December, 2011


Nancy Story-Goss, Aunt Donn, Sarah Story-Graves

“Tom, what do you think about these pajamas?”

“I don’t sleep in pajamas, Helen,” answered Tom, “you know that.”

“Well Tom Story you will sleep in pajamas while we are at ya Aunt Donn’s house. You know how proper she is. This is the first time I’ve ever been invited to her house. I wouldn’t think about going down there under-dressed. Here, look at this. Do you like this housecoat?”

Yes, Aunt Donn was a proper woman. She was my father’s aunt; his mother’s sister. I never knew my father’s mother; she died of heart failure when Daddy was about fourteen years old. He seldom spoke of her, but I know that Daddy adored his mother. And when his eyes set on Aunt Donn, it was a special moment indeed.

The few times I met Aunt Donn was here in Tucker on Morgan Road – at my Aunt Sarah’s house, or on Henderson Road at my Aunt Nancy’s house. When the letter arrived announcing her visit, the Story family prepared for Aunt Donn for days in advance. When she finally walked through the door, you could hear a pin drop. The Story “children” all anticipated Aunt Donn with a warm heart.

And at last Aunt Donn would make her entrance; and always so well dressed. She wore a suit – wool and dark. Her legs covered to the ankles by a skirt with dark hose and black laced up high heeled shoes. Every hair in place topped off with a hat with feathers and sometimes a veil. Aunt Donn carried herself as any regal queen with her chin slightly elevated. She had an odd purplish spot on her lip which made her look all the more sophisticated.

And though all the Storys are Southern born and raised; none spoke quite the Southern that Aunt Donn spoke. Daddy and his family hit their “r” softly, but Aunt Donn’s second “r” in a word was sometimes ignored all together. I heard it was a South Carolinian influence carried over the border to Lincolnton, though it sounded somewhat British.

And now, we were invited to visit Donn Bentley-Steed at her home in Lincolnton Georgia, the place of my father’s birth, the home of his father and mother; a lot of old Southern history down in Lincolnton. And now I would get to see for myself – Aunt Donn and Uncle Walter’s home. It must be a fine place. I know it’s in the country not too far from Augusta. I know that Aunt Donn considered herself one of the first women graduates of the University of Georgia, and that at one time or another she ran a post office, taught school, and ran a hotel in Lincolnton.

“Oh for the love of Pete!” she would say, “It took the Univursity of Geo’gia over a hundred yeahs to allow a woman to be educated there. Yes, finally in 1932 the Univursity took in Geo’gia State No’mal as pawt of the Univursity.  State No’mal was, you know, where they sent girls to become teachers. Little by little the wauld is wising up!”

This matriarch had long since retired, but still known as a “do it all kind of person.” She was proud of the fact that she never wasted a moment of good natural sunlight being an avid reader.

“Too many books in the world, and just not enough time,” Aunt Donn would say as she searched for a window with sunlight streaming through. Though she never owned a television and thought them to be vile time wasters, a few years down the road, Aunt Donn became an advocate and supporter of a new kind of television programming, GPB – Georgia Public Broadcasting.

And each and every time we departed from Aunt Donn, she had us hold hands and form a circle. No matter how big or small the circle, she recited her most favorite words in the whole world, Numbers 6:24-26. “May the Lawd bless thee, and keep thee. May the Lawd make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee. May the Lawd lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”

Aunt Donn never had children, but claimed her students, nieces and nephews as her own. In fact she named all nine children of her sister, Nancy Elizabeth Bentley-Story, which included my father, Tom Story. Each name had a special place in Donn’s heart and the history books. It was always a history lesson in her presence, and now my family was on the way to her house. I could hardly wait! Our best clothes packed along with new pajamas. Mama even got a new perm. Aunt Donn – here we come!

We left Atlanta and headed east – for the country. A few hours later, when Daddy announced, “We are almost there,” we had long left the country and were in the wilderness. Then he brought the car to a stop. It was hard to believe it when we saw it – Aunt Donn and Uncle Walter’s country home.

