by Ray Allen
Part 2 - The Hannah Sisters
Chapter 2 - Welcome to Milton
These car trips to Milton probably started when I was 5 or 6; my sister, Jayne, was four years older. When we’d go there, we were always greeted by the Hannah sisters, and the welcome was not only warm, but wildly enthusiastic, so our excitement grew as we got closer and closer. Our father held the common sentimental opinion many of us have for our hometowns, and I remember him saying once while we were driving, “We’re going to see the best people in the world.” Whether that was true or not, as kids, Jayne and I loved going to Milton, and who wouldn’t have? There, we were constantly hugged, kissed, fed specially-prepared sweet foods, and called “Precious.”
The Hannah sisters, as they entered my life, were always centered on my paternal grandmother who was one of them. She was not “Grandma,” or “Grand” or any of the silly names grandmothers are usually called. She was “Grandmother Allen”, and we were clearly instructed to call her that—always. So we learned early to rattle off all five syllables with no shortcuts, no abbreviations. “Grandmother Allen” it was, at her request. Is that a preview of her personality?
She was the “middle sister” of the three, and we quickly became engulfed in the lives of them all. These were three then middle-aged ladies who were from what was supposed to be one of the “good families” of Milton, and in fact, Grandmother Allen always made sure we knew that the Hannahs were what she called “first class people.” She was very proud of her family.
We also quickly learned that we had no first cousins in Milton as we had in Miami where my mother’s family lived. Because from all three Hannah sisters and all their marriages, there was only one child—our father, Ralph F. Allen. He was really the child of all three, and was treated as you might imagine—like a god. He was a doctor, and how had this happened? Because all three of the Hannah sisters had decided that he would be one, and made it happen.
After he had been sent to the state university for pre-med, one of the sisters traveled to New Orleans when he entered Tulane Medical School in the 1930’s, moved in with him and cooked and cleaned, all the way through. He paid them all back with perfect grades and great family loyalty. He graduated at the top of his class, which was not only expected, but clearly demanded by his mother and aunts. So since we were the son and daughter of this hero, we could do no wrong. We loved it.
As we got to know Grandmother Allen over the years, we realized that she literally “ran the show” throughout her family. Clearly, this had been going on for decades, and was not changing any time soon.
Her real name was Carrie Hannah Allen, but the Allen in her name had been dead for about thirty years. That would be our grandfather, Samuel F. Allen, one of the “Allentown Allens” whom she had been married to from 1910 until 1928, when he served as a minor county official and died an alcoholic, leaving Grandmother Allen with young Ralph, her only child and our father. We learned that Allentown, Florida was a little crossroads just north of Milton. We also learned it was a beautiful country community where we had dozens of relatives we had never met.
So in our day, “Miss Carrie”, as she was called by everyone in town--using the Southern first-name tradition, with “Miss” whether the lady was married or not-- was a widow, and had been forever. She lived in her big white house and did as she pleased.
In fact, in the little town of Milton, our world centered on three old white houses, all within a block or two of each other. All three Hannah sisters lived their entire lives within a stone’s throw of their childhood home, which when we arrived was reverently called “Momma and Daddy’s house”. Of course, in our day it was no longer “Momma and Daddy’s” at all; it had been sold years ago after their deaths. But that didn’t matter. It was there, it was somewhat impressive, and we were always shown it with great pride. In our day, it was sort of a sad, big old place that had been home to four generations of Hannahs
We learned that it had been built by John Putnam Hannah, our great great grandfather in 1857. Soon thereafter, he entered the Confederate Army and never came home, but his widow and family lived on at the house. Next, his son, “Daddy” to the sisters, John Matthew Hannah, the oldest son, moved in with his 16-year old bride, Callie Crawford Bishop Hannah and raised five children. (Yes there were Hannah brothers—John and Malcolm, but they both had left town long ago, and that’s another story.) Momma and Daddy’s was just a few houses away from Grandmother Allen’s, at the corner of Pine and Escambia Streets, just off Oak. Today it’s been beautifully restored by new owners.
The Hannah sisters had always lived on and around Oak Street, the main stem of one of Milton’s old established neighborhoods. Grandmother Allen’s house was right in the middle at #304. And we were told it was built on that lot long ago to replace an even older home that had been the Hannah sisters’ mother’s family home—the Bishops. The home of the third sister was just one block east at #403. We always walked down the sidewalk from one to the other.
