Winter Squash

When winter squash come to market, I know we’re not far from a hard frost, and my mind goes back to a dry October hillside on a failing farm in north Mississippi.

My father was a lawyer during the 50s and 60s in a rural county in north Mississippi. Money was never plentiful, but we had what we needed. We never had to buy firewood, we always had a freezer full of meat wrapped in white butcher paper, and a cupboard  stocked with some of the best home-canned foods in the South. Around Christmas, Daddy would go to the back door some nights and come back with bottles tightly wrapped in brown paper sacks.

In Octobers, when it was still hot and dry, he’d usher my sister, brother, and me into the car and drive out from Bruce to the Ellard community where an old man and his wife lived on a small farm. Across the road from their house, the slope of a small hill was covered with yellowing vines bearing winter squashes. We’d get out there and gather all we could carry, which wasn’t much, while Daddy sat on the porch with them with a glass of tea and talked.

Once after we left, I asked him why he didn’t pay the man. “Son, they wouldn’t take my money,” he said.

“Years back, their boy got into trouble, a lot of trouble. I did everything I could to keep him out of prison. But I couldn’t, and they understood. I never asked them for a penny. I knew they didn’t have it. But he’d feel bad if I didn’t come out and get these. It’s his gift, and you don’t turn down gifts from a man who doesn’t have much to give. It means more to me–-and him–-than anything anybody else would give me.”

The squash were acorns and yellow Hubbards; some were peeled, cubed, and parboiled for a casserole or pie. Others were split, seeded, usually scored, brushed with melted butter, sprinkled with brown sugar, and baked in a hot oven until soft and slightly singed. Once on the table, we’d scoop out the flesh with a spoon, put it on our plates and mash it with a fork, usually with a pat of butter.

Drama Peas

As librarians in Tupelo, a colleague and I were in charge of taking books to those who couldn’t come to us. Every Wednesday we’d load up our trusty little station wagon and drive around the city dropping off new checkouts and picking up returns.

Our main destinations were nursing homes, and they were all, without exception, far from the dismal environments some people might imagine. As a matter of fact, those under care were often robust enough to elbow a neighbor out of the way to get the best Cartlands, Christies, or L’Amours, and if we didn’t have enough copies of the latest John Grisham potboiler, they’d fight over one. We even had to disarm a dame wielding a plastic knife. During one of these feeding frenzies, a blue stocking with pink hair sniffed and said to me, “They shouldn’t have been taught how to read.”

My partner Beverly, a seasoned veteran, rarely instructed me on nuances, so the assignment was full of pleasant surprises and lessons. We often picked up returns at the nurses’ stations, which are always a nexus of activity. I remember once early on reaching a station just as a produce man was dropping off three bushels peas in the pod. Being a fugitive kitchen grunt myself, I expected some surly person to appear, haul them in the back, and begin the tedium of shelling them, so I was astounded when at least a dozen ladies came out of the TV room, ripped a pea sack open in seconds, filled up their colanders, and retreated—just yakkin’ up a storm the whole time—back into the TV room.

I was trying to take it all in while Bev started packing up the returned books. Finally I tapped her on the shoulder and asked, “Bev, are they in there shelling peas?”

She looked over at the TV room door and said, “Oh, yes. They love watching soap operas and shelling peas.”

Sure enough, a squadron of ladies had settled into their seats with peas and bowls in their laps and paper sacks on the floor at their sides. They didn’t even look at the peas as they shelled them; their eyes were glued to the drama unfolding before them. The nurse on duty told me that the shelled peas were collected before dinner (I had a vision of some old lady trying to stash HER colander of peas in a bottom drawer), bagged and kept in the refrigerator until cooked or offered to visitors, but “sometimes there’s so much in there, we just end up taking some home to keep them from being wasted.”