It was an unpainted wooden clapboard type home balanced up on stacks of rocks. The house could be seen underneath – that’s where the chickens lived. Two out-houses graced the backyard; girls had a cut out moon on the door while the boys had a cut out star. They could be found on the other side of the Cana Lily garden – the flowers all dried up now due to the harsh cold winter.

I don’t know what I expected, but this was not it. My parents gathered us together as we approached the front porch; Mama a little anxious while Daddy looked straight ahead with a big smile on his face. Out came Aunt Donn. She did not have on her woolen suit, but rather an ankle length navy blue dress with hose and her laced up high heeled shoes, topped off with her “shawt fur” about her shoulders. She was so glad to see us! She was genteel and gracious.

“Come in Tom and Helen! So good to see you! And look at these gulls – three of them now! Each one just beautiful! Come in – oh – please come in. Tom, where’re Sarah and Nancy?”

“Oh, there’re right behind us. They should be along soon,” Daddy and Mama explained.

“Are their husbands coming too, Tom?”

“Yes, they’re all coming, Doc (Dorsey) and Carl and all the kids too! Hope we won’t be too much…”

“Oh, Tom, I knew I could count on you! Thank you, thank you! I hated to write to you like that, but I really need some help.Walta, has the rheumatism so bad in his leg, well, he can hawdly get about! Let alone chop fie-wood.”

Daddy hugged Aunt Donn for a long time and said, “Don’t worry; we’ll take care of everything. You have lots of good help now.”

“Well, come in! Please, Helen, come in. Gulls, come on into Aunt Donn’s house!”

It was a very cold winter day and we did not tarry. My two sisters and I grabbed our dolls and teddy bears as we made our way into the house. Inside the house was a short stairway to the right that led up to a locked door, a room there I suppose. I don’t know, because no one was allowed to go up there. My sister, Patricia, and our cousins used to dream up all kinds of ideas about that locked door.

Roy told a story about gold from the Confederate treasure that was lost as the floor of a railroad car collapsed dropping solid gold coins all over Lincolnton. He was sure some of that treasure was up in that room. Linda thought perhaps a lost family piano was there. And Steve thought Uncle Walter must have another bedroom somewhere in the house. It was hard to believe Uncle Walter slept in an outside room. Patricia wondered if an old trunk was locked away containing birth certificates, wills and diaries. I liked to sit on the steps and admire the wooden star and crescent moon that hung on the wall just before reaching the locked door. The moon had its own staircase with miniature ceramic angels ascending the moon – on the way to Heaven. My father built and gifted the moon and star to his beloved Aunt Donn.

Aunt Donn would proudly boast that her Thomas Jonathan had given her the stars and moon!

The entire house was a curiosity to all of us kids. The high ceiling house was furnished with antiques, and well worn Oriental rugs covered the creaky hardwood floors. The dining room table was always set with fine china down to the finger bowls. The house reminded me of an old English library without the bookcases; hundreds of books stacked all the way to the ceiling. Aunt Donn used a librarian’s step ladder to reach the books high up.

The fireplace was the first thing I noticed as I entered the house. Over the mantle was a large portrait of a beautiful girl with long dark hair; eyes of blue. The girl was dressed in an eighteen hundreds type of white lace dress. The pretty girl seemed to stare at me – no matter where in the room I stood. I felt her presence mysteriously as though she was really there, and wanted to speak to me.

And as warm as the fireplace appeared, it was as cold inside the house as outside.

“As I said, we’re running shawt on fie-wood, Tom. Walta has not been able to chop any wood lately, poooor thing.”

“Oh, that’s no problem, really. Doc, Carl and I will take care of that, just as soon as they get here,” Tom called out as he studied a huge framed Declaration of Independence on the wall in the living-room.

Aunt Donn looked at my father as though she just adored him, “Oh, Tom, I just cannot get over how much you favah Dr. Bentley. You look just like him. One day I’ll give this Declaration of Independence to you. I know you cherish it as did Doctah Bentley. And thank you for coming to my aid. I knew I could count on you my deah-est.” She took my father by the hand and led him to the fireplace. The two of them stood there holding hands, and looking at the pretty girl in the portrait. They put their heads together, and spoke quietly to each other as though they were the only ones in the room.

