The Brightest Star in Heaven

on September 20, 2012 in Anothah Mothah, Southern Charm

 

Dieudonne Randolph Bentley-Steed was born and raised in Lincolnton, Georgia, where she enjoyed the best of life with her books, fine china, and real silver, which she used daily in spite of the fact her modest home was without running water or electricity. She was proud of the fact that she graduated from State Normal College, and was quick to let you know that “Noh’mal” was a part of the University of Georgia. And though she had a Southern accent which resembled another language all together, she insisted that her name Dieudonne be pronounced with the “propah” French accent.

Often she reprimanded us by saying: “If you can not accomplish this small feat, then just call me Donn.”

We all called her Donn. Donn was my father’s mother’s older sister.

And we all knew where to find Donn. “Get yoahself a Geo’giah map and look fo’ the county which resembles a Chai’kee broken ar’ow head pointing nawth, dividing Geo’giah and South Ca’olina. There, you will find yoah Aunt Donn in Lincoln County.”

Aunt Donn was a retired school teacher who wed late in life and did not have children of her own. She claimed and named all nine of her sister Nancy’s children. Her sister Nancy was my father’s mother, and Aunt Donn named my father Thomas Jonathan after Stonewall Jackson.

And as any day, Donn Steed read a book, but today was different as she was mindful of the mantel clock as it chimed the sixth hour. Eventide was approaching and she would be ready for it. She continued to silently read Ecclesiastes, pondering time, mindful of the ticking away of minutes.

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die…A time to mourn, and a time to dance.”

Donn marked her spot, then read a verse one more time before closing the book, “Yes,” she thought, “A time to keep, and a time to cast away.” And aloud Donn spoke these words with deliberation, “A time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” Tears ran down her face as she continued to read aloud, “A time to love, and a time to hate; a time for wawh, and a time for peace.”

Time and the proper thing to do filled every crevice of Donn’s thoughts these days. The dancing and laughter was over, that much was for sure. Could it be a time for wawh? She would have to speak to “Sistah” about this and she would this day. “Yes,”  Donn thought, “it is a time to speak.”

Shadows crept into the room, a time when Donn normally lit the kerosene lamp, but not today. Today she stood and reached for her “shawt fur” and wrapped herself warmly. As she stepped across the room, Donn suddenly stopped at Dr. Bentley’s roll-top desk. She yanked open a drawer and shuffled about until she found an old school photo taken at Liberty Hill in Lincolnton.

An unexpected smile crossed Donn’s face as she admired the photo. “There is Nancy and Lawton, Caleb, Cha’lie and Ca’oline. And just do look at that sad face on Ella Spires! And Ella wearing the rose Nancy gave her.” Donn shook her head in disbelief, “It’s as though this pictu’e was taken just yeste’day. Yes, Nancy and Ella were upset because the photog’aphah wouldn’t let you sit togethah.”

And with a chuckle that could not be contained, “And me!” Donn blew her cheeks out big holding her breath and rolled her eyes to the back of her head as she had done in the photograph. Suddenly she reached for the desk to steady herself. “Well, I can’t do that anymore. It makes me swimmy headed. Yes, y’all scolded me about making funny faces at the photog’aphah, but I didn’t listen. Y’all were right,” Donn mused, “I never listen to anyone. And now I have to live with that silly face for the ages.”

With that, Donn returned the photo to the past under letters and documents of old to her grandfather’s desk. She opened the back door and walked out into the yard to her now dormant flower garden.

“Donn, where’re you going at this hour?” asked Walter.

“Oh, just a shawt walk, I want to cleah my head, Waltah.”

“Don’t be long, it’ll be dark soon.”

“I shan’t be too long Deah, don’t wor’y about me,” Donn tried to reassure Walter. Her husband had always cooked for Donn, but had become an old mother hen since Donn’s sister, Nancy, passed away in April.

Yes 1938 was a year of sorrow for Donn. It was the year her sister, Nancy Bentley-Story died of heart failure. Nancy lived in Tucker near Atlanta, and Donn lived in Lincolnton many miles away. But distance could not part these two sisters. And Donn had come to realize that death could not part them either.

As a child, anytime Nancy went missing, she could be found in Dr. Bentley’s herb garden or Mother’s flower garden. That was when they were children; back when family and time together were taken for granted.

Tonight Donn walked to the only garden she had – pitiful as it was. Her garden was not at all as fine as the Leathersville gardens, but it would have to do. She looked up at the twilight sky searching for the first sign of a star. Allowing herself to be a kid again, she sang quietly to the tune of a child’s song, “Star light, Star bright, Furst star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, Have the wish I wish tonight, Calling on Nancy Elizabeth Bentley-Story.”

