She was a formidable woman, my great Aunt Addie was, driving herself around town in the car she bought for herself at a time when most men in the county still hitched a mule up to the buggy to get them where they wanted to go. She was mayor of Woolsey, a small community in Fayette County, Georgia, and when she got her hands on some Works Projects Administration funds, Woolsey got new sidewalks.
She married later in life, and then only when her sister, Lizzie, saw fit to die and leave an eligible widower. Yes, Miss Addie Ballard married her brother-in-law, J. M. (John) McLean on April 27, 1923 and thus became step-mother to the only children she would have: her nieces and nephews.
Aunt Addie wasn’t talked about much in the family, probably because she was considered an uppity woman, for one thing, and on account of that time she shot Uncle John “under the sheets” in February 1953, an event that culminated with her being declared a “lunatic” and landing her a stint in the Milledgeville State Hospital (originally named the Georgia Lunatic Asylum when it was built in 1883), for another.
It took me decades to pry this much of her story out of The Family Elders. My uncle, perhaps impressed with my tenacity (or more likely, thinking it would make me hush up once and for all), presented me with a copy of Aunt Addie’s commitment papers, and I’ve a copy of her marriage license, her will, her United Daughters of the Confederacy membership papers, and a single photo of her in my possession. To this day, I remain intrigued with this black sheep of the family. Long ago, I began asking everybody who might have known her or known of her, “What can you tell me about Aunt Addie Ballard McLean?”
One day while lunching with Ferrol Sams (Sambo), I asked him about our shared ancestor. “I always wondered what made her sad enough to do such a thing,” he said by way of answering.
He went on to tell me about being called down to Aunt Addie’s house early one cold winter morning. It seems she’d gotten up during the night to go to the bathroom, according to Uncle John, then she came back and got into bed. At one point, Uncle John, greatly annoyed that she was disturbing his sleep with all her moaning and groaning, said, “Addie, be quiet. I’m trying to sleep.”
His slumber resumed, and when the rooster cock-a-doodle-do’ed Uncle John awake long about sunrise, he found Aunt Addie lying in a pool of her own blood. Apparently when she’d gotten up to go to the bathroom during the night, she shot herself in the side before returning to crawl back into bed.
While a patient in Milledgeville, Aunt Addie mailed poems, letters, and a recipe for Orange Pie to Mother. (I transferred every piece of her correspondence to fabric, and that’s what you see in the background.) She even sent Mother her gold thimble in its silver case for safe keeping (something I’ve been assured will become mine One Day).
I’ve talked to somebody in Milledgeville, who looked it up while I stayed on the phone, and they tell me that they have a card with more information on Aunt Addie – like when and into whose custody she was released. Just as soon as I can figure out what kind of court order is required, I’m going down there to get a copy of that information for myself. I hope not, but it may be the last bit of information I ever get on Aunt Addie, a woman I’ve chosen for one of my Pink Galoshes Portraits of Irrepressible Women.
Painted, stitched, written, or performed, stories – even family legends – are fluid, changing and evolving any time a new kernel of perspective, information, or context drops in. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell them, hold them dear, or tuck them in with the good silver to pass on to future generations.
Stories unite us and give us roots . . . and wings. Stories bolster us in time of turmoil; buoy us in times of despair; and anchor us in times of doubt. They remind us of who we were, who we are now, and who we can be. They remind us of what stock we come from.
When we gather around the table, ’tis stories that nourish us. When we hold hands around a campfire, ’tis stories tucked into our palms. And when we make a toast, ’tis stories that fill the glass we raise.
Stories are the best gift ever.
Stories are oxygen.
For those of you who’ve read shotgun through the 100 days of story, thank you for all the encouragement and support. Despite the typos and mistakes that can’t be blamed on electronics, I’ve made new friends around this digital campfire, good friends have become better friends, and I’ve even been reunited with a friend (Vonnie) from graduate school who I’ll tell you more about later. Many of y’all have gifted me with your own stories, which goes into my daily list of things I’m grateful for every time. However you tagged along in this exercise, I thank you from both my heart and my fingertips . . . fingertips that are now going to go have conversations with cloth and thread for a while.