Dennis Brantley Bentley 1844-1912

I would soon learn that no matter how irritated Aunt Donn became, when she stood before the fireplace and looked at the portrait of the pretty girl, she always melted and smiled in spite of herself. I called it the magic spot.

Aunt Donn’s house was somewhat of a time warp. It was not all that large, but the high ceilings gave the appearance of wide open space. But no getting around it, the house was old and cold; no electricity.

Clarke’s Hill rocks lined the steps leading up to the front porch. I know they were Clarke’s Hill rocks, because Aunt Donn told us so. According to Aunt Donn, Clarke’s Hill was named after a Revolutionary War hero, Elijah Clarke. The Hill was where Elijah Clarke held his troops while making plans to drive out the British occupant troops from the capital of Georgia, Augusta. More than a century later, the Hill was flooded and the lake was created which buried rich Georgia history and my father’s family farm underwater. It seemed that every spot in Aunt Donn’s house held a history lesson.

Uncle Walter’s outside bedroom was a “traveler’s room” off the front porch; a room without an entrance into the house. Once through the front door of the house, a very large Clarke’s Hill rock propped open a bedroom door to the left. Next to the rock was a heavy looking over-sized chest that showcased a big pitcher and bowl. The bowl doubled as a hiding place for Aunt Donn’s lipstick. Every time she heard a knock on the door, she straightened her clothes as she admired herself in the mirror hanging on the wall over the pitcher and bowl, then smeared red lipstick on her lips just before opening the door. I used to wonder who she was dressing up for all way out here, but she did it every time, even when it was just Uncle Walter wanting in the house.

And though we were just a few hours from home, Lincolnton was light years away from Tucker Georgia. What in the world were we to do here?  No television, no radio and no running water? With seven “Story” cousins under the age of nine – plenty!

I soon learned that Aunt Donn was a very serious no nonsense woman who insisted on red lipstick and properness – no matter what the circumstances – she never let her sophisticated guard down. And at times she could be very stern. Aunt Donn had a wooden ruler that she kept handy, and reminded us often of how she maintained order in her classroom back when she taught school.

I was intimidated and kept my distance as much as possible.

Uncle Walter was an odd character. He was quiet, and avoided socializing with the family very much. He sure didn’t chop any firewood with the men. He stayed in the background limping about with his cane. He did watch his big tub of water outside to be sure the kids did not play in his “good rainwater.” My cousins, Roy and Steve, sailed leaves in the tub of water while pretending the leaves were boats. Uncle Walter did not like that. He did not like it when we ran his chickens either – something about “they would never lay again!”

Uncle Walter kept his eyes on the children at all times, and reported any mischief to our parents – which became a full time job. But before the weekend was over, we cured Uncle Walter’s rheumatism. He was actually able to chase us while shaking his cane in the air. Yes, the children cured him.

Aunt Donn mostly ignored her husband and gave him a smile that said, “Chil’ren will be chil’ren.” But on occasion, she took her “rule” out to show us and said, “Chil’ren should be seen and not heard.”

I tried to stay clean and avoid a bath, because there was no real bathroom there. But when Mama found out that I fell into chicken poo, she insisted on a bath. She dragged a metal tub with a high up back from the enclosed back-porch. The porch doubled as a meat locker in winter housing good Lincolnton country ham. Mama carried buckets of Uncle Walter’s rainwater to heat up on the wood burning stove in the kitchen. She was so tired, she handed me a bar of red soap so that I could bathe myself. The soap burned, so I used very little. Mama lathered up my bath-rag and gave me a good once over. I started burning and itching. I was used to Ivory soap at home and not that harsh germ killing soap. My face and body became swollen and as red as the soap.

“No worry, now Helen. Let me take care of that child. All she needs is a little buddah-milk. That’s right. That’s what Doctah Bentley would prescribe.”

