Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Valentine's messages from the heart

I would like to thank the following for their thoughtful Valentine messages and generous gifts I found when I logged onto my email this morning. You have warmed the cuckolds of my heart and reminded me of how much you truly love me. I am putty in your hands. for letting me know I can pay as little as $8.50 a day when I park my car at one of their off-airport long-term lots and take my Valentine to Paris, the most romantic city in the world.  It hadn't occurred to me but now that I know it will cost so little to leave my car in your capable hands, we're on a 7 pm flight (changing planes in Atlanta, of course). 

Uber for suggesting that I can win my date's heart by taking her on a special ride in an UberBLACK car with a "professional driver." I love that idea -- she was just saying she'd like to go to Costco this afternoon and my car's gas tank, as it often is, is on empty. I don't know if it has enough to make it to the gas station for a fill-up, so an UberBLACK ride will be most appreciated.

Jet's Pizza, for creating a Valentine's Day-only heart-shaped pizza with premium mozzarella. I was planning to take her to her favorite restaurant but I know she'll prefer this. Perhaps we can pick it up on the way to the airport, take it with us on our flight, and make all the passengers around us envious. 

Total Wine for the coupon redeemable for $10 off $50 worth of rosé wines, the perfect alternative to a bouquet of roses. (Very, very clever -- give your social media copywriter a raise!)  Unfortunately, my Valentine only drinks Sauvignon Blanc.

TeamTile for inviting me to save 35% on the perfect gift, a set of four "Tile Trackers" that will enable my Valentine to affix a tracking device to items she loses often. Oh wait, my Valentine has never misplaced anything, except for a pair of Pan Am tickets in the late 1980s, a loss I remind her about often when she complains that I have misplaced my sunglasses, keys, wallet, cellphone, reading glasses, etc., for the fifth time that day and she is SICK TO DEATH of having to STOP WHAT SHE IS DOING to help me find them and WHY ON EARTH HAS SHE PUT UP WITH THIS CRAP FOR 40 YEARS, WHY DIDN'T SHE MARRY A MAN RESPONSIBLE ENOUGH TO KEEP TRACK OF HIS OWN THINGS?  Hopefully she will read this and buy them for me. My Valentine never pays retail for anything so darling, if you are reading this, ask me for the special promo code. I'm sure they'll let you use it.

Fresh Market for putting together a dinner for two I can cook for my Valentine  -- our choice of filet mignon or North Atlantic lobster tails, asparagus tips, Yukon Gold potatoes, 12 chocolate dipped strawberries and a dozen roses (flowers, not wines), all for $49.99. Nice try but I am allergic to strawberries. Besides, we're having a Valentine-shaped pizza.

May your day be filled with love. And savings!

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Lessons learned

Several years ago, my mother, who was 100 at the time, told me she was reading a book about Millard Fillmore. "Why?" I asked. “Because it's important to learn something new every day,” she replied.

Mom was, of course, right. So here are three lessons I learned yesterday.

1. Don’t eat an entire "Fun Size" bag of Baby Ruth bars in one sitting. When you are in a long checkout line at CVS, realize you skipped breakfast and lunch, and impulsively buy a bag of candy, telling yourself you are entitled to it because, after all, you haven't consumed as much as one calorie all day, do not eat the entire bag on the drive home.  Your 10-year-old stomach could handle all that sugar.  Your sixty-something stomach can't. Lesson learned.

2. Never start a speech by using the word "cockleburrs." I am running for the Board of Directors of my community association. My stump speech begins with a quote from an old-time politician who said,  “I come from a state that raises corn, cotton and cockleburrs and I don’t believe anything anyone tells me. I’m from Missouri. You’ve got to show me.” I  go on to say that is why Missouri is known as the Show-Me state and that, as a fifth-generation Missourian, I want  the current board to show me why its members have made some questionable decisions.

Last night I was speaking to a group that was gathered around a pool, an hour-and-a-half into Happy Hour. "What's a cockleburr?" a well-served man with a New York accent yelled. It went downhill from there. Lesson learned. 

3. Buy the expensive doggie poop bags. Do not buy the cheap ones made of thin plastic just to save a few pennies. There is a reason they cost less. Lesson learned.
Have a great day. Get out there and learn something new.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Meet the candidate

Every politician needs to be seen holding
a baby. So here I am holding one,
my grandson Teddy. 

