Watching him as he tended his garden in the humid, coolness of the summer’s morning made me feel safe—as if there was a comforting order to life, much as the slow, steady progress of the summer’s day from cool morning to hot afternoon. I always liked to be close to the edge of garden, yet far enough away to avoid the sting of a packsaddle bug, hidden on leaves of okra plants. He worked slowly but expertly—gathering okra, tomatoes, green beans, and peppers—proud that the fruits of his labor were so beautiful. “Look at the size of these peppers! We’ll get a big mess of okra tonight—um-um fried up nice and crispy! My Kentucky Wonders will soon be ready … if we get some rain.” He was kind and wise and had all the time in the world and I loved him.
He was my Uncle Ed Slaughter. The tall, kind man married to my mother’s sister, Will Dee. Dee-Dee was a decade older than Mother and Uncle Ed was ten years her elder. They had married when they were young and strong, during the roaring 20s—1923 to be exact.
Ed was a well-educated man, at that time in the rural South; he taught school for several years after completing more than the usual eighth grade level at Union Springs School.
The athleticism of his youth must have been what strengthened him through his old age. By the time I spent long summer days with him, arthritis had stolen his ease of movement. And by the time of my most vivid memories, he would have been sixty-five and more. (At the time, I thought him very old.) Yet he was active, purposeful, every day there was work to be done, and he relished it. He made that work meaningful, although relegated to lesser pursuits by his disability—his feet and hands were swollen, the knuckles bent severely. Many times he had to use his underarm to hold the hoe handle as he weeded his vegetable garden. He did most of the daily cooking and walked to the grocery and the post office at least twice a week. In spite of the hindering inflammation of his joints, he was graceful. Whether it was determination of spirit or strength of body he kept going.
He “dressed” his hair with an old-fashioned hair tonic—it smelled clean and masculine—and was clean-shaven daily. Always dressed neatly, usually in gray or khaki Dickie work pants and shirt, which he starched and pressed—and always in good shoes. The condition of his feet demanded a well-made, supportive shoe. At a size fourteen, that wasn’t always an easy find! Priding himself on being a good shopper, he located catalogs for mail order shoe companies that made a product he could put his confidence (and feet) in. Once found, he ordered them annually. Black leather, lace-ups—very heavy soles, with strong stitching … I can still see them. They always looked like small boats when he slipped them off at the day’s end to rest his feet!
Although I didn’t know the word then, he taught me its meaning. He was an elegant man. Born in a very different time, raised with formal social graces … a civility and gentile southern manner, true of many of his era. He was not from a wealthy family, his father had died when he was young and he was devoted to his mother, Ida Cox Slaughter. Her picture held in a heavy silver frame on the heavy cherry wood graced his bedside table. She was a pretty, sad-eyed brunette. Widowed young she had depended on her boys (especially my uncle) and Ed would often tear up when he spoke of her. He called her his “sainted” mother, and I believed she really was a saint—imagining her with a halo and wings. There were several brothers in his family and all the Slaughter boys were good athletes. Stories of their baseball teams, races to Skin-the-Cat or climb to the top of trees, on the family’s farm, were treasured and he told them often. The favorite subject was brother Charlie. Charlie had died young, a golden youth in my uncle’s mind. He often illustrated his regard for Charlie when personifying the stories of heroes and heroines in Greek Mythology.
Oh yes, we read everything! My uncle was a voracious reader; the classics and the 1953 set of encyclopedias on his bookshelf were the backbone of “our” reading.
He used to tell me, “If you will read all these books you will know everything you’ll ever need to know.” (My uncle had been well-suited as a teacher, and I benefited from that aspect of his character.)
The rest of our reading choices came from the public library, three blocks south of the fourth Avenue house in Chatsworth, Georgia. We would go there, at least, weekly. Miss Johnnie Hartley, the librarian, was a friend of my aunt’s and uncle’s and we spent time visiting with her—he would gift her with vegetables from the garden in the summer—she would suggest a good book for him and say, “Ed Slaughter came to mind when I read this. You’re one of few, in this town, who will appreciate this author.”
They held each other in high regard with mutual respect. Going there (with him) always made me feel important and proud to be with someone “Miss Johnnie” treated so graciously. Her attention to proper reading material did not escape me. At her insistence, I read a wide variety of books. Everything from Dr. Seuss to biographies of Tad Lincoln and, of course, Nancy Drew—oh, how I loved Nancy Drew Mysteries. Sometimes Miss Johnnie would save the latest one for me. Monitoring my reading and making suggestions meant I had to read what she put aside for me. Usually there was a fun book and a serious book—how delighted I was when she kept Nancy Drew’s The Mystery of the Old Clock! She always quizzed about the content of the serious read and if my answers didn’t indicate a thorough reading, she scolded! She called me “Susan Doosen-Berry” when I had been remiss about reading the serious selection or if I was in the least bit misbehaved while at the library. I hated that!
Uncle Ed thought it was funny and took up the teasing when he scolded me for any misbehavior—though he rarely did so (but the nickname stuck all the same). Displeasing Miss Johnnie could result in losing free reign of her domain, and I loved the fact that we were invited to her living quarters (at the rear of the public Library building.) She would always have teacakes, freshly baked, or lemonade—in heat of the summer—and “grown-ups” found a fresh pot of coffee. My Uncle Ed was regularly invited to have a cup and he always accepted. (The man drank coffee in 90-degree heat. That never ceased to amaze me.) He would handle the dainty cup and saucer so expertly—not awkward at all. Spreading his big white handkerchief over his knee and perching the cup there while he talked with Miss Johnnie and her widowed sister.
I realize now how much I learned just listening to them discuss books, politics, local events, weather, gardening or whatever the topic. They were all intelligent, gentle, open-minded people. They had weathered the Great Depression and two World Wars. They were wise “grown-ups” giving a child the gift of their time. They would defer to me in conversation, even ask what I thought—when I was old enough. How special they made me feel! My uncle planted seeds that grew to a love of books and reading. Miss Johnnie cultivated those seeds—and from them grew a love of ideas and discussion, whether written or spoken.
Moreover, those kindly “grown ups” made me feel valued, loved, and worthwhile, a precious gift to the youngest child of a poor southern family whose parents worked long hours at the textile mills. I will be forever grateful for the memory of those afternoons in that small brick library on Market Street, the long walks, and evenings spent swinging on the porch watching lightening bugs blink, but mostly for the love of my Uncle Ed and the precious gift of his time.