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Those of you who read this regular series know that I am from Hackett, Arkansas, just a mile or so from the Oklahoma border, and just about 10 miles south of the Arkansas River. It was a redneck sort of place, and just zoom onto my previous posts to understand a bit about it.
I rarely write about living people except with their express permission, but may make an exception or two here because it might be important to talk about some of my still living relatives to explain her better.
I hope that a I spelt Mrs. Kingbury’s name correctly. It might be Kingsberry, but I am almost sure that the spelling that I used is the correct one. I never saw it written. I tried a web search for her, but the ones with leads wanted money and I was not willing to pay for them. I shall just go from memory, but I would have liked to be able to give you a bit more information about her than my memory as a child.
Growing up in the south, it was proper to call older, non related females Ms (pronounced Mz), which I was amused that was the title of choice for the feminists. We had used it for decades!
Ms. Kingsbury was old, older than Ma, or at least looked that way. She was sort of a scary figure for a five year old kid, too, as she ALWAYS wore black clothes, complete with a very long black dress and a black hood! To me she looked, by her dress, like the witches from the Wizard of Oz! I kid you not! I wish I had a picture of her to prove my point.
She never drove a car, but walked everywhere. In Hackett at the time, that was not really that far. I do not know her source of income, but she obviously had some because from time to time she would pull her ancient Radio Flyer red wagon to the general story and buy some groceries, then pull it back. She lived in a horrible looking old wooden house, two stories tall, that had not been painted in decades even whilst I was little.
It was sort of behind Ma’s house by two blocks east and in an alley about half a block north. It was decorated by her hand made signs that said “Jesus Saves” and other Christian slogans, and she even used a ladder to paint some of those slogans on the front of her house, the only paint that it had in the intervening decades. It has what we call over at home a “sheet iron” roof, meaning galvanized, corrugated steel. The zinc coating had deteriorated many years ago, so it just was rusty.
Going down her alley was a shortcut from school to Ma’s house after I was old enough not to be afraid of her any more. Sometimes she would be outside, and I would always wave to her and say, “Hello! Ms. Kingsbury!” She would always wave back, and sometimes come to speak with me. Now and then she would give me a banana or an apple, if she had some surplus. The first time that she gave me an apple was a little freaky, because she also sort of resembled the evil queen from Snow White, but I ate it anyway, because Ma and my mum had both told me that she was a very nice lady. Remember when you were little: people could scare you just by their appearance.
Ms. Kingsbury never had running water nor electricity. I learnt later that she used kerosine lanterns for light until she had to leave her house for reasons that I shall explain later. Of course, I was seven or eight by that time and we were used to each other by then, so I was not afraid of her any more.
But when I was five or six, she scared me for reasons that I mentioned previously. Seeing a very old, gnarled, and sort of crippled woman dressed completely in black from (literally) head to toe scared me. I really thought that she was a witch. She lived alone, and sort of talked to herself whilst pulling her wagon, and just looked weird.
Ma knew her pretty well. Not best buddies or anything, but she knew that Ms. Kingsbury was completely harmless, and actually a very nice person. She took me on her knee and told me, and this is not too far from her actual words, even after 50 years:
Now David, ye NEVER be mean to Ms. Kingsbury. I know that ye told me that ye thunk that she is a witch, but she is not a witch. She is a good, Christian woman who is jest a leetle diffrent then we are. I’ll switch ye with a keen lil hickrey if I ever heer that ye’s been mean to her.
That was all that it took. From that day, when Ms. Kingsbury was pulling her wagon towards her house, I would come out and tell her hello, and pull her wagon for her up to the corner (I was not allowed to go further than that unless Ma was with me). She was always nice and had very good grammar (sort of unusual for older folks in Hackett).
Apparently Ms. Kingbury had been married at one time, and it did not turn out well. Also apparently she was well educated, but I do not know the extent of her education. Once when I was walking home from school and passed by her house, she called me over to the fence and gave me an American flag, complete with pole and bracket, brand new in the box. I thank her for it and she told me that the best thanks that I could give her would be to fly it. Dad and I found a good place for the bracket and I flew it every day for a long time. I still have that flag.