If you are a regular reader of this column, you know I detest politicians.  So it may come as a surprise to learn that I have become one.

No, folks, I’m not running for Congress, the state legislature, city council or even dogcatcher. (I'd just bring all those dogs home anyway.) I’m running for the Board of Directors of the private community where my wife and I live here in Florida.

We love this tropical paradise of 3,300 homes spread across 2,400 manicured acres. It has three golf courses, two country clubs, a creek where residents can kayak surrounded by gators, and a marina with a fleet of sailboats. I took lessons to become a certified sailor but dropped out the day I slipped off the boat and slashed my feet to ribbons on a bed of oyster shells. (Never understood “port “or “starboard” anyway. Why not just say left or right?)

We have a dozen Har-Tru tennis courts, pickleball courts (it's the latest craze in Florida, sort of a cross between tennis and ping-pong) and bocce (my idea of a contact sport). There are a couple of fishing piers, a butterfly garden and a fitness center with state of the art equipment, not to mention clubs for book lovers, bridge and poker players, MahJongg enthusiasts, gardeners, cyclists, singers, artists, thespians (my favorite word), environmentalists, bird watchers and other clubs I can’t name off the top of my head.

We even have our own private island in the Gulf of Mexico, a swath of sugary white sand studded with beach umbrellas. From a chaise underneath one, there’s no better place to lose yourself in a book or watch the pelicans circling over the gulf as they look for their lunch.

With the exception of a handful of malcontents  – the kind of people who, as my mother used to say, won’t be happy when they get to heaven – the folks who live here tend to be happy campers. Their happiness turns to panic when a hurricane is headed our way but – knock wood – that only happens every 10 years or so. 

Most residents are retired. Having kept their noses to the grindstone for most of their lives, they want to worry about nothing more than their tennis serve or where to meet for dinner. You can strike up a conversation with someone you meet on the boat to the beach and, next thing you know, you’ve made plans to get together for happy hour. It’s that kind of place. I thank my lucky stars every day that I live here, and hope to continue until the grim reaper comes to take me away.

We bought our first house here in 2007 but didn’t become full-timers until 2013 when we sold our Connecticut house. The next year we bought a larger place to accommodate our new grandchildren on the rare occasions they come to visit.  

I was vaguely aware the community was governed by a Board of Directors but never knew anyone who served on it, never attended a meeting, and never cared to. Everything seemed to be running smoothly and everyone was playing well together until a year and a half ago.

At that time, a newly elected Board, the majority of its members endorsed by a group of 400 or so residents who had initiated a lawsuit against the developer, took control following a contentious campaign. The residents' group had filed a lawsuit to prevent the developer from building more high rise condos. Zoning regulations prohibit the condos, so suing to stop the company from putting up towers they can't build anyway made little sense.

Two lawyers, including one hired at the recommendation of the residents' group, advised the previous Board not to get involved in the lawsuit. The majority of the current Board ignored that advice, filed a cross-claim and now we're in litigation up to our eyeballs. It could drag on for years.

Concerns about the suit – specifically, whether the community should join it or not, the fact the Board jumped into it despite promises they wouldn't, and the legal risks we may be facing if we lose – have pitted neighbor against neighbor and turned Board meetings into scream fests of the type one would expect to witness at a WWF wrestling match.  Nasty emails fly back and forth and you have to be careful what you say in front of people you don't know in case they feel strongly one way or the other and fly off the handle. If you want to see old people behaving like petulant children, this is the place to be.

The lawsuit has become a matter of pride for those who want to continue pursuing it.  The Board members who voted to join the suit are counting on most residents not taking the time to learn the details about it because the matter is mind-bogglingly complex and nuanced.

Most folks I know don't want the community involved in the suit.  Having watched the Machiavellian maneuvers of those who got us into it, neither do I. And I'm pissed at the tactics a group representing less than 15 percent of homeowners have used to turn this idyllic community into their own personal litigation playground. 

A Board election is about to be held. For months I hoped someone who sees things my way would step up to the plate and run against two incumbents who voted to join the suit, but, as I write, only one other candidate has announced her intention to do so. So I’m throwing my hat into the ring. Winners will be announced at the end of March.  

Last time I ran for anything I was a high school sophomore, running for Student Council. Fifty years later I’m a candidate once again.

