The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Alphabet

By Pat Hadley Davis © 1995

Issue: Winter, 1995

Editor's Note: The following is a story from the book "Memories Unraveled" and is about Pat Hadley Davis' own family life as a child. If you enjoy it, you might like to order the book from: Pat Hadley Davis, 1002 K. Street, North Wilkesboro, NC 28659 or call 919-838-2828. The book is soft back, 65 pages, and is subtitled, "A Celebration of the Lives of the People of North Wilkesboro and Wilkes For the Last 100 Years." It contains many stories and humorous quips about life in the Brushy Mountains North Carolina town. (Dear Readers, I warn you that if you telephone Pat Davis, you will have a hard time getting off the phone because you will enjoy talking to her so much.)

The grownups kept asking if I was looking forward to school. I had no idea what school was but I went along with my elders and told them yes. They seemed to be so pleased that I was going to school. I wanted them to think I was happy about it too. A few months after I started school I had a sneaking suspicion that the grownups were wanting to get rid of me; that was the reason they kept talking about my entering school.

I grew up next door to my grandmother's house, which contained two aunts who married before I was ten years old and three bachelor uncles. Up to age ten I spent the biggest part of my time at my grandmother's house since the uncles and aunts were young and still at home. They played with me and I learned early on to join in their fun and conversations.

Every member of the family had some musical talent. When the radio was not turned on full blast, the piano, violin, drum, and/or trumpet were. The din became overwhelming after a couple of hours of practice in the living room.

The uncle who took up the trumpet was banished to an attic room over the kitchen to practice. He must have been a delight to the neighborhood because he sat in the window of the attic room and aimed the business end of the trumpet out the window. He could be heard for miles. His practice was not in vain because he was drafted in the first peacetime conscription of WW II and became a bugler in the U.S. Army. I am sure his fellow soldiers appreciated him in the same manner as the neighbors did while he was growing up.

My younger brother took up the snare drum; I am sure he was a delight to the neighborhood as well. I kept hoping the Army wanted his talents.

The uncle who played the trumpet was a very talented dancer. I learned to ballroom dance while standing on his toes as he glided gracefully across the room to the tunes that came from the big Crosley radio that stood in the corner.

My musical training was not limited to dancing. The aunts and uncles imparted their knowledge of tunes and naughty lyrics to their only niece. They told me it was okay to learn the tunes but not to sing the lyrics to anyone but them. I remembered the lyrics long enough to enjoy the fruits of their labor in my teenage years. I could always come up with a few risque songs to sing at parties. To this day, I know the words to "Bell Bottom Trousers" and "You'd Be Surprised."

A six-year-old mind that absorbs and remembers everything that happens manages to come to a lot of conclusions that are rather odd. The three bachelor uncles were as red headed as any humans could be, two out of their four female siblings were also red heads. One aunt was apparently prematurely gray and they whispered behind her back that she really shouldn't use henna to make her hair red. I didn't understand what henna was, so I determined that is was some type of pill she was taking that turned her hair red. I decided I would never take one of those pills because I didn't want my hair to be any redder than it already was.

Since my mother had been educated as an elementary school teacher, my uncle admonished her for not teaching me the alphabet to prepare me for school. She told him to teach me the alphabet since he was so good at giving advice on how to raise children.

He promised to teach me the alphabet if I made a solemn vow that I would not repeat it to anyone until he had taught it all to me. I promised and refused to impart my knowledge to anyone until I had learned the whole thing.

I spent a great part of the summer before first grade learning the alphabet under the careful tutelage of the red headed bachelor uncle. I really didn't understand any of what I was learning. He taught by using a sing-song repetition which enabled me to learn completely foreign words that had absolutely no meaning to me. It was all Greek to me.

I had learned the complete alphabet a few days before I was to enter the first grade. The family had gathered on the big round porch on my grandmother's house. My uncle announced that I could now perform for the family and show them I was ready for school. I could recite the alphabet.

I took my place in front of the family of redheads, stood up straight, and began repeating to the top of my lungs "Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta" and so on through the Greek alphabet.

I got a cram course in the ABCs the night before I entered the first grade. My uncle got a mouthful from members of the family who had thought, up until that time, he was a good influence on me.

The uncle who did not play a musical instrument was an interior decorator of sorts. He had a workshop in the basement of Grandmother's house. I gravitated toward the workshop every time I had a chance because I liked to watch him work. He was a very creative individual and a talented decorator. I enjoyed watching him create the decorations for weddings and store windows. I was very content to spend a whole day with him as he worked and I made a few extra nickels helping to whitewash props.

We always knew when he was in the workshop because he whistled constantly. Being in the company of a whistler, I naturally took up the habit myself. At times we would be working together and not really realizing that we were whistling together. It is a habit that a person cannot easily break. I usually find myself whistling when I am content doing something I really enjoy.

Time began to slip away and World War II began. Men in the family went to war, breadwinners went to defense work, nieces and nephews went to college, the redheads scattered. The grandparents were no longer alive and the old house fell into disrepair.

As the niece who learned to dance on the toes of one redheaded uncle and whistled in tune with the other I felt that I wanted to be the one to decide what should be done with the old house full of memories. In 1971, I purchased it and ordered the bulldozer to tear it down to make way for a parking lot to accommodate businesses that had encroached on the peaceful neighborhood.

The day before the bulldozer was to arrive I sat in the bay window of the living room where the old piano once stood. As I packed some small items to keep as mementos, I found myself softly whistling "Bell Bottom Trousers, Coats of Navy Blue..."