ESSEX MEMORIES – RITUALS – Part 5
For centuries, ritual has been perhaps the most important human activity….it has the aim of improving not only our condition in where we live and what we do, but constantly tinkers with life’s future direction.
Libby Taylor, our charming Sunday school teacher – daughter of Martha and Najah Taylor – erstwhile St. Margaret’s School student, and almost grown up, threaded us together in that otherwise cold and clammy Sunday school classroom at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Becoming a reliable ritual, her presence brought that classroom warmth, made it palatable and inviting, deploying priceless hours to those 1940’s Essex memories. No furloughs available there.
In our vast cousinhood, Cauthorne, Dillard, Latane, Lewis, Wallace, and Ware families, like water, found their simplest, uncomplicated destinations. This brought essential truths – in such ritualistic fashion.
Miller’s Tavern, too, was a Sunday ritual for the Latane family. Mission: to pick up a week’s supply of homemade butter, plus cream, and eggs at Dr. and Mrs. L. W. Ferry’s big white farm house, Millers Tavern. Located off a narrow two lane Rt. 360, the impressive setting seemed squeezed between two roads, with 360 running behind the property. In those days, Miller’s Tavern stood there in impressive majesty.
Riding in grandfather’s (A.D. Latane) reliable 1935 Chevrolet – its two doors swinging backwards – with average speed 30 miles an hour, we’d conjure up an adventurous journey. Emma Latane, my very Cauthorne grandmother, savored her weekly trip for fresh homemade butter….in a hard-to-get World War II market place. Visualizing the rounded, high thick structure of yellow bowl-like butter – so authentic in a superficial substitute-culture of World War II, I understood its special nature. Often riding with them, the half hour trip up – and then back – became special grandparent time. That modest automobile’s scent of fuzzy interior is alive with me, even today.
Never allowing passion to hijack reason, my grandmother, Emma – Mrs. Latane to most – would not tolerate the demise of a sensible and positive behavior. Unrepentedly Cauthorn (e), she was math bright, firmly centered, deeply grounded….alas, not suffering fools lightly. Hard work, strong gumption was second nature to her…it was part of her ritual.
Applied practicality and strength stood her well, engendering endearment – additionally, she had a twinkle. It’s a solid guess her role kept that Latane newspaper (Rappahannock Times), located in the Customs House basement, in survival mode; – even economically stable – in the worst of times. Extravagance never occurred to her. While adroit, even a repair wizard, she kept a spiritual humility which deeply guided her in faith. Still, one simply did not mess with Mrs. Latane.
Probably in the late spring, 1942, my first banked memory of the Cauthorn (e) sisters assembling together is clear. There they were – poster examples of family ritual. Virgie Anderton, living next door to St. Margaret’s School; Alice Phillips of “Greenfield” – her sizeable home with rolling landscape, and river-view; Frances Page Burgwyn in town, Mable Cauthorn (Tootsie) living with the Phillips; and my grandmother, assembled together in the basement’s second kitchen of the Customs House – with its lower side door entrance. For me, this collaborative gathering brought an astonishing morning.
From scratch, they were baking a dozen-plus sour cherry pies. Some were preparing pie crust; another meticulously de-pitting handpicked sour cherries from Carson Philips’ “Greenfield”; other sisters cooked them up for baking. Enveloped with tantalizing cherry pie aroma, this production-line baking scene became memorable. No wonder sour cherry pie remains my favorite dessert….all in ritualistic fashion.
Most Tappahannock boys dreamed of having their own boat – another ritual. Allen was no exception. Aunt Virgie Anderton made it happen. Allen was gifted a sizeable, old row boat stored in the white Anderton garage on the west side of her home, down the bank from the expansive front lawn. There she inventoried an enviable stock of Benjamin Moore paints – all colors. Mixing up a light green combination, Virgie Anderton had Allen paint his new possession.
Planning to dock his freshly painted vessel at Hoskins Creek, beside Uncle Bill Wallace’s very fashionable, sleek boat, Allen faced a rowing excursion – with me as a tagalong. The water journey required rowing out into the river, down the coast line; pass St. Margaret’s School, eventually into the creek….that was the plan.
Once we rowed out into the river, a near-instantaneous electrical storm appeared – very suddenly. Mother, who knew how rapidly vicious river storms could form, panicked. Running down the shore line in front of St. Margaret’s, she demanded we come to the shore immediately. With heavier lapping waves, Allen continued with aggressive rowing – we reached Hoskins Creek safely. Our mother, Martha, was seriously frightened….and angry. That storm, with lightening, swept in on us from nowhere – then exited as rapidly.
Rituals engendered strangeness: in constant view, a World War I abandoned ship (a twin-screw wooden steamer, a freighter, Caponka, by name) languished out beyond Hoskins Creek – stranded on a Rappahannock sand bar. Its growing state of decay was obvious – sitting alone, unmovable, reminiscent of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, in The Great Gatsby….like so many souls – just waiting. It was always with us.
Carroll M. Garnett, war hero, researched the freighter’s history in The Caponka Caper, enlightened local readership generations later. Ritualistically, Allen’s crowd often rowed out to swim near the deteriorating “battleship”. Instinctively, childhood imaginations wished it a haunted “ghost ship”, but being instinctual didn’t come off all that instinctively….yet, we believed.
What was not haunted, but totally ritualistic, was Allen’s love of mechanics – in the form of Chevrolet automobiles. He’d spend pre-adolescent time hanging around W.B. Carneal Chevrolet Sales, with Cecil Beasley, and other auto aficionados – all in his deep comfort zone. Latest car models, new gadgets, car sales, who in town drove what, were subjects that entranced.
Family ritual was nourished on the Latane’s River Porch (Customs House) in summertime. Often, there’d be en parte three generations of family present. Conversations were adult: social, economic issues, local views – strongly held, emphasis on distance, and differences. Sitting peacefully, we’d enjoy homemade peach ice cream, encircled by life-changing conversation, and grounded thoughts –inhaled from family, two full generations preceding mine.
Grandparents, great aunts, and uncles – their voices containing wisdom – sweetened the air with idealism and exactitude….in those summer nights of the 1940’s. Suddenly, this thought swept over me: you better take this in, and listen carefully. Many of these gentle people will be permanently separated from you fairly soon, and that will be it.
The separation began within two years. While the experience was exquisite, my mind was chastened with thoughts of permanent separation – maybe death itself. These Essex Memories continue my formidable challenge to not allow accumulated precious hours scatter into an historic oblivion – without citation, acknowledgement….and love.
Periodically assailed by those challenging Essex Memories, I discover relief from the sedative influences of the rolling Rappahannock – inaugurating inner peace, maybe security. The river water flows on forever – always constantly present….affording us opportunity to move up and out, and absorb what Nathaniel Hawthorne called “an intercourse with the world”.
Libby Taylor would clearly understand.
Raymond B. Wallace, Jr. is a retired C.E.O.; public classroom teacher; and Trustee of the Virginia Retirement System. He has been published in the Richmond Times Dispatch, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, The Farmville Herald, Fifty Plus Monthly, ECCA Annual Magazine, and The Jefferson Policy Review. You can contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org .