Ava Stories

The Bower house on West Main didn’t need a number because everyone in Ava knew who lived there and because everyone who was anyone had a little mail box in the one-room Post Office next to the drug store; therefore, there was no need for a mailman to deliver the mail to a street address.

May Gardner, who put her hair up in a bun, wore big dark-framed glasses, and probably had Parkinson’s disease, ran the Post Office for as long I could remember until the late 1960s. She knew everyone in town and would sort the mail every day and put it in people’s mail boxes; so when I wrote Ese or mother, who moved into the Ava house in about 1960, I didn’t have to write an address on an envelope, just “Louise Bower, Ava, Illinois.”

I remember when I was a teenager how neat I thought it was that everyone knew Ese and all I had to do when I wrote her was to put “Louise Bower, Ava, Illinois” on an envelope. Once I wrote a letter to “Aunt Louise, Ava, Illinois” and she got it. I believed you couldn’t do that in any other town in the world. I also remember that I was pissed when ZIP codes were adopted in 1967 and I had to do what seemed then as the enormous imposition of writing 62907 on an envelope or post card. But it was still just “Louise Bower, Ava, IL 62907” – no street address.

All my life I heard Ava stories. Here are a couple of them:

The Hired Girl

Until the 1950s, when Ese needed money and had to sell part of the lot on which the Bower House was located, the lot the house was on was huge – it must have been about 300 feet wide. It had a large, half-oval, gravel drive, and there were six-foot high brick gate posts at each entrance to the drive. I remember using a sledge hammer to take them down when I lived in Ava in the fall of 1954, when I spent a semester at Southern Illinois University … but that’s another story.

On the far east side of the lot before Ese divided it, there was a ramshackled green-shingled house with once-white-then-grey peeling trim. The old house had a front porch that was swayed like the back of a run-down mule. It was the Davis home, and it was torn down just before WWII, but I still remember riding by it on my bike.

Grandpa and Grandma Davis lived in the house, and I vaguely remember Gandpa Davis waving to me with his cane as I rode by. He was in his late 80s and had a wooden leg. Gramma Davis was more lively; she was in her mid 60s and was short and stout – she looked like a fireplug with grey hair. The Davises were not relatives of the Bowers, but everyone called them Grandpa and Grandma, so the Bowers did, too.

They were legendary in Ava because they had 12 children – a fact in itself that is certainly worthy of legend – but it was how they came to bring up 12 children that elevated their story to the status of legend.

In 1890 George Davis headed for his new homestead south east of Ava with his wife, their four children, a 15-year old hired girl, and a wagonload of provisions and tools. It was early spring and the rain had soaked the dirt roads until they were oozy mud and had turned the usually placid Kaskastia River into a swift torrent. Davis had to cross the Kaskaskia to get to his farm, so he picked a spot that was wide and not too deep for his wagon – wide enough so it wasn’t moving too fast to endanger the wagon, he thought.

George considered several options: 1) cross with everyone in the wagon; 2) leave his wife, children and the hired girl on the river bank, tie a rope around a tree on that bank, drive the wagon across alone with the rope tied to the wagon, and if he made it the others could wade across holding the rope with his wife leading the way, then the hired girl could untie the rope and he could pull her across; or 4) have his wife, who was an excellent wagon driver, drive the wagon across and leave him, the children and the hired girl on the bank to cross on the rope. George chose the fourth option because he thought it was the safest.

George’s wife made it about three-quarters of the way across when the right front wheel got stuck and couldn’t make it over a large rock. She tried to get the horses to back up, but was having trouble. George grabbed the rope and made his way toward the wagon and his struggling wife. He didn’t see an uprooted tree in the tumbling water as it came around a bend in the river and headed toward the wagon. The hired girl screamed, “Watch out!”, but it was too late.

The large, heavy, root end of the tree crashed into the wagon, ripping it away from the shaft and trace. The horses broke free and waded to the opposite bank, but George’s wife was thrown into the water, hitting her head on the rock that had stopped them and was killed instantly. George was whacked by several big branches and pushed under the wagon as the tree pushed it over George’s right leg.

The flowing river washed George from under wagon which was still intact, and somehow he managed to hold onto the rope. He almost passed out, but he managed to wave to the hired girl. She has just turned 15 and was no more than five feet tall, but she was stout and strong and obedient. Slowly, deliberately she pulled George to the river bank as the children wept and screamed in terror. George fought off passing out as he told the hired girl to put a tourniquet on his leg above where it was smashed, which she did deftly.

He told her to hold on to the rope and try to get to the wagon. If she got there, she was to then try to get to the two horses on the other side. The hired girl didn’t complain, didn’t acknowledge his instructions, and didn’t hesitate. She grabbed the rope and struggled to the wagon. She didn’t look back at George and the children, who were now huddled around their father, as she jumped into the water, strained against the swift current, and thrashed to the other side. She reined in the horses, tied them to a tree, and finally looked back to the other side. George had passed out.

The hired girl untied one horse and forced it to ride back to the other side. The horse outweighed her by 1,788 pounds, but it was no match for the teenager’s will. When she got to the opposite bank, she dismounted, took the children back into a cluster of trees, told the older two to gather wood and tree branches, and spattered water on George’s face to wake him. She put his arm around her neck, stood up, and together they stumbled to where the kids were. She and the oldest child, a seven-year-old boy, made a fire, rode the horse to the other side and brought back the other horse, and after six hours of silent, chilling, backbreaking effort, managed to hook the horses up to the wagon and bring it back to the fire.

They stayed in the trees for two days until George decided to try to cross the river, which had gone down, and go to the farm, only a couple of miles away. When they got to the farm, the hired girl and the two oldest children unloaded the wagon and set up the small, dilapidated frame house. George was running a high fever and saw that the wound in his lower leg was turning black. He knew his leg had to come off and that there was no time to ride over 50 miles and back to get a doctor.

George gave explicit instructions to the hired girl and his oldest son what to do. They were to sterilize all the instruments and tools, including the saw that the hired girl was to use to amputate his right leg just below the knee. He would drink most of the bottle of whiskey and then his son was to continue to feed him as much as it took until he passed out and then hold him down while the hired girl sawed off his leg and cauterized the stump.

Just as the hired girl and the son had done their job with quiet determination back at the river, they carried out the operation as they were told and as they knew they had to. There was no choice.

George woke up the next morning with a terrible hangover and excruciating pain in what was left of his right leg. But he managed to smile and say, “Thank you, son, and thank you Emma. You did good.” It was the first time in two months he had spoken the hired girl’s name.

The family went about its work, with Emma and Will, the boy, doing most of the labor, but with George helping as much as he could – and he was helping surprisingly well with the aid of a wooden leg he had made with Will’s assistance. After dinner one evening, as Emma was cleaning up, George said to her, “Emma, you’ve been real good with the kids. But they need a proper mother, so you and me are going to get married.” It wasn’t romantic, it wasn’t a request, it wasn’t what a 15-year-old girl had dreamed about, but that’s what she had to do. There was no choice.

“Yes, Mr. Davis,” Emma said.

“Later in the summer, we’ll go to the church in Ava and have the preacher marry us. Will can be the best man,” George assured Emma.

“Yes, Mr. Davis.”

George and Emma Davis were married in the church in Ava and had eight children of their own, sold the farm after the youngest child left home after she graduated from high school, moved to Ava, and bought a house next to the Bower House. Emma continued to call George “Mr. Davis,” but it was a term of endearment and, perhaps, irony.

Dope

My mother and Ese loved to tell stories about Ava … about anything for that matter.  They just loved to talk.  I spent hours as a boy raptly listening as they told their stores over and over as my father sat nearby reading a newspaper or magazine.

We subscribed to The Saturday Evening Post, the Readers Digest, the National Geographic (yes, I knew which issues had the pictures of bee-stung nipples), Look, Life, Vogue (yes, I read every issue and masturbated to the pictures of the models).

