by Ray Allen
Part 2 - The Hannah Sisters
Chapter 7 - Rural Adventures and Aunt Alma's Flowers
I realize now that in Milton, we had our first experiences with anything rural or agricultural, since back home, we lived in a suburb of a big city. Our homes had yards, but we knew nothing about the country, farming or crops. Our family in Milton all lived in town, but farming was all around them. The far western panhandle of Florida is full of farms and forest, and produces various crops, but the two big things its known for are lumber and peanuts. The rolling countryside is fertile and full of slow-moving rivers and clear bubbling creeks. There are no brooks, only creeks.
Growing up in this agricultural area, the Hannahs knew all about gardening. Their yards were full of hydrangeas, camellias, crepe myrtle and azaleas, and they were proud of them. But as any flower gardener knows, these are all shrubs, and don’t require a lot of work. The Hannahs were not big flower gardeners; their garden plots were given over to vegetables. In Milton, we learned, gardening activity was more farm-like than it was in cities, and the farm atmosphere wasn’t limited to the vegetable garden.
One unforgettable day, I remember Grandmother Allen chopping the head off a chicken just off her back porch. Somehow, she had been given a live “fryer”, and it had to be done. We watched with wide eyes as she trudged to the shed for a hatchet, laid the poor chicken’s head down on a stump, and did the deed. As we had heard it would, the headless chicken ran around in circles for awhile until it realized it was dead and keeled over. Then we helped with the tedious plucking of all the feathers, and soon, that chicken was served up Southern fried on the big table in the dining room. This whole affair was an unforgettable demonstration for kids from the city, but it was an everyday occurrence to people in Milton.
Grandmother Allen did have a small chicken house, out at the far reaches of the backyard. Sometimes we helped her feed the chickens, which meant tossing handfuls of chicken feed over the little fence that surrounded their space. She kept just a few chickens, and they were for laying.
One of our chores when we were there was to gather the eggs. I liked it, but Jayne hated the way the chickens all flew up around us when we entered the little door into their house. There were a few wooden laying boxes built along one side with straw in them, and we were to look there for fresh eggs. Often an unsuspecting hen would be sitting on her egg, and if that was the case, we were supposed to shoo her away and grab the egg. To rural kids surely Grandmother Allen’s little egg factory would have been a common scene, but to us, the eggs appeared as if by magic. Also, we particularly liked the rooster, who was very handsome, and woke us up every morning.
On one of our visits, Fred and Maxie had a new place, just out of town. They called it “The Patch.” As soon as we arrived, Fred had us out there, and we found it was a small cottage surrounded with garden space and all kinds of fruit trees and shrubs. It was a mini-farm. I never knew if anyone lived in the little house, but it was clear that all the produce was ours. We just went out there and picked and picked, whenever we liked. Sometimes Maxie would go with us, but it was usually just Fred and us. It quickly became one of our favorite things to do—ride with Fred out to the patch, and gather this amazing produce that seemed to just magically appear.
My favorite thing was the blueberries. I don’t know if I had ever tasted them before, but here they were—endless bunches all over high bushes taller than I was. All I had to do was grab them and stuff them in my mouth. I loved them, and to this day, blueberries are my favorite food. We’d pick berries, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and more. It was great fun to go out to the patch.
As for flowers, some of the neighbors on Oak Street did grow them, and Grandmother Allen had great respect for anyone who was a good gardener. The expert, we were told, was a pale, thin white-haired old lady named Alma McClintock, who lived alone in another big house nearby. Alma wasn’t just a neighbor, she was “kin.” It was carefully explained to us that Alma’s mother had been a Bishop, and a sister of the Hannah sisters’ mother. So Alma Bishop McClintock was a relative. When we were about to meet her, Grandmother Allen instructed us to call her “Aunt Alma”, so we did. It would have been more accurate to call her “Cousin Alma”, but that didn’t matter. Grandmother Allen made those decisions, and we did as we were told. We had heard about
Alma, and seen the grown-ups glance knowingly at each other whenever her name was mentioned. All we knew was that there was no Mr. McClintock. He was a character from the shadowy past, but even we could tell that the story was not a good one. This mystery always surrounded Aunt Alma in our minds. Where was her husband? In prison? Dead? Drunk and dissolute in New Orleans? Nobody talked about it. We never knew, and we wondered.
“Get ready, Sugar. We’re going over to see your Aunt Alma.” The plan was made and once Grandmother Allen made one, it happened. We were all excited because we were finally going to get to meet this woman of mystery that we had heard so much about—the one that was often mentioned, but strangely absent from all the Hannah gatherings.
The three of us marched out the front door, and down the sidewalk. Suddenly, with Grandmother Allen in the lead, we veered off the sidewalk, and paraded between two houses. She murmured something about, “Well, we’re not supposed to cut through like this, but I think we will.” Of course we did. If Miss Carrie wanted to do it, she did it, and nobody stopped her.
We walked through beautiful old backyards, stepped over stones, and in a few minutes ended up at the top of a sort of bowl. Spread out before us was a downward sloped glen that was large, well tended, and even greener than any of the other lawns. This was Aunt Alma’s backyard, and we were arriving at the back of her big lot. The whole yard seemed to be sunken, since she lived at the end of a side street that branched off Oak, and her land sloped down toward a creek, creating this beautiful dewy wonderland. Surely she obviously enjoyed it, since it was a gardener’s paradise.
Grandmother Allen called to her as we strode across her lawn, and Alma Bishop McClintock appeared. We were proudly introduced as Ralph’s children, “Precious Jayne and Precious Raymond.” I have a crystal clear memory of a very fair, tall lady with a wide smile and a wonderful warm way. Surely she had been a beauty when young, and even now, frail and thin, she radiated a particular gracious charm and sweetness. She almost glowed.
After giving us the iced tea she had prepared for our visit, Aunt Alma toured us all around her flower gardens. I remember roses, tall delphiniums, and lots of other plants that now I know take special care to grow well. As we went, she kept picking flowers for us, and soon sent us back across her green velvet backyard with a bouquet.
Chapter 8: The Music Man, Miss Quick, The Composer, and the Honeymooners