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March 21, 2004

Alabama Roots: Columbia 1

The memoirs of Ngnat's Great-Grandmother, Iva Wright.

Parts 1,2,3,4,5,6

When we moved to Columbia, North Carolina, it was the fall of 1944. The children were still young enough to be thrilled about moving. Jo was eight, Grace was six and had just started first grade, and Tommy was two. Back then the Annual Conference in North Carolina was held in November, and, of course, the children had already started a new school year. Moving meant taking them out of their school and getting them started in another one. That was not always easy, but as I said, they were excited and were still quick to adjust to a new situation. In was not until the 1950's that the Annual Conference voted to move to a summertime date.

Columbia was little town located on the Albemarle Sound on the North Carolina coast directly north of Hyde County. It was the county seat of Tyrrell County and, as small as it was, it was the only town in the county. People there made their living from the water, from logging, and from farming. Some ministers in the conference did not want to move to areas like that near the coast, but we always enjoyed living in those communities. They were rather isolated and it took longer to drive to conference meetings and other places, but we found them to be good places to live. It seemed to us that those coastal people loved and cared for their preachers in a special way.

We had four churches again. Wesley Memorial was the largest church and was located in Columbia. We had a church in the community of Gum Neck, also, and two other churches whose names I have forgotten. Our parsonage was located on Main Street, two doors down from the church. It was a two-story white house--and old house much like those we were accustomed to. Columbia was a new kind of place for the children because it was a real town. It was small, but it had a business district, and it had sidewalks. Children can skate on sidewalks. While we were still living in Old Trap, Carl had decided that the girls ought to have a pair of roller skates. There was nowhere anyone could really skate in Old Trap, but one day he brought home a pair skates for them to share. No, they did not take turns with the pair. Instead, each girl wore one skate. They would push with one foot and glide on the other–that is, they glided as best they could on a short front porch made of rough wooden planks. There were neither sidewalks nor even any paved streets at that time, so the prospect of sidewalks on which to skate was a thrill and after we got moved in, that was one of the first things they tried.

Columbia was also different from any other place that we lived because of a man named Foster Basnight. Foster was the first person to greet us the day we arrived in Columbia, and he was undoubtedly the most lovable and unusual man either Carl or I had ever met. I believe I can say truthfully that he still holds that record. When we drove up to the parsonage that day, he was standing in the driveway waiting for us. He was very fat and balding, and he was wearing a large, white bib apron. We later learned that apron was his standard uniform. On the rare occasion he didn't have it on, he had it within reach. I was always reminded, when I saw him, of the rotund baker in the ads for Nabisco breads and cakes.

Foster was unmarried and lived with a local family. He did their cooking, their housekeeping, and their baby-sitting and was a member of their family in every way. When new Methodist ministers came to town, he was the first to greet them, and the whole time they lived in Columbia, he was their right-hand man. If they had needs, he took care of them. For example, when we arrived, we found not only food on the table but that the kitchen was well stocked with canned and staple goods.

Tyrrell County was, and still is, very rural, and our churches were far apart. Though I don't remember exactly how Carl's preaching schedule was arranged to serve all those churches, I do remember that when we went to one of the out-of-town churches, Foster went with us. When we went to one of those churches, we went for the whole day. This meant we arrived early for Sunday school and then conducted the worship service. After service, we were invited into the home of one of the members for Sunday dinner. We spent Sunday afternoon in that home and ate supper with them also unless a second family had invited us for the evening meal. After supper, it was back to the same church for an evening service. It made for a long day, and I was expected to go along with Carl and take all the children. Although I did not go with him every time, I did so many times.

When we arrived at the home to which we had been invited for Sunday dinner, Foster did not sit down in the living room. He went to the kitchen, put on his apron, and started working. The schedule determining which family would have us for Sunday dinner had been worked out well in advance, but on one occasion, there was a slip up. After the morning service, we drove to the home Foster directed us to and pulled up into the yard, but the place seemed deserted. We went to the door and knocked, but still no one seemed around. I felt that we must have come to the wrong house and insisted that we return to the car and drive home, but Foster would not hear of it. Instead, he opened the door, invited us in, donned his apron and headed for the kitchen. By the time the homeowners arrived, he had a meal almost finished. They were embarrassed, I was embarrassed, and Carl was embarrassed, but Foster was not the least concerned. As it turned out, we had gone to the wrong house. Those people were not even members of our church, but they joined us in that meal as if they had been. I found it hard to believe that people would accept that kind of thing, but we soon found out that everyone in the area knew and loved Foster, and they found no fault with what he did.

