A Day with Aunt Honey

by Dara Tolbert Brooks, M.Ed.

The fall season is the time of year when the crispness in the air, the change in the leaves and the overall shift in things tend to cause memories to swirl in my mind and move to the forefront of my thoughts. One such memory is of a special visit with my paternal grandfather’s sister, Aunt Honey, and one of the family cemeteries. Born in 1921, and having never moved from her birth place, she knew much of what I wanted to learn.

My story begins on a fall Friday, after work when, following an airplane ride, I landed in Montgomery, Alabama, rented a car and dashed to the home town of my paternal family. Upon arrival, doing as much calling and visiting as I could, I retreated to the bed where exhaustion took over. With just one full day to accomplish as much as we could, Friday night, Aunt Honey and I finalized our strategy for the coming day.

Bright and early Saturday, I scooped her up in my rental and headed to our first destination, Moultrie Cemetery, the final resting place of many of my Hicks family relatives. By then I was nearly an expert on the names and dates of family members. My expectation was that Aunt Honey would add the color to their stories, bringing them to life for me, and she didn’t disappoint.

Donning a woolen cap and coat because of the unseasonably cool temperatures, Aunt Honey greeted me with that full faced grin I’d known and loved for so long. “Girl! You don’t never stay still!” were her first words to me. Aunt Honey and I had talked more than once long distance about the family tree. She was always tickled when this Michigan born and raised grand-niece showed up on her Alabama doorstep. Over the years she’d provided me with first-hand accounts of some of our family members’ lives and I wanted to spend the day with her and explore some of those avenues.

As we made our way along the narrow country roads, many of them gravel, Aunt Honey pointed out the home of Edgar and Minnie Lee Kendricks Hicks. Both, having joined the ancestors long ago, the home remains in the family. Known affectionally as Uncle Latt and Sugar, their home sat on land Uncle Latt bought with the help from one of the powerful white men of his time. Always in good favor Uncle Latt was able to care for his family with dignity during a time when a man of color wasn’t allowed his dignity.

Suddenly, Aunt Honey smacked my hand, once, then twice. “Pull over yonder,” she said, as she pointed up further. We stopped in the road for a spell, not concerned about traffic. Heck, maybe three cars in fifteen minutes passed us. Aunt Honey looked over at Uncle Latt and Sugar’s home where their daughter Emma Delois resided since her return to the south to care for her aging and ailing mother. She began to chastise Emma Delois from afar. “Now that girl know I been tryin’ to call her and she ain’t never answered the phone,” Aunt Honey snorted as we looked at Emma Delois’ car sitting in the carport. “I just called her ‘fore we left”! I should go up there and give that youngin’ a piece of my mind!” But her expression soon softened as she thought better of it.

Next door was Bubba, their son and Emma Delois’ brother. Alabama born, like so many he escaped to the north, made a living and came back to this small community with a large city retirement. This allowed him to live like a king in his double wide, the back woods version of close to rich. Armed with his big city ideas for managing dad’s property he and Emma Delois were arch enemies. Each standing their ground as they stayed on their portion of family land.

Aunt Honey reminded me that we should get going so that we could spend lots of time in the cemetery. She also cautioned me that her memory wasn’t the best and everything had grown up so, she might need time to find her way. After driving a piece, kicking up dust and gravel I was asked to slow down every time she wanted to look closely at a cutoff, bend or possible trail. Suddenly, directions from the passenger seat beckoned my immediate turn. “Here! Here! was the cry as I followed the arm pointed in the direction of a clump of trees. With no posted sign in sight, I took it on faith that we had arrived at the cemetery. It wasn’t my first time in the brush and woods, so I wasn’t surprised to see a less than user friendly path before me. I gunned the engine and as the rental car fishtailed, we squiggled up the muddy path, flinging dirt, rocks and mud. We rolled up the windows to protect ourselves from the limbs of the overgrown shrubbery as it scrapped the car’s sides and ducked as the low hanging branches cut off our daylight until we crested the small hill where we viewed a grave being dug. 

Being the first time in the cemetery I immediately seized the opportunity and interviewed the men, asking question after question in rapid succession. They cheerfully told me what they knew as their hot breaths hit the coolness of the air and directed my attention to the area of graves dating back to the late 1880s. With camcorder and film camera in hand, I fought my way through the stiff mud, leaves with a hint of frost and thickets gaining scratches to my body and snags to my clothing every step of the way. Even though I wasn’t adequately dressed for the weather it was all worth it because I’d found a gold mine.

This cemetery wowed me. Every step I took yielded something greater than the last. Whole families were buried together, some headstones had the maiden names of their female residents. The best part of all was that Aunt Honey was giving me personal information about almost every resident. She spoke of family traditions, marriages, people getting caught doing things they weren’t supposed to be doing and days of long ago.

My first find was that of a grave marker sporting the name Hicks. After moving leaves and thickets I found Evelyn Hicks, then one that was so faint that it might have said C-o-l Hix but then again it could have said Lou Hix. Next, I found a marker for Charlie Hicks, born July 1871 and died January 4, 1929. Further investigation yielded Vito Henry resting next to her husband of many years, Cleveland Henry. At the foot of Cleveland’s grave was the grave of their daughter, Berniece H. Rodgers. Along the way there were many concrete slabs without markers and I wondered what family history would be lost forever because of it.

