The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Zwilling Place

By L. Milton Hankins © 1989

Issue: October, 1989

I can still remember Aunt Alice Zwilling striding up the hill toward my grandmother's house for their weekly get-together. At two o'clock on the dot every Tuesday afternoon Aunt Alice would charge into Grandma's sitting room, confiscate my grandfather's favorite rocking chair and launch into a precise, two-hour-long monologue (never a minute more, never a minute less).

Just as abruptly as she had commenced, when her time was up and her weekly report concluded, she would rise from the chair and announce, "I'll see you next week, Pearl" and depart with not so much as a further fare-thee-well. As she stepped through the back door, she would always hesitate, thrust her head back into the room and say, "Pearl, you didn't forget to send Reverend Talbot his dollar now, did you?

What Aunt Alice had to talk about each week came from an unusually bland menu - her opinions about the outcomes of her favorite radio soap opera situations and her latest observations of her neighbors. Starting with the newest in the community and progressing backward through the older families and their on-going sagas, she shared information she had come by through a not-so-surreptitious use of her spyglass. Everyone around knew Aunt Alice was spying on them, but no one gave a hoot!

Aunt Alice was married to Uncle Henry. Uncle Henry Zwilling was a Swiss immigrant, a fact which had nothing to do with anything particularly, except that it made everyone who knew them wonder how Uncle Henry had wound up in Greenswitch in the first place and how he, who rarely said a word and never a harsh one, met up with and married Aunt Alice. He was the only Swiss Catholic anybody around Greenswitch had ever seen, and it was a curiosity that he had attached himself to a rampant fundamentalist of the Baptist variety who spent most of her waking hours rattling through the closets of her quite common neighbors, none of whom had anything of a truly sordid nature to hide.

While Aunt Alice customarily consumed hours honing in on the fully suspecting and uncaring, Uncle Henry rocked calmly and quietly before the Warm Morning, toasting his feet on the lower flange, smoking his sweetbriar, watching the birds glide gracefully to and from the coffee-can feeder he had rigged up in a gigantic elm tree out in the back yard.

A hundred or so observations could be made of Aunt Alice and Uncle Henry, and each one would have qualified them as the strangest people in Greenswitch. The house they lived in, for instance...

In their younger days Aunt Alice had built the house entirely from the ground up by herself, and she had, after a fashion, kept it up over the years. Uncle Henry never ever lifted a hammer to it, and the house was, to say the least, distinctly different by virtue of it origin and idiosyncrasies from any other house anyone ever saw. It was low and rambling and nothing was plumb or square. Every window was a different size. No two doors were the same height or width, and to go from one room to another, one either stepped up or down to avoid tripping on the sills. Its lone gable and its porch sagged, and the chimney clutched desperately at the wood-shingled roof.

Another instance... In the mid-fifties Aunt Alice and Uncle Henry could occasionally be seen touring a back-country, dirt road in their late twenties Ford, as bright and shiny as new, Aunt Alice at the wheel, her mouth in high gear, puffs of white smoke swirling around Uncle Henry's elbow hanging out the right-side window, twenty miles per hour (never a mile more, never a mile less).

Once a year, in the dead of winter, and always requiring a thick blanket of snow on the ground, I would walk up to the Zwilling place where I was expected and warmly welcomed. Uncle Henry ritualistically popped a big bowl of homegrown popcorn (his only crop) with one of those old-style shaker corn poppers over the Warm Morning while Aunt Alice baked spiced apples and practiced her information-gathering skills on me. This early visit was essentially good for all concerned since it reinforced our distant family ties. It provided me with countless stories of my forbearers - tales which Aunt Alice would have spun generously for anyone who would have listened except there weren't many Aunt Alice numbered among her confidants since she and Uncle Henry were considered quite... well, dare I say "weird?"... by everyone who knew them, including family. It also increased my awareness of and appreciation for their individuality.

Even their appearance was evidence. Aunt Alice was a big-boned, sturdy, muscular woman with hard face supported by a firm-set jaw. She had large, flaring hands and strong fingers which could grip a handsaw meaningfully or grasp a hammer with intent. Her grayish-brown hair was Medusa-like, a mass of untamed curls springing out menacingly. Frequently she would jab at her hair with those monstrous hands; she would stab an offending coil into submission with a crooked hairpin and, after many days of inattention, her hair would appear to be totally out-of-control. I do not know a single soul who ever saw Aunt Alice when her hair was such that a comb could be run through it.

On the other hand, Uncle Henry was the prototype of "dapper." He was tall and slender with soft, silvery white hair, always smooth, always meticulously groomed, his thin white mustache trimmed as straight as a ruled chalkline across his upper lip. His brilliant blue eyes were twinkly and mirthfully piercing. His hands were soft, his fingers long, thin, and graceful. Uncle Henry was to kind and gentle what Aunt Alice was to brusque and forward.

When I reached the age of curiosity, having duly noted their simple, frugal life-style, I was concerned about their financial welfare. I said bluntly to my grandma, "How do Aunt Alice an Uncle Henry make a living?"

"They've got more than they'll ever use," she said. "Alice and Henry don't trust the banks, you know," my grandfather confided, but I hadn't known that.

