For me, one particularly melancholic aspect of the death of my elders is the loss of family lore, no more tales from my father, mother, grandparents, or great aunts. If I could recoup some of the precious time I squandered in my younger days – hours wasted bouncing tennis balls off the side of our house, watching Saturday cartoons, or later, sitting at bars solving crossword puzzles – I would reinvest some of that recaptured time asking follow-up questions to my kinfolk about some of the stories they used to tell.
Now, in my own old age, questions arise that I cannot answer. For example, it seems that no one in my family except my Uncle David had a church wedding. My maternal grandparents and my parents both eloped, Hazelwood Ursula Hunt running off with Kistler Jerome Blanton in the 1930s, my parents following suit a generation later. As Springsteen puts it in “The River,” “No wedding days smiles, no walk down the aisles, no flowers, no wedding dress.”
And I might add, no photographs.
According to my mother, her father Kistler had to quit school in the third grade because his pipe-smoking raw-boned Scots-Irish mother demanded that he not waste his time on abstractions like reading, writing, and arithmetic. After all, there was hard money to be made with child labor. Kiki, as we called him, was born in 1901, so his dropping out would have occurred in 1910 or 1911. But was my mother’s memory accurate? Could it have been the fifth or sixth grade? Weren’t there truant officers? Kiki seemed pretty damned literate for someone with a third-grade education, but then again, he never wrote me a letter or sent me a birthday card, so who’s to say?
That he was “dirt poor” is beyond a doubt, unlike his future bride Hazel who grew up on a prosperous farm in Branchville, South Carolina, her mother a Fairy (as in Shepard Fairly, a distant cousin). The Fairys arrived in the Palmetto State before the Revolution so I guess would qualify for the DAR.
Anyway, how did these two meet? They say Kiki sang in some kind of quartet that performed in various venues. Mama Blanton, as we called Hazelwood, played the piano. Did their music bring them together? Did they meet at a dance? A church? A party? How did they pull off their great escape? Who hitched them? Where did they stay? What was their parents’ reactions when they found out? I have no idea, only know that their marriage ended up being a separate bedroom arrangement, and I never once saw them embrace, much less kiss.
The Hunts were good-fearing Baptists, the Blanton’s not so much. Now that I think of it, the Hunts were atypical Southerners in that they didn’t really tell stories. I remember Mama B and her sisters Pearl and Ruby sitting in front of a television shelling beans and watching soap operas, but I don’t remember any tales of deering-do or tragedy or even gossip coming from anyone of them.
My father’s people, on the other hand, were full of themselves and also stories. The Moores considered themselves aristocrats, which I always found preposterous, until a distant cousin tracked me down and provided me with a family history. Someone named Richard Dunmore has written a history of Appleby Magna in rural Leicestershire and has devoted a chapter to the Moores, which begins, “The Moore family lived at Appleby Parva for about 320 years, first at the old manor house and later at Appleby Hall, built in the 18th century and enlarged in the 19th. Although Sir John Moore who built Appleby School is the most famous member of the family, there is much of interest to be found in the lives of the others.”
Sure enough, I’m descended from these once well-to-do Brits, as the family tree my cousin provided me attests, and it appears they lived the Downton Abbey lifestyle for a while:
The social status which the Moores enjoyed is illustrated by the 1841 census which shows the Hall occupied by George Moore and Isabel his (second) wife with their first child Clara aged 3 months. Fourteen servants were present at the Hall itself, 9 female and 5 male. There would be other employees living in cottages belonging to the estate. In particular the lodge or gate-house on New Road was staffed by a family with two children. (Dunmore)
However, just as we saw in Downton Abbey, the old families found it impossible to maintain these estates in modern times. Again, Dunmore:
Charles L G Moore inherited the Appleby estate on the death of his father in 1916. Despite their desperate financial situation, his parents had continued with their lavish lifestyle with numerous staff. In 1891 soon after the return from Norfolk, the Moores employed 3 male and 8 female staff in the house; and Aubrey Moore recalled even more employees just before the First World War. Although Mrs. Louisa Moore had her own ‘fortune’ which provided some income, the fact remains that the Moores were making ends meet by spending the capital arising from the sale of farms. In effect they were eating their seed-corn.
Of course, by this time, their fourth or fifth cousins, my great aunts and my grandfather, were alive and kicking in the not so great State of South Carolina, not residing in oak-lined plantations in the Lowcountry but dwelling in backwater communities like Bishopville and Bennettsville. My great-great grandfather fought as a foot soldier for the Confederacy, and there is an apocryphal (I hope) story about his turning down a medal for carrying a wounded soldier off a field. Supposedly, his conscience wouldn’t allow him to accept the medal because his motive was not to save the wounded man’s life but to provide himself protection from incoming fire.
His son Luther produced a bevy of girls, my great aunts Polly, Mary, Tallulah, and Lila, and one son, Wesley E. Moore, Sr., my grandfather.
Although I spent less time with these great aunts than I did with the mineral-named great aunts on my mother’s side, I can recall many more stories from Aunts Lila and Lou than I can from Ruby and Pearl.
For example, whenever Aunt Lila dreamt of diamonds, someone close to her was doomed to die. She told me once – I couldn’t have been over ten – that she had begged her daughter, Lila Moore Stanton, not to go out with her roommate from Winthrop the night after Lila the Elder had dreamt of diamonds, but to no avail, and sure enough, both Lila Moore and her roommate were killed when a train smashed into their car a half mile away from the house. Aunt Lila related the story as matter-of-factly as if it had happened to someone else.
Also, after her first husband died, Aunt Lila remarried someone named Norman Lynch, who, according to what my parents told me, was lobotomized because he was an alcoholic. Can this possibly be true? Daddy told the story that someone once said to Lila, “You know, Uncle Norman would be better off dead,” and she replied, “But I sure as hell wouldn’t be.” It seems she was receiving some kind of monetary stipend as long as he was alive. Once again, this sounds suspect. What about social security?
There is one story I know is true that Aunt Lila’s sister Lou told me about the suicide of her nephew’s wife Sarah, who burned a hole in my blue sweater with a cigarette one Christmas Eve when I was seven or so.
Tipsy on sherry, Aunt Lou told this story more than once. Sarah had locked herself in a bedroom with a gun threatening to kill herself, then opened the door, put the gun to her temple, and fired.
“I don’t think she knew it was loaded,” Aunt Lou said with a twinkle in her eye. “I’ve never seen a person with a more surprised look on her face when the gun went off.”
So that’s what you get in “classless” America, the descendent of Sir John Moore marrying the daughter of a man with a third-grade education. In other words, what you get is a red state, an obsession with the past, and some pretty good stories to pass along.
 If an efficient God wanted to create a heaven and hell in one location, he could make a heaven by having Pearl, Ruby, and Hazel shelling those beans watching those soaps and a hell for my father by placing him in that same room with no cigarettes or whisky.
 In our family lore, Aunt Polly was infamous for her flatulence, which she could harness and employ at will to dissuade certain of her daughter’s suitors from continuing their flirtations. According to daddy, her trumpet-like blasts could rattle windows and smelled like a Stygian sewer. When launched at a dinner table, they could certainly give a young suitor second thoughts.