My father had a dry, often caustic, sense of humor, and he often kidded about “the girls,” as he called them, talking too much.  When Sal came to visit once with her one-year-old daughter, Becky, mother and Ese were trying to teach Becky some rudimentary words.  My father said, “Oh, for God’s sake Hon, please don’t teach her to talk.”  “Hon” was  short for “Honey,” and was his preferred term of endearment.

Sal used to love to tell that story on my dad, because it was typical of his bi-polar sense of humor.  My father loved my mother and Louise and loved having them around, but he also loved kidding them about talking, talking, talking, talking.  Sal and the girls knew he wasn’t complaining and loved his sense of humor.

One of the stories the girls told was about Dope – Dope Simpson – who had been one of Ese’s many suitors/boyfriends/friends.  I always loved the name, Dope, it sounded funny; it elicited an image of Dopey in “Snow White” – a goofy, lovable clown.

Apparently, Dope was a good-humored joker (today I’d probably call him a smartass) who pursued Ese for years and asked her to marry him many times.  Ese loved him and loved having him around and laughing at his jokes.  Once, after several years of pursuing her, Dope stopped by the house in Ava to see Ese and announced that he had gotten married.

Ese was a little shocked, but said something like, “Oh, how nice.”

Dope, as the story goes, replied, “Yeah, you’ll like her.  She’s white.”

When the girls told the story, they would all laugh gleefully and repeat the punch line, “…she’s white.”  In reading this, the punch line is out of context and doesn’t read as very funny, but to them it was.  The joke was typical of a joker/smartass who loved to shock people and make them laugh – that’s what a good joke is, a surprise, and Dope understood that.

He also understood the inherent racism extant in Southern Illinois and in the Dean/Bower clan.   I adored my mother and Ese, but they were born and brought up in a Victorian culture (mother was born in 1896, Ese in 1898).  Blacks were servants who had recently been slaves.  And although Abraham Lincoln was from Illinois and it was a Northern state in the Civil War, Southern Illinois and Jackson Country, where Ava was located, was the racist South.

Mother and Ese simply couldn’t imagine associating with blacks or servants; it simply wasn’t done.  They were untouchables.  I think Dope recognized their prejudices and she was making a joke and a dig at the same time.  The girls got the joke, but not the dig – it wasn’t their nature to engage in self-examination, to confront their beliefs, to change their basic values.  They were true children of the Victorian Age.

Ese did eventually meet Dope’s wife, and Ese liked her.  Dope and his wife dropped by Ava from time to time to visit Ese and they were welcome because she was, in fact, white.  Had she not been, she would not have been welcome.

Dean

Dean Smysor was the only child of Elizabeth (Bess) Dean Smysor and Walter Smysor.  Dean’s first name was the maiden name of Bess and Carrie Dean Bower, my mother’s and The Girls’ mother.

Bess was the youngest daughter of William and Elizabeth Dean, who everyone in the family called Gramma and Grampa Dean.  Grampa Dean was Scotch-Irish and was the richest citizen of Ava.  He owned the mill, which was in the western part of the village, called Deanville.

He owned several thousand acres of rich Mississippi River bottom land on which he had tenant farmers.  The land was referred to as “the bottom” and had thick black soil that was so rich and fertile that my father claimed anything planted in it would flourish. “If you planted nickels in it, they would grow,” he used to say.

My father also claimed that Grampa Dean was the laziest man in the world.  He was grossly fat and could barely move.  Around the turn of the century, perhaps 1903, Grampa Dean bought the first car to appear on the roads in Ava, an open Ford that had to be cranked to start.  Grampa Dean would pay a couple of local boys a nickel each to crank up the car and drive it around to the side of the porch, lift him into the high seat, and then drive him around town.

1903 Ford Model A Runabout

Gramma Dean was a tiny, thin woman, who was by all accounts a dictatorial, mean shrew.  Gramma and Ese (Chas, as soon as he learned to talk, referred to them as one person, which they clearly were, as GramWeese) told stories of Gramma Dean teaching her granddaughters how to sew and embroider.  She’d sit them in chairs in a row and walk behind them barking instructions.  If any of girls made a mistake, even a slight one, Gramma Dean would thump them hard on the head with her finger that had a big, heavy thimble on it.

