The Julius House


Chapter Four



MOTHER AND I stood nervously in the foyer waiting to say hello to the first arrivals before being put wherever we were supposed to sit during the present opening. Though Mother was nervous, she looked as composed and cool as she always did, as though she couldn't sweat. But one eyelid twitched from time to time.

One of Mother's friends came in first, and then Amina's mom, Miss Joe Nell, one of my favorite people. And then the guests came too fast for me to talk much to each one; it was like a "This Is Your Life" theme party. The pile of presents rose higher and higher, and the room got fuller and fuller, and older women who had been my mother's friends for years mixed with women my own age whom I'd known all my life - Susu Hunter, Lizanne Buckley Sewell, Linda Erhardt, and several other - and women who had to be asked because of some connection to my life, like Patty Cloud, my mother's office manager, and Melinda, wife of my mother's husband's son, and a couple of women I'd asked just to say "Ha!" such as Lynn Liggett Smith (wife of my former flame Arthur Smith) and Emily Kaye (love of my former flame the Reverend Aubrey Scott). After the usual twenty minutes or so of chatter, during which I answered the same questions six or seven times, Sally made a little speech about my upcoming marriage, including a joke about how long we'd all waited for that day - thanks, Sally - and then the present opening began. I had registered my color preferences in towels and bathroom items with the local stores, and of course I got lots of those, and toothbrush holders and wastebaskets and even a monogrammed towel rack, which left me practically speechless. I could hardly wait to show it to Martin, and picturing his face started a fit of the giggles I had trouble suppressing. I passed each present around the circle of women so it could be admired and its giver complimented on her choice. It was the lingerie, of course, that provoked the most oohs and ahhs. I got a leopard print teddy from Susu, which engendered quite a few risque comments, and some silk pajamas from my mother in a champagne color, and from the shower hostesses a truly gorgeous negligee set in black lace. Showing that to Martin was going to be fun, too.

Sally and Eileen had popped in and out during the present opening, vanishing to the kitchen after commenting on a gift or two, and now they both appeared and took their place at the loaded dining-room table, Sally pouring punch into delicate glass cups and Eileen cutting and serving the cake on her best china at the opposite end. As the honoree, I was expected to go first, one of the other nice things about being a bride. We all made the ritual comments about how good everything looked, and about how we'd just eaten supper so we weren't sure we could jam in another bite, and then we loaded down our plates and stuffed ourselves.

Of course it was all good, but it could have been sawdust and I would still have enjoyed it. Some women reminisced about their showers and weddings, some asked Sally and Eileen for recipes, others talked about ordinary Lawrence-ton happenings, others asked me about the wedding plans, and a few of the older ladies quizzed me about Martin and who "his people" were. As some of the guests were returning their empty plates to the sideboard, a very old lady came to sit in the chair beside me that my mother had temporarily vacated. She had wrinkles like cobwebs gridding her face, her eyes were the color of bleached denim, and her thinning hair was snowy. She was wearing one of those flowered dresses that were the staple of Lawrenceton fashion. This particular example was sky blue with pink flowers, and the lady who wore it was the same thickness all the way up and down. This was Mrs. Lyndower Dawson, christened Eunice, but since childhood called Neecy. "How are you, Miss Neecy?" I asked.

"I get long pretty good, Aurora. As long as the Lord lets me, I want to get around on my own," Neecy told me solemnly.

In Lawrenceton, we were a little worried about the Lord letting Miss Neecy get around, since she was still driving and tended to take the middle of the road and ignore little things like stop signs.

"Now, tell me something, Aurora," Neecy said slowly, and I realized we were getting to the crux, here. "I hear that that young man of yours has bought you the so-called Julius house."

"That's right," I said agreeably, tickled at Martin being my "young man" and curious about what she was going to tell me.

"They call it the Julius house, but of course it isn't really."

"Oh?"

"Of course not; those people just lived there a few months. It's really the Zinsner house, they originally built it and lived in it for oh, sixty or sixty-five years before Sarah May sold it to those Juliuses." "Is that right?" Actually, I'd known that, but I didn't want to dam Miss Neecy in midflow.

"Oh, yes, honey, the Zinsners were an old Lawrenceton family. They got here before my family, even. And the branch that built that house was the last of the family. They built out there when town was two and a half miles away on a poor dirt road, rather than a mile away on a paved one." I nodded encouragingly.

"I remember when they were building that house, John L. and Sarah May were fighting like cats and dogs about how to do it. John L. wanted things one way, Sarah May wanted 'em another. Sarah May wanted a gazebo in the backyard, and John L. told her she'd have to build one with her own hands if she wanted it. Sarah May was one smart woman, but that she couldn't do. But she had her own way about the porch. After the house was all but finished, she told John L. she had to have a front porch, a big one. Now John L. had already had the roof completed, and he didn't want to tear it up again, so that's why the roof of the porch is separate. John L. just put in guttering between the two parts. Then Sarah wanted a two-car garage instead of a one-car, and though they only had one car, John L. added another stall for another car. And then she wanted an extra closet, but John L. and her had a fight and he boarded it up to spite her!" Neecy shook her head as she remembered the battling Zinsners.

"They're both gone now?" I asked gently.

"Gosh, no, someone as mean as Sarah May takes a long time to kill," Neecy said cheerfully. "She's over in Peachtree Leisure Apartments, a nice name for that old folks' home on Pike Street, where the old fire station used to be. I go to visit my friends out there from time to time, and I see Sarah May right often, though some days she doesn't know me. And that woman is out there, too, come to think of it."

"What woman do you mean, Miss Neecy?"

"That Julius woman's mother. Got an Italian name. Toti-no. Melba Totino." I hadn't known the family who'd built the house still had living members, and I hadn't known The Mother-in-law (as she was invariably referred to in local legend) was still living, much less still living in Lawrenceton. "There, you didn't know all that, did you?" said Neecy in a pleased way. "Not too many of us around to remember things the way they were." "Thanks for telling me," I said sincerely.

"Oh, we old people aren't much good for anything except remembering," Neecy said with a deprecatory wave of her hand.

Of course, I protested as I was supposed to, and she ended up happy, which she was supposed to. I thanked her profusely for her gift of scented "guest" soap shaped like seashells, and that pleased her, too. She got up to go and thought of one more thing to say. "That man you're marrying, Aurora, is it true he's from Chicago, Illinois?" "Well, he moved here from Chicago. Actually, he grew up in Ohio." Neecy Dawson shook her head slowly from side to side. She patted me absently on the shoulder and began steering her way over to my mother. I saw her engage my mother in serious conversation.

Later, when we were loading the presents into the trunk of Mother's car, I asked her what Neecy had been saying. Mother laughed. "Well, if you really want to know - she asked me if it was really true that you were marrying a Yankee. I said, 'Well, Miss Neecy, he is from Ohio.' And she said, 'Poor Aida. I know you're worried. But there are some nice ones. Aurora will be all right, honey.'"

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