Fairies, Waterfalls, and A Boy In a Tree

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“Under all is the land. Upon its wise utilization and widely allocated ownership depend the survival and growth of free institutions and of our civilization.” So says the Realtors preamble to the Code of Ethics. I have always loved this introduction. It makes the ownership of dirt an honorable notion and it is. I have now dedicated going on 12 years to the selling of such land and improvements and it is still a joy. But I come from part of a family, only one side, that didn’t get to, for whatever reason, ever enjoy the benefit and pride of home ownership.

My mama’s mama, Myrtle ZoElla Hillhouse, never, for the 26 years I knew her owned a home, and instead moved, pretty much every time a lease was up. She zig zagged all over Cobb County, focusing mainly on Marietta, Acworth, or Smyrna. Most homes remain a vague memory, some very vivid, some filled with wild stories of deep swimming holes we found out in the woods behind her apartment (another story for another time), or long walks through fields with my dad while he smoked as Myrtle always had lung problems and smoking was forbidden in her house, despite her never having touched tobacco (or liquor, Church of God that she was) in her life. Today, I remember one place particularly. Not for the swimming or the field, but for a boy up in a tree.

We usually visited my grandma on Sunday’s after church, quickly, to get back in time for evening service or to join her at her home church, Acworth Church of God, where there was sure to be foot stomping hymns, loud preaching, and much shouting and running in the aisles. This visit I write about, I was little, maybe 6 or 7, and I did not look forward to a steamy service, full of hand clapping and spirit slaying. I sat in the living room of my grandma’s apartment on a hot summer day, fan buzzing (no air conditioning in this day). Several other aunts and cousins had also come to visit and were talking and I heard someone say that out back of the apartments was an old road bed that led to a waterfall (or stream, who knows, but it was hot and I was always looking for a place to swim or wade). I slipped out unnoticed.

Around the white wood siding building I went, not even sure what a road bed might be, but I headed to the edge of the brush, which was taller than me and I saw the old foundation of a house. Running beside it was a gravel road, the grass between the ruts grown high. This was it. I started that way.

The midday sun beat on my head and shoulders and I envisioned a crystal waterfall, ice cold spray cascading over moss covered rocks, little glittery fairies dancing around in mottled sunlight streaming through the trees. Why, I could feel the coolness of the spring dancing around my dust covered, flip flop shod feet already. Maybe I would even get all the way in. It was surely hot today. Then, I’d lie back on a big rock and dry off, watching the little fairies play among the wild flowers growing on the bank. I was almost to the old gravel road.

A voice halted me in my tracks.

“Better not go down there.”

It had come from above. But it didn’t sound like God, or what I thought he would sound like. I shaded my eyes from the sun and in a Crepe Myrtle, legs braced from limb to limb, was a boy. Older than me, he had a long shock of jet black hair that swung over the blueist eyes in the world.

“Stay outta them woods.” He warned again.

“Then I’m coming up in that tree with you,” I said.

“Naw, you ain’t. You’ll fall and break an arm. You ever break your arm? Cause I have.”

I laughed a little at that because little did he know, I climbed every tree with a branch low enough for me to get a foothold on our property and I hadn’t fell out of any of them yet.

“I ain’t broke nothin’.” I said.

He jumped out of the tree. “Well, it hurts and you have to wear a cast and then,” he mussed my hair, “you can’t play. So, let’s go inside and find your mama.” He put out a hand.

Wary, I just looked at his hand.

“Come on!” he saw my distrust, “it’s alright. I’m your cousin. I’m Raymond.”

And hand in hand we went around the building, back inside like nothing ever happened. Raymond didn’t tell anyone my plan to head into the woods and I liked him from that day forward. Years and time came between us. Social media made his daughter and me friends and for that I am very thankful. She looks just like him.

This morning, cancer, that mean devil of a disease took Raymond. The second cousin I have lost in a little over a month to it. Both were just about my age, give or take a few years on either side. Pieces of my childhood and my foundation chipped away. The picture of Raymond in that tree stays with me forever, maybe because of the age I was at the time, maybe because a strong bond of trust was forged that day when he kept my secret. And even though we had not kept in touch I will miss that boy, the wild boy in the tree, who broke bones and rules, but made me keep them. I will look for you one day, in a big Crepe Myrtle, and this time, I’m climbing up with you, Raymond.

