Bye Bye Buckeye

Mamie and Tiny in the Buckeye playhouse, ca. 1922

“I do not remember the years at the Buckeye, but we had a big front yard with a playhouse, swings, sandpile and everything to make life fun. You could not buy gym sets then and Daddy had a swing set made out of wood. We also had a swing hanging from a tree limb.

“When I was two and a half years old, we moved to 1212 Strong Avenue into a brick house which Mama and Daddy had planned and built, and which Mama proudly described as ‘the first brick bungalow in Greenwood.’ Only a few streets were paved then. Strong Avenue was a cinders street. The house had a living room with a fireplace and wicker furniture (the same which is now on our back porch. [Ed. note: That wicker furniture is now in my sunroom. If the house catches fire, you’ll find me dragging the wicker table out to the yard as soon as I’ve rescued the dogs. I’ve never seen another one like it.] A large tapestry hung over the mantle. We had a piano and a Victrola in the living room, and we played in there as much as we did anywhere else. I can remember us putting the sofa (we called it a settee) cushions in the middle of the floor and playing on them, and we played paper dolls under the long wicker table. Mama was a good housekeeper, but she never fussed at us for making a mess if we were having a good time.

“We had a dining room which not only served as a place to eat but also provided Mama with a large table on which to lay out fabric (which we called material) and patterns to cut out dresses. I remember she held the patterns down on the fabric with glass jiggers instead of pinning them. (I don’t remember the jiggers ever being used for their intended purpose.) I would have liked very much to have had them for doll glasses (which I imagined them to be.) The dining room also had a large buffet (which we have now with the legs cut off and antiqued green), a big china cabinet where Mama kept her good dishes which were only used on special occasions, and six chairs.”

That wicker furniture spent almost 60 years on the big screened porch at 409 East Adams. When Sara died, most of it followed me a few blocks north to my home. The rockers are battered, their canvas seats barely grasping the wicker rings that support the cushions. I spray-painted them a pistachio green last year, but that paint doesn’t seem to want to hold. I find flakes scattered on the floor whenever I vacuum, as if Sara was quietly undoing my feeble attempts at decorating. She had a flair for making inexpensive items look cute and homey and, like her mother, a clean house was not a priority if we were having fun. On the shelves of that old wicker table, where she arrayed her dolls, I would set up tiny Civil War battles or drape blankets for a secret fort. It serves now primarily as the hopping-off point for Phyllis the Cat between the kitchen and the sunroom. It’s a happy table.

So, the mystery is this: What became of the piano and the Victrola and the china cabinet? The piano is the deepest mystery: Who in heaven’s name bought that and brought it into the most unmusically inclined clan of all time? Surely Jessie wouldn’t have had such a luxury in Holmes County…..and Sara’s descriptions of her father don’t paint him as the type who would have grown up with piano lessons. Perhaps Jessie looked at her three adorable girls, all perfection in pinafores, endlessly talented in every respect, seeing a future of concerts and chorales, and dashed out to Weiler’s Musical Forest for a Steinway. Doubtful.  I have never known anyone in this family, when confronted with an obligation to sing at funerals or wedding or such, to do anything more than hum a little off-key hum and stare at their shuffling feet. (With apologies to Tricia, who was a renowned clarinetist at Greenwood High before she turned to baton twirling.) And the Victrola…..that will reappear in later installations of this blog, so dust off your Al Jolson facts.

Ed. note: Strong Avenue, once the “Promised Land” for Jessie and Howard, is a heartbreaking stretch of road now. Its cinders have long since been paved over and the street extended out to the Highway 49-82 Bypass. The Old Greenwood Cemetery, tucked in the curve where West Washington Street doglegs into Mary Street and becomes Strong, is a quiet, almost forgotten space. When I was a child, Sara would often pull her Plymouth off the road on the east side of the cemetery and help me navigate the concrete steps that arched over the iron fence. Then we would wander all over those sacred few acres as she told me tales of the Greenwoodians hidden beneath the monuments. And every time, every single time, she lamented the careless WPA workers who knocked down most of the markers, forever erasing the names and memories of men and women who braved the early days of the Delta. Now even the fences and the concrete steps are gone and the grass is only occasionally mowed (more often now; thank you, Mayor McAdams), and it’s not possible to spend a quiet hour in the Old Cemetery without feeling vaguely threatened by the living, rather than the dead.

Following Strong Avenue west from the cemetery, it bears only a passing resemblance to the proud street that Howard and Jessye chose for their 1923 home. If you look closely, you can still discern the lines of fine Neoclassic and Prairie style homes, remnants of an early 1900s cotton boom town, lining a shaded road with tangible evidence of success and pride in community. Most of the houses are desperate for paint and many bear the telltale sign of rental decline, multiple black mailboxes nailed onto the front porches that once welcomed neighbors to a single family’s castle. Cars line the curbs with long-flattened tires and litter skitters along the gutters. But here and there, on just a few lots, you can spot a home where someone still cares and is trying valiantly to stem the tide of decay. Those people should be given a parade down Howard Street.

About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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