hill and through the forests. “I keep aiming to bring some of those lanterns back,” she once told him, “But it seems I’m never heading this way in the dark and I just can’t remember. Seems like it’s always going back that I need them.” But eventually all were returned.
One of the things I remember best about Aunt Jule is the way she and her afflicted son, Pink, and daughter, Ethel, scratched out a meager living from their small, poor acreage on the slope of Hurricane Hill. Her only cash income was a Confederate Widow’s pension of $12.50, which was mailed monthly from Richmond and usually hand-delivered breathlessly by my sister Eileen and me. She didn’t trust it to be left in her mailbox. Eileen and I were usually breathless because of the long climb up the hill as well as anticipation of her scary stories of the Civil War and reconstruction, ghost and all. These were our coveted rewards for the special delivery service.
Aunt Jule delivered hundreds of babies throughout the region, for which she received nothing but gratitude from the families. They got good service and entertainment in the same package, for her story telling would go on and on far into and sometimes throughout the night. Children seldom went to bed while Aunt Jule was present.
Her meager pension served to augment the few vegetables and corn they raised, by purchasing salt, soda, coffee and such. There was sometimes a little left over for some “store tobacco,” which she carefully blended in with the crumbling long-leaf bright from Mt. Airy to be stowed away in bright tin boxes. This was later burned in her several clay, long-stemmed pipes as she sat rocking and spinning tales. Lordy, it was fun just watching and listening and smelling that strong tobacco smoke.
When the early October frosts came, snipping the walnut stems and sending the green pods plummeting to the tangled grass, Old Hurricane Hill turned into a kaleidoscopic maze of deep, dark forests. It was about then that the winter apples became edible and it became the season of raccoons and ‘possums. It was also then that we would fill our overall jackets with the abundant fruit and go following the scampering hounds into those same forests. And later when the fun was gone from the chase, we would tie our dogs in Aunt Jules yard and gather round her rocker and crackling fire to be astounded by the new twists of her stories. Ever so often we would be treated to a new tale.
We were all there at one time or another: the Yeatts, the Barnards, Banks, Scotts, Lights, Terrys, Bowmans, Spanglers, Webbs, Marshalls, and Vippermans. Oh yes, we all came. Not at once, but at one time or another, and we all departed into the black and blustery nights filled with apples, awe and appreciation. It was always something to be at Aunt Jule’s fireside.
It was said that her fire was never allowed to burn out and that she seldom went to bed before dawn. It was also said that she covered a derringer in the folds of her long, black dress to help protect a small sack of gold kept deep in a big brown chest in her kitchen. In time we knew the gold had never been there, but it may as well have been. For years we truly believed that it was.
When I returned to old Mayberry from one of my many excursions into the never-never lands of America, I learned that Aunt Jules remains were resting in an old cemetery on the southern foot of Hurricane Hill. I visited her grave and silently apologized for being absent when they returned her to the impoverished earth she loved so well. Several years went by and I decided one day to go visit her old home place. There was nothing left but a lamentable pile of fallen gray boards and rafters. The chimneys had collapsed into mounds of blackened rubble, and the vines were beginning to hide forever the remains of so many years of childish joy. There was little evidence of the flowers and roses that used to bloom in such profusion beside her small, unpainted cottage doors. A blue jay nearby startled me with his raucous scream. A gray squirrel scampered up a hickory tree with a large brown nut in his mouth. The autumn wind blew down from the top of Hurricane Hill, filled with the moaning sighs of a thousand years.
And I could have sworn that, above it all, I heard the faint and distant sound of laughter.