By Susan Whatley
We were gathered on Munna's tiny screened-in porch the evening of her funeral; Mom, my aunts, my sisters, and the "cousins." I have fifteen first cousins, just on my mother's side. Some were sitting cross-legged on the floor, sifting through boxes of Munna's "papers." She had not accumulated a lot of valuables during her lifetime. Most of them had already been given to those whom she wished to have them. She had, however, left her "papers" – a loose collection of jottings, clippings, and journal-type entries scrawled on scrap paper, which we knew she intended for us to go through after she was gone.
My cousin Katie opened a box and began to read aloud from a paper. It seemed to be written directly to us, as if she was sure that just such a gathering might take place one day. I know we all felt her presence in the room as her words addressed us across that mystical divide between life and death.
Her little house was dark and quiet in those two years before she died, except for the clicking of the clocks. She had a mantle clock that chimed the hour and an old Big Ben alarm clock with a brown face and green glowing numbers. They seemed to be ticking off the time she had left, waiting for the end in that dark, quiet house. My grandmother was one hundred years old and though quite formidable in her days, she had become small and frail and was plagued by aches and pains, poor eyesight, and deafness.
Her close family would also attest to a wicked sense of humor. In her later years, she would like to take her bridgework out and put them in upside down so that it looked like Dracula teeth. This was done to scare unsuspecting little kids! She had a flair for the dramatic, making her a great storyteller. She embellished when she needed to make the story even better. As she got older and outlived so many of her contemporaries, there was no one to dispute her version of tales, so she would really embellish. There is a true story about a gun fight on the Court House Square here in El Dorado in 1902. Some years back, some local people thought that as a tourist attraction they would have actors dramatize the story right down on the Square, which they did. I took Munna to see the first enactment of this event. There were newspaper and television news people on hand to capture this local happening. A television reporter spied Munna in the crowd enjoying herself and probably thought she looked old enough to remember it. He asked what she knew about the gunfight and she began to tell her version which she heard from her father-in-law, who had witnessed it. Only today, this story which I had heard before, had an added twist. One of the men had his horse shot out from under him!
She was "Munna" to us grandkids and "Qunice" to her friends, but she had been christened Louquincey Gatsy Phillips. Well, she was the tenth child. She often talked about Essie, a beautiful older sister who died at the age of twenty of tuberculosis, a common disease of that era which was referred to as a "galloping consumption." She had a brother, John, who was considered the black sheep of the family. He hated to wear shoes, even in the winter and would shed them whenever he could. Sometimes, she remembered, he would take off his shoes and walk to school on "tomwalkers," which were stilts. She described him as sort of a hustler who could start off with a pair of skates and trade up to a horse. The brother I remember was Uncle Emmett, an upstanding citizen who served on the city council and ran a Mom and Pop grocery store where people could call in their orders and have their groceries delivered by bicycle.
Munna's parents grew up just after the Civil War. Food and jobs were scarce in that war-ravaged economy. Her Papa's father was struck by lightning while getting off his horse, leaving his mother a widow with a small child. John, her Papa, remembered going to bed hungry more than once. He began "hiring out" to other farmers about the age of ten, so what little formal schooling he got, had to be during bad weather when farming couldn't be done. He was truly a self-made man, buying books with what he could save from his farm wages, educating himself.
The woman he chose to marry was from a family who was a little better off. At first, they thought she had married beneath her; but in the end, they were to change their opinion. They started out married life in a one-room house and added on rooms to the house as the family grew. John became a merchant and started a dry goods store. He had struggled so hard to educate himself; he wanted better for his children. He tried to organize a school for their small community but could not get the other neighbors to help pay a teacher. So he moved his family of ten to a larger town, Arkadelphia, where there was a college. Munna, the youngest, was five.
Munna never cared much for regular sewing of clothes. In fact, she once took a dress she was making for one of the girls and ripped it down the middle in frustration. However, she excelled at needlework, patching, and darning. Once my Aunt Ticka came home from school and said, "Oh, Momma, I was so embarrassed today! We all had to take off our shoes to step up on the scale so the school nurse could weigh us and she went on and on about what a good darning job you had done on my socks!"
"Don't be embarrassed by that," exclaimed my grandmother. "Now I would have been embarrassed if you'd had holes in your socks."
While she lived, Munna was the hub of a wheel with spokes extending to Florida, Minnesota, Tennessee, North Carolina, Washington State, and Washington, DC. For years, she kept up correspondence with far-flung cousins, nieces, and nephews and sent letters and clippings to be passed along form cousin to cousin. She told us stories of our shared heritage to give us a sense of family and belonging. She encouraged us and tried to instill in us her enthusiasm for life, her sense of history, love for country and state, and love for God's beautiful world. I'll never see a cardinal, her favorite bird, without thinking of her. As her health grew frail in her last few years, she was unable to travel far from home. As in the Robert Frost poem The Ovenbird, she showed us what to make of a diminished thing. She found delight in things closer to home. When her eyesight prevented her from doing the intricate needlework she loved to do, she hemstitched flannel baby blankets that she could do mostly by feel.
Many of her stories had a moral, I now realize. Like the story about my great aunt, known as "Antie" to us, she was the oldest of Munna's siblings – there being a sixteen-year age difference between them. Antie had the misfortune to marry a rounder who eventually left her with three children to raise. Child support? There was no such thing, so she decided on a plan. She would secure a certain old large house in Arkadelphia, take in boarders, and offer food and lodging. Her daughter, Mattie Bell, was aghast. "Mother, that neighborhood's not even respectable!"
"Well, it will be when I get there," Antie replied evenly. She became known, by and by for her "respectable" rooming house and delicious meals and eventually was offered the job of dietician at Henderson College, a position she held for twenty years.
In the late 1950s, Munna moved to North Dakota to help her son. He was divorced with four children to raise while he worked as a doctor on an Indian Reservation. The civil rights movement was taking place in the South. The nightly news was filled with images of black people in the South attacked police dogs and drenched with high-pressure hoses. One of her neighbors said she ought to be ashamed of how the southerners treated blacks. My grandmother was a product of her time and place in the South. Though she had grown up in a segregated society, she had good relations with the black people she personally knew, including Golda, who had helped her keep house and raise her kids. The remark stung my grandmother and seemed especially unfair to her considering the way the Indians were treated in that part of the country. I think it's fair to say that it shook her complacency and caused her to devote hundreds of dollars over the next forty years to an Indian school in Tempe, Arizona. She set out to pay one child's way through the school and by the time of her death she had footed the bill for many.
On her 100th birthday, the Indian school sent her a beautiful bouquet of flowers in appreciation of her generosity over the years. We had a big celebration on her 100th birthday, but actually we had been getting together on her birthday since she was 85. That seemed old to us then. I think we felt we might not have her with us much longer. Little did we know that she would live robustly for fifteen more years, outliving her husband by 40 years and her eldest child by six.
Leafing through some of her old papers one day, I found this piece of scrap paper. Written in her quaint scrawl with black magic marker were these words: "We have fought a good fight, We have run the race, We have kept the faith." I cannot think of a more fitting epitaph.
Whatley, an El Dorado native and mother of two teenage daughters, works as a respiratory therapist at Medical Center of South Arkansas. She lists reading biographies of inspiring people among her hobbies.