February 22, 2014 8:51:41 PM
During our semi-regular phone conversations, my brother, Fred, always starts the conversation with the same question: "What is your book going to be about?"
I always respond, "Oh, I don't know" and move on to some other topic.
This week, though, as Fred waited on the arrival of advance copies of his own first book, a scholarly examination of Mississippi's brief experience in the 1930s with what could generally be called communism, he seemed more persistent and I felt obliged to offer a more substantial response.
Fred has always been my biggest fan, even in those dark days after I got out of prison and seemed unlikely to return to the "world of words" in any fashion. He's always seen me as writer, even when I was a janitor or a car-wash attendant or a thrift-store clerk. I love him for that, and for many other reasons.
So when he asked what my book was going to be about, I tried to expand on the perfunctory "I don't know," by adding, "I guess if I had to choose a topic right this minute, maybe I'd write a book about Aunt Tatie."
Aunt Tatie (her real name was Anna Fay) was my dad's baby sister. She died in December of 1978. I believe she was in her late 40s when she died, although I am not certain. Truth is, I never knew much about Aunt Tatie, even though I was a pallbearer at her funeral. The main reason for that is because by the time I came along, Aunt Tatie had already been confined to the Ellisville State School. I do not recall ever seeing her alive, although I am told she did make infrequent weekend visits home to North Mississippi.
So, really, Aunt Tatie is as much a stranger to me as anyone I might encounter on the street.
Still, it didn't seem an odd topic for me to tackle from Fred's perspective.
"Great idea," he said. "I think that's a story worth telling."
Maybe it is.
What I find intriguing about Aunt Tatie are two facts: First, Aunt Tatie was sent to Ellisville because she had Down Syndrome, which says much about how the condition was viewed and treated a half-century or more ago.
Second, she died in the horrific fire at the school dormitory that claimed the lives of 15 women patients. Sixteen others were injured. Sixty-three others escaped injury.
Reports indicate those who died were sleeping in the second-floor women's dormitory when a fire broke out in a linen closet in the early-morning hours of Saturday, Dec. 15. School director Dr. Paul Cotten was quoted as saying there were no fire-detection devices in the area. There was some evidence that the victims had been awake and were trying to escape, only to be overcome by smoke. I imagine it was a terrifying ordeal for those poor souls for whom even normal every-day events could be terrifying.
The story of Aunt Tatie's life and death leave some interesting questions, including "How is it that the state of Mississippi is not still paying our family for Aunt Tatie's death?" and, perhaps a more noble question, "How and why did a person with Down Syndrome like Aunt Tatie get sent to what was, essentially, a mental hospital to live out the rest of her years?"
My brothers, Stan and Terry, are 21 and 18 years my elder. They have real memories of Aunt Tatie. When they were small, the whole Smith clan lived close to each other, often on adjoining small cotton farms that dominated Tippah County. Aunt Tatie was always around my parents' house, mainly because Stan and Terry were small children. Aunt Tatie loved children, you see. At her funeral, an older relative laughed, telling me, "It's a wonder your brothers ever learned to walk. As soon as your mama put them down for a second, Aunt Tatie would snatch 'em up and tote them around all day long."
The Aunt Tatie that Stan and Terry remember had a big personality -- loving and expressive, but also strong-willed and stubborn. I am told these are qualities that are quite common among those with Down Syndrome.
When her parents died, Aunt Tatie lived for a while with one or another of her seven siblings. I am told that she became unmanageable, which led to the family's decision to send her to Ellisville.
I don't think people had very high expectations for Down Syndrome people in those days. Aunt Tatie never went to school, never held a job, never did much of anything nor was she inclined or encouraged to learn new skills. I suspect under those circumstances, I would become pretty unmanageable, too.
Today, we see Down Syndrome people doing all sorts of things that no one would have ever imagined Aunt Tatie capable of doing. We are often inspired by their achievements. They can live independent, productive lives. I don't believe they are "put away" any longer. At least, I hope not.
I think the world of Down Syndrome of that era was a lonely, painful, frustrating and frightening place, not only for the Aunt Taties of the world, but for their families, too, who didn't seem to know what to do with them.
I'd like to see that world and try to understand it. I'd like to know my Aunt Tatie.
So that's the book I would write, I think.
Who would buy it is anybody's guess.
Slim Smith is managing editor of The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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