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Beauty Salon

I was just doing my job, pulling comparable properties to prepare a report for a prospective client, when I clicked on a listing that didn’t even ring a bell until I saw the picture.  I caught my breath as I beheld it.  Martha’s Beauty Salon.  I knew it was for sale, but it was a concept really.   A theory.  But seeing the little yellow house with white trim where so many beloved childhood memories were made plastered on the First Multiple Listing Service tore open a place in my heart.  And then I did something I really should not have done.  I started looking through the photos.

My aunt Martha was my Dad’s sister, older than him by 3 years.  Born in 1925 she blazed her own path long before women’s rights opened doors.   A tiny dynamo, she became a hairdresser at a young age and for as long as I remember ran her beauty salon.

It was a bustling place and a wonderland to a little country girl that had three brothers and not much in the way of a girlie girl lifestyle.  The white, ornate wrought iron furniture (still in the salon) with floral cushions, the faux, baroque gold rimmed mirrors, all of it was palatial to me.  Aqua Net hair spray wafted through the air, mixed with the sulfur of perm solution and the hum of the dryers in the next room, all mixed with the chatter of a half dozen or more ladies getting their hair done.  And at the center was Martha, red (usually, sometimes blonde, brunette or whatever mood struck her) hair piled high on her head, shampooing heads, checking under dryers and answering the little black rotary phone…”Beauty Salon”.

Please, I’d beg my mama, when Martha would ask me to come spend the night.  Before the yes was fully out of her mouth I’d run pack my little bag.  We would climb into her car, a big new LTD or Cadillac, with AIR CONDITIONING!  I was a princess.  She would often take me shopping or we would go out to dinner somewhere, me so excited I could hardly eat a bite in those fancy places!

In the morning, I would go over with her to open the beauty salon.  The little window unit air conditioner would rattle on.   That phone would start ringing.  “Beauty Salon.”  An appointment book would be full before lunchtime.

In 1966 a song became a huge hit, “The Ballad of the Green Beret”.  I was four and sang it all the time.  For a blue Vick’s Salve jar full of pennies, I would stand in a chair in the salon and sing it for all the ladies, some of the them laughing, some clasping their hands over their mouth at this little girl belting out, “…put silver wings upon his chest…”  At the end, along with my jar of pennies, I would get a huge ovation.  Martha would be smiling at me so proudly.  What was there not to love about this place?

Martha retired and spent years caring for her sister, Mable and her brother, Howard, then her husband when he was diagnosed with cancer.   She moved into an assisted living home a few years before she passed away.  But every time I visited her, that hair was fixed, she was dressed nicely, makeup on.

Once, I’d stopped in at her house after she retired.  She was taking her hair down out of curlers.

“Oh,” I said, “are you going somewhere? I’ll leave so you can get ready.”

“Oh, no,” she smiled, “Every morning, I get up, get my bath, do my makeup and hair and then,” her eyes twinkled and she shrugged her little shoulders, “I’m ready for anything!”

I carried that advice with me.  After I started working from home, my daughters asked me why I got up and got ready every day and I told them the Martha story, even mimicking the shrug.  Yes, I like being ready for anything.

When she was in her last days in hospice care, I went every day to see her.  I’d lost my dad the year before so I knew any day could be the last one.   The last time I saw her, as in the previous days, she had been unresponsive.  And she was even tinier than ever.  I sat by her bed with a hospice nurse.  The nurse said, “Talk to her. She can hear you.”  I stood up and walked over, smoothing back the hair that had gone white now.  “I love you, Martha,” I said, “I love you so much.”  Her eyelids fluttered.  One.  Two. Three times.  I love you.  “See?”  the nurse said, “she hears you.”  I bent down and kissed her cheek.  “I love you and I’ll come see you tomorrow.”  Again, three flutters.

But there was no tomorrow.  Word came the next morning.  My heart bore a new hole that nothing would fill.