Aunt Donn took over and applied buttermilk on me from head to toe, while Mama and her two sisters-in-law decided to make a trip to the general store for some lotion to soothe my rash. The truth be known, Mama was tired of dusting books and batting away cobwebs. I have never seen her work so hard, especially in her church clothes and shoes. Mama pulled the dusting scarf off her new perm and said to my aunts, Sarah and Nancy, “Let’s go. The sooner we get outta here, the sooner —— we’ll have what we need.”

The men stayed busy chopping firewood as the children played outside. That left me alone in the house with Aunt Donn.

She covered the settee with a quilt and sheet, and then motioned for me to sit there. I was timid about walking into that part of the house, since it seemed to be for grown-ups only.

“Sit here Donnie, so I can keep an eye on you. All that running around you’ve been doing, aren’t you the one who just got over Scarlett fevah?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“And outdoors running the chickens? See what happens? The good Lawd knows when you need rest. Yoah body breaks down – one way or the othah – and you have to slow down then. That’s what Doctah Bentley always said, and I see it true every day.”

Every time Aunt Donn saw a crack in my dried buttermilk, she dabbed me again. I sat there cold and shivering in my tee shirt, panties and socks. I winced and she seemed aggravated.

“Now, young lady, you sit still. This does not hurt a bit.”

“It’s cold and it smells funny.”

“You must take yoah medicine…”

“This isn’t medicine, its buttermilk…”

“You don’t need any medicine. This is how country folks live. We make do!”

She looked me over good to be sure she did not miss a spot, and then sat down in her Queen Anne chair near the fire.

“All this jumping into automobiles and running up and down the road. My fatha was a doctah and…”

“The ‘doctah’ who —— cured people with buttermilk?”

“Yes, ma’am he did cure people with buddah-milk! There are certain properties that buddah-milk…” Aunt Donn shook her head about as though she was the most misunderstood person in the world. “Why do I botha? Donnie, why do I botha?”
I shrugged my shoulders, and did not answer her, because I really did not know what she was talking about.

Aunt Donn was appalled, “Young lady! Did you just shrug yoah shouldas at me? Is that how you answer an adult?”

“No ma’am.”

“Well, that’s more like it,” Aunt Donn replied and seemed to settle down a bit. Then she started talking like almost to herself. “They used to all live here you know. Here, in Lincolnton, on beautiful fawm. They called the fawm, Leathasville. Doctah Dennis Brantley Bentley, you know, my fatha, the doctah, and yes, sometimes he did cure with buddah-milk and herbs. We used what we had available. It’s not like living near the big cities. Yes, at one time, we all lived here in Lincolnton in a lovely house. And then they left, all one by one, they went out west, except for me. I chose to stay, because, Lincolnton is my home and it will always be my home.”

“Is Lincolnton named after Abraham Lincoln? Is this where President Lincoln lived?”

“Well, no Donnie,” replied Aunt Donn. I learned fast the best way to get Aunt Donn in a pleasant mood was to simply allow her to flourish in her element; teaching. “Lincolnton Georgia was named for a man from Massachusetts, Benjamin Lincoln; born in 1733. He was a major general in the American Revolutionary War, and was responsible for overseeing the largest surrendah of the war at the Siege of Charleston. He also accepted the British surrendah at Yorktown.” She smiled to herself and went on, “So, I see you have an interest in history just like yoar fatha.”

After a bit of silence, Aunt Donn asked me a question. “What’s on yoah mind? You look like you want to say something.”

“Well, Ma’am, I hate to tell you, but Augusta is not the capital of Georgia.”

“I know that. Now why in the world would you think otha-wise?”
“When you told us about Elijah Clarke, you said Augusta was the capital of Georgia.”

“Yes, I did. Donnie,” She went on, “The state of Geo’gia has had many capitals, the last being Atlanta. The first capital was Savannah, the second Augusta, then for a shawt while, Ebenezer, Milledgeville, and Macon. When Elijah Clarke drove out the British, the capital of Geo’gia was indeed Augusta.”

Aunt Donn paused and stared up at the portrait of the pretty girl.