As I proceeded, I ran across names I didn’t know, such as Ethel Posey, Tommie Collins, Johnnie Collins and Miss Sallie Collins. Aunt Honey filled me in on their connection to the community and family. She also threw in random things such as, that Pinkie’s sister Helen Macon married Sallie’s son Marvel. Then there was the grave of Sallie Roe who had died just that past January. Aunt Honey said that she was also a Collins. She talked so fast that I couldn’t get it all, but where else would I learn so much in one given moment?

A little farther away was my most joyous find, the final resting place of Annie Hicks, mother to Dale, Willie, Henry, Jr., Lilly Bell and Rosa Lee. Born December 19, 1878 and died August 2, 1959 she was the elusive Annie I’d written about in past family newsletter issues. Since then, I’d confirmed that she was born a Hicks, not married into the family and was sister to Felix who married Emma. This was an important connection because I’d been gathering information on Felix and Emma for some time. At one point I’d located a census record listing a widowed Emma living in Felix’s household. Now Annie wasn’t so elusive after all.

According to Aunt Honey Uncle Latt’s oldest daughter Berniece was married to Alfred Collins. His grave stone said that he was born February 11, 1900 and died February 10, 1989. There was an entire section of Roe family members near the Collins graves. Then there were more Poseys and Leola Washington who died June 24, 1924. It was rather interesting that her marker did not have her birth date on it. It made me wonder who she was and whether some of those unmarked graves surrounding her were family.

Not too far away was the large headstone marking the resting place of Henrietta Hicks’ only son Mack Thompson. His marker read, “Died April 14, 1944, Gone But Not Forgotten”. Under her breath, Aunt Honey said, “ He and that woman were out in the woods, he died and she left him out there”. Sounds like some interesting fruit on this branch of the tree.

Mother nature had created ready access to a formerly small chain linked fenced in private plot by landing a large tree across it, breaking the support bar and exposing the rough edges of the twisted links. As I climbed over the mangled fence on hands and knees and then accessed part of the fallen tree, I found the graves of Inna Coles and Ruth Coles as well as several new cuts and scratches on my ankle and shin areas. A large crypt sat there blackened by aging moss and time and was impossible to get to because of the heavy tree branches. Unable to see any markings it was not apparent who resided there but surely another Coles. Since access to the gate was completely cut off, I had to climb out the way I had climbed in. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy. I had to use part of the fallen tree to access the chain linked portion of the fence. It was slippery from the frost and with the strap of my camcorder getting hung in the chain links I was yanked backwards, lost my balance and slid down a portion of the tree trunk and branches sacrificing a great deal of skin from my arm, elbow, back of the leg and ankle. In its wake I made a contribution of what seemed like at least a pint of blood. Aunt Honey just looked at me and shook her head. Then she laughed and said, “Girl, what you won’t do for the family tree.”

She gave me her handkerchief to wipe the blood from my leg, then turned her attention back to a set of headstones she’d been looking at and a conversation she’d been engaged in with its inhabitants. Old friends, I presumed. I started a painful walk to the other side of the cemetery that yielded the final resting places of Darcas Gosha, Alberta Goshea, Perry Lee Goshea, Jim Gosha and other related family members. It was interesting to see the variations on the spelling of the surname from marker to marker. Jim’s marker said that he was born June 3, 1925 and died December 30, 1985 and was a private first class in the army during World War II. After I returned home, I spent a few hours online searching military records to see if I could find anything on Jim and other family members. It always helps to know what branch of the service a person was in as well as what war. I found one of Jim’s military records. He’d been in the Air Corps having enlisted on November 13, 1945. One day I’ll search even further and see what else I can come up with.

Alberta’s marker said that she was born July 1875 and died July 1957. Then I was on to other graves including Samuel Lee Howard who was born July 3, 1942 and died December 1, 1982. With this being such a small community, I surmised that Samuel Howard was somehow related to Mary Howard, who’d married my paternal grandmother’s favorite uncle, Sid Pruett. As we circled around the cemetery toward the dirt path and the parked car Miss Prudie Kendrick’s head stone stopped Aunt Honey. She was sister to Alick Jones which made her Aunt Honey’s late husband’s aunt. Aunt Honey said, “They had different daddy’s but the same momma” She was also that girl’s grandmother, you know who I mean, Sugar.” As I tried to read the marker out loud and confirm what I thought was a 1944 death date Aunt Honey said all her children were born when Prudie died except for Nina. She went on and on about some other things but I couldn’t make them out and she was on to the next grave and another trip down memory lane.

Aunt Honey and I had had a wonderful day together. She’d said more than I could grasp. Being under such a tight schedule, with my plane leaving early the next morning I’d not reviewed any footage for clarification. Later I would find out just how shaky my hands had been and how crunching leaves and branches had sometimes made it difficult to figure out what Aunt Honey had said. Despite this, I’d captured more than I ever dreamed. The time Aunt Honey and I spent together was so precious. She’s been gone a while now, so I cherish the memories we made together and consider myself lucky for all the help she gave me over the years.

By: Dara Tolbert Brooks, M.Ed.

Dara has been researching her family since she was about thirteen-years-old. Fortunate enough to have both sets of grandparents and briefly, two great-grandmothers, Dara has learned from them. Retired from the auto industry, Dara is a writer and artist. Besides facilitating a family history writing group, she is documenting her ancestors through watercolors, acrylics and charcoal based on their historical descriptions.