Bill Neale suspected that the Lord invented porches and television to make pea-shelling easier. My mother Barbara, as a young bride, was out on her porch one afternoon sweeping when she saw her husband’s Aunt Bess walking down the road with a sack and crying her eyes out, going to her sister Ethel’s, who was Barbara’s mother-in-law. Not being one to impose (at that point), mother assumed the worst and started cooking. After about an hour, with two casseroles and a cake in the oven, she called up Daddy and said, “Jess, your Aunt Bess just went over to Ethel’s just bawling her eyes out. I think Uncle Ed’s finally died.”

So Daddy ran up to Ethel’s house, assessed the situation, came out sweating and said: “Barbara, Ed didn’t die, Bess is just all wrung out over some soap character dying—her and Momma both.” Then Daddy handed her a bag of shelled peas. “Here,” he said. “I told them to come over for dinner tonight. You need to start watching ‘Days of Our Lives.’”

My Father

Jesse L. Yancy, Jr. was an attorney, politician, and humanitarian who served the people of Bruce, Calhoun County and Mississippi from 1956 until his death in 1970.

Born in Springville, Mississippi in 1926, Yancy moved to Bruce ten years later, where his father, Jesse L. Yancy, Sr. established a general store. He graduated from Bruce High School in 1944, joined the Army Air Corps in 1945 and served overseas in the Pacific. He attended the University of Mississippi School of Business and School of Law, earning his J.D. in 1951. In 1952 he married Barbara Young. They had three children.

Yancy was first elected to office in 1960 as district attorney for the Third Circuit Court District. During the Meredith Crisis at the University of Mississippi, Yancy entered the national spotlight when a Lafayette County grand jury issued an indictment against Chief United States Marshall James P. McShane, Meredith’s escort to registration at the University, for inciting a riot. While serving as D.A., Yancy became president of the Mississippi Prosecutors Association. Elected to the Senate in 1968, during his first term Yancy, as chairman of the Senate Elections Committee, guided the state’s first Open Election Law to passage. A member of the Senate Commission on Appropriations, he wrote and gained approval for the Idle Funds Bill, which authorized the investment of in place funding for the state, a key piece of legislation that has garnered Mississippi millions of much-needed dollars for over four decades.

Yancy served as an attorney for the City of Bruce for 17 years. His most influential act in that capacity came in 1961, when Bruce had outgrown its fledgling infrastructure and the city was badly in need of repairs and updates to its streets, water and sewer systems. Yancy commandeered a grant of $25,000 for the city to hire Cook Coggin, an engineering firm in Tupelo, to conduct a survey of what repairs and improvements were needed. On completion of this study, the city secured a loan of $500,000 to fund the improvements. Yancy helped Bruce to grow into a clean, attractive town, appealing both to current and potential citizens as well as businesses and industry. He was a president of the Bruce Rotary Club, the Bruce Chamber of Commerce, the Calhoun County Bar Association and a founder and commander of VFW Post 5571. He served on the Pushmataha Council of the Boy Scouts of America and taught Sunday school at the Bruce United Methodist Church.

For all his accomplishments, Jesse Yancy, Jr. is most remembered simply as a man, a friend and neighbor willing to help others. His generosity is legendary, encompassing all in his vision of community, unity, and compassion.

Daddy’s Books

My dad had a soft touch for door-to-door salesmen. I can still see him laid back on the couch in his boxers listening to some guy spell out his hard-luck story. I doubt if any of them left without an order and a couple of dollars in their pocket. We had three sets of encyclopedias and all kinds of serials put out by national publication like Time/Life or the Reader’s Digest. Our home was full of books full of words and pictures, and I spent hours poring over them when as a boy.

It wasn’t until a decade after he died that I began to explore the other books, the old faded covers and the tattered paperbacks. There I found the father I didn’t know, a man beyond my comprehension as a child, and certainly beyond mine as an old man. Still the books set a mold of time, of place, and more so of my father, the contours set by such as a raggedly paperback edition of Greek poetry in English translation in which I found the epigram of Simonides that Senator John F. Kennedy cited in his speech at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in October, 1960: “Passerby: Tell Sparta we fell faithful to her service.”

