R.S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: Way Back When (page 1 of 3)

Wednesday Photo: 1/24/18

“Waiting on a Train, Part 18”
Anniston, Alabama – 12 August 2017

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Wednesday Photo: 9/6/17

“Track and Sky”
Leadville, Colorado – 9 August 2014

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Wednesday Photo: 4/26/17

“Waiting on a Train, Part 9”
Denver, Colorado – 1 March 2017

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Wednesday Photo: 4/12/17

“Waiting on a Train, Part 7”
Denver, Colorado – 1 March 2017

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Hillside Monday: 4/3/17

This cast-iron fireplace front probably dates from the early 20th century (as does the lead-based paint still clinging to it). It’s from one of two original chimneys in my circa-1915 mill house. When we freed this beauty from the wall where it had been closed up for over 60 years, it bore a thick layer of coal dust. As we tore out the bricks from the chimney and hearth, our faces did, too.

Coal, though sooty and potentially dangerous, was cheap in the early 1900s. It was how poor people heated their homes. Its dust sticks around for what seems like forever. More than six decades after this house stopped using coal heat, I still find the silvery-gray dust in the old walls, or in the cats’ fur when they sneak into the chimney space (soon to be a walk-in closet).

“Cast Iron Fireplace Front with Paint”
LaGrange, Georgia – 15 March 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Wednesday Photo: 3/29/17

“Waiting on a Train, Part 6”
Denver, Colorado – 1 March 2017

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Ray & Dot, February 1970


When I browse old family photos, sometimes I see faces I don’t recognize. On occasion, the context reveals who they are: Oh yeah, that’s So-and-So’s friend from Scouts. See the t-shirt? 

Mostly, though, I cannot identify these people from the clues in the image. Their pictures often include no descriptive caption on the back, or perhaps a brief, unhelpful scrawl. In the washboard-rough dirt road of images in this forty-five-year-old photo album, these photos are mud holes. They are in here for some reason that I cannot figure out. I cannot help splashing through them again and again.

On the back of this picture, in Palmer-Method-plus-a-lifetime cursive, someone wrote “Ray & Dot.” And that’s all. I do not recognize their faces. In all my years of eavesdropping on grown-up conversations, I do not recall my grandparents, or their many friends, ever mentioning anybody named Ray or Dot.

As was the Kodak 110 photo lab custom of the time, the white border is stamped “FEB 70,” to denote the image was processed and printed in February 1970. No telling whether the photo was taken in February 1970. If the photographer was like many amateur family snapshotters back then, the film could’ve been exposed for months or even years before she or he finally thought to get it developed. The right edge has been cut away at a scissors-in-the-right-hand angle.

I showed the photo to my mother and my sister. Neither recognized the faces or names. The setting, though, looked familiar to Mom. “They might be at the old Rock Mills Cemetery, where Mildred’s folks are buried. Who in the family died in February 1970?” Nobody that I could think of, right off. I suggested to Mom that the background could also be the cemetery behind Paran Baptist Church, an eighth of a mile from the Georgia line on Alabama Highway 22. “Yep. Could be Paran. And it could be the big cemetery in Roanoke, too.” She sipped her coffee.  “But I still have no idea who these people are.”

Ray and Dot are dressed in fashionable clothing for the late 1960s and early 1970s, and are pretty stylish for people who look to have been about twenty years older than my grandparents. Dot’s long-sleeved, high-necked green dress and brown purse suggest fall: cooler weather, but not quite coat season. The green dress also tells me this occasion was not a funeral, as does Ray’s rumpled light tan suit. A church homecoming, perhaps? Dot’s corsage indicates she was someone special at this gathering.

While Ray squints into the sun at the camera, Dot turns toward him and smiles broadly, as if anticipating the funny remark he’s on the edge of making now that somebody’s taking his picture for the hundredth time today. Do they know the dark-suited fellow in the background who’s strolling off into the cemetery? Are they about to hop into that big brown Chevy and rumble down narrow two-lane roads to their house? Are they married? To one another?

I cannot answer any of these questions. Chances are that I never will. Just the same, forty-five years after someone froze this moment onto light-sensitive paper, I keep Ray and Dot in my photo album—and in my heart.

“Ray & Dot, February 1970” – original photographer unknown
© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


A Story for All Hallows’ Eve


Most Halloweens I spend at my mother’s house. It’s the same house where her father was born in 1922. Like many old houses, it has plenty of stories to tell. And it won’t tell them to just anyone. Oh, no. The house plays favorites when it has something to say.

