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. She said 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 whole 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 screenings 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.

She always said she was glad none of us inherited this sense of drama, with the exception of my sister, who bolted screaming out of a Memphis theater during The Snow Queen and was half-way down Union Avenue before they finally caught up with her.

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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.

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