Try to remember

September 07, 1996|By Hal Piper

BATESVILLE, Ark. -- Try to remember this, because almost everybody who knew it is gone, or has forgotten.

Many years ago, a little girl visited her grandmother here in a house on a bluff above the town. Beside and behind the house were meadows and pastures, a barn and a chicken coop and a vegetable garden. In front was a low stone wall.

The little girl spent nearly every summer in Batesville because someone had to look after her while her mother worked.

The girl loved her grandma, who fanned the hot air every night, making cool breezes so the little girl could sleep. Every night she made the grandma promise to wake her early to help with the milking. But Grandma always let her sleep instead.

Grandpa was there sometimes. He was crabby, but he was an unacknowledged genius who had single-handedly built the Hoover Dam and wired up the lights in Yellowstone Park. Years later, he died on Pike's Peak, walking to the Mexico City Olympic Games.

The other grandma was also in Batesville. She was deaf, and cross sometimes, but the other grandpa was sweet and kind. He would play ''Go Fish'' for hours. A wonderful thing: The other grandma had an operation and recovered her hearing, and became sweet and kind, too, and lived to almost 97 and knew many great-grandchildren who adored her.

Both grandmas and both grandpas are buried in Batesville now, but it wasn't always home. The little girl's mother was born in Annieville, and her father in Alco.

She remembers Alco, a little. She was a very little girl when she visited Great Aunt Nan, a kindly, toothless old lady. There was no bathroom, no outhouse. You just ran out into the woods. Everyone was barefoot. At bedtime, Great Aunt Nan washed all the children's feet, so they wouldn't get the sheets dirty, then bundled them into a common bed.

In Alco, they got up earlier than in Batesville. The little girl's breakfast was the men's second breakfast: meat and potatoes and ''stack pie'' -- six or seven layers of pastry with fruit in between.

A hundred years ago the little girl's great-grandparents shifted between Alco and Little Rock. They could farm a decent living in Little Rock, but they were always sick with malaria. They would move to higher ground at Alco, but the thin soil yielded no living, driving them back to Little Rock.

Finally Great-Grandpa decided to stay in Alco. He hewed wood for railroad ties. The man and wife were so poor that neither had shoes, but by autumn he had saved enough to buy some for his wife. She refused to wear them. She wouldn't be shod and her husband barefoot. They quarreled, and he seized his chopping ax and hacked the shoes to flinders. But eventually he became a prosperous grocer in Alco.

Annieville -- not everybody knows this -- is named for Annie

Carlton Dent, the mother of the crabby grandpa who electrified Yellowstone and almost made it to Mexico City. The Dents came from Memphis when the yellow fever struck in the 1880s. But then Annie died of tuberculosis. The crabby grandpa waged and lost countless lawsuits seeking to regain an imagined Memphis patrimony.

Annieville today is not much. Its last commercial venture, the grocery, expired at the beginning of this summer, closed down by the tax man.

And in Batesville now the grandmother's house on the bluff is torn down -- it got termites. Happy children play in fenced yards around new houses where the meadows and pastures were. Only the low stone wall remains, and a hint of the vegetable garden.

The little girl is a middle-aged woman. She lives far from Arkansas, in Baltimore County. She is a mother and a school librarian, and one day, perhaps, she will be a grandmother and tell the stories.

Try to remember the stories. Almost everyone who knows these things is gone. The grandmas and great-aunts, they remember. Talk to them. Try to remember, or the history will be forgotten.

Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion Commentary page.

Pub Date: 9/07/96

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