My Wemon wilwies. They carry memories.
When I was three, I went to live with a wonderful farm family in Athens, Tennessee. They were in their early sixties at the time and lived in a pre-civil war plantation house on a large farm near where I-75 cuts through McMinn County now.
My mother had bipolar disease, about which very little was known in the late 1940s. She was hospitalized for just over a year, often subjected to what we now consider barbaric treatment. The Thomases were a traditional couple with gracious, formal Old South manners.
He always addressed his wife as Mrs. Thomas and she called her husband Mr. Thomas when they were in the presence of anyone else. I loved them dearly. We stayed very close for the rest of their lives. I still consider them my family.
Mrs. Thomas had a gorgeous bed of lemon lilies between her big asparagus bed and the cabbage patch. I called them wemon wilwies. Despite my family’s situation at the time, the year I spent on the farm, riding on the tractor with Mr. Thomas when rabbits would scatter as the hay blade got close, or an occasional 4-foot black snake would whip up over the tractor wheels; time milking the cows and feeding the chickens; or “helping” Mrs. Thomas bake yeast rolls in the oven of her wood-fired cast-iron cook stove, or fiddling with the cannon balls still imbedded in the 16-inch-thick plaster and brick interior walls (the house had served as a Confederate Army hospital for a time); sitting on the threshold of the double doors in the dining room, three feet off the ground, that opened out onto the carriage portico, designed for ladies to step directly from the carriage into the house, have always been indelible memories in my life.
I learned dignity and respect for everyone by the way Mrs. Thomas treated and addressed Mrs. Jones, the Black lady who came to help her with the house and garden, and the way Mr. Thomas treated and addressed Mr. Jones, who helped on the farm. I didn’t know at the time how rare that mutual respect was. I will never forget it and those gorgeous flowers will forever be wemon wilwies.
Harold Duckett is a Knoxville architect and arts critic. This is reprinted with permission.