The town was so small, busy US Highway 90 was only a block further, but Oak Street was a quiet world apart. It could have easily been used as a set for any tale by Tennessee Williams or Truman Capote. In fact when we saw the film, “Summer and Smoke” years later, all we could think of was Oak Street, because there’s such a street in every small southern town. All the homes were old and well-kept, lawns were neat, trees were tall, and the centerpiece was a small, but really beautiful old Episcopal church. St. Mary’s, with its dripping gingerbread all along the steep eaves, had always been a central part of the Hannah’s lives. It was diagonally across from Grandmother Allen’s house, with stained glass windows all dedicated to her family and friends. All three of the sisters volunteered at the church all their lives.
Next door to Grandmother Allen’s house, across perfect lawns, under big pecan trees and through camellia gardens was the grand home of a lady called Miss Mable McDougall. She was a sweet, powdery old maid who was quite elegant and very old. We were told that her dear departed father had been Rector of St. Mary’s for years and years. She lived in her big house alone, amid faded finery and a reputation as close to Grande Dame as you could achieve in Milton.. Everybody knew Miss Mable, and she was important.
It also smelled different. The house was always spotless, and it never smelled musty. But there were wonderful scents of old wood, fresh starching and ironing, and on some days, the unforgettably delicious aroma of baking bread.
The lady herself was not impressive. Very short, very high-waisted and with a high whiney voice that was somewhat sweet, but very clearly heard. Once she was done hugging and welcoming us, we’d hear “Precious, let me get you a CoCola!” This was always part of the greeting, and we always knew that that meant she would go out to the back porch, pull those greenish bottles of Coca Cola out of the crushed ice, wrap a napkin around each one, and present them to us. This was a ritual that I learned had begun decades before in deep south homes when Coca Cola became such a southern sensation from its birthplace up in Atlanta. Grandmother Allen once told us about an uncle or somebody who had bought Coca Cola stock at the very beginning, and that had made him “rich as cream.” As we learned, she was very focused on money, and Coca Cola was still a business phenomenon in the south at that time. In Milton, Cokes were still delivered in divided wooden cases that held 24 bottles each. At Grandmother Allen’s, they were stored in a special cooler out on the back porch. Of course, Jayne and I loved the “CoColas”. We had as many as we wanted, all day, every day.
In the morning, we’d often hear, “Sugar, I’m makin’ you hot biscuit.” “Biscuit” was always singular for some reason in her southern speech, although she always made heaps of them, and slathered them with rich butter. They were out of this world. Loving pronouncements like that came out of her all day long, and she was always bustling about with a big smile. But we noticed the cute little girl voice and fixed grin would quickly disappear when she spotted some neighborhood kid walking on her perfect lawn, or throwing a rock near her windows. Grandmother Allen would have stern words for what she considered misbehavior. But never for us. We were perfect and precious, and could do no wrong. It was kid paradise.
Even with the smile, she wasn’t pretty. Poor Carrie had not been the “pretty one” growing up. That was Maxie, her older sister. In fact, Carrie was truly plain. In later years, we thanked the Lord for the Allens’ good looks, since our father’s generation had somehow managed to actually take on some of the aesthetic value of being an Allen. The Allens were handsome. After all, being from a tiny town like Allentown doesn’t keep you from being good-looking.
We had proof. Grandmother Allen had a treasured old photo of herself and Fred Allen. It was an old-fashioned country picnic scene with them plus her two sisters and their beaus out in Allentown. Young Carrie is there with her big smile, looking her very best in a long skirt and striped, high-neck blouse. Once, when she showed us that photo and spoke about her long gone husband, the one with the thick dark hair and nice features, she sighed, “As you can see, I’m as close as I can get to that handsome man!” That was the only vaguely romantic sentence I ever remember coming out of her mouth.
Although Grandmother Allen made all the rules, she didn’t live alone when we met her. The older sister, our Great Aunt Maxie, lived there too. She seemed to us much more grandmotherly than our grandmother. Her big smile was warm, and a hug from Maxie was a hug. She seemed much older than “Miss Carrie”, and was always sort of hovering around in the background. It was always obvious who was in charge.