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The Esto School offered instruction in grades one through nine until it was closed in 1949.

By E. W. CARSWELL

The saddest day in Esto’s history may have been September 6, 1949 — the day the community’s school was closed.

“It was the equivalent of experiencing a death in the family,” one former student observed. The community had never appeared more lifeless than it did in the weeks following the closure of Esto Junior High School, where instruction had been offered from grade one through grade nine.

Local townspeople were met with ghostly silence from a horseshoe-shaped one-story frame school building on a hillside just north of Esto Baptist Church on the western side of Highway 79. Absent were the voices of children, who for years had gathered at the school on weekday mornings to begin classes. After the school closed, they started boarding buses a little earlier instead, heading for schools in Bonifay, the Poplar Springs community or Hartford, Alabama. Lumber from the former school was used in the construction of several houses in the community.

Some Esto residents more than 40 years later seemed still unreconciled to the loss of their local school. Those sentiments promoted a feeling of uncommon closeness among those who attended the school. It was not unexpected, then, for former students to suggest that a school homecoming be added to Esto’s annual Two-Toed Tom Festival in 1991.

Betty George, who had attended the school, organized the homecoming, which became a regular part of the festival for a few years. In an interview for Florida Public Radio in 1993, she recalled fond memories the school, and marveled at how many former students showed up for the reunion.

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A TRIP HOME to Esto almost always includes a visit with my mother and grandmother in the Esto cemetery, along with so many other good people I have known and loved. The history of our town is told in those headstones.

This trip brought a special treat: After church on Sunday, we all adjourned to the fellowship hall for fried chicken, peas, creamed corn, fried okra and other delicious Southern delicacies. Naturally we gathered around the piano afterward to sing hymns.

Inez

Inez and her chicken and dumplings.

INEZ WAS ONE of Esto’s Wells sisters. “She always wanted to give,” remembers her sister Jeanette. “She had a big heart.”

I remember her big heart and big hug, which usually came with a big smile and a raucous laugh. But not the day she came to see my mother lying in the intensive care ward. Only family members were allowed to visit, which didn’t concern Nez. “I’m family,” she said, and walked right in with me.

Mother had been there a few days by then. She’d had an aneurysm in her brain and was showing no signs of recovery. The doctors acknowledged she sometimes moved her arms and legs, but said it was involuntary. As Nez and I stood by her bedside, she seemed to grab at the arm of my sweater.

Nez was absolutely certain the doctors were wrong and assured me: “She knows who you are.”

Mother died before the end of the week. But I never saw or thought of Nez again without remembering that reassuring moment in the intensive care ward. I always hoped to see her when I came home to Esto. One visit she’d heard I was in town and stopped by early in the morning to say hello. My sister-in-law told her I was still asleep.

“Well, wake him up,” said Nez. I’m glad she did.

Delma Lee Smith Kirkland (center) with her parents in Esto in the 1920s.

ESTO’S MOST SENIOR CITIZEN — and one of its most beloved — died early Sunday morning, May 17, 2010. Delma Lee Kirkland was 94 and a lifelong resident of Esto.

She had been at home, in bed, for nearly a dozen years, since she had begun to drift away. She spoke only rarely at first, and then not at all. By the end she had stopped even opening her eyes. But someone was always near her side, usually one of her children or grandchildren.

News of her impending death came first on Saturday afternoon to a caretaker as she sat on the screened front porch of the family’s old white wooden house. She said it seemed as if God Himself spoke to say He was going to bring Mrs. Kirkland a blessing. So she went inside to be sure everything was alright. As she repeated what she had heard, Mrs. Kirkland, for the first time in weeks, opened her eyes and looked back, seemingly into her caretaker’s very soul. By morning, her long, lingering journey was over.

Her funeral on Wednesday morning, May 20, brought a full house of friends and flowers to Esto Baptist Church, where Mrs. Kirkland had worshipped all her life. A former son-in-law, Tommy Holman, captured her spirit in his eulogy.

“We got our phone calls early Sunday morning, one week after Mother’s Day, that Nanny had passed away,” he began. “Nanny was the wife of a farmer,” U.T. Kirkland, he said. “She knew her job and she did it well. She raised two children during wartime and she supported the endeavors of her husband until he passed away. She kept a good house and filled the table each meal with good and healthy food.”

Delma Kirkland (center) with daughter Vivian Holman and husband U.T. Kirkland in 1975.

He spoke directly to those who had doubted the family’s decision to keep her at home, in bed, for so many years.

“There are many who would question why it was that Nanny was required to live so many years confined to a bed and fed through a tube,” he said. “There were many who voiced their opinion that Nanny would not want to be there in that condition. There were just as many who questioned why her family did not resign her to a nursing home.”

He had an answer. “Those who questioned did not see what Nanny was giving to her family,” he said. “Even in her nonverbal state Nanny was giving her family a reason to remain a family in these times when so many families have drifted apart.”

Some might also have questioned why it was a former son-in-law delivering the eulogy, one whose divorce had been extremely painful for the family. He had an answer for that question, too, remembering that Mrs. Kirkland had once told him, “I can’t say what’s right or wrong for other people and it’s not my place to judge.”

“That was the way Nanny lived her long life,” he said. “She worked hard, she loved devotedly, she accepted unconditionally, she cried some, but she laughed much.”

Her capacity for love was brought home powerfully just as the funeral was beginning when a group from the Association for Retarded Citizens in Chipley, where Mrs. Kirkland had worked later in her life, entered the church.

“She helped and encouraged challenged individuals toward a better life,” her ex-son-in-law said. “She was a natural at this job because it was ever her way to help and to encourage others. This job came as natural to her as her smile and her jovial laughter.”

Despite the loss of a neighbor they had known all their lives, many in the crowd that filled the church had smiles on their faces and a humorous story to share as they moved outside for the graveside farewell.

Afterward, a bounteous old-fashioned dinner on the grounds awaited inside the church’s air-conditioned fellowship hall.

“I think she would have loved her funeral,” said Annie Laura Kidd, Mrs. Kirkland’s 85-year-old first cousin and “sister of the heart,” as the obituary noted, who clutched a rose from her lifelong friend’s casket. “She always said she wanted a lot of pretty flowers.”

VIMEO | Delma Kirkland and Annie Laura Kidd remember picking violets when they were little girls.