In non-drought years, Halloween means we build a bonfire in Mom’s yard, then make s’mores and tell family ghost stories. We listen to the deep, hollow hoo-hoo-hoooooot of the great horned owls in the pasture next door. Sometimes, well after dark, the local coyotes begin choir practice. Their not-quite-dog-like barking, their yip-yip-yip-yip-ooooooOOOOOO! far off in the woods, stirs up in the human heart something ancient and primal. That’s when Mom and I feel the hair stand up on the backs of our necks. It’s our All Hallows’ signal to grab the dogs and scurry back indoors.

Since 1834, there has been a house on this spot in Heard County, Georgia. The original cabin burned in the 1880s; people built another using the foundation and field-stone pillars from the first house. When that one burned 30 years later, they built yet another house. That’s the one my mother and stepfather live in today.

Mom and Steve have spent the last couple decades renovating the house, taking what was essentially a falling-down sharecropper’s shack and turning it into a cozy home in the woods. It now has insulation, gas heaters, a full kitchen, and two bathrooms with hot running water. They refinished the 14-inch-wide heart pine floors, original to the early 1900s version of the house and likely similar to the floors in the first two houses on this site.

The ghost story that I always heard about the house goes something like this:

Late July 1864 saw one of west central Georgia’s few Civil War battles: McCook’s Raid, in what is now Coweta County (about 45 miles east of Mom’s house). In the days after the battle, one Union soldier appeared, on horseback, on the dirt road that once passed in front of the house. The soldier, who didn’t look much older than a teenager, was all by himself.

He wasn’t in good shape, either. He was slumped over onto the horse’s neck, over the horn of his saddle, unconscious. The skin-and-bones horse seemed to follow the road of its own accord, carrying its rider per its beastly duty. The people inside the house no doubt heard the hooves clop-clop-clop on packed dirt, and walked onto the porch to stare.

Just then, the Union soldier fell off his horse into the middle of the road, a dead-weight heap in blue homespun. His eyelids did not even flutter as the people ran out into the road, hoisted him by his armpits and ankles, and brought him inside.

They lay the soldier on a straw mattress, and fetched fresh water from the well out back for some cold compresses. The Union soldier was still knocked out, and now sweating profusely.  He was very badly cut and bruised. Other than his ragged dark blue uniform, the young man offered no other clues as to his identity. The people wondered if he had been wounded in a nearby battle. Or perhaps he had been robbed, beaten, and left for dead by unknown assailants, many miles from where he was now.

There were no letters from home stashed inside the young man’s coat—no mementos, no lock of hair, no faded daguerreotypes of loved ones waiting for his return. He simply lay there in the bed, barely breathing, just a kid sent far from home by a country who probably didn’t even know where he was.

He never woke up, and died the next morning.

They buried him in the cemetery 300 feet down the road. His coffin was made from weathered old boards pried off of the barn. They marked his grave with a large rock. It was all they had.

In the spring of 1928, C.B. Adamson decided it was time that the unknown Union soldier had a fitting tribute. C.B. was a child when the solider died at the house on the ridge. So he composed a long poem for the soldier, and went down to the graveyard, where he mixed up some homemade concrete, poured the fellow a gravestone, and stamped the poem in the wet concrete. Community historians sent a request to Washington, DC for an official Union Army headstone. When it arrived, they placed it next to the concrete slabs. Despite nearly 100 years of harsh weather and occasional neglect, the unknown soldier’s grave is still intact. Caretakers patched the slabs back together a few years ago after an ice storm sent a four-foot-thick white oak crashing into their center.

When Mom moved down here from Michigan in 1969, her grandparents were still living in the old house where she lives today. She moved in with them until she could find a job and apartment. In 1989, she returned to Heard County, and has lived in the family home ever since. Of course, Mom grew up hearing stories of the Union soldier’s ghost. While she’s never seen him, she’s heard him walking around and felt his presence in the house.

“When I hear him,” she says, “it’s usually the sound of heavy boots along the floor—like the boots don’t fit very well, or maybe the person’s feet really hurt. It happens when I’m the only one at home. Other times, it’s just a funny feeling I get, like someone’s in the room with me or is watching me. But when I look up, nobody’s there.”

On Halloween 2006, Mom and I made our usual bonfire a good, safe 50 feet from the house. About 9:30 that night, I turned my back to the fire and was finishing the last of the s’mores as I watched how the blaze illuminated much of the yard. For safety’s sake, we’d left the lights on in the kitchen, dining room, and living room—the rooms on the west side of the house, and the ones I into which I could see from where I stood in the yard.

That’s when I saw him in the house.
A man.
Dressed in dark blue.

He walked from left to right: starting in the kitchen, he made his way slowly through the dining room, and into the living room. I watched the man, of average height and build, walk along and reach with his right hand as if to open a door. His dark blue sleeve reached to his knuckles, as if his shirt or coat were several sizes too large. He walked steadily through the house, opening one door and the next, passing by all the windows. When he reached the living room’s old chimney. . .he vanished.

