July 19, 2014 10:45:51 PM
Recently I got a phone call from my niece Mary Louise, who lives in Florida. Since her only child, Elizabeth, has never had a chance to meet many of her family members, she asked that I write for her daughter's 16th birthday something about her family. Knowing my tendency to run on and on about a subject, I decided to limit my recollections to my grandfathers, especially since my own children never had an opportunity to know either of theirs. I thought I could then share what I wrote with my children because of the gap in their lives.
I know how some people groan when someone starts talking about their family, so to them I apologize. Maybe I ought to apologize to my family as well for exploiting them, so I do that, too. Sometimes, however, one's family is the only subject he can come up with. (It is just like the fact that sometimes one or two prepositions are the only things you can end a sentence with.) So with due apologies, here goes:
My paternal grandfather, John Richey Boyls, was a brown-eyed, raw-boned redhead, who looked very much like the Scots I later saw when I went to Europe. Long after he died, I found a letter he had written my grandmother from Maben, Mississippi, at a time when she had gone to Greenwood to stay a while and look after her elderly and ill mother. He always called her "Miss Ruth" in public, but in the letter he addressed her "Dear Sweetheart."
I know he referred to me in the letter, because I was the only one who qualified as "the toddler" of whom he wrote. He said that it was the strangest, most heartwarming thing that, no matter where we were, if one of us came into a room where the other was, I would head straight for him as if magnetized. Although I do have "crib memories," I do not remember this, but I do not doubt it at all. Even now, if I could see him, I would go straight to him. There always seemed to be a special bond between us as far as I was concerned. I loved -- and still do love -- him with a poignancy I can hardly describe.
Life in Maben
He and "Miss Ruth" lived in Maben, which was a little larger, I think, than it is now, but never even a little city. Granddaddy was president of its small bank and proprietor, along with his brother George, of a general merchandise store with the grandiose name of Boyls Bros. Mercantile Company. It was one of those old stores where you could buy nearly everything, where people gathered to visit -- around a pot-bellied stove in winter -- and where old men whittled while they sat out in front of the store.
Mema, Granddaddy's wife, was a good raconteur and told many stories about the store. Once, a big, oafish teen boy in bib overalls, came in and asked for some chewing tobacco. "Jus' charge it to Pa," he said.
"All right, son," said Granddaddy. "Who is your Pa?"
The boy thought hard, scratched his head, and said, "Damned if I know."
Among things they sold at the store was flour in printed sacks. During the Depression, country folks could use the emptied flour sacks to make garments, especially for children. Across the printed sacks were the words, "Boyls Bros. Mercantile Company," which would wash out with laundering.
Sources of entertainment were few, and apparently what some of the couples did for fun, I am ashamed to say, was to go to the "holy roller" revivals and watch some of the congregation "get religion" and start rolling on the floor in front of the church. One night a very fat woman "got the Spirit" and began rolling. It just so happened that she was wearing flour sack bloomers that "Boyls Bros. Mercantile Company" had not yet been washed out of and was emblazoned across her generous behind. Granddaddy took a lot of kidding about his "advertising."
During the start of the Great Depression, when many small banks failed, prompting the newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt to declare a "bank holiday" to stop the panic, the Maben bank failed. Granddaddy had a heart attack. Treatment then consisted of lengthy bed rest (a mistake); the doctors pulled all his teeth (another mistake.) At that time they thought teeth could be foci of infection causing heart attacks. When Granddaddy finally recovered from this poor treatment (although it must be noted that this time was before antibiotics), the brothers sold the store, and the Boylses eventually moved away, the George Boylses to the Coast and the John Boylses to Greenwood, where for the remainder of his life, Granddaddy managed the three farms in Mama's family, the Home Place, the Point, and Whaley.
During much of this time Gossie (Margaret's and my father) worked for Congressman John Rankin. Margaret was born during the five years we lived in Washington. Mother often said that living in Washington was when she really grew up. In many ways those were interesting years, but they also must have been difficult, especially with a new baby and no household help. It had to have been a welcome invitation indeed when my Boyls grandparents invited me to spend two summers with them, but how was I to get there? Gossie could not take a vacation until Congress recessed in August, and Mother had the care of Margaret all by herself So two summers, when I was 7 and 8, they put me on a Pullman train car, tipped the porter $10 to look after me, and I spent the night on the train going from Washington to Memphis, where our Uncle Noy, Gossie's only sibling, met me. It was scary for my parents, but wonderful for my self-confidence, as I always felt after that that I could do nearly anything. It seems to me that times were much more innocent then, the world kinder.
Braving my solo trips afforded me the wonderful summers with those grandparents where I was indulged and petted. They bought me Shetland ponies. Nearly every day Granddaddy and I would ride horseback on the backroads of Greenwood out to one of the farms. Those days cemented the special bond I felt with Granddaddy. He became my best friend.
Granddaddy died shortly after we moved to Columbus. It was my first bereavement, and it was a loss of someone incredibly precious to me.
Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.