A campaign, as I have been reminded after all these years, is a massive commitment of time and energy. There are “Meet the Candidate” parties to attend, speeches to give, and campaign materials to write, design and distribute, not to mention an avalanche of phone calls, texts and and emails every day. Because most residents are retired, there aren’t many babies to kiss at campaign events. Maybe I will ask my son and daughter-in-law to lend me one of theirs so I can look like an authentic politician.

If, by chance I win – and I am going to give it my best shot – I will be up to my eyeballs in details and meetings for the foreseeable future.

But I’m ready for it. Bring it on.  

I was getting tired of having all that fun anyway.                

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Buyer beware of fake gift cards

I am not a gardener. Any plant I gaze upon shrivels and dies within minutes. Any plant I actually touch shrivels and dies within seconds.

Naturally, my oldest son loves to garden and has a green thumb. Every Spring, he heads to a Home Depot Garden Center to load up with plants, mulch, fertilizer, beanstalks or whatever it is that gardeners buy. So for Christmas, I gave him a Home Depot gift card.

I purchased it at a Staples store where it was hanging on a rack near the cash register. The rack contained hundreds of cards issued by Staples, chain restaurants, other retailers, iTunes, Visa, American Express, etc.

In my first draft of this post, I went into excruciating detail nobody in their right mind would want to read, explaining how I wound up buying a fake card.  It is a long, convoluted and, to me at least, intriguing story that involves criminal acts and behavior on someone's part but I can't tell you who that someone is because nobody knows.  I'll be happy to email it to you if you really want a blow-by-blow. Assuming you don't, the paragraph below will suffice.

The gift card I bought had no bar code on the back. I would not have been able to see that unless I removed it from the package it came in and examined it before I bought it. It did, however, have a die-cut window on the back side of the package that revealed a "real" bar code printed on a plastic tab. Once scanned by the Staples cashier, an account was created that told Home Depot there was a $100 credit. Unfortunately, someone, somewhere, got that credit and has most likely used it by now. Instructions said to remove the plastic tab after purchase. I not only removed it, I threw it away. Luckily, I kept the cash register receipt showing the digits associated with that code. I placed the fake card in a tin box decorated with flowers and gave it to my son. He picked up on the missing bar code instantly.

I took the fake card to my local Home Depot store, which said it wasn't their problem. So did the manager of the Staples store. I was unable to reach a human when I called Home Depot headquarters. I left a message on voicemail but nobody called me back.  Because I had used a credit card, I called the issuing bank to dispute the charge. The agent assured me I wouldn't be held responsible. It certainly wasn't the bank's fault either but they guarantee customer purchases so the bank is the real victim here.

Why am I telling you this? To warn you to be cautious when buying gift cards. I’ve since read that gift card fraud is rampant but the companies that issue them are keeping it quiet because gift cards,  despite all that fraud, are highly profitable. Some articles advise buying gift cards directly from the store/restaurant/etc. where they are to be used, not at a “big box” store or supermarket that sells card brands other than its own.

Gift cards are easy to buy and give but ...  beware. Make sure to examine any card you purchase from one of those hanging racks before you leave the store. That means you will probably have to remove it from the packaging and examine the reverse side which doesn't always show through.

And now I’m off to buy a “real” Home Depot gift card to replace the fraudulent one I gave my son.

Spring is just around the corner and, knowing him, he is already planning his garden.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

America's pickiest dachshunds review Cesar's gourmet dog foods

We have owned been owned by seven miniature dachshunds. Each of them, including our current wieners, 14-year-old Billy Ray and four-year-old Roo-Roo, have eaten Cesar’s gourmet dog food twice a day. I could have probably bought a Mercedes – heck, a Lamborghini  – for all the money I’ve shelled out for Cesar’s over the years.

Cesar's is formulated specifically for little dogs that tend to be picky eaters and, more importantly, for their indulgent owners who believe their pets need a wide range of flavor choices in order to have enough energy to make it through to another day of lounging around on their best upholstered furniture, looking cute. To that end, the brand is constantly introducing exotic new varieties into its product line-up. Some survive. Some disappear from the shelves after only a few months.  

Over the last week I served nine varieties that were new to Billy Ray’s and Roo-Roo’s finicky palettes. This morning the three of us sat down to discuss what they liked and didn’t like about each of the varieties they tried.