“Mom, is someone in the house?”

“Nobody but the cats. Why?”

I blinked hard, and began shaking. “I just saw someone walk through the house. From the kitchen, to the dining room, on through to the living room.”

Mom sat straight up in her lawn chair by the fire. “What?”

“I swear to God, Mom. I just saw somebody walk through the house. A man, wearing a long-sleeved blue coat or shirt.”

Mom was quiet for a long moment, then turned to me. “You know what this means, right?”

“No. . .”

“It means you’re the first person I know who’s actually seen the unknown Union soldier.”

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)


A Tail for a Halloween Caturday


NOTE: This is an updated re-post of the piece I published on 31 October 2015.

My house was built in 1915 as one of many in the Hillside “mill village.” While I’ve called this house home since 1999, many other people have lived here over the last century. Some have never left.

In 2013, my family and I began remodeling what is now my den/home office. We removed the faux Queen Anne-style “wood beams” from the ceiling, gave the smoke-stained paneling half a dozen coats of fresh paint, and pulled up the mildewed 1970s carpet and the 1950s particleboard beneath it. We were sad to discover that, probably in the 1930s, the original red oak floor had been covered with 9” linoleum squares (a common size for that time).

But at least we were making that room more pleasant to be in. I’d wanted to return the Happy Kitten Cottage to as close to its original layout and function as possible. At last, the house was getting there a little at a time.

That’s when the smell showed up.

A week or so after we’d finished, I noticed the strong smell of butter in the den—and only in there. It smelled as if someone were melting three or four sticks of butter for a day of baking, or even for a huge batch of popcorn. A very comforting scent, for sure. It would linger for several hours, then go away, and then return a day or two later. The problem: I was not cooking anything.

It occurred to me that my neighbor makes her legendary cornbread with a whole stick of butter, rather than oil or shortening. But the delicious smell happened while Ernestine (not her real name) was at work, or at church, or out fishing on Saturday morning. Add to this the fact that her kitchen, on the north side of her house, is at least 80 feet from my den, which is on the south side of my house, and—well. That’s just creepy.

I mentioned the butter smell to Mom. She and my stepfather had spent several days tearing out the den floor while I was out of town. “Haven’t smelled any butter,” she said, “but the whole time we were working in the den, I felt like somebody was watching us. Someone was there with us. Not the cats—that’s different. A person.”

She added that the presence didn’t feel hostile. “It felt happy, like it was excited to see us taking out the nasty carpet and particleboard and cleaning up the linoleum floor.” Mom also reminded me that, in the house’s original four-room layout, the room next to the den was the kitchen. “Maybe it’s happy that the house is back like it remembers. Maybe it’s glad to see us—you know, welcoming us with something good to eat. Old-school Southern hospitality.”

Since then, I’ve smelled the strong butter smell every few months for a few days in a row. It doesn’t bother me. I look forward to it, and smile when I catch a whiff of it now and then. But there are other strange happenings. Tools too heavy and bulky for the cats to pick up somehow migrate from the toolbox in the old kitchen to other parts of the house. A box of drywall screws on an end table in the living room. A 22-ounce framing hammer set next to the bathroom sink. A 100-foot metal tape measure by the front door. A plastic case full of drill bits in the middle of the cooktop.

One day last October, I had a doctor’s appointment and several errands to run. While I was away, I left Hank, then my sweet, sickly new kitten, out to roam the house. At that point, he had been here only three days. But the bigger cats already enjoyed playing with him, and were amazingly gentle with this little fellow who’s not even one-eighth their size.

When I left home, Hank was in the den, purring and snuggled up in a sunbeam by the hearth. When I returned a couple hours later, he was sitting in almost the same place—but inside this wire basket. Funny, because when I departed, that wire basket sat eight feet away. On the other side of the room.

So the ghosts in my house are happy to see these familiar, sensible changes in my (our?) home. They encourage remodeling. And they love little Hank. You can’t get much more Halloween Caturday than that.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)




The poor thing looked so lonely, squeezed on both sides by the spy thrillers and bodice rippers whose gaudy covers hogged the floor like a twelfth-runner-up beauty queen on a Vegas bender. But Lord knows how I love a wallflower. A shy, handsome volume of Robert Frost never needed to do the Watusi, the Monkey, or even the Mashed Potato to impress me.

Off we went.
And oh, how we danced.

While there is always something that doesn’t love a wall, there is also always something that does love impeccable penmanship. The notes flowed with grace and control, looping perfect lowercase o’s and curlicuing flawless uppercase T’s completely en pointe inside the narrow margins. Precise inky pirouettes bound Mary and Warren anew to their dying hired man: “Transcending the mundane—earthy, practical—enjoying labor for the sake of labor—LOVE.” The annotations whirled between Frost and me, spinning that road not taken into a pas de deux of why-the-hell-didn’t-I-take-this-road-sooner.