Jess Jr. had a personal connection with the Kennedys, since in his capacity as District Attorney for Lafayette County in 1962 he had to juggle the political ramifications of a grand jury indictment against James J.P. McShane, who led the federal agents who escorted James Meredith, the first African American student at University of Mississippi. The indictment was eventually revoked.

He had a copy of C.H. Cramer’s Royal Bob: The Life of Robert Ingersoll. Ingersoll, an American lawyer, Civil War veteran, political leader and orator during the Golden Age of Free Thought (roughly from 1875 to 1914), was noted for his broad range of cultural activities and his defense of agnosticism. Another book relating to Jess Jr.’s political leanings on a more local level is Kirwan’s Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics, 1876-1925, a solid nod to his political roots in the hills of north Mississippi.

One of the most puzzling yet astoundingly revealing works I found among my father’s books was Richard Brautigan’s first novel. A Confederate General from Big Sur, published in 1964. Jess Jr. was a student of the Civil War not only as a Southerner but as a politician since its ramifications were being felt with intensity in his lifetime. In Brautigan’s novel, which takes place in 1957, a man named Mellon believes he is a descendant of a Confederate general from Big Sur, California. There is no proof of his existence, although Mellon meets a drifter who has also heard of this general. Mellon seeks the truth of his own modern-day struggle in the United States in light of the Confederacy’s past struggle with the Union. I like to believe my father picked this book up on the basis of its title alone, but read it in its entirety in what was an ongoing effort to keep abreast of the mindset of the nation.

As to other fiction, he had Faulkner’s A Fable and The Town, two very divergent works; Jess Jr. knew Faulkner’s attorney Phil Stone and might have met the writer, but I feel he read Faulkner’s works more out of a desire to understand how this man from Lafayette County came to win a Nobel Prize than for any other reason. He also had a copy of Welty’s Golden Apples, which is puzzling, since of Welty’s works this is more rooted in classical mythology than any other, and my father was very much a student of reality. Like me, perhaps he was just a rube who came to read old books, and their poems and legends became a part of who he was.

In retrospect Jess Jr. could well be considered a learned man, and as such he was quite different from his peers, who included the political lights of his day as well as an across-the-board array of businessmen and dignitaries but perhaps most importantly people from every walk of life. For all that I have a handful of his books for a thread, he will always be a puzzle to the man I am, but not to the boy I was who loved him with every fiber of my being.

Daddy at the Movies

Jess Jr. was a demonstrative soul, without reserve when it came to expression of any kind, a candor that was celebrated by most, but often trying for my mother. It was especially difficult when they went to the movies, since my father’s tastes in movies resembled those of a little old lady’s rather than a middle-aged man, a World War II vet and a veteran prosecutor in Mississippi courtrooms. She said he would hear about these movies from a slew of waitresses, secretaries, and beauticians who kept him up with the latest Hollywood gossip, and whenever they went out of town he’s drag her to first runs of such films as Peyton Place,  Madame X (his favorite courtroom scene) and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

“My God, Barbara! Can you imagine what that woman must be going through!?” he’d exclaim at the screen as Lana Turner took the stand, being (unsuccessfully) defended by her own son (whom she cannot acknowledge) for murdering a blackmailer . “Why doesn’t she say something? That judge would let her off in a heartbeat if she’d only say who she is!” Mother would never respond, just stared resolutely at the screen, avoiding the chilling glances of others in the theater. On more than one occasion, Daddy was reduced to great heaving sobs of woe, like when they had to pull Susan Kohner off Juanita Moore’s coffin at the end of Imitation of Life. Mother just kept a nest of clean handkerchiefs in her purse and passed them his way.

The only one of us who inherited this sense of cinematic drama was my sister, Cindy, who bolted out of a Memphis theater during The Snow Queen and was half-way down Union Avenue, screaming, “She’s gonna get me!” before we finally caught up with her. I knew in my heart she was feeling guilty about stealing a tube of lipstick. I saw her do it.

The Man Who Loved Christmas

First published in the Calhoun County Journal Dec. 20, 1984, this memoir of my father, Jesse L. Yancy, Jr., was written fourteen years after his death by his friend and political partner, Sellers Gale Denley. Jess Jr., as he was called, was a remarkable man, well-loved, and still missed by many, none more so than me, his last surviving child. 

