American Contemporary Creative Nonfiction

Flowers for a Place

To the current residents

Upstairs Apartment

302 Locust St.

Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee

No doubt you wonder why a stranger has sent you flowers. It is, in this instance, not because of who you are, but because of where you are―

a modest little upstairs apartment that has much significance for me. Please let me tell you a bit of its history.

In 1941, a widow and one fresh-out-of-high-school daughter moved back to their hometown of Mt. Pleasant from Nashville. The mother, Annie Lou Hutcheson, was a seamstress, subsisting on what she could make sewing for others at her home, the one-bedroom upstairs apartment at 302 Locust St. The daughter, Joan, went to work for the Mt Pleasant Power Company. 

About a year later, Helen, a slightly older, married daughter came to live with her, too. Helen’s husband had been drafted into the army and was stationed at camp about to be sent overseas. She was pregnant with their first child and needed someone to help her through the last trimester and first few weeks after the baby came. 

It was a bit crowded in the little apartment with one daughter sleeping on the couch in the living room, another daughter and her mother sleeping in a double bed in the bedroom, and a crib in front of the rear bedroom window awaiting the arrival of yet a fourth resident. 

In late November 1943, a baby boy was born. For a brief time, there were four living in that one-bedroom apartment. But, within a few weeks, Helen was diagnosed with cancer. It was a type that is seldom fatal with today’s modern treatments, but not then. Her mother and sister took care of the child while she fought a losing battle. She died in June of 1944; she was 24. 

The little boy remained in the apartment with his grandmother and aunt. His father was still overseas, first in North Africa and then Italy fighting his own battles of WWII. When he finally returned in late 1945, he was now a widower with a young son he couldn’t look after when he went to work. The boy remained with his grandmother and aunt. The aunt soon married another returning soldier, leaving just the boy and his grandmother. 

Hide-and-seek between a little boy and a grandmother was always one-sided. He hid; she was “it.” How many places can a little boy hide in a small apartment? I’ll tell you . . . five. There was the living room closet, the bedroom closet, under the bed, in the wardrobe that sat in the hall outside the bathroom, and . . . while he was yet small enough . . . the little cubbyhole in the bathroom wall where she kept the towels. (Is it still there?) Oh, how he would squeal with glee at his cunning when she took so long to find him. 

Once, on his fifth birthday, there were many children in that little apartment. They played pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. The donkey was stuck on the wall just to the right of the front door. That’s also where the cedar tree stood with its colored lights and aluminum foil “icicles” at Christmas. At Halloween, a Jack-O-Lantern sat on the windowsill in that living room. Imagine how big the little boy’s eyes became when the pumpkin’s candle caught the window sheers on fire, and he watched his brave grandmother yank them down and stomp them out before they could burn the whole place down. 

Imagine, too, how scared he was the night his grandmother dropped the scissors on her foot and cut a blood vessel. Before the days of 9-1-1, he only knew to call Uncle Keith and Aunt Joan. “Hurry! Mama’s on the floor and there’s lots of blood!” That’s what he called her, “Mama.” 

In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, there was a garden planted each spring in the field behind the house. A man with his mule plowed it up and planted corn, tomatoes, snap beans, and other truck vegetables. When they came in, he would always give some to the grandmother. The milkman climbed the steps at least twice a week to leave a bottle of milk and pick up the empty. The iceman would read the card in the window to know how big a block of ice to bring up the steps to put in the icebox. Cunningham’s Grocery would deliver other staples, but the aging grandmother still had to bring her own scuttle of coal upstairs from the coal bin on the side of the barn-like garage. The only heat in the apartment was a pot-bellied stove in the kitchen, but Annie Lou always said she was lucky . . . she got most of her heat for free because the heat from the downstairs tenants rose to heat her place, too. 

For eight years a happy little boy and his grandmother lived in what poets would call this “humble abode.” His father finally remarried and came to get him in the late summer of 1952 and took him back to Nashville. Still, he would return each summer for two or three months of blissful reunion. Look at the spot where the hall makes the turn from the bath towards the kitchen. That’s where he stood after reading a story in a book about another little boy’s sweet grandmother, and with tears in his eyes proclaimed, “Mama, I love you so much!”

The grandmother continued to live there for a total of twenty years. When the steps got to be just too much for an old lady approaching 70, her daughter and son-in-law bought a place nearer their flower shop with a ground level apartment they provided for her. She would never consider burdening them by living with them, though they would have gladly taken her in. She lived there for yet another twenty years, helping care for Joan’s two girls and occasionally the grandchildren of her other two children, Jimmy and L.C. 

Now, she’s been gone for just over twenty more years. Few are still around today that remember Mrs. Hutcheson, the seamstress. The surviving daughter, Joan, still lives on Washington Avenue. 

She was a wonderful mother and grandmother. She deserves to be remembered. I, as others, have put flowers on her grave in memory of her sweet love. But the love I knew was not at the grave; it was in her arms . . . in your apartment. I cannot yet reach her Heaven, so . . . as a tender substitute . . . I reach for that tiny bit of Heaven on earth that was, for me, the upstairs apartment at 302 Locust St. and send my flowers there. You see, as you have perhaps guessed by now . . . I was that little boy. 

August 18, 2023 18:50

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