Sinner Man

Will Henry, our favorite sinner and backyard preacher

“This was Russell’s second time to attend a black funeral. He and Nancy Gwin [their next-door neighbor] had gone on Thanksgiving Day to Will Henry’s funeral. Will Henry had been our yard man as well as the Gwins’ so they felt honor bound to be there. They decided not to go to the church but just to the cemetery. They were bewildered when they realized the body was already at the cemetery and not at the church where the funeral services were being held.

“When he asked Georgia the next day why this was done she replied, ‘Oh, no, Mr. Criss. They couldn’t take him inside the church because he was a sinner.’ Then we wondered later how James made it in, because Will Henry and James were surely guilty of some of the same sins. Georgia did not like Will Henry anyway because he would stand under the kitchen window and holler, ‘Cook, I need some water.’ It made her furious because he wouldn’t call her by her name.

“We were really upset when he died after being injured while working on a tree for the city. One time he had assisted the children with grave digging by the playhouse for a ten-cent-store turtle which had died. Cathy, Mary Carol, Patricia and Gill Murphy, Mrs. Beaman’s grandchildren, stood solemnly by as Will Henry conducted the funeral.

Cathy serving as a pall bearer for Peter the Turtle. Mourners include Gil Murphy, me and Maria.

Cathy blesses Brownie following the burial of ol' Peter. You can see Will Henry's hand on the shovel.

“At least they were around to lay the turtle to rest. I had had to conduct the services all alone for Cathy canary, Chip, which lay down and died in the cage just after they left for school one morning. Russell was out of town so I had the unpleasant task of removing the body, which I carefully placed in a small cedar chest which I had received from Greenwood Furniture Store when I graduated from high school. I dug a hole next to the tool house and buried the chest and placed some flowers on the grave before they came home from school.”

Peter was one of many turtles who came to 409 East Adams in tiny cardboard boxes after a life in the dark terrariums of Woolworth’s. I would be flat out lying if I said I recalled anything extraordinary about ol’ Pete as opposed to any other reptile, amphibian or mammal we adopted, other than Brownie the Mutt. I do recall that Chip the Canary was a loud, smelly mess, not long lamented after his sudden demise. Anyhow, Will Henry was a very good sport about conducting Peter’s funeral, which was plotted and coordinated by Cathy. There was a solemn processional from the back porch to the side of the playhouse (see pictures above), a shallow hole dug by Will Henry, a Bible produced and a few words mumbled by this kind yard man who needed to get back to his non-ecclesiastical duties before Mr. Criss got home. I’m fairly certain Will Henry couldn’t read, so the Psalm or Proverb he recited must have been from memory. Cathy advised us to all look sad (again, see pictures above) and then scooted off to her next adventure.

The other children in the pictures are Gil Murphy, the grandson of my buddy Mr. Beaman and a favorite summer time visitor down the alley. The little girl was named Maria, and she was one of a series of friends who moved into the Spencer’s two-story duplex behind our house, now owned by John and Polly Henson. Gil and I took Cathy’s admonition to be mournful very seriously and spent some time wandering the neighborhood and speculating on just how long it would take God to realize that Peter was winging his little turtley way to heaven. Just as it was getting dark, we decided that enough time had passed for the miracle of salvation to have registered. We slipped into the tool house, borrowed Will Henry’s shovel and headed back to the playhouse. We deconstructed the small mound of fresh dirt and carefully lifted the burial box out. I don’t recall if I opened it or if Gil did, but our horror and disillusionment when one of us pried it open could not be measured. There was Peter, just as dead and just as unsaved as when we last saw him on this mortal coil. God had let us down, condemning our turtle to eternal damnation.

Gil fled for the safety of the Beaman house, leaving me standing there with an unsanctified turtle and a bucketload of questions, both of which were very quickly dropped in Sara’s lap. You have to understand at this point in the story that Sara was a woman of faith who had dutifully done her Sunday mornings at the Baptist church growing up, occasionally kept the nursery at St. John’s Methodist and made sure Cathy and I were deposited there each Sunday morning, petticoated and primped. She would go back home and drink coffee and read the Sunday papers. But her opinions on matters of the Book were her own and there were no spiritual discussions going on at the Criss house. So to have a visibly shaken six-year-old before her with decaying evidence of God’s indifference was something of a crisis. She looked at me, looked at Peter, rounded up Russell, got the turtle back in the ground and sat me down for a quick and simple lecture on the difference between souls and bodies. Tears were dried and life was hopeful again.

We were all saddened to lose Will Henry, especially Daddy, who had been at odds with him during their last encounter. Georgia missed him as well, though she would never admit it. He would stand in the carport, straining to see in the kitchen window, and call out, “Hey, Cook! I need some water!” Georgia would bristle and snatch an aluminum cup from the cabinet, slosh some tap water in and practically hurl ice cubes at the drink before rumbling out the back door to hand it to him, always with a cutting remark. Something tells me they thought the world of each other, but we weren’t privy to that world.

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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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4 Responses to Sinner Man

  1. jenny says:

    One of the best columns yet.

  2. Nancy Webb Phillips says:

    I had to smile when I saw those pictures of y’all!!! You really did look solemn. I wonder what Will Henry was thinking while this was going on. It reminded me of when Mary Parker’s fish she had won at a fair died. We came home from Bankston one day and “Bubbles” was floating on the surface of its fishbowl. Mary Parker was probably 5 years old and so upset when I told her that Bubbles had died. Dave Ella, our part-time Help, heard all of the hubbub going on. She promptly took it upon herself to dispose of the fish for us. She scooped it out of the bowl, flushed it down the commode, and went back to her ironing. Mary Parker and I were stunned. She asked me if Bubbles would get to heaven, and I told her I figured that was the quickest way for her to make it there.

    • sec040121 says:

      Don’t you imagine Dave Ella and Will Henry and Georgia thought we were all just too protected from the realities of life……and death? Turtles don’t need funerals and goldfish get flushed! Thanks for the memories.

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