Foster really went all out at special times of the year came like Easter or Christmas. He made it his business to tell each woman in the church what he expected her to prepare for the preacher's family. He knew each of the cooks in the church and what their unique talents were and he ordered accordingly. We always had wonderful cakes and pies on those holidays, and he also saw that we were supplied with a nice big turkey or a ham. People went along with that set-up and I never heard anyone complain. They were used to it. Foster always kept me informed about good prices of certain cuts of meat. He would call and say, "You need to get down to the market. They have a special on_______ today." When he came to see us, the children would run to greet him and sit in his lap. He loved children and was loved by all of them. He made time to play with them, and they looked forward to his coming.

It was not long after we moved to Columbia that children got started in school, and they began making new friends. In addition to school friends, they also played with the children next door, especially Dora Ann and .J. E. Roughton. Danny W____, another neighbor child, we called Dennis the Menace. He was an only child, just older than Tommy, and although he wanted to play with our children, they never wanted to play with him. He was just a little kid, but the children were terrified of him. He didn't know how to play; he just knew how to fight. If things didn't go his way, which was every time he came over, he would pick up the nearest thing to his hands and throw it at someone. He split Tommy's head open with a rock once, and threw rocks and sticks at the girls almost every time he came into our yard. If he was around, they refused to go outside. Even that didn't always work because if he wanted to play, he would just force himself into the house.

One Saturday afternoon I was baking a cake to take to a church dinner the next day. I had finished with the layers and had laid them out on the dining room table to cool when Danny came running through the house, angry because the children were trying to get away from him. He came through the dining room, saw those cakes on the table, and grabbed a big handful out of the center of each one. I could have snatched him baldheaded.

The problem with Danny was that no one could handle him, especially not his mother, so complaining to her never did any good. She seemed to be eager to have him off her hands, and when he misbehaved, she did nothing but threaten him with the wrath of his father. His father was in the Coast Guard and came home only every few weekends. The first thing his mother did when the father arrived was give him a litany of all of Danny's misbehaviors, and then the father would give him a good beating. We could always tell when the father was heading into his house because Danny would start yelling, "Don't hit me Daddy. Please don't hit me." It was a sad situation.

Danny came over one Sunday afternoon. It was a rainy cold bad day and we had decided not to go with Carl because it was so bad. He really needed me to go with him because this little church had no organist or pianist and no one to help him with the singing and there were always such a few there. They just had one Sunday afternoon service a month. That afternoon, we were getting our book ready to read. We were looking forward to it, all gathered around in the living room when Danny came to the door. We knew what would happen if we let him in because he always wanted to play rough and cause trouble. We knew he wouldn't be willing to sit and listen to a story, so we decided to pretend we were not home. We were not going to answer the door. Well, the poor little fellow beat and banged on the door for the longest time he finally left. I felt terrible about it, but we'd had so much trouble with him and so many interruptions, we just didn't want to bother with him that afternoon. His mother was home, but she did nothing. I know she had to have heard what was going on, but she didn't want to be bothered with Danny either. That was the pitiful part.

Although I didn't allow my children to fight with him, he managed to always bring a fight with him. If they wouldn't, he would. One day the children decided to climb that the big oak tree in the front yard and were having a wonderful time when here came Danny. He wanted to be in the tree, too, I suppose, but instead of climbing, he started throwing rocks at the children. He was hitting them and they were screaming, but they couldn't come down because he was below the tree with his arsenal. After we finally managed to get him to stop, I went to see his mother and insisted that she must do something control him. I don't know what she did, but we began to see less of Danny. I wish we could have done something to change that situation, but in those days and in that place children from troubled families had few options. We have often wondered what became of Danny.

On the other side of our parsonage, between the parsonage and the church lived Mr. and Mrs. Meekins. He was a lawyer and she was a gardener. Her whole yard was flower garden, and she took great pride in it, but she was mentally disturbed. Some days she was pleasant and friendly and would invite me over for a cup of tea, but one dared not step into her yard, touch one of her flowers, or–heaven forbid–pick one, even if was growing out over the public sidewalk was hanging over the public sidewalk. I had been warned in advance not to allow my children to go into her yard for any reason or to pick up anything around her yard. That was a constant worry for me because Tommy, especially, was really too small to understand those rules.

We did have some good neighbors across the street we visited with often. They were the Pollards and we loved their little boy Bill. She was a teacher and taught Grace for a while. The Roughton family next door were also our friends. Their daughter Dora Ann was two years older than Jo, but she loved to play with our girls because she could always be the leader. Her brother J. E. was Grace's age and was her first boy friend. Together those four were always planning something. Dora Ann had ambitions to be a movie star, so her interest was in putting on plays and shows. On one occasion, she was able to get a copy of a little one-act play, and they planned for a great production. Dora Ann assigned each child several parts–she got the lead, of course--and they began rummaging through old clothes for elaborate costumes. The plays were always going to be presented from the "stage" most available–the almost-flat roof of our parsonage garage. That roof was a favorite play place. It could easily be climbed onto by just stepping out the girl's bedroom window, and with their imagination it was be a stage, a clubhouse, a sunbathing beach, or fancy New York apartment. One day I had to call a halt to their play, though. Mrs. Meekins was sure they were up there peeking into her windows, spying on her.

One day they decided to have a pet show, and they invited all the neighbor children to attend. They had planned extensively and had all sorts of categories and prizes to award. The day arrived and several children came, but only one child brought a pet. J. E. brought his pet squirrel. They were not deterred. Jo, the master of ceremonies, who had set up her headquarters in the old, unused outhouse in the backyard, wanted to give away all the prizes anyway. She went through the whole ceremony and formally announced each award and presented each prize to J. E. Roughton and his squirrel.

Then they would have clubs. None of the clubs lasted very long or seemed to have much purpose, but a new one was organized every couple of months. Dora Ann was always the president, Jo was always the vice-president. J. E. was allowed to be secretary-treasurer because of his close kinship to Dora Ann, but Grace–ever low on the totem pole–was always the clean-up chairman.

It was during this time that Jo, who always had her nose in a book, started writing her own stories and poems. When she was ten years old, she went even farther and wrote a book. It was an adventure story involving several children who happen upon and then solve a mystery. She even illustrated it. We thought it was very good, of course, and we were so proud of her. A year or so later, she wrote a second similar book. Everyone praised her talent, and she decided that she would become a writer in the future.

Jo's interest in books and adventure helped her make friends with Flo Davenport, a girl her own age who lived in town near the Scuppernong River. Flo's family was much more wealthy and cosmopolitan than ours and Jo loved to visit her, coming home with tales of the fine things and fine food they enjoyed. Flo's father owned one of the lumber companies there, and her mother was a beautiful, accomplished woman (a former model we were told) who had once lived in New York.

Jo and Flo became best friends, but they occasionally became too carried away with the adventure stories they read. We realized this when they decided to engage in a daring exploit of their own. They began talking about stowing away on a boat and sailing away to some exotic land. One afternoon they decided to carry out their plan.. Jo had asked me that morning if she could go to play at Flo's house immediately after school, and I gave her permission. After school, however, they did not go to Flo's. Instead, they took some money they had saved up, went to the grocery store, and bought cookies and other portable food. Then they went down to the dock on the river, found a suitable boat (it was a small oil tanker, I believe), boarded the empty boat, and hid themselves under a tarp on the deck. There they sat and waited for the crew to re-board and set sail for the other side of the world. They hadn't been able to determine where the boat was going, but they imagined exotic places, I am sure.

All was going as planned until it began to rain. This was a discomfort they had not considered in their plans. The tarp covered their tops, but not their bottoms, and soon they were soaked. This was more adventure than they had hoped for, so they left the boat and headed for the school. They knew they could get into the school's basement near the furnace and dry out. Their plans had not been canceled, just put on hold. What they didn't remember was that this was they day for Flo's piano lesson. When they reached the school, who should they immediately encounter but Flo's teacher. She been waiting none too patiently for Flo to arrive for her lesson and when she saw her walking onto she school grounds, she snatched her inside and sat her down at the piano.

By this time it was getting near dark, and we were beginning to be concerned about Jo because she had not come home. Carl said he would go and get her, but when he got to Flo's house, her parents said neither of the girls had been there all afternoon. They thought the girls were with us. Now two sets of parents were concerned. Carl next decided to go to the school. There he found them. Flo was playing the piano, and Jo was cold and wet waiting for the lesson to be over so their adventure could continue. It was over, of course, and I think Jo was happy to get back home to warm clothes and a hot supper. After some prodding, they finally admitted to what they had done. We, of course, were just amazed that they had planned and almost carried out such a plan.

