(Hope Springs Eternal by Alex Haley was originally published in the January 1955 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.)
Alex Haley, after two years of college, enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939 as a mess attendant. He served throughout the War in the Pacific, and in 1950 he was named by the Coast Guard as its first Chief Journalist. He is now stationed in San Francisco. His story of Aunt Liz, comes from summers spent with his grandparents in Henning, Tennessee.
In his article, Family: A Humanizing Force, Alex Haley mentions the following regarding those summers he spent on the front porch with his elders in Henning, Tennessee, “Every evening of those summers a pattern began to develop. After supper, as we called the evening meal, they would filter out onto the front porch, and each would take a seat in a rocking chair. There were lots of rocking chairs. Nobody but grandma ever sat in grandma’s rocking chair. I always took my seat right behind grandma’s rocking chair.
“The time would be about dusk, deepening into dark, and there would be lightning bugs flickering around over the honeysuckle vines just beyond the porch. The sisters would all start rocking a little this way, a little that way, as if getting their rhythms together. Most of them dipped snuff, which is a common habit in the South. They would load up their lower lips with Sweet Garrett Snuff, and they would start taking experimental testings with that.
“Easily, the champion snuff dipper was Aunt Liz from Oklahoma—she could drop a lightning bug at six yards when she felt right. As the evening wore on, they would begin to talk, and I, a little boy, would sit there listening.” ~ Alex Haley.
Hope Springs Eternal
My great-aunt Elizabeth B. Murray wrote that she was going to retire from teaching and come to live with us, and the rumor got around that she was rich. “Out there in all them oil lands all these years—” people reasoned, “ ’cose she got money!”
Such talk was interesting to all hands in a town the size of Henning, Tennessee. An uncommon lot of people saw the train come in that Friday.
A porter set down one of those little metal footsteps and Aunt Liz appeared in the doorway. She reached nearly to the top. She wore a black dress, with a whitish blouse and beads, and a round straw hat on the top of her head. In one hand she carried gray gloves and a suitcase, and in the other an umbrella wrapped so tightly that it resembled Grandpa’s walking stick. The expression on her face and her descent of the steps were the same—proud; then Grandma was upon her, and Aunt Plus, who had come all the way from Dyersburg.
Saturday, ranging in the neighborhood, I heard much such small talk as that the beads were real, expensive pearls. And there was one truly big thing: that my Aunt Liz’s high cheekbones, copperish hue, raven braids, and long tenure in Oklahoma, collectively clearly indicated some Indian blood!
I was certain that this was Grandma’s full sister, and I knew Grandma had a paper tracing her family back to a freed slave; still, it was such a delightfully fascinating grownups’ speculation, who was a small boy to deny it?
“You see now?” anybody who was skeptical would hear, “I reckon he ought to know!”
Sunday was just as uncommon at the Colored Episcopal Methodist Church. The school principle made a short speech about how good it was to have old friends back in our midst again (although Aunt Liz left Henning before he was born), and both the Senior and Junior Choirs sang with inspiration. Then the preacher gave the devil such a beating round the stump that Brother Dandridge’s wooden leg was going fortissimo in general bedlam, Sister Scrap Scott shrieked three times in high C and fainted right in the choir stand, and Brother Rich Harrell leaped clear over the rostrum railing to kiss the preacher’s hand.
I guess everybody forgot all about Aunt Liz, who just sat there watching everything, like an exclamation point. She sat just as still during collection, but nobody paid any attention to it.
It was three or four Sundays later that I heard Miss Scrap saying to the preacher’s wife, “. . . no such of a thing. People that’s got money don’t like to give in dribs and drabs. Take my boss lady—ever’ Christmas she make out a big check to whoever she give to.”
This perspective filtered about, and before the week was over the preacher visited Grandpa, who was a power in the church, to see about starting the New Church Drive a little earlier that year. Grandpa said he thought people paid more attention to short Drives than to long-drawn-out ones, but it couldn’t do any harm to see.
The announcement was made the next Sunday. I heard guesses as to what Aunt Liz would give range clear up to an incomprehensible thousand dollars.
To cut a long Drive short, Aunt Liz gave as much as you did, and the little over a hundred dollars which was raised went to replace windows broken since the last Drive, to buy a new rope for the church bell, and to patch leaks in the roof and a thinning spot in the floor under Brother Dandridge’ seat.
People started talking until, finally, it got to Grandma. She waited for the next meeting of the Stewardess Board to say that what Aunt Liz did with her money was her own business, and that neither she (Grandma) nor Grandpa intended to have a thing to do with it.
As the Stewardess Board was the eyes and ears and especially the mouth of the church, the stingy talk ceased. Soon the story became that Aunt Liz had planned to match whatever the church raised by itself, but that it turned out to be such a little, it wasn’t worth her bother.
But the preacher gave Aunt Liz a run for her money. He called a “pounding,” where everybody is supposed to donate a pound of something like sugar or butter; or a unit, like a jar of preserves or a peck of potatoes. There was no precedent, and none was set, for a pound of dollars; the basket of larder that came from our house was from the family, and nobody could say anything about that.
For July revival, the preacher invited and got Elder Bell, who was renowned throughout the C.M.E. circuit for the way he preached “Drybones.” (Grandpa himself recalled a time Elder Bell rocked a church with it, twice in one day, and raised over four hundred dollars.) “Drybones” got two hundred and some out of Henning C.M.E. But none of it was Aunt Liz’s.
Next, the preacher remembered that his prey had spent a lifetime teaching. He held a Quartet Contest, to raise money to help that year’s honor students through college. The winning quartet (it was from Covington) had a basso profundo that could go down to here, and Aunt Liz paid her admission.
In time, the mantle of personal challenge that the preacher had draped about his shoulders became a noose. The congregation, too, used the teacher angle: an educated woman would like an educated preacher.
“Lawd knows all this one can do is holler,” I heard Sister Pinder say.
So, the next year, we had a young man a year out of the theology school in Jackson, and he had a dulcet command of many syllables. But these had no more effect on Aunt Liz than anybody else, and we got another preacher who could holler as loud as the first.
It was this preacher’s wife who introduced the hope that lived until 1949, when Aunt Liz died.
“Maybe she’s one of them what believes in wills” was what she said. ~ Alex Haley.
(Hope Springs Eternal by Alex Haley is presented to our audience under the Creative Commons License. It was originally published in the January 1955 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. © 1955 The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved.)