If there was ever a man who loved Christmas, it was the late Sen. Jesse Yancy of Bruce. The word “loved” is used advisedly. For there are those who might be said to “enjoy” Christmas, “respect” Christmas, “anticipate” Christmas, etc., but Jesse loved Christmas. His enthusiasm might have been regarded as extreme; except that was the way Jesse was about most things. He worked hard. Then he played hard. More than likely this approach to life was a primary cause of his untimely death on Aug. 26, 1970, at the age of 44, from a massive heart attack. Prior to assuming the senate post he served as district attorney of the third circuit court district for eight years and was city attorney in Bruce for 17 years. So it wasn’t unusual that the new city library was named in his honor.

And the way that Jesse launched the Christmas season was not particularly unique or unusual, either. It began with a big party with his friends at the Bruce community building. Funds were solicited for a live band and a case or so of assorted spirits and goodies, with a few dollars left over for another project. You see, Jesse had a secret Christmas vice. He liked to dress up in a funny red suit, hide his face behind a mask of white whiskers and, on Christmas Eve, visit the area in South Bruce where most black citizens lived.

Before each of these visits his automobile was filled with candy, nuts, fruit, toys and firecrackers. In the early 1960s it was all the Christmas some of the children had. The ritual started in the ’50s when he dressed up to play Santa for his own children. His family decided he should also go see the children of the black woman who worked for them. His appearance was an immediate hit. It was the Christmas of 1960, when I started helping him with the project, that he said he realized back then on his first trip that most of the black children had never really seen Santa Claus. So it became an annual event, growing in scope each year, to make the Christmas Eve appearance. The addition of toys and other goodies was a part of the evolution. The project was financed with any excess funds from the party, plus contributions from several of us who usually helped, with Jesse taking up the slack. It started each year with several trips to area wholesalers to purchase the large volume of goodies needed for some 250 to 350 children.

The bounty would be hauled in and the Yancy children—Cindy, Tom and Lee, often assisted by cousins Bill and Bob Cooper—and others would assemble individual sacks. Then, on Christmas Eve, Jesse would put on his Santa suit, we would load up a vehicle or two—the most memorable and utilitarian being a dark green Mustang convertible— and begin the appointed rounds. There must have been a lookout, for as soon as the first vehicle crossed the railroad tracks, which marked the boundary of the black community, several young boys would take over the lead position. With wide-eyed excitement they would precede the caravan down Murphree Street shouting: “Here he comes. Here comes Santa. Here he comes.” And for the next hour or so Jesse would be in his Christmas glory.

He handed out presents to those close by while keeping an eye out for those too shy to come up to him, so he could seek them out later. He knew quite a few of them by name. And almost all of the parents knew Jesse and whispered their thanks. But if the children knew him they didn’t let on. And neither did they let on if they sometimes got a whiff of the Old Charter Santa and his helpers found useful in warding off the cold and other miseries.

The custom died with Jesse. The party lasted another year or two, and some of us talked about continuing the Santa Claus visit. But, we rationalized, it was 1970 and the children were being encouraged to visit Santa on the Square, sponsored by the city as a part of the Lion’s Club Christmas parade. So we didn’t.  It has been 35 years, but every Christmas about this time I begin to get a little bit anxious. Like you feel when you know there is something you probably need to do. Like you feel when you know there is something you probably will never get to do again. It has been suggested that one can sometimes recapture the spirit of Christmases-past by recording remembrances like these. I am confident that Jesse would overlook my indiscretion in writing about it now.

Jesse Yancy, Jr. (left) with his brother-in-law, Jim Young, as Santa.

