Beatrice Ferrell, my great aunt
The house sat on a rectangle of sand and St. Augustine grass. A huge oak swallowed all the ground between the street and the sidewalk. It was a Craftsman cottage, a solid square with a big beamed roof over a cool, concrete porch. When we made the tight turn into her double tracked cement driveway, she was sitting on her steps flicking the ashes off her Camels. She pulled herself up the plumbing pipe rail and shuffled towards the car. “Hey, y’all!” she growled, “Come give Bebe a hug!” She was a bit frightening. A not too large woman, she wore her hair piled high on her head in a swooped up bun, dyed bright red, not a lovely auburn, a bright orange, red. She wore cherry red knee socks and a MuuMuu. It must have been “cold,” under 70 degrees, because she invited us back to the “living room.” That was not the large drawing-room at he front of house that was filled with family antiques and old stuff. The “living room” was the back bedroom where her mother had once lived out the last ten of her 93 years. The family: her brother who also lived and died in the house and her mother and Bea, had lived together the last thirty years since her father had died; mainly in that little, hot as hell room. They were, and Bea still was – old and obviously cold. I will say, that little, high ceiling cottage did its job in that never truly cold climate of Columbus, Georgia. Even in summer, it was unusually chilly in that house, but unbearably hot and humid in that converted bedroom. You could grow orchids in there.
Once we were settled, that is perched on a bed or sunk down deep in a spring worn chair, she offered, “ Want a ‘Co-Cola?’ I got some in the kitchen.” I remember rushing to be the one to help her get them. The cooling sensation of the tiny, nearly all white porcelain kitchen was a welcomed reward. I remember the sink, deep, deeper than I could reach and slightly rectangular. There were tomatoes on the window sill and a knife worn away from sharpening nearby. From that window, I could see the neighbors porch and a little child playing there. Bea’s house was in a new hot spot for young doctors, lawyers and bankers in Columbus. People paid up to half a million for the little bungalows that they quickly tripled in size off the back.
We opened the bottle caps and poured the “Co-Colas” into jelly jar glasses and added a little of her too white ice. When we returned to the rain forest, I noticed glorious camellia blooms, saucer sized, in vibrant pinks and reds pressed against the black streaked double window.
Just through a space in the overgrown shrubs, I could see the stand-alone garage and through its glass window the old Buick or Dodge, I can’t remember, which Bea’s father had last driven in the late fifties. She had a little t.v. which squawked in the corner until she turned it off. Bea’s books, mostly borrowed, were everywhere. They were soft covered and in grocery bags on the floor. Pointing to them all she told us, “They’re mainly just trash, but some of Shirl’s are good, and Sonny let’s me have his when he’s done with ‘em. They’re good.” Sonny, my eldest cousin, was hardly a collegiate scholar but Bea made sure that I knew that her benefactor, Huel III, Sonny, had become a reader. It seemed a quiet, sedate life; her Daddy and then her Mama and then her Brother gone on. She never married, “Couldn’t find one good-looking enough for me,” she once teased some cousin of mine when she was asked about it. I thought then of her of hair and socks, and wondered if that had truly been the problem. When I was grown, I finally saw some pictures of Bea in her prime. My grandmother, a beautiful woman by anyone’s standards, and even my grandfather – Bea’s personal nemesis, who often argued he was most beautiful of all my kin, agreed. “Beatrice is an a…” He stopped short for my benefit, I think… “But she was a beauty.” “You should have seen her, and those clothes she wore, she was lovely,” my grandmother added. When Bea died a few years back, my aunt cleaned out the old home that my Grandaddy, Huel Sr., had bought out of foreclosure thirty years before without Bea’s knowledge. Bea cussed Mule- her name for Huel, my grandfather, every time I was around her. I think he secretly adored her spunk.
My aunt found the old photos and articles about Bea from when she was young. She was style personified, a beauty that burned into you. Her suitors, I learned from my aunt who had pulled everything she could out of my great-aunt as Bea began to go downhill, had been not been so daring as Bea. In her prime, two eligible young men pursued her: a wealthy young major from New York and the heir to most of Columbus, Georgia. While visiting the young major’s family, and being entertained at grand parties in her honor, Bea had received a long distance phone call from Columbus, “Come marry me, I’ll leave it all, if necessary.” She returned. Thinking about that living room of hers, I imagine that the warmer clime might have influenced her decision. But Mr. Jordan- pronounced Jurden- the 4th or 5th or whatever crumbled under motherly pressure and failed to follow through with his proposal. Perhaps, that is the unspoken reason why none of us ever even thought to matriculate upon those “hallowed plains,” to cheer beneath those huge letters. It was not done. Not in our family…I think I now know why.