ESSEX MEMORIES – Part 4 Life’s Path
William Wesley Lowery, III, can take full responsibility for drawing me to the theme of paths. Considering paths of life – one simply derives the habit of putting one foot in front of the other – then one day looking back, you’ve climbed to new life. This is essentially what Essex memories can examine.
William Wesley – “Will” to me – and I enjoyed a rare exchange about our educations. Will summoned his life-altering lesson – not from Hampden-Sydney College, where we, (with Billy Ware, Skipper Garrett, and Alex Dillard, were college mates), shared huge academic challenges.
Will’s lesson was spot-on, comfortably personal: “my greatest lesson came from my father – he showed me simply how to get up every day, early, and go to work…and I’ve done it ever since.” Will’s designated chosen path was an enviable one. All have personal paths in life – from educational – to religious – to athletic – to social – to economic….to how we choose to conduct our lives.
My modest life forged its path near the water, the ever sun-reflecting water, a river with Native American name, more brackish than salt – a mile-wide sweep with a channel midway, edged on both sides with modest sandy beaches. Rappahannock River water could be threatening – generating heavy white caps, accompanied by uncontrollable storm winds; in another state, it would be smooth, a pond-like stillness, burdened with oppressive air, heavy humidity, seemingly almost stationary.
Our Duke Street home was surrounded by wonderful Riverside Hotel behind us (with its own beach and artesian well); the gorgeous Anderton mansion in front, and St Margaret’s School for Girls beyond. Delightful Aunt Virgie Anderton was my grandmother’s older sister. Intriguingly social, she often wore stylistic white shoes.
Early childhood bequeathed a charming routine: rising at day break, barely light, I’d quietly proceed up the hallway, stepping down to my parent’s second floor bedroom (circa 1940), peering out of their east window directly facing the river. It was timed just before sunrise – above the horizon. Two very tall, overly narrow trees did not impair the view, yet added to its complexity.
The sun appeared over Richmond County’s horizon – watching it rise, reflecting a bright crossing-line on the water for a time. Later, my dad would turn on his bedside radio to a Washington, DC radio station, listening to a young Arthur Godfrey. Before World War II, our family clearly knew Arthur Godfrey – long before he gained national following on both radio and early television.
Allen Latane Wallace, older brother, obviously more the Tappahannock poster-child than sister and I, luxuriated on multi paths – with advantages of four years seniority. Gathering fascinating experiences, shared awakenings, with friends like Winston Sheppard; Grissom Haynes; Thomas Ray Evans; “Kaki” – N. Carrington Taylor; Gene Mussleman; young Mac Evans, Jr. ; cousins – Mann and Henry Brown – all growing up together.
Allen enjoyed free reign, full town access – not available to his younger siblings. Older brother’s claim to fame included, without permission, a swim across the Rappahannock River, at Tappahannock….crossing channel, reaching the northern neck shore line – unbeknownst to our parents. When this news surfaced, I harbored a secret admiration about him.
Edmond Ware Haile, stationed near Phoenix, AZ – then Victorville, CA, during World War II, telegraphed a return path: wife, Irene Tyler Haile, with three daughters in hand, were to return to Essex. The girls were all under 10 years. Charlotte Tyler Haile (Frischkorn) recalls her childhood long, arduous, non-air-conditioned drive across the south – heading east. Reaching Texas, the small girls were already anticipating arrival – “are we there yet?” Fulfilling their path, the Hailes were home, first landing in Wakefield – later moving to Water Lane – all eventually attending St. Margaret’s.
Friday nights brought scatterings of excitement – compliments of the DAW Theater. Manager, William W. Wallace, our Uncle Bill – then still married to Douglas Chappell of Urbana, symbolized an air of cosmopolitanism and sophistication. Aunt Douglas reminded me of Sonja Henie (champion ice skater, film star), adding to the glamour….but “going to the show” was paramount.
Reliably, two Friday night showings – 7 p.m., 9:15 p.m. respectively – western hero movies were scheduled. Roy Rogers; Gene Autry; Red Ryder and Little Beaver (a young Bobby Blake); Wild Bill Elliot; Whip Wilson; loveable sidekicks – Smiley Burnett, Gabby Hayes, Fuzzy St. John, and Andy Clyde, were featured. One reel-feature could include Leon Errol, Joe McDoakes, or the Three Stooges. Cartoon possibilities were Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, or Elmer Fudd. That particular winter, Tappahannock Public Schools had a fund raiser – a special afternoon showing of Life With Blondie, starring Penny Singleton, Arthur Lake, and Daisy. As Tin Pan Alley inquires: who could ask for anything more?
On to Dr. Lassiter’s People’s Drug Store after Friday night’s movie – for cokes, milk shakes, malted milks, ice cream sodas and sundaes. Then our special dirt-street path led homeward – in a mode of gratitude ….and on to bed.
Above street level, path travelers passed the Custom’s House daily, assuring sightings of family, neighbors. Ellen Harvey Latane Lewis, our great-aunt (she was grandfather’s sister) was a path figure. Calling her Essie, she’d been widowed suddenly, from lawyer-citizen, James M. Lewis (Cousin Jim); Essie habitually wore black, potentially foreshadowing melancholia – for an impressionable child.
Regularly, Essie used the Derieux/Latane path, crossing the edge of the Customs House property – bypassing the Henry De Shields place, to her Lewis home – the third row house – blessed with the best Rappahannock view. There she’d raised mother’s three deeply valued cousins: Gordon Lewis, Nancy Lewis (Winfree), and Elsie Lewis (Rennolds). Nancy Winfree became a notably honored classroom teacher in Richmond.
Mother’s younger sister, Dolly Latane Hammond, wrote from Baltimore following Elsie Rennolds’ death: “Elsie died and it has been sad. Essie, Jim, Nancy Gordon (Elsie’s youngest daughter), Nancy, and Gordon – even the house is gone. They were such a big part of my life when I was young. Great Aunt Essie would eventually move into Gordon and Olive Lewis’ home living out many comfortable sun-set years. Our parents had built that home in 1939.
The “Derieux path” was aligned with Derieux fencing – harboring a grave site just over their line; neighborhood children, with fervent interest, monitored it frequently. The oral history surmised the interred was a flu victim who arrived from river traffic, died, and was given a Christian burial.
Mary D. Derieux held no deep ambiguities in her path. There was not a more charming, dignified, totally secure citizen of Tappahannock. In recent decades, my comparison draws Mary to Baroness Margaret Thatcher, and Thatcher’s keen observation: “if you have to tell people you’re a lady, then you’re probably not. “ Mary Derieux never spoke of it.
Mary’s father, George Derieux, soft spoken, reminiscent of Calvin Coolidge, was path-predictable…one could set his watch by George Derieux – up to the store – back – exactly the same time daily. Often Mrs. Derieux (no Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, she) would be sitting on her high front porch, inclined to extended conversation, laughter, and general good nature. She always seemed present there – ready for chatting.
Mysterious “Captain Plummer”, carrying a satchel, made his way by the Latane home daily, heading for those broad cement steps to his sea in ships. Clearly disinclined to conversation, Captain Plummer, (Plumard J. Derieux) might nod. As a kid I had no clue this strange figure was responsible for introducing the Caponka to Tappahannock’s culture – sometimes dancing with mystery.
Essex Memories seldom paint a complete portrait of the places and peoples we’ve known…yet the inclination is to focus on objects of totemic significance. “Will” Lowery understands this symbolically. Maybe these memories don’t turn us into poets, but they do define our humanity, don’t they.