Gramma and Grandpa Dean’s house was the biggest and grandest home in Ava.  It was on Main Street, across from the small red-brick Citizen’s National Bank building, where at one time Russell and Glen Brown had worked.  The house was a gingerbread encrusted, turreted Victorian classic.  Grandpa Dean built a clone of his magnificent home on a big lot next door and gave it to his daughter, Carrie, and her husband, Will Bower, as a commodious home for their four girls.

I don’t know the details, but I have a clear sense that building that house for Carrie and the girls was the shot heard around Jackson County and the incident that brought the simmering hatred between Carrie and her younger sister, Bess, out in the open and into a full-fledged passive-aggressive war.

But it wasn’t really a fair fight.  Carrie, who we all called Nano (Will Bower was called Dado), was a sour, cranky, mean-spirited woman, and was no match for Bess, who was the nastiest human being not only in Jackson County, but probably in Illinois and probably even the whole Midwest.  I have never met or been around anyone as awful.  She was a quadruple threat: mean, stingy, greedy, and ugly.

Even though the details were always fuzzy, it seems that after Grandpa Dean gave the house next door to Carrie and after he died that Bess finagled a deal with her mother to change her will and give her, Bess, the biggest and most productive farm in the bottom when Gramma Dean died.  And that’s what happed.  Bess and Carrie divided the farm land in the bottom, with the best farm going to Bess.  They also co-owned a 2000-acre island that was farmed — it wasn’t really an island, but a large piece of land outside of the high levee on the river.

Nano had a stroke in about 1939 that left her partially paralyzed on the left side so that she dragged her left foot when she walked and her speech was slightly slurred.  Will Bower died in about 1940, so Ese lived in the house in Ava with Nano and took care of her, which was not easy.  Nano was a tough cookie; very demanding, whining, and vengeful.   She hated her sister for screwing her out the good farm and used to complain about Bess constantly.

But they were sisters, and Victorian convention made them act in a civil manner to each other.  So on holidays they exchanged presents and had meals together, which were like battling armies who slaughtered each other every day, but on holidays would call a truce and eat together.  You get the scene, the two sides at the table toasting to each other’s health as they looked around wondering which one they’d kill in battle the next day.

In addition to the dinner table, the other Smysor/Bower battlefield was the island.  Bess Smysor had won the battle over the division of the farmland, so she concentrated on winning the battle over the co-owned island.  The two sides had tried to work out deals to sell it to each other, but Bess didn’t want to sell and offered too little to the girls for them to sell it to Bess.

I later figured that this was the strategy of Bess’s only son, Dean.  Dean was born in 1923 or 1924, I think (which would have made him a couple of years older than Sal).  His father, Walter Smysor, died before World War II, and Dean lived in Murphysboro, about 11 miles from Ava, where  his mother lived.

Dean graduated from the University of Illinois and was a pilot in World War II.  Actually, he was a pilot trainee, and got in a wreck while trying to land his trainer.  The accident had left his face smashed in so that his nose was crooked and flattened and his upper lip had a nick in it that made him look like he had a repaired cleft lip.  The wreck made an ugly man uglier.

But if Dean was ugly, and he was, he wasn’t as ugly as he was mean, nasty, and dishonest.  He drank too much, joked about niggers, and cheated The Girls when he managed the island.

Dean would have been nine or 10 years older than I was, and we didn’t have a lot of contact.  But what little we had was unpleasant.  When I lived in Ava for three months in 1954 when I attended Southern Illinois University for a quarter, I saw Dean occasionally when I had to accompany the girls to have dinner with him and Bess.

I went to SIU because Ese had a old boyfriend, Bernie Shryock, who was head of the Art Department, and who helped me get in.  At that time, a soldier could get out of the Army up to three months early to go to college.  I tried to go back to Dartmouth, but its semester began the first week in September, and the earliest I could get out of the Army was the first week in October, and Dartmouth wouldn’t let me in that late.  SIU was on a quarter schedule and started classes the first week in October.  Therefore, when I was mustered out of the Army in Ft. Sill, OK, I drove to Ava and matriculated the next day at SIU.