TJD: So guys, what did you think of the Cesar’s Scramble with Turkey, Spinach and Cheese in Gravy you had for breakfast yesterday?

Billy Ray: The ingredients list says it contains dried cheese but doesn’t specify the variety. I detected manchego but based on Roo-Roo’s breath after inhaling a bowlful, I’d have to guess the primary cheese is limburger.

Roo-Roo: I think the mystery cheese is more likely a Stilton or perhaps a Double Gloucester but whatever it turns out to be, we both agree that this will be our “go to” Cesar for those casual Sunday poolside brunches we enjoy so much during Florida’s winter months.

TJD: I was happy to see you lick your bowls clean when I served Cesar’s Rosemary Chicken Flavor with Spring Vegetables the other night.

Roo-Roo: I don’t much care for chicken -- I generally prefer darker, richer, more robust meats like beef, lamb, even duck -- but a perfect pinch of rosemary brings out the flavor of what is otherwise a bland, insipid form of protein in this variety.

Billy Ray: This one’s a keeper. It is almost – note I say “almost” – as delicious as my beloved Costco rotisserie chicken. Personally I would have preferred fewer green peppers and more yellow ones because they’re rarer and more expensive but for now I’ll be happy to eat this at least once a week.

TJD: You walked away from the Cesar’s Country Stew with Vegetables. How come?

Billy Ray: Neither of us could figure out what country they’re talking about. Uganda? Bolivia? Papua New Guinea? Your guess is as good as ours but it certainly didn’t resemble any stew we’ve ever been served including leftover Dinty Moore.

Roo-Roo: Yes, this one disappointed on multiple levels but if it is the last can in the pantry, I suppose I can somehow hold my nose and get it down without gagging.

TJD: What did you think of Cesar’s Harvest Potluck with Turkey in Gravy?

Roo-Roo: We never know what to bring to a potluck dinner – not that we have ever been invited to one but in case we are we have spent hours discussing what we could contribute – so we were elated to discover this variety. When our friends ask for the recipe, and they will, we’ll simply smile and say it’s a family secret.

Billy Ray: The gravy could be a tad thicker but we’re not going to complain about the one shortcoming in a near perfect dish that’s particularly enjoyable when paired with a slightly chilled Fiji water.

Roo-Roo: I would pair it with Evian myself but this would be delightful even with plain old tap water, which I am told some dogs in less fortunate countries have to drink.

TJD: I’m almost afraid to ask about the Cesar’s Meat Lasagna. You obviously hated it.

Roo-Roo: It was so awful that, for a nano-second, I actually wished for that repulsive Purina Pro Salmon & Rice dry stuff they used to dish up at the kennel where, prior to joining your family, I was employed as a stud although, as you know, I was never called upon to actually perform because my father, who was somehow considered a better specimen of a longhaired piebald dachshund than I am, was always up to the task whenever stud services were required, which is why I’m in therapy today.

Billy Ray: In addition to some creamy imported ricotta and fresh basil, this dish would have benefited from San Marzano tomatoes. Fresh tomatoes would have certainly made it more authentically Italian than the “tomato powder” that comes in thirteenth on the list of ingredients. Cesar’s chefs missed the gondola on this one.

TJD: You both begged for more when I served up the Cesar’s Hearty Chicken, Noodles and Vegetable Dinner.

Billy Ray: I was less than enthusiastic when you placed a bowl of what I always considered to be peasant food in front of me but I found this dish to be surprisingly tasty. The noodles could have been a bit more al dente but other than that, it was delicious. Who would have guessed I’d prefer something this banal to lasagna?

Roo-Roo: I absolutely loved it. It made for a comforting, satisfying meal after a hard day chasing lizards around the lanai and barking at golfers.

TJD: What about the Cesar’s Beef Stroganoff?

Roo-Roo: We’ve always loved the story you tell about your forty-fifth birthday dinner in an elegant restaurant in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the middle of a blizzard, where you ordered the only two things you could say in Russian – stroganoff and Stolichnaya. Ever since we heard it, we’ve been anxious to try this dish, but now that we have tasted Cesar’s take on stroganoff, I’d have to rate it merely okay -- a C plus, perhaps a B minus.

Billy Ray: A dollop of sour cream and a dusting of paprika would have made it a solid B in my book but for now I agree with Roo.

