We were, in the Southern tradition, a family of guns. And in the Irish tradition, drinkers too, although there were plenty of men in the county who’d never thought a day about Ireland but could drink as hard as any of us Reillys.
Couldn’t say we were the warmest of drunks, given the sloppy crocodile tears that some shed over old sweethearts or dead mothers. The Reillys always seemed to swing the other way. In our cups at the bottom of the barrel would come all the anger that bad blood can find. It was the bottle that righted the wrongs left unsaid in sober times, and there was much best left unsaid in the backwards of our Mississippi.
Come down 98 from Hattiesburg or up it from Mobile just across into Alabama and somewheres in the middle, around Maclean, you’ll find the road to Leakesville and in the middle of the two is my grandfather’s house.
My daddy’s pappy, Mr. A. K. Reilly, built the same around the time he was planning on marrying Sissy, which is what everyone called my grandma but who, before the marriage itself, was a seventeen year old girl name of Honey Pritchett.
Her family, and a whole mess of them there was, hailed from the town of Cuba, Alabama, about 120 miles down 48 which was less of a road back then that it might appear to be now. Took a good while in old A.K.’s ‘37 that’s for sure, especially what with stopping off along the way.
Seem like colorful days to us now, not the least of which because of the segregation that they had back then. I know about the Great Depression and all of that, and Sissy told me many times about how hard it was just to grow the food they were eating, but it was a simpler time for folks also.
I think people from the rest of the country, or at least people from pretty far away who haven’t made it down to these parts, probably think we still live the same way, all chewing tobacco and shooting squirrels for our dinner, but it’s a different world now, even down here outside of Leakesville.
The Pritchetts, of which I suppose I am a part of by my Sissy’s blood, loooked down on Pappy’s people. Figured them for country, as though Cuba was some big town which it isn’t now and wasn’t then neither.
Mobile’s a big town. You want to take a run down to Mobile, which is a sight closer to Leakesville than Cuba, and you’ve got yourself 24 lane bowling and a rodeo come summer.
Anyway, the story is that they weren’t so sad to see her leave, being as how she was thought of as a girl who was a little touched, a little different to the average girl. She spoke to toads for one thing, or better put she said that toads would speak to her, tell her things about the way of the world and things beyond the obvious.
It would not be fair or even accurate to say that she was universally loved, although I myself loved her considerably. In a society of precise etiquette (amongst the women) it counted against her that she would decline to share recipes on the basis that
each is a tendril from my very own heart, a child made from potions and ingredients blessed in my own way, that a listing of the things that go into the bowl will not result in a dish resembling this meal in the same way that a dog isn’t his shadow at all. I am surely very sorry.
In her younger years she was taken for simple, as I have indicated, and later in life, when I began to know her, it was presumed that some form of dementia had taken an early hold of her and thus she was to be pitied or endured, depending.
Later, when she was killed, there was no one else but me to stand for her, and I did, and could be said to be paying the price for that now, but that don’t bother me none.
As indicated, guns and booze and the unlawful bible written from those two things have cut wide across my family, touching all of us in one part of sadness or another. But that isn’t what this little bit of a story is about in the same way that it’s not about her cooking, although it’s hard to separate her from the smell of her kitchen with its pots all on the boil.
When I was still a boy, just 12 years old, Sissy took me to sit on a sack of dried beans in her back kitchen. She got her faraway look on like God was tuning her radio directly and said soft that when she was gone all she had would come to me.
The question I wanted to ask her was what did she have that I wasn’t aware of, because it seemed to me that beyond all her housedresses and a stack of well-used Edgar Cayce pamphlets the sweet old lady didn’t have too much else in her pockets.
I didn’t ask, of course, just said OK Sissy to her and accepted a piece of her treacle pie which was sticky like heaven.
Then she told me that for all of her life, which by most lights could have been thought unremarkable, she had been in one respect unlike any other person she’d come upon. It was, she said, her blessing to see people as they really felt not as they acted or spoke. It was not an empathy she could much use in any way, but it made her realize that she was, and always had been, flat out happier than anyone else and that she knew I had this same insight inside of me and how as she’d like to make sure that I would be as happy as she was.
I said OK Sissy again, and while I can’t rightly say whether I felt happiness because of the pie I was still consuming or some other power, I did feel I understood something about what Sissy was saying in a way that couldn’t be put into words.
When I tried to explain that to her she just shushed me and said That’s it boy, that’s the heart of exactly it.