I’m often asked where I get my mountain stories. I wrote this essay in response to this question. Each of us have a story that our families have been built around. This is my family’s story.
OnAugust 15, 1915two of the worst hurricanes to hit the gulf coast were striking back to back, devastating the area. When the storms were over the death toll was two hundred and seventy, stretching from Galveston to Mobile. World War I was in full swing with The Battle of Sari Bair having taken place only ten days before. Typhoid Mary, a cook at New York’s Sloan Hospital, infected twenty five people and was quarantined for life. All these events were taking place when Asalee Redd Hawkins, a thirty-eight year old mother of eight, died. With her death, began an obscure legacy that mattered only to my family and those we touched. When I look back this is the story at the core of all the legends we wove. It is a tale of ignorance, of time and place. I’d like to think we have overcome our need to react in such blinding ways, but sometimes, when I watch TV or listen to the neighbor kids play, I wonder.
I saw only one photograph of Asalee sitting in a fancy chair, holding one of my great aunts on her lap. Asalee’s face was closed, unreadable. There is no indication that she sensed her life was about to end. She poses for the portrait. What I know of my great grandmother was passed to me by my grandmother, Asalee’s sixth child, Inas Elene Hawkins. And, as with all truths, this one belonged to Inas and her alone. Other versions of the story may differ, but what I know for sure is these events followed my grandmother throughout her life, shaping the years to come. And later would greatly influence my writing.
Inas was five when she left for a day trip to Atlanta with her mother, father, and her baby sister. She was feeling special since none of her older brothers and sisters were lucky enough to go. She sat in the back of her daddy’s Model T Ford, while Asalee held the baby on her lap. Most of the folks that lived in Newtown, a small community between Roswell and Cuming, in the foothills of the North Georgia Mountains, didn’t dream of having an automobile. They drove horse drawn wagons.
When the family arrived at Rich’s Department Store, Asalee had to exit the Model T first so that Henry Lee could get out. She slid across the leather seat, holding the baby on her lap. As she stepped out with the child still in her arms, her high heel caught on the automobile’s running board. She was pitched forward, giving her head a good whack on the curb. Asalee, with some help from her husband, became steady on her feet, and the family—on her insistence—proceeded with their shopping trip. They were home well before nightfall.
The next morning Beatrice, the oldest daughter, was put in charge of looking after the little ones with some help from eight year old Bertha. Asalee went back to bed. Inas remembered she was mad because her mama left Beatrice in charge because she was bossy and a terrible cook. By afternoon, one of the girls checked on Asalee and found her head had turned black. When Asalee spoke, it was apparent she was not herself at all.
When the doctor arrived, he examined Asalee all of two minutes and announced that never before in his career had he encountered someone’s head turning black. He suggested bed rest and he would return the next morning. Inas went to bed that night without her mother’s kiss.
As Inas crept downstairs the next morning, she sensed how wrong the whole house felt, kind of like when she put her shoes on the wrong feet and wore them until someone—usually bossy Beatrice—told her to switch them around. The sun was streaking across the front hall. She had slept very late and Asalee would not be happy. In the front room, several people—wearing church clothes—sat or stood, among them the preacher and his wife. Mama would just have a fit because Inas was dressed in her nightgown. The yard was full of wagons, even Grandpa and Grandma Redd’s automobile was there. The Redds were known throughout Forsyth County for their wealth and influence. Talk among folks in Newtownhad Henry Lee at a disadvantage. The Hawkins Clan didn’t hold a candle to the Redds. It was Grandpa Redd who had given Henry Lee his fine Model T. Asalee brought more to the marriage than her husband. One had to wonder if this was a thorn in their relationship.
Then one of the widows from church spoke in the front room. “Poor Sarah. This will crush her. She’s kept her chin up all this time, hoping that Asalee’s marriage would prove its worth. Now there’s no chance.”
Inas walked out the front door. Mama would be good and mad, but she couldn’t stay in the house with the old ladies gossiping. Next thing they’d be pinching her cheeks and brushing her hair. Not one soul said a word as she left the house still in her nightgown. Some of the men in the yard looked, but mostly it was like they were seeing right through her. The men smoked and kicked at rocks. A loud commotion came from up the road. Dust hung at the top of the trees. A truck appeared in front of the house. In the back was several men, yelling and waving guns. Inas’s heart beat so loud she could hear it in her chest.