TJD:  You wouldn’t take as much as a bite from the Cesar’s Beef with Broccoli and Brown Rice. How come?

Roo-Roo: It’s Cesar’s interpretation of a classic Chinese dish but we found the concept incredibly offensive.

Billy Ray: The Chinese eat dogs. Enough said.

TJD: Last but not least you tried Cesar’s Grilled New York Strip Steak Flavor with Potatoes and Summer Vegetables. What did you think?  

Roo-Roo: Neither of us could turn up our noses fast enough when you served us this dish in which beef comes after chicken, chicken liver and something called “animal plasma” -- we don’t even want to know what this is -- on the ingredient list.

Billy Ray: The summer vegetables were uninteresting  – potatoes, corn, green beans, carrots and peas. Endive, artichokes and/or summer squash would have contributed some much-needed texture.

TJD: Thanks, guys. I'm going to the store in a few. Anything you want me to pick up?

Billy Ray: For the holidays I want to try Cesar's new Turkey, Green Beans & Potatoes Dinner. 

Roo-Roo: As long as you're in the aisle, you might as well grab me a coupla cans of Cheesy Chicken Pasta Dinner in Sauce. Want me to write that down so you don't forget it? 

TJD: Got it.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Remembering Alice

From left: Bud, Tommy, Ruby and Judy Dryden
circa 1954, the year before Alice's death.

Yesterday I wrote a post about Alice Scott, the only black person who lived in the white part of Auxvasse, Missouri, my hometown, when I was a boy. Alice was our next-door neighbor. Nearly 1,000 people have already read my post and more than a dozen have left comments on Facebook. (If you missed it, click

Alice died when I was three so I barely remember her, but I’ve always felt like I knew her because of the countless stories my mother and older siblings, Jerry and Judy, told me about her. To write yesterday’s post, I relied on notes I jotted down years ago as my mother, who had a memory like a steel trap and could remember every detail Alice ever told her, related the story of Alice’s life as Alice had told it to her. I always intended to write about Alice and I’m glad I finally did because her story is one that needs to be told, especially in times like these.

Judy, nine years older than I, remembers Alice well and loved her dearly. She was 13 when Alice died. After reading yesterday’s post, Judy sent me an email. I wrote back that I’d like to publish it as a follow-up because it’s a loving tribute that Alice deserves from one of the few people who remember her.

Judy says Alice was "the sweetest, kindest, most considerate person" she ever knew. I can say the same about my sister whose sense of justice and dedication to racial equality has never wavered. A card-carrying member of the NAACP, Judy has, for almost as long as I remember, attended marches, sit-ins and meetings to show her support for Civil Rights. I’ve always joked that she is embarrassed she was born white because, whenever there’s a racial incident, and such incidents are occurring with increasingly alarming frequency in Missouri where she lives, she comes down on the side of African-Americans.

Having read her email about growing up with Alice a constant presence in her young life, I now better understand her commitment. If you enjoyed reading about Alice, I believe you’ll find Judy's account fascinating. 


Your post about Alice brings up all kinds of memories.  

Barring none, Alice was the sweetest, kindest, most considerate person I have ever known.  She also was the best cook.  She entertained lavishly and could make the daintiest appetizers! They were so good that, when I was a child, I would heap my plate high and be full before the entree was presented.  Alice made the food for almost all the bridal and baby showers in Auxvasse and hosted them in her home.

Although she could not read and write, she could cook anything without a recipe. To get one of her recipes, it was necessary to watch her make something and to guess the amounts of the ingredients that she used.  She had no measuring cups or spoons and just seemed to know how much of something to use.

Alice had friends from everywhere and mom used to read her mail to her. When I was five years old, she received a package from California containing a jar of olives.  Stores in Auxvasse did not sell them.  She offered me one and I thought it was delectable.  When Alice went uptown that day, she returned to find her olives gone and I had a tummy ache.  It is the only thing that I ever remember stealing and I won't forget what mom told me about it.

Alice's house and ours were interchangeable as far as I was concerned. I would go over and sleep in her bed.  She always kept me on Saturday night while Mom worked at the store. Frequently we would go uptown and she would send me into the tavern to buy us hamburgers, which we ate outside because Alice was not allowed in the tavern and everybody knew that a "lady" would not go to the tavern anyway.  From there, we went to the movies. (Believe it or not Auxvasse, in the 1940s, had a movie theater.) We always got popcorn and sat in the colored section.  

