Homemade ice cream under the pecan trees.

IT WAS 30 years ago today — exactly — that my mother died.

She had tried again to quit smoking, and had succeeded for almost a month. But when she’d come home from the shirt factory a few days earlier, driving the 10 miles south across the Alabama-Florida line, as she’d done nearly every working day since she was 16, she sat down on the back steps and smoked a cigarette. The aneurysm in her brain followed.

All the way to the hospital, she kept saying, “I knew I shouldn’t have that cigarette.” My brother Bobby called that night to say, “We have a problem.” Somehow I knew I should take a suit and tie. By the time I got across the country the next night, the doctors said it was unlikely she would recover. We never talked again. She was gone by the end of the week.

A death in Esto requires food. Fried chicken, potato salad and chocolate cake soon began to arrive from the neighbors. Two days later, at her funeral, flowers crowded the front of our church. Afterward we went outside to her waiting grave in the cemetery. We are neck-hugging people. When Mr. Bass, the ancient patriarch of our church, came slowly walking up, I hugged him close and cried. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, not so soon, or so fast, or so unexpectedly. “Well, son, it’s hard to lose your mama,” our neighbor Clyde Griffin said in his big loud voice as he wrapped his arm around my shoulder. And then he lightened the mood, unintentionally. “If she’d a lived,” he said, “after that aneurysm, she’d a never been nothing but a vegetarian.”



MOTHER HAD BEEN in intensive care for a week. Her eyes were closed, but she seemed to move at times. The doctors said her ruptured brain was dying, that the movement was involuntary.

Still they kept her alive. They said there was no hope of recovery, but still they kept her breathing. It didn’t seem right. “They should let her go,” I told my friend Susan, who phoned in every day. “She’ll go when she’s ready,” Susan replied.

I had to leave the hospital. I drove home to Esto. It was late on Sunday afternoon. As I pulled mother’s car into the driveway, the weak winter sunlight was slanting through the pines. I walked around our acre, through the trees, past the barren garden, by the modest tin barn, as the sun went down. As I walked into the house, the phone was ringing.

“Better come back,” my brother said.

Mother died that night as we stood holding her hands.


THE DOORBELL RANG. It was a mailman delivering a priority mail box. Inside was a treasure: old family books and papers from Elijah Curtis Young, the only relative of my father I ever knew, who died 40 years ago, in 1976.

I was never sure exactly how we were related, or even if we really were. Throughout my childhood, Curtis would stop and visit every fall when he came through Esto on his annual trip home to see friends and relatives in Georgia and Alabama. Usually he brought along oranges or grapefruit as a treat from South Florida.

As it turns out, we truly were related. Curtis’s mother was a Reynolds, according to the family Bible. Lennie Jane Reynolds, born December 3, 1882, married Stephen F. Young, born May 17, 1866. Elijah Curtis was one of four brothers and sisters. He married Elizabeth Hayes on December 27, 1934. I would know them as Curtis and Lizzie, and they were important beyond measure in my young life.

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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.

HOLMES COUNTY 4-H’s most seasoned member — longtime Esto resident Sybil Miller Taylor, 91 — showed an apron she made to 4-H agent Niki Crawson at the Holmes County 4-H Extravaganza at the Ag Center. She learned how to sew in 4-H and made the apron out of a flour sack in the 1930s when she was 10 years old.

A FEW YEARS after The Esto Herald appeared in 1970, the editor was invited to begin contributing to the Holmes County Advertiser, the weekly newspaper of record published in the county seat of Bonifay. It launched a lifelong friendship between an aspiring young editor from Esto and Orren Smith, longtime editor and publisher of the Advertiser, that lasted until Smith’s death on September 16, 2015.

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James Omer and Lizzie Pearl Wells

Esto’s Lizzie Pearl Watford Wells and James Omer Wells on their 50th wedding anniversary

THEY SOLD THE FAMILY HOME after their mother died at age 87, only a few years after they’d lost their father, also at 87. And the nine children in Esto’s Wells family always regretted it.

“Well, we all had houses,” said Frances Wells Kirkland. “We did the wrong thing — we sold it. Then we wanted it back as soon as we sold it.”

“Even after we sold it, we just couldn’t let it go,” said Jeanette Wells Berry.

They watched the house waste away, in recent years sitting empty and silent, without the life and laughter of their big happy family or any other. By then the two Wells sisters lived together next door in a modern brick home. When the opportunity to buy back the house unexpectedly came along last year, they did not hesitate.

Their brother Billy, now 79 and the baby boy of the family, stopped by one morning, as he usually does, and announced the family home was for sale.

“So me and Frances high-tailed it down to Bonifay and bought it,” said Jeanette. The listing price on the home was $10,000, but they got it for $9,000. And then they faced the daunting task of what to do with it. “It was filled with trash from the front to the back,” said Jeanette.

A neighbor got to work and made restoring the house his pet project, refusing pay. Their sister Louise Wells McGowan, 80, volunteered her son, a skilled carpenter, to help out. Jeanette, 84, cleaned up the outside. Frances, 76, and a nearby neighbor did much of the inside painting.

“This was my retirement project,” says Frances. “We had to put in new everything. And we had a good time doing it.”

Other neighbors chipped in. Some donated furniture. Their preacher and his wife gave some things. Another sister, Martha Sue Wells Register, 86, persuaded her son to bring over a piano he’d bought for his daughter.

“We never ate by ourselves when we were growing up,” said Jeanette. “Everybody came by.”

And now they do again. Although there’s still work to be done, and no one actually lives there, the family home is once again a gathering place. On Tuesday nights the ladies from Esto Baptist Church get together there. The sisters also host game nights, with the card game they call 3/13 a favorite. The extended family will come for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

When a neighbor stopped by on a recent Saturday night, she gravitated toward the piano and sat down to play the old hymn, “What a Day That Will Be.” Jeanette and Frances sang along. “That’s the song y’all sang at mother’s funeral,” the neighbor remembered.

“It’s like being at home again,” said Frances.

“Life has been so good for our family,” said Jeanette. “You may remember: We had a good mama and daddy.”