“She grew up at the Leathasville Fawm in Lincolnton. Lincolnton was her home, then she married her childhood sweethawt, Lawton. They moved into the home Lawton’s fatha, Mr. Radford Gunn Story, built…”

“Story? That’s my last name…”

Aunt Donn held up her hand to stop me, “Of course it is. Now just listen to me for a moment, please.”

“There in that big old house, they started a family, but they fell on hawd times fawming. The truth be known, Lawton was not the fawmah his fatha was. It’s hawd to fawm, especially near Clarke’s Hill; lots of rocks on the Hill. Lawton was beating the rocks, but the boll weevil and asthma proved more challenging. The  fawms up there were flooded by the state, and became a pawt of Clarke’s Hill Lake. They decided to go west like the rest of them, and fawm out there.”

“California?”

“No, Atlanta Geo’gia.”

I forgot myself for a moment and spoke a little too sharply, “That’s not far and it’s not out west!”
“It is far, you little whippah-snappah! It is far when one has no telephone or automobile. It may as well be Califonia!” Aunt Donn regained her composure as she allowed a tiny smile to show on her face, “I commend you on your knowledge of geography. How old are you now, six?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“That’s well indeed! Well, young lady, I see you do listen. You are simply disobedient. How many times has Walta asked you to stop chasing the chickens?”

Before I could get it counted up and give her a correct answer, she asked, “Weren’t you the one who nelly drown at Clarke’s Hill Lake a summa or so ago?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Do you see what kind of trouble you can get into when you do not obey adults?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And why in the world would one want to leave Lincolnton?” Aunt Donn returned to her story about going out west. “Yes, they all went west. They left the very place the furst settlers of Geo’gia put down roots. We have Athens just a stone throw away; the home of first and largest learning institution in all of Geo’gia. Left it for the railroad; everyone is in such a hurry now a days. Go, go, go!”

“We have airplanes in Atlanta…”

“Yes! Go, go, go. Fasta, fasta and fasta!”

I tried to change the subject.

“My father calls me Donnie, because he wanted a boy when I was born. My real name is Diane…”

“Of course I know yoah real name, Diane. And I have my doubts about that.”

“Doubts about what? Ma’am?”

“That yoah fatha wanted boys. He adores his gulls, as well as Helen and all of his sistas.”

“Well, ma’am, how did you get your name? Donn?”

“Donn is a shawt version of my given name, a long French name. Yoah fatha and his siblings made chopped livvah out of it. So, I asked them to please call me Donn.”

“Wow.”

“Yes, and it’s a very lovely name. It means given by the Lawd.

“Wow.”

“Donnie, it is not proppah to use that word.”

I looked at her in surprise, and did not know exactly which word she was speaking of. She returned my stare.

“That word – ‘wow,’ please do not use it again in my presence!”

“Yes, ma’am,” I continued to hold my stare into her eyes. I did not want to drop my eyes in fear she would discover what happened to her “rule.” This morning, when no one was looking, I slipped her wooden ruler down the side of her Queen Anne chair just under the cushion. That way when she finds it, she will think she lost it there, and no one would have to be punished. My eyes were on Aunt Donn’s eyes and I would not allow my eyes to even blink.

“You are much like her, especially about the eyes, same color of blue.” Aunt Donn seemed to drift in thought, and then came back at me, “Yes, and she was a whippah-snappah much the same as you! And Doctah Bentley had Motha to covah her in butta-milk many times. She had sensitive skin as well.”

Aunt Donn turned away from my eyes and looked toward the burning fire.

“The pretty girl in the portrait?”

“Yes, the pretty girl in the portrait,” answered Aunt Donn. She then stood before the mantle and gazed at the girl. With her right hand, she motioned for me to join her.

Could this be for real? The only people I had seen invited to stand before the fireplace with Aunt Donn were my father and his sisters. Any time I tried to go near the mantle – an adult gently pulled me back. That magic spot seemed to be reserved only for Aunt Donn and her special people.