Inside the front cover, though, a few more faded letters sent my heart straight into a grand jeté: “James Thompson, Rm. 407 Morris Hall.” Below, in blue ballpoint: “Fall Quarter 1963, Prof. Jack Kitson.” The gorgeous cursive melted into small caps, still strong and legible. Why, of course, young man. You may have this dance, too.

I wondered about James Thompson and his corner of Room 407. I wondered how many dozens of colleges boasted a Morris Hall men’s dormitory in September 1963. Maybe James, still sporting the summer’s flat-top haircut, arrived right after Labor Day with his clothes, his books, his horn-rimmed glasses, and the expectations of an entire county stuffed into his one graduation-gift suitcase.

I saw James listening, scribbling, an eager young man grasping for every insight from professor, from classmates, from roommates. I saw him reviewing his notes, rereading, explaining, analyzing, revising his term paper and himself so he could make good, do good, come home a success. And here, fifty-three years later in the dusty basement of a dusty used bookstore, his painstaking marginalia still danced to the tune of Robert Frost’s selected poems. Sorry, boys, but my dance card is full—for James Thompson.

At the register, I nearly did an arabesque in disbelief. “A dollar-fifty? That’s all?”

“Yep.” The cashier pressed the change into my palm. “We get a lot of estate sales, you know.”

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Sisterly Help

VAL:  What’s the matter?
ME:  I’m stuck. Help me come up with something for Throwback Thursday on the blog.
VAL:  Hmm. Lemme think…
ME:  An entertaining story from way back, from when we were kids—something like that.
VAL:  How about the time we went to Cub Foods, and you bought a gummi rat as big as your hand? When we got home, you stomped into my room and bit the head off it like a 7th grade Ozzy Osbourne.
ME:  God, I can’t tell that one. Grossed myself out after the first bite.
VAL:  Okay, umm—how about when we were in high school and I’d make that noise kinda like WNNNNNNNNG!!! and push your butt up the stairs with the top of my head to make you move faster?
ME:  Nah. Too hard to explain the context.
VAL:  You’re right. How about the Halloween where you went to school as Mr. T? Mom ripped the sleeves out of an old t-shirt, and you borrowed every single Estée Lauder free gift bonus necklace Maw-Maw had. Mom made you a Mohawk skullcap from old pantyhose and black acrylic yarn.
ME:  I pity the fool who suggests that story.
VAL:  Wait! How about the time when you fell out of the car at the South Carolina welcome center? You skinned the hell out of your knee because your entire left leg had gone to sleep and you didn’t know it.
ME:  You are supremely unhelpful.
VAL:  I’ve got it—how about the time in the front yard at the house in Alabama, when that guy hauling a mule in the back of a furniture truck ran over our mailbox? You must’ve been about 12—you started screaming that you couldn’t send anyone any letters anymore, and that your life was totally ruined. And then you flipped the guy off, and Daddy just about fell over from laughing so hard.
ME:  Forget it. No Throwback Thursday this week.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Wednesday Photo: 9/14/16


“Sunset, Ringer’s Old Store”
Carroll County, Georgia – 16 September 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Wednesday Photo: 8/24/16


“Waiting on a Train, Part 3”
Anniston, Alabama – 23 June 2016

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Wednesday Photo: 8/17/16


“Waiting on a Train, Part 2”
Anniston, Alabama – 23 June 2016

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Hillside Monday: 8/15/16


These are likely bathroom tiles, judging by their shapes and color. This shade of greenish-blue was popular in working people’s homes around here from the 1920s through the 1960s. I found them lying on the ground after a heavy rain. They were probably buried decades ago, after the house came down to make way for a public library.

Photo: “Blue Tiles, Coleman Library”
LaGrange, Georgia – April 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


View from Salem Road Bridge


Troup County, Georgia – 3 May 2014

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Wednesday Photo: 8/10/16


“Waiting on a Train, Part 1”
Anniston, Alabama – 23 June 2016

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Track and Sky


Abandoned mining camp, Leadville, Colorado – 9 August 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Just another conversation with my dressmaker mother


ME:  Val and I went in together on this one. It was kind of expensive. Looks like it’s from the late ’30s or early ’40s.
Yeah, probably so.
Whaddya think?
MOM:  So you’re going for the Joan Crawford look.
ME:  [heavy sigh]
MOM:  Wait, no—Buck Rogers! That’s it!
ME:  Dammit, Mom.

Text © R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Wednesday Photo: 4/20/16


“Gold Brocade Jacket Detail”
LaGrange, Georgia – 12 July 2014
(Jacket sewn by Gina Adamson-Taylor, December 1969)

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


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