While I was at SIU, I met Laurie Koons, a stunning redhead a year older than I was.  We were introduced by Bernie Shryock, and Laurie’s father was the president of a local coal company.  Laurie and I dated regularly and had a great time together.  She was lovely and very smart, and there weren’t a lot of 20-year olds in Carbondale who were able to talk about Faulkner and Hemingway and had been to parties in Georgetown, so she stooped to date me.  Even though there was no sex or even necking, Laurie was a great date and refreshing after the Army and the local girls I dated in Ft. Sill.

One night Laurie and I went dancing at one of the few road houses in Southern Illinois that had a band.  I was a dive, but the only place in over 100 miles where you could get a beer and do a little dancing.  Because it was the only dive anywhere near Carbondale or Murphysboro, of course Dean was there, and, of course, he was drunk and awful.  So, how did he show his respect for his younger cousin?  He slobbered over Laurie and tried to snake her from me, not smoothly, not elegantly (there wasn’t an elegant gene in his family’s DNA), but crudely and obviously.

“Hey, baby, let me buy you a drink,” Dean slushed.  And, “what’s a beautiful gal like you doing with this college kid?”, or something just as obnoxious.  Laurie was creeped out and asked me to get her out of there, which I did quickly.  Of course I was livid and mortified.  But, fortunately, the incident didn’t affect my relationship with Laurie.

After a quarter at SIU and Christmas in Ava, I returned to Dartmouth for the spring semester of 1955.  Mother was still living in Washington, so in the summer of that year, I took two courses at George Washington University and occasionally dated Laurie, who had moved to Washington.  She had her sights set on marrying someone older and lot richer and more famous than I was, which she did a couple of years later – Robert McNeil of the “McNeil-Lehrer Report” on PBS.

Dean, on the other hand, was not as upwardly mobile.  He eventually got married to a flight attendant.  I’ve forgotten her name, but I vaguely remember what she looked like (I only met her once when, unfortunately, I had dinner at Dean’s house).  She was a dark-haired, thin woman who looked drawn and nervous.

Gramma and Ese talked about how they liked Dean’s wife but that she was miserably unhappy.  Dean treated her like dog and Bess treated her like slave.  GramWeese told stories about how Bess would complain constantly about her and how the distraught woman became a hopeless alcoholic to get away from the intolerable abuse scree byched out Dean and his horrible mother.

Dean’s wife eventually screwed up enough coverage to leave him, in the late 1980s, I think, and then in the middle 1990s Dean did the only decent thing he ever did – he put a shotgun to his head and blew his brains out.  He probably figured it was the only way to get away from his mother.

After Dean committed suicide, the management of The Girl’s half of the island was taken over by two men who rented their farmland – Richard Shields and Homer Bunselmeir.  Richard’s parents had rented farm land from the Bowers for two generations, and he loved The Girls, especially Ese.  In addition to farming the land (they gave The Girls 40 percent of the profits off the crops), Richard and Homer had a successful fertilizer business. Richard and his son, Tom, eventually bought the farmland from The Girls.

Richard and Homer had known for years that Dean had been cheating The Girls when he managed the island.  They said nothing while Dean was alive, but after he did the world a favor and killed himself and they took over the management of the island, they were able to give The Girls two, sometimes, three times the income off the island than Dean had given them.

So, Dean Smysor, my cousin, Bess Smysor’s son, was a mean, nasty, greedy, crook who stole from his mother’s nieces.  And I’ll bet half the rice in China he was explicitly or implicitly spurred on by his mean, nasty, greedy mother who never could forget that her older sister got a big Victorian house next to their mother’s house in Ava.

Envy and venom and revenge, when passed on to the next generation by both nature and nurture, poison and eventually kill the soul and the body.

Some of the poison was washed off when, years later, after GramWeese had passed away, Sal and I inherited about $400,000 each.  I used the money to sustain myself for over a year while I went through a financially disastrous divorce and to buy an Alden 44 yacht in 1998.  I named the boat Helen after my mother, and in sailing it I think some of the Dean poison washed away in the waters of Buzzards Bay.

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