We were horrified at the danger they had exposed themselves to, but they had only seen it as fun.

Jo and Flo remained good friends for the time we lived in Columbia, and after we left, for many years they continued to correspond and visit occasionally. Flo was Jo's best friend ever, and I don't think she ever really got over having to move away from her.

One day I was working around the house when I heard some beautiful music--someone singing, but I couldn't tell where it was coming from. I went to the front door, looked out, and saw two little girls sitting high in the branches of the big oak tree that grew in our front yard and spread its branches over the sidewalk. It was a tree that our children loved to climb. It had several low, strong limbs and a smooth bark that make it the perfect climbing tree. They liked to sit in it and watch, often talk to, the people who were passing on the sidewalk beneath. As I looked more closely, I realized the singers were Grace and her good friend Lucia Kay Brickhouse. They were singing "The Lord's Prayer." I was thrilled to hear them because I had no idea Grace even knew the song or that she could sing so well. Lucia Kay also had a lovely voice.

Those days when the children were young, every day was a new experience. The girls were learning and doing so many things, and Tommy was growing fast. He was a very outgoing little fellow who liked to go out with his daddy and meet people. He imitated his father a great deal and he never saw a stranger. Sometimes I would watch him sit on the grass out near the sidewalk. As people passed by, he always spoke to them. People would often stop and engage him in conversation even though he was just a toddler.

One day someone asked Tommy if he wanted to be like his daddy, to be a preacher. He said, "Yes, I want to be a preacher, but I want to preach about horses," (or in toddler-speak "forses"). He went through a period when he liked to mimic horses. He would be in the kitchen with me and would say, "Mother, play like you heard something. Play like you heard something in your kitchen and you didn't know what it was." I would go through all the pretense with him and I would act as though I could not understand what kind of noise that was. He would then jump out from behind the refrigerator, his special hiding place, and he say, "Play like you would say, ‘Oh, it's a horse.' And then you would get some oatmeal and put it in a saucer and feed your horse." I would do as he asked, and he would get down on the floor and gobble oatmeal. We played that game that time after time. He never seemed tire of it.

Tommy later went through a phase when he wanted to go fishing. He didn't really care where he fished as long as he had a pole with a string tied to it. A can of water or a muddy hole in the ground was all right, and the fact there were no fish within a mile didn't matter. He would stand there with his string in the water and fish.

On the Sundays we were to have services at Wesley Memorial in Columbia I was asked to sing in the choir. In order for me to do that, we decided to allow the girls to go home after Sunday school and keep Tommy during the worship service. That worked fine most of the time, but one Sunday the girls got distracted, and Tommy got away.

He was in no danger, but he did walk the short distance from the parsonage to the church to find me. I was in my choir robe, sitting in the choir loft behind the pulpit, when I saw him come in the rear door of the church. I left the choir loft quickly and went down, hoping to meet him and get him to sit in one of the pews with me until the service was over. Carl had just finished reading the scripture, and there was a brief lull during which Tommy called out loudly , "Hey, Mother." I finally reached him and tried to pull him onto a pew, but he objected saying, "I can't stay. I've got to go fishing." He had brought along a stick and a piece of string and wanted me to tie the string onto the stick so he would have a proper fishing pole. I tied the string on. He then pulled out of my arms, headed back down the aisle, and left through the same door he had come in. Carl managed to continue the service, but he might as well have stopped right then. The congregation completely broke up.

In the back yard of the parsonage there was an old cistern that had not been used in many years but was still full of water. For safety's sake we made sure it always had a cover over it, but there still was a hole, which allowed rain from the roof to run into it. Tommy discovered that hole and it became just like a magnet to him. Everything he found that would go through that hole, he put in there. When Carl began missing his tools, his hammer, his ruler, his knife, he couldn't figure for the life of him what had happened to them. One day he decided to take the top off the cistern and investigate. There, soaking in murky water, were all his tools and dozens of other items rapidly becoming rusted and ruined.

Life Columbia will be continued next week.....

Posted by Bigwig at March 21, 2004 08:43 PM | TrackBack
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