Mother always said her cousin Gussie was a character — and that might be an understatement. Gussie was Mother’s favorite cousin. She was born, raised and lived in rural Pike County, Alabama, outside of Troy.
There was really no way for me to visualize her before we met for the first time when I was in college (that was about 65 years ago).
Gussie was tall — probably about 5 feet 10 — and she was big, at least 250 pounds, probably more. Some of her original red hair was mixed with gray by then, and she had on a dress that was fastened all the way up with a few buttons but mostly with safety pins. I’m guessing she was about 60.
I was told that Gussie had two weaknesses — fancy cars and diamonds. Diamonds hung from her pierced ears and were on most of her fingers. She smoked a small pipe that looked like ivory, and I’m sure there were some small diamonds embedded in the bowl.
Gussie was kin on the Richardson side of the family, and like most of them, she had red hair and was a Primitive Baptist. Her real name was Augusta, named for my great-grandfather Augustus. Her family farm was a few miles in the country near Banks, Alabama. She and her husband, Joiner — that was the only name I ever knew him by — had a daughter named Flake (that’s a family name) and also a son and two grandsons.
She was plain-spoken and quick. You didn’t need an interpreter to understand her, and in conversation she might occasionally throw in a damn or a hell for emphasis or to enjoy the looks of disapproval on the faces of the pious. Gussie wasn’t one to go to preachin’ very often, but she didn’t need to. I found out that she quietly took care of the financial needs of some who were destitute. Gussie lived her religion.
At our initial meeting, she sized up this skinny kid and told me I would be spending the weekend with her. I had passed muster — probably because I was Eva’s son.
Staying at Gussie’s began with breakfast as dawn was breaking. It was a full meal with steak and all the trimmings, just like supper. We ate in a building in the backyard that served as a kitchen and dining area. Beyond the kitchen was another small house, maybe like a bungalow. That’s where Joiner stayed when he and Gussie had enough of each other — or she might be the one to move out. But they always met for meals, and eventually moved back into the big house until once again there was too much togetherness.
All her life, Gussie ran some form of business. In the 1920s, she opened a general merchandise store called “Little Gussie’s Place.” Included in her stock was “country produce” and she stated that bills were due each Monday.
As the years went by, the business grew into a large wholesale vegetable company, and from her fields on Buckhorn Farm she supplied stores and restaurants in south Alabama with the best money could buy. An ad she ran in the Troy Messenger gives in rhyme a bit of her philosophy:
Up Buckhorn Creek where we come from
Life is so pleasant, peaceful and calm
A good life we could have it we could only stay
And see where we live by the light of the day.
I run like hell from 3:30 till.
I think it would be easier if we had a big still
I still can remember the first turnip we grew
That change over our diet from hog head to stew.
The creed I live by is for only a few
It takes guts and will power and the nerve to do.
Beware the deadly sitting habit
If you sit be like a rabbit
Who keepeth ever on the jump
By springs concealed beneath his rump.
A little ginger, ’neath the tail
Will for a lack of brains avail.
Eschew the full and slothful seat
And move about with willing feet.
Man was not made to sit in trance
And press and press and press his pants,
But rather with an open mind
To circulate among his kind.
And so, my friends, beware the snare,
That lurks within the cushioned chair.
To run like hell, it has been found,
Both feet must be upon the ground.
Her love of vegetables was not just selling them, but she was also a chef, a really great cook. She had a truly. artistic eye, and she loved to cut and slice vegetables and carefully arrange them in glass jars. They adorned the shelves in her kitchen. All her life she had wanted to own a restaurant, and finally she opened one. Soon it was attracting people from many miles away, a greater success than she had ever expected. But, alas, she began to lose her eyesight and had to close the business. She told me not to wait until late in life to fulfill my dream.
She’s been deceased for quite a few years, but folks in Troy still tell “Gussie stories.” My favorite — and I can prove it is true — is, about a new car. I guess it was in the early ’60s that General Motors came out with what they called a hard-topped convertible, two tones with wire-spoke wheels.
Gussie had someone drive her to Montgomery in a rattletrap pickup. They went to the Cadillac dealer, and when she walked into the showroom the salesman looked up from his newspaper but went back to reading. Gussie looked like the proverbial bag lady, but she soon got his attention. She went from car to car, opening doors and slamming them as hard as she could. She stopped at a black and white Cadillac, but the salesman rather condescendingly told her the price, which he assumed she could not afford. She reached into her bra, which held her sizable bosom, pulled out a wad of bills and paid cash for the car.
A few weeks later she drove into Troy and left the car at Joe’s Service Station to have it washed. She took her grandsons to a nearby burger joint and then went back to get the car.
Her grandsons told me the car was glistening and beautiful. Gussie leaned over and looked under the fender. She spotted some of that red Alabama clay, and she said, “Joe, you didn’t wash that.”
“Miss Gussie,” Joe said, “That don’t show.
She had a quick reply: “My ass don’t either, but I wash it.”
Mother told me she was a character.