FOR MOST of my life, I thought everyone had interesting family members who from time to time were involved in some weird, familial situations. Everyone I knew seemed to have someone in their family who was a little off-center. And as I grew older and more educated, and as my world expanded, I learned that Southerners had certain reputations, thanks to authors like William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Pat Conway. When I first started teaching English at Slidell High School, across the hall was the fabulous senior English teacher, Jean Davis. I can remember this Mississippi-Delta-Educated Southern Belle referring to the famous Faulkner as thatdamnbillfaulkner, as if it was one word. Also, I can remember her saying, "Thatdamnbillfaulkner. . .hanging our dirty linen out on the clothesline for everyone to see!" You can understand where Mrs. Davis put the blame for the reputation that Southerners and, particularly, Mississippians had!
MY NEW-YORK-BORN husband used to love to quote to Southern-me what he heard was attributed to writer Pat Conway: "My mother, Southern to the bone, once told me, 'All Southern literature can be summed up in these words: On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to sister.' " Over the years, I sort of changed it to. . .Mama was never the same after she heard what Papa had done to Sister and the night the hogs ate Willie! Conway's mother's quote left out an important part of Southern literature: insanity. I had to insert it!
SO, THIS is the background of my current post, Alphonse's Tomb. Alphonse was my mother's first cousin, the oldest child of my Grandmother's youngest sibling, Jessie. My great Aunt Jessie was more than a little off-center, and she was a perplexing woman. She was as unlike her sister, Emily, my grandmother, as anyone could be. My grandmother loved her sister, but was aware of the realities of Jessie and her peculiar ways.
EMILY and Jessie were the two youngest of fourteen children. After the death of their father, it was just the three of them at home: great grandmother, Emily, and Jessie. Jessie was a couple of years younger than Emily and realized in the early 1900's that if Emily married, Jessie would have to be the one to take care of their mother. So, "she upped and married the first man to come along," before my grandmother could. My grandmother married my grandfather in 1906 because, as my grandmother told me, "he was a gentleman, he had a diamond stick pin, and he promised to always take care of my mother." He did until her death in 1922.
ANYHOW, Jessie had three children in a hurry, with Alphonse being the oldest. Aunt Jessie divorced him soon after the third child's birth. Divorce in the early 1900's? Shocking!
I SHALL NOT go into the many stories told about Aunt Jessie and her antics of trying to survive as a single mother in the early part of the 20th century. Let's just say the scene in Victor/Victoria in the restaurant with a hungry Julie Andrews was already very familiar to me when I saw the movie for the first time! And, not all landlords or managers of apartments are the ones to be afraid of. A lone woman with children, living in a flat or apartment, but who is unable to pay back or current rent can be a scary thing. Nothing really happened, but the landlord brushed a little close to Aunt Jessie's skirt, and she screamed as if something terrible had happened! Get it? She moved out immediately, paying nothing!
HOWEVER, finally Aunt Jessie married Uncle Will. He helped her raise her children, and from our perspective, they had a good marriage for many, many years. Aunt Jessie loved to travel and they did, all over the US. Life was perfect. Or was it? More about her travels later.
DURING the Depression, everyone had a hard time. My family had moved from Mississippi to a small Louisiana town near the state line for free text books for the younger children still in school. Later, they moved to New Orleans for Granddaddy and the older kids to get jobs. Everyone's pay went into the family coffers. They made it, by the hardest, during the Depression. Grandmother's nephew, Alphonse, came to New Orleans to see if he could get a job. He stayed with his aunt's family.
ALPHONSE tried his hand at shining shoes. My grandmother even cut up her flannel nightgown into shoe shining rags for him to use for his work. He tried to sell papers. He just couldn't make it. He left New Orleans and went back to where his mother and step-father lived in Arkansas.
IT WAS there he asked his mother, Aunt Jessie, for some money. That's all I was ever told. She refused him, and he shot himself in her home. Suicide! That was worse than divorce! Aunt Jessie was never the same. She spent the rest of her life trying to deal with the fact that Alphonse had killed himself because she wouldn't give him money.
THE FIRST thing Aunt Jessie did was to bring his body back to Marion County, Mississippi, for burial. One thing that always stuck with Alphonse during his time in New Orleans was the above-ground burials. He had told his mother that he did not want to be buried in the ground but in a tomb like in New Orleans. So, Aunt Jessie moved heaven and earth to fulfill this request, and in Columbia, MS, that was not easy.