“Lord, God.” This came from Mr. Poke, Daddy’s friend.
That’s when Inas saw the man. She saw him staring. Around his neck was a rope and his throat was bleeding. The man was past fear. He was the walking dead.
Tears worked into a full fledged sob. Someone jerked her arm.
Elbert, Inas’s big brother, spoke, “Come on.”
“Get her out of here.” Mr. Poke barked at Elbert.
Elbert pulled her hand, but she dug her feet into the ground.
The man had disappeared into the cloud of dust, moving down the road to the next house. But no matter that the scene became a blur, she would always see Leo Frank’s stare crisp and clear in her mind. Mr. Frank had been wrongly accused and convicted for the murder of Mary Phagan.
“That was the Jew. They took him from the state prison down south. They’re going to lynch him.” Mr. Long, a deacon at church, spoke to Mr. Poke.
“The governor said he wasn’t a bit guilty. Pardoned him.” Old Man Parker was leaning on his cane. All the men stopped and looked at him.
“You don’t tell men like that they can’t do something. If it were my daughter killed so young, I might have done the same thing.” Mr. Long ran his fingers through his hair, causing his cowlick to stand up.
“But they say he couldn’t have done it.” Mr. Poke looked down at Inas. “Take her on in the house, boy.”
Elbert pulled her again, and she went with him this time but not before she heard Old Man Parker spit tobacco juice on the ground and grumble. “That’s what he gets for being a Jew. They don’t belong down here, especially the educated, rich ones.”
“Henry Lee better watch his back. Folks are talking, saying he caused all this mess with Asalee. It could get just as nasty. The Redds have a voice in these parts.” Mr. Poke’s words rang.
“I want Mama.” She squeezed Elbert’s hand to get him to listen.
He stopped and looked down at her. She could still hear the men talking among themselves. The truck rattled in the distance, the bad men yelling, all of it background noise. Something in Elbert’s face curved in on itself; something wasn’t right, like the man in the car, staring, and the widows gossiping in the front room. Something in the way Elbert’s lips tightened told her that something bad had happened.
“Mama died last night, Inas. She’s in Heaven now.”
No one had told her. Not one single person.
Henry Lee Hawkins would never be the same man again. Folks inNewtownaccused him of having someone conjure a spell on Asalee so he could marry a woman he’d been seeing on the side. All the good times went to the wayside. Henry Lee did marry again before the year was up to a woman namedBell, who had two sons. Hobart, her youngest son, was born the same year as Inas and was believed to be Henry Lee’s own son. Henry’s crops didn’t do well that year. Elbert left home after a terrible fight with his father. The family—because of what others believed Henry had done to Asalee—was shunned. Bertha caught scarlet fever and never really recovered. She died from heart complications when she was fifteen. The house burned down while the family was working in the fields because they could no longer afford to hire field hands.
Inas would wonder for years to come if her father did have something to do with Asalee’s death; after all, he had turned into a mean-spirited man, who hid food from his children and only spoke to them when he absolutely had to. Until one day when she was a grown woman going for a doctor’s visit, she found the nerve to ask the question. What caused Asalee’s head to turn black? The color was caused by blood seeping between the skull and the skin. Her mother had died of a head injury, bleeding on the brain.
Inas would always remember her mother’s death in unison with Leo Frank’s lynching. They were two events that were blended into one.
In 1983 eighty-five year old Alonzo Mann admitted that he had seen the killer of Mary Phagan, holding her lifeless body that fateful day, and it wasn’t Leo Frank. He confessed that the real murderer told him he would kill his mother if he talked. Mr. Mann kept his secret.
When Inas heard this story on the news, she looked a little shocked, as if she, like many of her contemporaries, had blocked out the whole horrible murder and the lynching afterward.
“I’ll never forget seeing the way that poor man (Leo Frank) looked, riding in the back of that truck half dead already. No one, no matter what they did, deserved to be treated in such a way. But this old man telling what he knows now is foolish. Some things are better just left buried, dead, and not thought about anymore.”
And it was in her words, I found the courage to write. Because isn’t this where so many problems begin? In the silence? Hadn’t Henry Lee lost his way of living from a shunning, a shunning of his family that wasn’t deserved? And isn’t the truth, any truth, better than not telling the story at all?