I click through the pictures on the listing.  I’m six years old again, walking through that front door.  I can see Martha and her daughter in law bent over the sinks washing hair.  In the wrought iron chairs are clients thumbing through True Story and Market Basket magazines.  The little black phone is ringing off the hook.  I’ve got a shiny dime in my palm for that beloved Cocola machine and I head to the dryer room where the ladies gossip over the hum.   And just before my precious daydream is over, the ringing of the phone stops and I hear Martha’s sweet voice answer…”Beauty Salon.”

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Mable and the Melancholy

It’s all Walmart’s fault.  I walk in to get my doggie anti stress pills and right there, smack dab in the middle of the front door, is the back to school display.  Pallets of boxes line the aisles with stockers armed with box cutters ready to put out every Bic, Elmer’s glue, Fiskar scissors and  whatever else our youngun’s will need for school.  I stopped and looked a minute and felt that Melancholy slip up on me.  It was the End of Summer Melancholy.  Now, I know the official End of Summer is still a ways away, but that display was just vilely whispering “it’s coming.”  And it made me sad.

And it made me think of Mable. 

If you lived in Powder Springs, you probably knew my aunt Mable.  Most neighborhood kids knew her for the most awesome popcorn balls you have ever eaten.  No one missed her house on Halloween, scoring at least one of the fist sized caramel and popcorn confections.  She would have them wrapped in Saran wrap on the counter, dozens of them, and would be as excited as the children who came knocking at dusk.  But she was so much more than popcorn maker extraordinaire.

She lived next to us all my growing up life, a while in a blue trailer beside us with her husband, Roy, later, after his death, she lived with my grandma in the house on the other side and took care of her til her death.  She stayed in the Coker house after that and took care of Howard until her death in 2006.  It seems her whole life was spent taking care of others.

In the summer, you would never find her indoors.  She’d push a little lawn mower and cut the grass, hang out her laundry on a clothesline every day it didn’t rain and can and pickle everything she could eek out of the apple trees, grape vines, garden, peach trees (always a big jar of peach brandy fermenting in the closet) pear trees, muscadines and anything else edible.  Growing up on farms had taught her to use every single thing she could from the land and she did until she just couldn’t anymore.  Not only did she do it, she LOVED every minute of it.  After I moved away, when she was well into her eighties, I would often pull in the driveway to my parent’s home by the Coker place and she’d be leaning on a rake and push her hair back and wave, always smiling when she was outdoors.   Yes, Mable would get “blue” too when summer came to a close.

Many summer Saturday nights when I was a child, I’d finagle a way to spend the night with Mable, even though we lived just next door.  What fun we had!  First, I usually made her play beauty salon with me and I’d roll her hair up.  Next we would lie in bed in the middle bedroom (the coolest there was no air conditioning in the house then) and read from a stack of magazines brought by her sister, Martha, who owned a real beauty salon.  But when Lawrence Welk came on, back to the living room we went to watch.  On a black and white TV we’d watch all those glamorous dancers.  “What color do you think her dress is?”  Mable would ask, and we’d play a guessing game.   I’d never seen anything as fine as those ball gowns.  Mable would close her eyes and lift an imaginary wand and bob and lead the music with Lawrence.  I wish now I’d taken her to a symphony or live show of some sort like that, but she probably wouldn’t have gone.  She got “nervous” in crowds and late in life rarely went anywhere but the doctor and grocery store. 



I was not her favorite-that title would be my brother, Bill’s, but I was a close second.   When I was little, she would tell me I looked just like Liz Taylor in National Velvet, with my dark hair and blue eyes and I believed her, poor country girl that I was, I had no clue.  She made me feel like a star.  

As the last of the vegetables came in and were put up, and the grapes and muscadines all gone and made into jams, I could see the Melancholy take hold.  “The days are just SO LONG in the winter,” she’d say.  Technically, they are not, but I knew exactly what she meant. 

Walking in on her on a cold winter day, too cold to be outdoors and nothing to do if you got out there, she’d be sitting by the window looking out.  And I knew exactly what was on her mind.  She was dreaming of summer.

So tonight, I am feeling the Melancholy and dreaming of summer and smelling pickles on the stove and peach brandy in the closet and cool floors under my bare feet, a big four poster bed and a stack of old magazines, beautiful girls in elegant gowns, and Mable’s blue eyes dreaming out a window of what all we’ll do come next summer.Image

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