For a short time Auxvasse even had a drive-in theater. It was across the street from Alice's back yard so that we could sit there and watch.  It showed mostly Laurel & Hardy and Roy Rogers & Dale Evans movies. There were many (WWII) war scenes. Then came the cartoons, which I loved, followed by trailers of movies to come. Then the lion roared and the MGM symbol would appear.  

I was always amazed by what Alice was not allowed to do. She had never driven a car so she had to take the Greyhound to go from Auxvasse to Mexico or Fulton, the two largest towns that were close. Alice was always relegated to the back of the bus and it didn't make sense that she could not sit with me.

Alice worked incredibly hard and most people who knew her respected her for her graciousness, hospitality and intelligence. I had such a profound admiration for her.  She always had the best garden in town, both flowers and vegetables, and she canned and shared bouquets with the church and all of the people she knew who were ill or in mourning.

On the other side of our house lived another neighbor, an old maid named Miss Lou Henderson, who took in a boarder, a Mr. Wayne. Mom said that Alice and Miss Lou were total opposites.  Alice always thought about how she could make any situation better.  Miss Lou always thought about how she could exploit a situation for herself.  

Miss Lou would come by at least once a day to borrow a cup of something or other.  She asked for all our old clothes and leftovers.  Mom subscribed to some magazines and two daily papers.  Miss Lou would come over each morning requesting them.  Dad worked incredibly hard and woke up each morning before 6 am.  The only day he tried to take off was Sunday when he didn't have to be at the store by 7 a.m. Mom always wanted him to not set an alarm and to try to sleep until 8 on Sunday mornings.  It never failed that Miss Lou came over at 6:15 to get the paper and to get change for a dollar so she would have a coin to drop in the Sunday school collection basket.  

Miss Lou was a very religious Presbyterian and was appalled that my parents had not yet picked a church for our family so she took it upon herself to take me to her Sunday school and church and taught me the catechism. She discussed the fire and brimstone that she believed was at the core of Christianity.

Alice, on the other hand, attended the same church regularly and nearly always "boarded" the preacher free of charge.  She was the first to take a meal to the bereaved or to nurse someone who was ill.  She spoke positively of everyone and never complained.  Miss Lou did not treat Alice with respect.

The earliest tragedy that I can remember was when Alice got breast cancer and could not be treated locally. The nearest oncologist was in Jefferson City and his name was Dr. Sugarbaker.  He was a bigger-than-life doctor who became world renowned for his research and surgical skills. (For more about his family, read Fugitive Spring by poet and author Deborah Digges, his daughter.)

Doctor Sugarbaker was glad to have Alice as a patient.  He removed her breast and she lived 11 years after that. It was unheard of at that time for cancer patients to live that long.

Later in her life the cancer recurred and I would ride along when mom drove Alice to Jefferson City. Alice was not allowed in the restaurants and I would be sent in to get sandwiches for us to eat in the car or at a picnic table alongside the highway.  Dr. Sugarbaker continued to treat her.  He and his wife had nine children and occasionally on Sunday he would drive with his wife and children all the way from Jefferson City to visit Alice.  She would always have cake and lemonade for them and usually sent them back with one of her delicious pies or cakes.

Many people in Auxvasse didn't get to know Alice and some said disparaging things about her because of her color. It made me angry and I didn't and still don't understand it.  I remember thinking that, from what Miss Lou told me that Jesus said in the Bible, if Alice didn't go to heaven, there was no chance for the rest of us.

I could continue forever about the joy and the poignancy of Alice's life, her last days in the nursing home and death, but it saddens me.  

I'll always remember sitting with her on her "stoop" in the backyard while she was picking out hickory nuts or walnuts or snapping green beans and listening to her tell stories.

It is as close to heaven as I've ever been.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

An Auxvasse story: Alice Scott

I grew up in Auxvasse, Mo., population 507 as of the 1950 census, and was born in November of the following year. Next month I’ll turn 66.

Over the years I’ve written dozens of stories about Auxvasse and I could easily write dozens more. In fact, I could and should and someday just may write a book about growing up in a place whose residents even today don't know whether they're Midwestern or Southern. While central Missouri is geographically the former, it is sociologically very much the latter.

