When Gramma died, she was living with her beloved sister, Louise Bower, who was two years younger, but they couldn’t have been closer if they had been twins. They lived in the Bower house on Main Street where their mother, Carrie Dean Bower, had given birth to them.
Sal, who was seven years older than I was, and I used to laugh when we said “Main Street in Ava,” because we knew how ridiculously juxtaposed most people’s mental image of a Main Street was with Ava’s West Main Street.
Ava is a tiny hamlet that has varied in population in the Twentieth Century from 400 to 800. It is nestled in the rolling hills of Jackson County in Southern Illinois, just off of Route 4, and everything of any importance was on Main Street – the Post Office, the bank, the drug store, the saddle shop, the hardware store, the saloon, the grocery store, and the train station, when it was in service.
The last time I was in Ava, in 1997, the Post Office was closed, the drug store was closed, the saddle shop building was gone, the hardware store was an abandoned building, the saloon was thriving, the grocery store was closed, and the train station had been torn down because the trains had stopped coming to Ava in the 1940s and the tracks had been ripped up. The bank was still operating, but had moved from the old building across from the Bower house.
I first visited the Bower house when I was 10 weeks old, on Memorial Day weekend, 1932. Practically the whole family was there:
Front row, sitting: Helen Bower Warner, Louise Bower. Middle row: A.G. Brown (in straw hat), Margaret Bower Millis, Allen (“A”) Brown, Sarah Louise (“Sally Lou”) Millis, Carrie (“Nano”) Dean Bower (holding Charlie Warner), Woodney Millis. Back row: William (“Bill”) Brown, Marion Warner Brown, Charles (“Dyp”) Warner, Morton (“Mort”) Brown, Will (“Dado”) Bower (in hat).
In writing this entry, I haven’t been able to decide what to focus on or to write about first, the town, the house, or the family. But “Ava” is none of those, it’s a notion. “Notion” is a good word because according to the Encarta Dictionary, it means: 1. idea – an idea, opinion, or concept. 2. impression – a vague understanding or impression. 3. desire – a sudden desire or whim. Ava is the idea of home and family and the cycle of life and, mostly, love. Ava is an impression of early and mid Twentieth Century rural Midwest corn country and farmers wearing overalls and swimming holes and love. Ava is the desire to melt back into a time of safety and ease and warmth and love and Louise playing the piano and hooked rugs and hot apple pies and home-made peach ice cream and ponies and Tom Mix cowboy suits.
Charlie as Tom Mix
Because Ava is a notion – an idea, an impression, and a desire – I have 65 years of video tapes stored in my head (some much fuzzier than others) that I can still play. I love the concept of “play” because that’s what I remember most. I played with Sally Lou, who from now on I’ll call Sal; I played with Dado’s violin; I played with Frank Cheatam (his father owned the drug store) and Billy Wagner (his father was the dentist whose office was in the only office building in Ava – the Bower building); Aunt Louise, who from now on I’ll call Ese, playing the piano; Chas playing the trumpet while Ese played the piano; playing Monopoly all day in the summer; playing with carbide to make paint cans explode; and dancing with everyone at Sal’s wedding in the Bower house to Ese playing the piano, to Ease playing the piano, to Ese playing the piano.
Going to Ava also meant eating well and music. Ese was a magnificent virtuoso on the piano. She had a bold, strong touch. My father said she played like a man, which was meant to be a great compliment. She played professionally in the Gaslight Club in Chicago during prohibition to make money. She could listen to a song on television and then go to the piano and, first, peck it out and then play it through, and then play it in a perfect arrangement.
Ese had a stack of music that contained cake walks, show tunes, and classical pieces. She taught music to several generations of children – piano, violin, and brass instruments. She practiced every day until she was in her middle 90s. Ese was our entertainment in Ava. Whoever was there would gather around the piano and call out our favorite tunes – mostly show tunes – for her to play, and we’d sing.
The best entertainment was when we were there with Margaret, who from now on I’ll call Honey, and Sal. Honey played the ukulele and mother sang, just like they did when they were little girls and teenagers. Ese was a contralto, Honey a mezzo-soprano, and mother a soprano. They harmonized beautifully as only sisters can and as they sang the enormous smiles on their sweet faces were translated to their voices.
“The Girls” as everyone called them, were rarely as happy as when they were singing and playing their instruments. I don’t think those who loved them were ever much happier either because The Girls all were loved deeply by their husbands, children, family, and friends.
Over the years, I’ve realized that writing is more about organizing ideas than about putting down the words that describe the ideas. In mulling over how to organize my memories of Ava, I first thought I’d write about the Bower house, the town, and the extended Bower family, but then I realized that it would be more fun and more instructive to present the notion of Ava in a series of stories – stories in no particular order or structure, just stories as they came to me as I was writing.