Memoir: Lonnie and Matrimonial Complexity

Like me, my Uncle Lonnie (great-uncle, actually) married an English woman. He met her when he was stationed in England during the second world war. I always heard the story that he married an English woman, she flew over to Texas and then high-tailed it back to England in short order. I always assumed she found the conditions in Polk County somewhat lacking for a woman of good taste, because conditions around there were a little Southern Gothic, to be sure.

I’ve recently found that many memories of my family are based on false assumptions I made when I was too young for the adults to tell me the whole truth. So to be safe, I asked my mother if I had the story straight. First of all, Mom said I was at their wedding, which means it was after 1960. I had always assumed it was the late 40s or early 50s in the years immediately after the war.

While I had assumed the wife wasn’t happy in Texas, Mom said the problem, as she remembered it, was that Lonnie’s Texas girlfriend was none too happy when his new English wife showed up, and made things uncomfortable for everyone.

So, I had to ask a followup question. “His Texas girlfriend? Did he have another one besides Aunt Jewel?” No, that’s the one, Mom assured me. She also added a bit of additional information: the English wife, I wish I knew her name, had “medical problems” related to sex. This was all so upsetting that my Aunt Edith took her to the doctor and let her stay with her and my Uncle JC for awhile before she returned to England. Apparently, the rest of the family was appalled by the way he had treated his wife.

My own memories of Uncle Lonnie are fairly benign. He owned an ice cream stand just outside of Livingston and a general store a few miles down the road. Jewel, previously mentioned, lived in a house next to the store with her children and ran the store. I only remember her being kind and patient. I never knew any of her children.

When Lonnie would smile, you’d get a glint off his gold tooth, and he smiled a good bit. My memory is a bit sketchy, as it would be, but on one occasion, I remember his bending down, smiling and either giving me quarter for ice cream or just telling me to tell “Aunt Jewel” it was okay for us to have some ice cream. It may well be a phantom of my imagination, but I remember his saying, “Here, take this quarter to Aunt Jewel and tell her I said to give you some ice cream.”

You know, it may have been a Coke or candy or something, but I left with something. When I got back to my grandmother, she asked where I’d gotten my treat. I told her, “Aunt Jewel gave it to me,” and she went white and said, “That woman is not your aunt, and I’ll not have you calling her that in my house!” I never forgot the lesson, but I also didn’t understand it till years later.

About the only other thing I can tell you about Lonnie is that he was reputed to be quite a miser. He never really looked like he had a dime to his name, but owned quite a bit of property in Polk County, and he was the only person I ever knew personally who owned an industrial-sized backhoe, though I don’t remember a time it was ever out of the shed he built for it. When he died, some people had quite a bit of anticipation about where his money would go, but I don’t know how that turned out. I can only share that it didn’t go to me.

Memoir: Snuff and Hand-Rolled Cigarettes

The smell stays with you. I mean, we don’t forget smells. When we would visit my great-grandparents, Oscar and Lorena Stuckey, we’d first be greeted by chickens, and their distinctive smell, milling about in the yard. As we approached the kitchen by way of the porch, and everyone went in through the kitchen door, we’d meet the mingling aromas of various boiled and fried foods, a hint of natural gas, and maybe a whiff of loose tobacco and fresh snuff. Describing that particular smell is impossible, I think. If you know what I’m talking about, the memory will just about knock you over. If you don’t know, I’m sorry to leave you perplexed.

Oscar rolled cigarettes between his thumb and forefinger with alacrity. The saw mill took the other three fingers from his right hand decades earlier, and you’d almost think those extra digits had been extraneous appendages. Like they would have gotten in his way, regardless. I made the mistake of getting him a cigarette rolling machine one year, which he accepted graciously and put away somewhere never to be seen again. Besides being a self-reliant Texan who could roll his own cigarettes, thank you, he wasn’t a fan of solving problems through technology, anyway. Maybe it seemed unmanly to him.

And he was manly. He was well over six feet tall and spoke in a resonate basso profundo that always drew attention. His voice had the natural timbre actors try to develop for their overly reverent portrayals of history’s “great men.”

Before he died, someone in the family had the foresight to make a recording of him speaking, but I don’t know whether the tape is still around. I do remember the topic of the conversation, though. Born in 1889, Oscar was too young to have known people while they were living in slavery, but he was old enough to have met the children of slaves.

On the tape, he was speaking to a woman about his age who was directly descended from slaves in Texas. They discussed the ongoing evolution of race relations in Texas over the years. Livingston, Texas, is not a place known for racial tolerance, but it is a place where black and white people have to live side by side. I wish I could revisit the insights the two of them shared that day. I can say they were friendly, and each seemed to enjoy reminiscing.

Lorena didn’t smoke cigarettes that I ever saw, but she didn’t mind taking a dip of snuff from time to time. I have a vivid memory of her sitting in a comfortable chair with a dip of snuff in her lip and the tiniest dribble of snuff-infused saliva working slowly down her chin. I don’t think I ever saw her wearing anything but a dress, usually with an apron over it. She had simple tastes.

Her son, Oscar, Jr., died at the age of 18 in Woodville, Texas, and she never stopped talking about him. I don’t mean she talked about him constantly; it’s just that he would come up from time to time all the way to the end of her life. I remember her well in her old age telling me she had spoken with Jesus, and Jesus had assured her that Junior was doing just fine and looking forward to seeing her when she joined him in Heaven. This was one of the few windows I had, as a child, into the suffering of an adult and the adult efforts to find comfort from religion.

As children, we never left the house without her giving us a dime. As we got older, inflation had no impact on the size of the gift, and she continued giving dimes to us long after it was really appropriate, but it was a quiet way of saying, “I love you,” and every dime was much appreciated. We all must find quiet way to say, “I love you.”

Fiction: Seven Oaks and the Alcoholic Lifestyle

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Someone said Jim lived in Seven Oaks. Now, to some people that might sound like a compliment or, at least, a nice comment on account of the fact that some pretty nice places are named Seven Oaks, but Seven Oaks, Texas isn’t one of them, and Jim didn’t own or rent any kind of home in Seven Oaks.

Jim lived in Livingston, Texas, which was a few miles south and happened to be the county seat of Polk County, which was a dry county, meaning you couldn’t buy a drink of alcohol in Livingston come hell or high water. If you liked to imbibe a drop or two of spirits, wine, or beer, you’d have to drive north or south on highway 59 until you got out of Polk County.

If you drove north on 59, you’d cross the county line and be greeted by a sign saying, “Welcome to Seven Oaks.” If you drove a tiny bit further, you’d see the Seven Oaks bar. I don’t think it is there anymore, but you’ll still find a liquor store there.

Anyway, that Seven Oaks bar didn’t exactly have a concealed parking lot, so your car would just be sitting there for God and all the world to see.

So if any of your nosy neighbors or family saw your car there more than once in a week, they might start gabbing around about how you lived up there or something. It was a not so nice way of saying you were a drunk.

I don’t remember anyone ever saying he was an alcoholic, though. In fact, his sister insisted that he most certainly was not an alcoholic, though she did concede that he made a habit of being drunk, so she was willing to say he was a habitual drunk, but he never got the DTs if he didn’t have a drink for a few hours or anything like that.

And he could clean up and get through a Sunday sermon all right if push came to shove, and alcoholics can’t really pull that off, so he just stayed drunk because he wanted to—not because he had to.

And I guess that’s all that matters sometimes, you know? We’re all just trying to do good enough to pacify the family and the neighbors. If you can keep that up, you might just have a pretty good life. And who knows, someday you might hit it big with one of those scratch-offs you keep buying at the Seven Oaks bar.

R Horton