Auxvasse is in Callaway County, one of four counties comprising an area known as Little Dixie. The area was settled in the 1820s by tobacco farmers from Virginia and North Carolina. Thanks to the Missouri Compromise of 1819, perhaps the most ill-advised bill ever passed by Congress, Missouri was a slave state so many of the farmers brought slaves with them.

Growing up in rural Missouri, seeing on the map that my home state was smack-dab in the center of the country, I thought of myself as a Midwesterner. Once I left for northern cities, I was surprised to learn that people I met assumed I was a Southerner, not only because of where I was from but because of my accent, which I immediately made a conscious effort to lose but lapse back into when I've had a couple of drinks. I still don't know what the hell I am. At this point it doesn't matter but it would be nice to know for sure. But I digress.

When I was a boy, Auxvasse was split almost in two by the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio railroad tracks. White folks lived east of the tracks. African-American residents lived west of the tracks. 

I'm telling you all this because it's germane to the story you are about to read.

Alice Scott was our next-door neighbor. She died in 1955 when I was three, so I don’t remember a whole lot about her. I recall sitting with her as she was working in her garden and handing her clothespins as she was hanging laundry on her clothesline. My most vivid memory of Alice is going to visit her in the hospital shortly before she died, a white-haired old lady in a wheelchair.

Most of what I know about Alice I learned from my mother. Mom had a photographic memory and, up to the day she died at 102, could describe in astonishing detail events and people from fifty, sixty, even ninety years ago, and the tales she had heard them tell. While I take pride in my ability to remember things friends say they have forgotten, I certainly didn't inherit the kind of memory mom had. That’s why I want to write down the story of Alice now, before time takes it away from me, because it’s a tale that needs to be told.

Like most whites in Auxvasse, my family lived on the east side of the tracks. So did Alice, the only black person in the white part of town.

Alice thought she was born in the 1870s – she was never sure how old she was so it might have been the late 1860s – near McCredie, a small farming community south of Auxvasse. Her mother had almost certainly been a slave. She never knew her father..

One day when Alice was about four her mother was walking down a country road with her six or seven children when a Doctor Tate rode up and swooped Alice up onto his horse.

“Can I have this one?” he asked Alice’s mother.

Alice’s mother said yes. Unmarried and dirt poor as she was, that would be one less mouth for her to feed. So off the doctor rode with Alice, leaving her family – she never saw them again – in the dust.

That night, the doctor’s wife – the “old missus” Alice called her – placed Alice, who was crying for her mama, on a pallet next to her bed and held her hand.

For the next 60 or so years, Alice waited on the Tates hand and foot. She cleaned their house, hoed their garden, washed their clothes, cooked their meals and, on Sunday, attended their church where she always sat in the back row by herself – she wouldn’t dare sit with white folks who wouldn’t have allowed her to anyway. Alice never socialized with other black people. Working and living in the Tate household, she never had the chance to meet any.

One by one the Tates died off until only Miss Sally, who never married, was left. Sally sold the farm, bought a house on the east side of Auxvasse, and moved there with Alice.

When Miss Sally died, she willed the house to the Auxvasse Presbyterian Church, which she had joined and Alice attended, sitting alone in the back row as she always had, but directed that Alice should be allowed to live in it until her death. To support herself, Alice, who had never learned to read or write, took in laundry, dressed chickens, baked cakes and, on Sundays, made dinner for the Presbyterian preacher, a young man just out of seminary named Joe Mullen.

In 1955, when Alice died of cancer, Joe Mullen, by now a prominent figure in the church, returned to Auxvasse to preach her funeral.

Church elders had planned to bury Alice in the town’s black cemetery but, not wanting to anger Joe, who knew as well as they did that Alice had never been exposed to her own people and wouldn’t have felt comfortable spending eternity in that unfamiliar turf, buried her in the white cemetery instead. It seemed like the Christian thing to do. At the time, Alice was the only black person in the cemetery. I don't know if that is still the case today. Her gravestone, shown above, lists only the date of her death.

For years afterward, my mother made Alice’s orange cake recipe every Christmas. It was dense like a fruitcake, with a gooey orange glaze that, to my unsophisticated palette, tasted bitter. Mom never served it without retelling the story of Alice. As a boy, I thought it was just about the saddest story I had ever heard.

Sixty-some years later, it still is.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

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