And now, here today, she motioned for me to join her. I stood up and gingerly took a few steps and stood right next to her; my eyes on Aunt Donn and her eyes on the pretty girl. And I saw it happen; the same as always. Aunt Donn’s stern face melted away, and she became quite gentle while standing in the magic spot.

“Yes, she is a pretty girl; about sixteen when this portrait was painted. She was Doctah Bentley’s favorite you know. And here we stand, Donn and Donnie.” As a tear slid down Aunt Donn’s face, she whispered, “We’re here Sista.”

“She’s your sister?” I whispered to Aunt Donn.

“Yes, my Dear, she is my sista,” and then Aunt Donn gave my hand a gentle squeeze, and said, “and she is yoah grandmotha.”

We made several trips to Lincolnton to visit Aunt Donn and Uncle Walter, but never a visit as special as the day she introduced me to my grandmother, Nancy Elizabeth Bentley (Story). On another trip, she gifted my father, Tom Story, the framed Declaration of Independence that Daddy and his grandfather, Dr. Bentley, so dearly loved.

On our way home from our first visit to Aunt Donn’s home, Daddy insisted on stopping by the general store for Coca Cola. Mama really wanted to hurry home back to Tucker, but Daddy said the “gulls” needed a souvenir to remember Lincolnton. Daddy found a ceramic wishing well and bought it.

“Helen, every time I look at this wishing well, I’ll be thankful we didn’t lose a young ‘un in Aunt Donn’s well.”

Mama rolled her eyes.

“And look here, Helen, finger bowls. I know you want these.”

“Tom Story don’t you even think about it.”

“What do you think gulls? Finger bowls? That way you can dip your fingers in the water and keep ‘em clean while you’re eating.” Daddy threw his head back and laughed. Of course, we knew not to answer.

Back on the road, we headed home following the signs: Atlanta – WEST.

During our ride home, Daddy asked, “Gulls, did you have a good time?” We were slow to answer, all being a little tired. “What did you learn? Being around Aunt Donn, I know you learned something.”

My eight year old sister, Patricia, answered first, “Aunt Donn collects rocks. Each rock has a special meaning, and some of the rocks have been owned by the Bentley family all the way back to the seventeen hundreds. And if I practice drawing circles, it will strengthen the muscles in my hand and I will have better penmanship.”

My younger sister, Barbara, spoke next, “There are two dark spots on America.”

“Dark spots? What’s that all about Bobtail?” asked Daddy.

“Dark spots are shame. Aunt Donn says that slavery and the Trail of Tears are dark spots.”

“Is that really something a four year old needs to hear?” whispered Mama to Daddy.

“Never too young to learn that, Helen.”

“Well, Tom Story, I can tell you what I learned at Aunt Donn’s!” laughed Mama.

“What? Tell me. Now listen up gulls.”

“I learned that one must never ever cut the butter with anything but the ‘buddah’ knife!”

We all laughed, especially Daddy.

“Well, what about you Donnie? I bet you learned to like buttermilk,” said Daddy.

“Not really.” My rash had gotten the better of me and I did not feel like talking; my lips were still burning. And yes, the Coke did help some, but I was still nauseous from the smell of buttermilk.

“Well, you can’t be with Aunt Donn for three days and learn nothing,” said Daddy. “After we moved to Tucker, one of my brothers or sisters would go back to Lincolnton and stay with Aunt Donn for the summer. That fall, when we went back to school, that person skipped a grade. I know you learned at least one thing. What was it?”

“I met my grandmother. Her name is Nancy Elizabeth and she was a very pretty girl.”

Yes, I met my grandmother for the first time. And I will never forget the day I stood in the magic spot with my great-aunt, Dieudonnee, a woman truly given by God.

Author’s Note:

*In 1988 the South Carolina legislature voted to rename Clarke’s Hill Lake for the esteemed Senator Strom Thurmond. Since that day, the South has taken note of this issue. So far it has been resolved in this way. South Carolina maps name the lake, Strom Thurmond Dam and Lake. Georgia maps name the lake, Clarke’s Hill Lake.

*Leathersville can be found in the southern part of Lincolnton.