When the first star winked back, Donn settled down with a smile, “There you are Sistah, glad to see yoah as beautiful as eveh.” Quickly, Donn’s smile dissipated as she got down to business. “I need to talk to you about something, rathah impo’tant. There is chaos in yoah home.” Donn chuckled nervously as she continued, “Yoah husband has always encou’aged the chil’ren to be high spirited, and now he has to live with the consequences! You were the one who b’ought ordah to the home. And my deah sistah, now you are not there.”

Donn was quiet for a moment while she allowed the cold air to comfort her face, “Little Nancy is doing the best she can. She makes a big pan of biscuits every mo’ning and pone of co’nbread at suppah time, and gets her lessons. That’s a lot for a twelve yeah old. She told me that Mothah taught her to make biscuits. She said you instructed her while sitting in a chair; sitting in a chair, because yoah hawt was too weak to suppo’t you. And little Nancy, yoah namesake, is doing a good job with the biscuits. I wanted you to know that.”

Namesake Nancy Bentley Story

Though tears streamed down her face, Donn couldn’t help but smile when thinking of her brother-in-law, Lawton. “Sistah, Lawton got so aggravated hea’ing the doahs slam shut, he fo’bade the chil’ren to use the doahs! So now they use the windows instead. What a sight! Chil’ren crawling in and out of windows! What will the good people of Tuckah Geo’gia think?” Donn shook her head in disbelief, “I am sorry to tell you, but they have made kites out of yoah quilts. And that baby boy of yoahs, that Tom Story! He lassoes live snakes. Then he ties a wiggling snake to a stick and chases little Nancy. Gene is just as bad! One day a while back, their fathah sent the three of them out to the field to bu’n dried cawn stalks. Gene and Tom wanted to play ‘jump the fiah,’ but little Nancy wanted to get the work done, so they wouldn’t get a whoopin’ from Papa. She took off her new shoes, yes, Lawton bought the child new school shoes. She is tickled pink ovah those shoes and took them off to keep them clean. She told the boys to help with the wurk. But no, Gene and Tom would not stop playing. Then the boys got the idea to tie Nancy’s shoe strings togethah and dangle her new shoes ovah the fiah, fo’cing the child to play with them. And yes, they got a whoopin,’ little Nancy too, for she would rathah be punished than call out her brothas. Yes, Lawton Story is losing his patience. I do believe he is at wit’s end.”

Donn was silent for a moment; as though she was giving her sister time to digest it all. “I know how the chil’ren feel; I remembah the day Mothah died as though it was yeste’day. I remembah Fathah standing at the foot of her bed as her spirit ascended to the good Lawd. He said, ‘A time to be born, and a time to die. Today is a time to weep and mourn, for my lovely Grace Amelia has left this earth.’ Fathah wept so on that dreadful day.”

“Donn, come in, it’s dark out already,” Walter called out to Donn through the night air. Before Donn could answer, Walter noticed something strange. “Donn! Is that you standing in the dried up gladiolas?”

“Yes, Waltah, I am in the ga’den. “I’ll be there directly Deah,”

“I don’t like this a bit, not one bit,” Walter grumbled to himself.

Donn heard the screen door squeak as it closed, and knew she was alone with her thoughts again. “The chil’ren won’t admit who took a pencil and poked out the eyeballs of their grandmothah, Sallie Gunby in the po’trait of her and Rad Story. But one of them did it. It’s strange, they seem to enjoy tortu’ing each othah, but will band togethah when one is put upon. They will not fo’sake one anothah for the wauld! No mattah how much trouble they get in.”

Donn wiped the tears from her face and pulled her fur tighter, “Caleb doesn’t cause as much mischief as do Gene and Tom. Caleb is struggling, Sistah. I hate to tell you, but his pa’alysis is getting wurse.” Donn took a deep breath and felt a burden lifted when she got that information out. She quickly changed the subject, for she did not want to tell her sister that Caleb would never recover.

“I do not believe Caleb instigates the mischief; he enjoys the excitement of the unexpected. So, he does join in with the encouragement of mischief, I am sorry to say. Yes, he enjoys every minute of the chaos.”

“Donn, I’m making tea for you. Come on in now,” called out Walter through the night air.

“I’ll be in shawtly Waltah,” called out Donn. Then she whispered up to the stars, “I know Waltah means well. But a body needs time alone with the Heavens and I cannot explain that to him in feah of him thinking me daff!”

Donn took another deep breath and quickly continued her conversation, because she knew her time was growing short. She knew that Walter Steed would walk out there to get her if she did not come in soon. She had to get said what needed to be said. This was a time to speak.