FIRST, the City Fathers of Columbia refused to let Aunt Jessie build an above-ground tomb in the Columbia City Cemetery. She kept after them. They kept refusing. She kept after them. Finally, they admitted that they owned some farm land outside the city limits, just in case they needed to expand the City Cemetery. They finally gave Aunt Jessie permission to build a tomb there. . .waaay outside of town. And she did. However, it was soon obvious that the Mississippi workmen who built it had never been to New Orleans! It had to be one of the ugliest structures ever built. It was made out of concrete blocks, covered with white stucco. It was absolutely square with a flat roof. I'll try to find a picture to post here so that you, Dear Readers, can see how ugly it was. But it got worse.
REALISING how ugly it was, Aunt Jessie, found two huge, white kneeling angels. I don't know where she found them, but she did, and she had them placed on the flat roof. They overwhelmed the structure. There was one door in the front of the box. It had a door knob, lock, and one small square window. It was a glaring white box in the middle of acres of a green Mississippi field, and it remained that way for years. There were no other graves there. My aunt Jessie had bought several plots (about twenty) when she bought the land for Alphonse's tomb. My grandmother bought another twenty. Later, some of their other nephews bought some plots nearby. But, thankfully, they were not used for another ten or fifteen years or so. And here is where I entered the picture.
AUNT JESSIE and Uncle Will would go to Columbia once a year from Arkansas for Aunt Jessie to sweep out the tomb and dust Alphonse's casket. My grandmother would meet her in Columbia from her homes in New Orleans or Gulfport, MS. They would all take rooms at a local boarding house in one of those beautiful Victorian homes. My Aunt Mary would drive her. Sometimes, they would take me. I must have been about four or five for my first trip, because I remember it all very well.
SOMEWHERE, there is a picture of me, sitting in a field making clover necklaces with Alphonse's Tomb in the background. . .as far away as I could get from it. I can still see my grandmother, my aunt, and my great aunt with their heads covered with cloths to protect their hair from the dust and dirt. My aunt Jessie had the key to the tomb. She'd open the door, and they'd walk in and start cleaning. I kept moving away to another clover patch. I promise you, I never went inside that tomb. I've never even looked through the window of the door.
WHEN she wasn't coming to Mississippi to clean Alphonse's Tomb, Aunt Jessie was dragging Uncle Will with her all over the US to attend séances to try to communicate with Alphonse. They attended mass séances in a place called Chesterfield, Indiana. She dabbled in rose rubbing. . .not painting roses, but rubbing rose petals on a blotter to see what image from beyond would be produced. This woman had grown up in a very religious, Christian family, but her pain was so great that she sought relief from the weirdest elements. Most of what I learned I got from overhearing whispered remarks by my aunts and grandmother. But even at my young age, I felt very sorry for Aunt Jessie and what she must have been through. Today, I can't even begin to put myself in her place and who knows what I would have done if given her trials and in a time when there wasn't much for women except marriage and motherhood.
TIMES CHANGE. I never thought I'd miss the white stucco, but I do. Before she died, Aunt Jessie had the tomb covered in ugly, yellowish brick. Today, it is beyond ugly! (See picture below) If I ever win the lottery, I might have it repainted white, and maybe add a roof to it to give it some presence. But, since I never play the lottery, it’s not going to happen.
OVER the years, more family members died. Aunt Jessie, Uncle Will, and Alphonse's two siblings and their mates are all inside of Alphonse's Tomb. The once empty field is now a beautiful cemetery with hundreds of in-ground graves. There are still no above-ground tombs in Columbia or Marion County except for Alphonse's Tomb.
MY GRANDFATHER, grandmother, aunts, uncle, my mother, and my husband are all buried in the ground within steps of Alphonse's Tomb. Someday, I'll be buried there, between my husband and my mother. (At least it will be easy to find my grave should you want to visit; just ask anybody where the above-ground tomb is.) No one shows up now to open the tomb or to sweep it out and dust the caskets. When my aunts were still alive, there was talk about making Alphonse's Tomb into a small chapel (and naming it Leigh Chapel but Aunt Jessie wasn't a Leigh) and interring all of the caskets in some of the twenty plots Aunt Jessie owned. Nothing ever came of that. There are still many plots there that my family owns. I once asked my grandmother why she bought so many plots. Her answer? I love a crowd!
MY FRIEND and colleague, who was another of the fabulous English teachers at Slidell High, has always suggested that I write a play or some other work of Southern literature and entitle it Alphonse's Tomb. She has a southern, gothic novel in mind. Perhaps, this is my first step in doing so.
Alphonse’s Tomb in Woodlawn Cemetery; Columbia, MS.