A Mississippi Christmas

In north Mississippi, where the Father of Waters skirts the southwestern vestiges of the Appalachians, the land undulates mile upon mile between river bottoms and wooded ridges. Here the sun is strong, and by the time December comes around a weary green still lingers along the roads. Rain arrives after warm days, ushering in longer spells of drier, colder weather.  If snow falls, rarely more than enough to cover the ground, it’s made into muddy, leaf-littered balls and stacked in the yard or gleaned cleanly and mixed with sugar, vanilla and cream.

jess_lee_snowThough winter still comes the same way, much seems to have changed there since I was a child and still looking forward to my birthday on the 12th. While not rich by any means, most of my family was well off when few were, but Jess Jr. made no bones about being a child of the Depression. Those older remembered other hardships at a more distant time, and the young, as all young at all times, had little yet to remember. In our home, Thanksgiving amounted to a modest overture to Christmas; just after the turkey was eaten, Barbara filled the house with glowing towers of glazed glass jars, papier-mâché crèche figurines and ornaments light as air hung with shining ribbons.

Her trees took days to decorate, one a loblolly pine draped in angel hair studded by tiny blue lights and hung with glittering glass ornaments.  In the den, smilax, holly and magnolia draped the mantle; bowls of walnuts, almonds and pecans, oranges, tangerines and hard candy topped the tables and on the hearth stood a bucket of dried pine cones to start an open fire where we made popcorn in a long-handled shaker. Barbara provided a groaning board. What she didn’t cook herself, she shared food friends and relatives brought for her table: ambrosia from Aunt Gay, bread-and-butter pickles from Ruby Zane, tea cakes from Aunt Leila, peanut brittle from Betty Edwards, pecan divinity from Ora Crocker, a coconut cake from Zara Arrington. A splendid cook, Barbara spent days on the Christmas feast, making pans of chicken and dressing, baking a turkey, a ham and yeast rolls, candying sweet potatoes and stuffing dozens of eggs. The bounty of our home was there for all who called, and none left hungry.

Above anyone I’ve ever known my father Jess loved Christmas, threw himself completely and unreservedly into the essence of the season and drew everyone he knew along in his wide wake. He was the Spirit of Christmas Present, bigger than life, colorful and jovial, generous and gregarious. For him, Christmas was to be celebrated with everyone, not just family and friends, but with his world.

By the first week of the month, Jess had set his plans in motion, beginning with a party at the community building at the city park on the south side of town where local bands provided music for dancing (an activity widely frowned-upon at the time) and the local blue laws banning liquor were casually set aside while he pumped his friends for contributions to fund  his Christmas expedition. After the party, he would make a trip to Tupelo, to the Lady Lee outlet store, where he would buy boxes of firecrackers and bottle rockets, huge sacks of Tootsie Rolls, cinnamon candies, peppermint sticks and butterscotch rounds; then to Cockrell Banana Company where he’d buy crates of oranges and tangerines. These he brought home where they were put in a spare bedroom, and in the days before Christmas my brother Tom, sister Cindy and I along with a cadre of neighborhood children would sort them out and stuff them into small paper sacks, staple the tops together and pile them into boxes. On Christmas Eve, we’d pile into a car, at best a station wagon commandeered from a neighbor, at worst a ’65 Mustang convertible, and we’d head to the black neighborhoods.

Jess wore a Santa suit, and Barbara would dress us children as elves. He once drafted his brother-in-law Jim to play Santa while he sauntered alongside laughing and greeting. When we rolled across the railroad tracks, we collected a troop of children flanking our route, shouting and jumping, reaching out to catch the sacks of candy and fireworks. Jess would make sure that those children who were too shy to come to the car received their share, and he would often walk into homes where he knew of special need bearing a ham or an envelope with money.

Jess was in his glory then, doing what he felt was the most important thing he did all year. His career in public service gave him an opportunity to help many people, but seeing the eyes of these children for whom his visit was the only Christmas many if not most of them would have gave him a sense of wholeness that few men are afforded. His largess, his sense of noblesse oblige, was untainted by any shadow of arrogance. He remembered the deprivations of his own childhood, and sought to relieve those of others.

Now I am an old man, far from home and missing my people who have passed on before me. I spend my holidays simply and in little company, but the living memories of my childhood are with me, my heart is warm, and I know no want. My father’s gifts live on.