“Sistah, I must speak to you about something of great impotance. Lawton has met a woman. I’ve heard that she is from a pioneeh family of Tuckah. Her name is Minnie Beatrix Brand. She helps little Nancy in the kitchen and is good to the boys, especially Tom. They say, when a sto’m comes, she gets Tom to sit at her feet while she holds his hand and rubs his back with her other hand.” Donn cried as she explained, “I guess what I am saying, is the chil’ren are going to get anothah mothah.”

Donn wept uncontrollably. “Oh Sistah, how I wish you had not gone away; this would neveh eveh happen if you were heah. You are the love of Lawton Story’s life, even back when that silly school picture was made, eve’yone knew you were meant fo’ each othah! Why did you have to go? But who am I to ask such a question? The good Lawd says ‘A time to die.’ It breaks my heart to know it was yoah time to die, leaving foah chil’ren at home. I know you had nine, but the othahs are grown and mar’ied. The foah left at home are but chil’ren. And they are in need of a mothah so badly. Sistah, maybe it’s time for them to have anothah mothah.”

“Donn!”

“I’m coming Waltah!”

The screen door closes again. Donn has few minutes left. It’s time to get serious.

“Sistah, you know it was raining on the day you left us. It was as though the angels were crying their eyes out.  It had been raining fo’ days, and the Hea’st got stuck in the mud when they tried to leave with you. The wheels mi’ed up and made big ruts in the yawd. All the chil’ren cried for you, especially the young boys. Caleb said, ‘They’re stuck, that’s ‘cause Mama doesn’t want to go leave us.’ Gene said, ‘I don’t care what Papa says – Mama doesn’t want to go to Heaven.’ And Tom cried out, ‘Dear God, please don’t let my Mama be dead!’ Tom had to be restrained fo’ days.”

Donn wiped her eyes again, “But it was Little Nancy that worried me the most, for she did not cry. She stood firm and stared as they took you away. For days she could be found staring at the dried ruts left in the yawd. As days passed on, the ruts crumbled and disappeahed. That’s when little Nancy cried. It was as though her teahs picked up where the rain left off.”

Donn was silent for a good long while, “Sistah, I knew if I talked to you, you would advise me. And you have, wisely. Yes, I know what to do now. It is a time to plant the seeds of kindness. I will get myself to Tuckah and meet this Miss Minnie and I will accept her on behalf of the enti’e Bentley family.”

Donn heard the screen door open again, “Donn, it’s dark, your tea is cold, and I’m coming to get you.”

“It’s okay Waltah, I’m on my way now. Just wait for me at the doah, Deah. My feet know the way.”

With that Donn stepped out from the midst of dead gladiolas and headed back toward the house. She suddenly stopped and looked up one last time at the brightest star in Heaven, and whispered, “Good night Sistah.”

Author’s Notes:

The one room school house in Lincolnton was Liberty Hill, near Leathersville.

Children in the Liberty Hill 1894 class picture are: Left to Right – Front Row – #4 Caleb Hardin Bentley, #6 Horace Lawton Story, #16 Nancy Elizabeth Bentley. Second Row – #12 Ella Spires, #16 possibly Effie Louise Bentley, #17 possibly Casey Lowe Bentley. Third Row – #5 Dieudonne “Donn” Bentley, #9 Charlie Ramsey Bentley holding a chalk board with his initials CRB Aug 1894, #10 Caroline Grace Eugenia Bentley.

Ella Spires never married nor left Lincolnton, and lived to be a very old woman. Though blind in the last years of life, she always smiled when hearing the voices of Nancy Bentley-Story’s children. Nancy’s children called Ella, “Cousin Ella.” As a young woman, Ella embroidered a bouquet of flowers using Nancy Bentley’s hair as thread. Nancy Bentley and Ella Spires were life-long best friends.

Nancy Elizabeth Bentley and Horace Lawton Story were born in 1886, photographed in school class picture in 1894 when they were eight years old, married in 1906.

Charlie Bentley became a teacher and Caleb Bentley moved to Florida where he became vice president of a fruit company.

Genealogy of the Bentley children in the school photograph: Parents Dennis Brantley and Grace Amelia Ramsey-Bentley, grandfather Dr. John Bentley, great-grandfather Balaam Bentley, and great-great grandfather Captain William Bentley II. Captain William Bentley II was granted land in Wilkes County which is now Lincoln County, for payment of services rendered in the Colonial Army during the Revolutionary War. He was from South Carolina. Over the years the Bentleys traded services for hides and land. The land became known as Leathersville. Leathersville is just south of Lincolnton, Georgia.

Click on photos to enlarge.

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