Two months after Aunt Hattie died in August of 1958, her brother, Uncle Lon, stopped driving. From my earliest memory, we spent Sunday afternoons at Aunt Hattie’s, on the hill where Mama had come, as an 11-year-old orphan with nowhere else to go. Hattie became Mama’s mother figure. Lon was there — not really a father figure, but more like an older brother.
Hattie felt she deserved Mama’s visits to the antebellum farmhouse, and seemed to like Daddy, but for some reason she had little regard for us children. She showed that lack of regard in various ways.
“Leon, if you’ll be quiet, I’ll pay you,” she proclaimed each time we came to visit.
I quieted down because she had asked me to do so, believing she would keep her promise — until so many paydays passed that I realized she was not telling the truth. I began to search for things to do outside.
Other than the broken promise, one of the things I remember about the large unpainted room was the tick-tock of the two-foot tall mantel clock. Anyone could listen to the clock, anyone could go get a drink of water from the water bucket out on the porch on the way to the old kitchen, and anyone could go to the pitless johnny house, which sat right on top of the ground. But other than that, creature comforts were out for all but a few chosen guests. Back in the front room, it was never stated that the candy on the mantel was restricted. We just knew better than to take any — even though one frequent visitor regularly walked up to the mantel, opened the cut-glass candy dish and took out a piece of horehound at will. Then, smiling sweetly at Hattie and her guests, she licked, twirled, and made her exit.
To be fair, there was one time Hattie fed our entire family. She cooked biscuits, mashed potatoes, hamburger with gravy, and a mystery dish on a wood stove so hot that I had to cover my face as I passed by.
“Hattie always could make something out of nothing,” Mama said as she served our plates.
To us this meal was something — especially the mystery dish of tomatoes and bread cooked in half a green pepper.
“What is it mama?” we asked.
“Ask Aunt Hattie,” she answered.
“Aunt Hattie, what’s this?” we said, as she brought more sweet tea.
“It’s monkey eggs,” she replied as if savoring bile.
We missed the irony at the time, for “Monkey Eggs” became the name we use for stuffed bell peppers to this day.
“Some folks can’t tell you they love you,” Mama whispered.
A few years later, in the month I turned 16, Aunt Hattie died. With the end of the Sunday obligation, I became free to ride around the Tastee Freeze with my friends on Sunday afternoons, and would drive them around if only I could find a cheap car. And the oldest car I knew about was back on Lockhart hill.
“Daddy, do you reckon Uncle Lon would sell us his old car?”
“He’s stopped driving it,” Daddy said. “But I don’t know whether he’d sell it or not. He loves that old A-model.”
“Can we just ask him? I said.
“We can. But we can’t just go up to him and say ‘Nips, can we buy your car?’ We need to go around our elbow on this thing.”
So I waited, until one day Daddy and I drove over to walk around the big pond. Not the small one near the house, but the big one at least a quarter of a mile down behind the barn.
Uncle Lon came to walk along with us. When we came back, he led us around the barn to the lean-to where the black ‘31 coupe sat, with her back to the weather. Instead of a cooter-shell, the trunk of the car had been floored-in like a pickup.
“I got this car up in Midland,” he said. “Put a high-speed rear end in it.”
“How fast will it go, Uncle Lon?”
I turned away to hide my smile.
Daddy said, “That’s pretty good, son. Most Model As will do good to run 45.”
We walked around her to look. All the tires were up, and when we raised the split hood, the motor looked pretty good — except for a dirt dauber nest near the carburetor.
“Will it crank?” Daddy asked.
“Naw. The battery’s down,” he replied. “I ain’t drove it for a while.”
“Will it still run?”
“It was running good when I parked it.”
“Have you ever thought about getting rid of it?”
He stroked his chin for a moment. “Naw. I hadn’t really thought about that.”
He must have seen my face drop.
“It ain’t doing me a lot of good,” he answered. “But I need some time to see if I want to get rid of it.”
So we came back the next week, and walked around in the yard for a while. Daddy and Uncle Lon talked about fishing, saw timber, the time the pond froze over. After a while, Daddy nodded for me to walk back toward the car.
Just then, Uncle Lon turned toward the barn. “I’m not gon’ drive my car anymore,” he said. “But I hadn’t planned to sell it yet.” He paused.
“But the boy there needs a good car; one that won’t break his pocket book. And one that won’t break his neck running too fast.”
He looked at me. “I wouldn’t sell it to anybody else,” he said. “But I would sell it to you.”
I looked at him for a minute.
“What would you have to have for it?” Daddy asked.
Uncle Lon stood back and stroked his chin. “I won’t try to make any money on you,” he said. “It’s worth more than what I paid for it, but then again, it’ll take some work to get it going.”
“Tell you what I’ll do,” he continued. “I’ll take the same thing I gave J.D. for it.”
“Sixty dollars,” he said. “I’ll take sixty dollars for it.”
“That’s cheap,” I whispered to Daddy. “I can save up that much in two months. “
“I sure would like to buy it,” Daddy said to Uncle Lon, looking up from the car. “But I don’t have the money right now.”
“If you want it, “Uncle Lon said, “when you get the money, it’ll be sitting right here.”
They shook hands. Uncle Lon shook mine, too.
I walked over and sat in her for a few minutes. Then we got back in the Plymouth and headed home.
“Daddy if you can buy it, I’ll pay you back,” I said.
“Naw,” he smiled. In a minute he said, “You need to save your money, son.”
“I’ll buy the car, just as soon as I can,” he continued. “You save your money; you’re gon’ need it. Sixty dollars is just a down payment.”
The rest of the way I was lost in thought. But I did not see the significance of what Uncle Lon had done.
Writing this story, I remembered how, all along, Uncle Lon did more than simply tolerate me when I came to his house. He let me ring his anvil with a sledge hammer, even though it was Sunday afternoon. And he let me climb on the fence around the lot. Even let me walk on the pipe from the well to the watering trough. And climb around in the magnolia tree. And when he bought his brand new Stromberg-Carlson TV, he let me and my sisters stay in his room by ourselves to watch TV anytime we were there, while the grownups talked across the hall.
At the Monkey Egg dinner, Mama could have been talking about Uncle Lon when she said, “Some folks can’t tell you they love you.”
And so, I saw what Uncle Lon had quietly tried to show me, that fall afternoon when he decided to trust me with the last car — and the only car — he ever owned.
Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.