"Where do they keep their money?" I asked innocently. I certainly wasn't old enough to realize the impropriety of such an inquiry, I am sure, but I was old enough to wonder about such things.

"They sure don't spend any of it!" Grandma chuckled...knowingly. "I reckon they'll leave it all to you, seein' as how you're the only kin that ever goes up there to see them."

I doubted very much there was any truth to what my grandma said, nor that there was any great sum of money to be concerned about, but my ears did prick up when grandfather added, "Most people think Alice's got her money hidden all around the property."

"If she does, nobody'll ever be able to find it, I bet," grandma put in.

As the years rolled on, Aunt Alice unfailingly kept her weekly appointments with my grandmother, continuing to accrue to herself eccentricity upon eccentricity until there came that time when she was a bonefide, living legend among the folks of Greenswitch.

By the time I had gone away to college my yearly visits were no longer feasible and Aunt Alice and Uncle Henry were well along in those years when "rest come sure and soon." Their appearance had slowly, but unmistakably, changed. No longer did Aunt Alice stride, nor did Uncle Henry's eyes twinkle as they once had. As Aunt Alice approached those years when she was no longer able to keep up the house, the Zwilling place mimicked them, adding dismal and disheveled to its already dilapidated appearance.

Periodically, my grandmother, who always wrote to me faithfully wherever I was, would mention "Alice and Henry" and always with grave concern about what would happen to one of them if the other should "pass away." Then, she would invariably enter a teasing remark about what I might be planning to do with my inheritance, coupled with an injunction that I must certainly come back to the Zwilling place to retire.

In reply, I would always remind her how ashamed of herself she ought to be for such thoughts, and she would, in her next letter, retort, "well, somebody's going to take over the place someday, and you might as well get all that money!"

Honestly, I never did take the idea too seriously that I might come into possession of the Zwilling place someday, but I did often think about the treasure that just might possibly be buried or otherwise hidden on the property. As a matter of fact, I thought more of it than I like to admit! Christmas Day fell on the symbolic Tuesday the dilapidated, Old Zwilling house burned to the ground.

It being Christmas Day, when traditionally all the family gathered at my grandmother's, Aunt Alice had left word the previous week that she would not be coming that afternoon. She had officiously requested from my grandma an additional half-hour be added onto the Tuesday hence to make up for the Christmas Day intrusion. This addendum to her request was the subject of some hilarity around the dinner table. I took up for Aunt Alice.

"Don't you see," I said, tongue-in-cheek, "Aunt Alice can't get two weeks worth of news in in two hours."

"She can't talk any faster than she usually does," my grandfather mused. "Give'r the extra half-hour, Pearl."

And, I swear, somebody added "Aunt Alice talks like a house a-fire" at the exact moment somebody burst through the front door yelling "Fire! Fire! The Zwilling place is goin' up!"

By the time we men got there, the situation was utterly hopeless. The roof had already caved in and the sidewalls were crumbling, masses of flame. We stood helpless in the wind, unable to save a single stick of furniture.

Aunt Alice and Uncle Henry Zwilling were standing back toward the road, out of danger, their despairing neighbors frantically doing what they could to console; and after it was well-established that absolutely nothing could be done to save anything it was hastily agreed upon that Alice and Henry should come on to my grandma's home to stay. It was at this point in all the confusion that I first became, aware that Aunt Alice had bundled something into her apron, clutching it much like a farm woman will use her apron to carry in the eggs or fetch a mess of green beans from the kitchen garden.

Then immediately upon their arrival at my grandma's, Aunt Alice motioned for the kitchen table to be cleared, whereupon, she released the contents of her apron over it and out poured hundreds of coins - yes, coins... coins of all denominations, and everyone began to count... three hundred and thirty seven dollars and twenty-nine cents worth of silver.

"It's all I could get to!" Aunt Alice said calmly and resolutely and she never shed a single tear, and, she never said another word. Yes, those were her very last words EVER. Now, I realize that sounds completely absurd, phony, and contrived, but that was it, folks! "It's all I could get to!" And that's all she ever said period for the rest of her days!

The following day, the day after Christmas, Uncle Henry was found dead in his bed at my grandma's, presumably, the doctor said, of smoke inhalation. A week later, Aunt Alice, shocked silent, tearless, uncomprehending and inconsolable, was transferred to a nursing home where she died in her ninety-fourth year of congestive heart failure.

The State, uncovering no legitimate heirs, came into possession of the Zwilling place and the neglected property quickly overgrew with wild shrubs and underbrush.

Still today, when I come to Greenswitch, and that is not too often anymore, I am compelled to drive over to the old Zwilling place. I park my car almost on the exact spot where Aunt Alice and Uncle Henry stood watching on that cold and windy Christmas Day as their home and all it meant to them went up in fire and smoke. I gaze across the property with its thickets and greenbriers and new stands of pine, and I think about two terse and long forgotten statements; that is, forgotten by everyone but me: "Most people think Alice's got her money hidden all around the property," Grandma had said, and... "It's all I could get to! It's all I could get to!". Aunt Alice's last words. I suppose no one will ever know, for sure.