Years before I was born my Aunt JoAnne was getting ready to marry Uncle David, and they invited Ms. Kinsbury to their wedding. Lots of people (Ma NOT included) warned her against inviting such a strange, dirty, and smelly person to her wedding, but Aunt JoAnne was not deterred. When the wedding day came, Ms. Kingsbury astonished the entire crowd by showing up freshly bathed, wearing a very elegant (but obviously style from 30 years before) dress, white gloves, and pretty shoes. Ms. Kingsbury obviously had a good knowledge of etiquette, which showed good upbringing. She brought them a wedding present (I do not know what it was), and was very gracious and kind. The next day she was back in black.
I do not know how she heated her house in winter. Obviously with no electricity she did not have a fan for the summer, but at that time air conditioning was still sort of a rarity for people who did have electricity. I well remember the summer of 1964 when the outdoor temperature was over 100 degrees every day, and one day it was 108. I do not know how she survived that heat, but she always did, and with only a mortuary fan. But the winter was a different story.
She had to use either coal or wood to heat her house, since she had no propane tank. I am guessing coal, because lots of coal was mined locally at the time. Ma heated with coal for years, so I know that people did it. Coal at the time was cheap and men would bring a pickup truck load and unload it for not very much money. The coal in the area is an extremely high quality bituminous variety, much in demand for the steel mills up north to use to make coke. In any event, one winter Ms. Kingsbury went missing, in that she did not make her daily walk to downtown to get her mail (there was no mail delivery in town, so everyone had to go to the post office).
After the second day of being missing, some of the locals went to her house to check on her. It had been really cold, and people were worried. She had neither relatives nor telephone, so some people went to her house and went inside. They found her lying on her couch, suffering from hypothermia. She went to hospital, where she made a recovery of sorts, but lost several toes to frostbite.
The people who had gone to check on her described the interior of her house, completely filled with magazines and newspapers, some of them decades old. The scene sort of reminds me of some of those TeeVee shows about people who hoard things. They said that she just had little pathways betwixt the stacks of things so that she could get around her house. Her house was of the old design, with no real rooms, but different areas for cooking and eating, sitting, sleeping, and bathing.
Of course, to bathe she had to draw water from her well and put it in the metal tub, then heat some more water on the wood fired kitchen range to make it comfortable. Most people without indoor plumbing would just “freshen up” most of the time, bathing only occasionally. This happened in many, many houses in Hackett at the time.
Ms. Kingsbury never returned to her house. She went to a nursing home (they were called old folk’s homes locally) and stayed there until the end of her life. She lived a long time, because I was about to be graduated from high school when she died. My friend Ed and I went to visit her at the nursing home once, but she was not lucid. Looking back, I would guess that she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
When Ed and I got there, she did not recognize me (it had been a number of years) and was very irate that two strange men were in her “boudoir”. This is more evidence that she was well educated because 95% of the residents of Hackett would have no idea what the word meant. It was sad to see her in such a deteriorated condition.
I have often tried to diagnose Ms. Kingsbury. Obviously she had some kind of a mental illness, but I do not know what it was. She was certainly not schizophrenic, because there was no evidence of delusional thoughts and she did not talk to imaginary people or herself during her daily trips to town. Nor do I think that she suffered from depression, because she kept to her routine faithfully and was always of good cheer. Bipolar disorder also does not seem likely because she was pretty much of even temperament, never seeming manic nor depressed.
My best guess is that she suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) to a major degree. This is consistent with the condition of her house when they found her, since hoarding is a characteristic of that disorder in many cases. Her keeping to her routine of going to town at about the same time every day also fits. I did not mention that Hackett had Sunday mail service at the post office at the time if you had a post office box.
That is what I remember about Ms. Kingsbury. She was a sweet lady who was certainly a colorful addition to the streets of Hackett for many, many years. I am proud to have known her, and as I said, I still have the flag that she gave me.
Did anyone get what I meant when I referred to a mortuary fan? Those were the hand held cardboard fans with a thin wooden handle stapled to it. Back before air conditioning, every little church kept them in the hymnal holder on the back of each pew. I well remember people, particularly old ladies, fanning and fanning whilst the minister preached, sweat just running down them. If you do not know what they look like, here is a picture:
They are called mortuary fans because they were used as advertising for funeral homes. The funeral home would order however many with their logo, address, telephone number, and other contact information along with some sort of verbiage about being the caring funeral home for your loved one’s final needs. I always thought this was a cheesy advertising practice.
If you have stories about growing up, even if you were not from a little town, please add them in the comments. Everyone gets a kick out of reading them
Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith