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Snowed in with Great Aunt Leilah

December 29, 2010

Great Aunt Leilah carried a derringer in her purse. Furthermore, her cane concealed a dagger, which sometimes peeked out and stabbed linoleum kitchen floors as she tottered across. At least that’s what we’d heard.

To my 12-year-old mind, these “facts” seemed possible, even though I’d only viewed the great aunts from a distance at large family gatherings. Great Aunt Leilah was certainly the most flamboyant of the great aunts. While her sisters wore conservative, dark old-lady dresses and no jewelry, Aunt Lee wore brightly colored dresses, large glittery brooches and a mink stole. Real mink.

When my parents announced that Aunt Bert and Great Aunt Leilah were coming to visit our family on our western Kentucky farm, my eight-year-old sister and I were mildly interested. Not much happened on the farm. Maybe we could do a little investigating and find out if Aunt Lee really did have a derringer and a dagger.

The aunts arrived at bedtime, so after hugs that smelled like scented powder, we all went to bed. We’d have to learn more about Aunt Lee tomorrow. The next morning, Mom awoke us by announcing: “Wake up, girls! There’s lots of snow. Aunt Leilah’s radio says there’s no school today!” We looked outside to see four inches of pristine snow glittering in the bright sunlight.

Almost any amount of snow in West Kentucky meant a “snow day” with no school because our county had lots of winding gravel roads and no snow removal equipment.  We kids enjoyed building snowmen, having snowball fights and reading on snow days. We also expected hot chocolate and snow cream, which was made by mixing milk, vanilla and sugar with snow.

This day we wondered if, instead of playing or reading, we’d have to stay indoors and entertain the aunts. But it turned out Aunt Lee thought she needed to entertain us.

“I’ll sing for you,” she announced. “Pappy knew hundreds of ballads by heart.” She began to sing in a quavering voice. First she sang ballads we knew, like “Danny Boy.” Then she sang verse after verse of songs we’d never heard, sometimes pausing and singing snatches and lamenting that she couldn’t remember all the verses. I was hoping she didn’t know as many ballads as her father did or it was going to be a very long snow day.

Aunt Lee soon became breathless and hoarse, so she’d alternate between singing and regaling us with family history. We’d heard parts of some of the stories, but not with the details she told.

“My great uncle, Sammy Newman, had his slaves build a brick road across his farm and then charged people toll,” she confided.  “The slaves made up a song about him.” I felt skeptical about the road and the song. Could this be true?

“Sammy was so mean that one day his slaves decided they’d get back at him,” she continued in a whisper. We moved closer. “One day a slave dressed in a sheet and rose from the woods as Sammy approached on horseback. Pretending to be the ghost of a slave who had died, the slave threatened to harm Sammy if he didn’t treat his slaves better.” She waved her arms, threatening Sammy.

I was still wondering if she was spinning yarns until she began to sing snatches of a ballad about the whole story. Each verse ended with “Old Sammy Newman, the richest man in Estill County” or “Old Sammy Newman, the meanest man in Estill County.”

Mom served hot chocolate in honor of the snow day, and my sister and I sat on the floor at Aunt Lee’s feet. We’d forgotten about playing in the snow or reading.

Soon we had taped typing paper together to make a large chart for a family tree that included Sammy. The names came alive as Aunt Leilah told about each person. Her mother. Her father.  Her sister who got married at age 13. Delorah had to be called in the house from swinging on the swing to be fitted for her wedding dress, she said. It was hard for us to imagine wrinkled Great Aunt Delorah as a child bride.

About 3:30 in the afternoon, while we worked on the family tree, a school bus slowly passed the house on the snow covered road. My sister and I stared in amazement as the bus stopped at the neighbor’s house and children got off.  We’d just skipped a day of school. Our parents had been so sure there was no school due to the snow that they hadn’t questioned Aunt Leilah’s understanding about the snow closings on her radio.

At first my sister and I, who were conscientious students and had perfect attendance, were upset about missing a day of school. But my mom assured us we learned more at home that day than we would have learned at school. And of course, she was right. We have a story to pass on to our children about the snowy day we skipped school and learned about Sammy and the ballads. We had to wait until another visit to learn the truth about the derringer and the cane.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. harphappenings permalink
    January 1, 2011 1:41 pm

    I’m waiting for the sequel 🙂

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