My maternal grandmother had nine siblings, eight of whom lived to adulthood. The children of Lottie and Lee Muller of Redlands in Blythewood, South Carolina.
Lee a/k/a Buie
Wilhelmina a/k/a Willie
The eldest sibling, Mary Lavinia, died very young.
Emma was my grandmother. Emma Kersh Muller Heins.
These great aunts and uncles helped rear me and my brothers and all of us who were second cousins though our great-grandparents. More on them later.
All but two of these siblings lived within thirty minutes of each other and the family place, Redlands, in Blythewood, South Carolina. Named for the color of the soil, my great-grandparents’ house was built in 1790. It would not look out of place in the Lowcountry. The house sits by what is now called Muller Road, named for my family, on a rise of a hill. My great-grandparents’ old outbuildings remain across the road.
Two of my grandmother’s siblings actually lived on land formerly belonging to my great- grandparents.
My grandparents lived in Columbia, South Carolina.
I logged many hours with my beloved maternal grandparents, Emma and Arthur Heins, whom I called Mama (pronounced Maw-Maw) and Papa (pronounced Pah-pah).
I logged many hours with my great aunts and uncles, first cousins once-removed and their spouses, and a whole host of second cousins.
My brothers and I often piled into my grandmother’s bench seated Chevy Impala and rode over to see Aunt Virginia and Uncle Capers, Aunt Rachel and Uncle Kemp, Uncle Buie, Aunt Lucy and Uncle John, Aunt Laura and Uncle Bob. Sometimes we would ride over to Aunt Ruth and Uncle Bob’s house about thirty minutes away. Aunt Willie and Uncle Earl lived in Florida. We didn’t visit with them unless they came to South Carolina. We didn’t visit with Uncle Fred and Aunt Catherine much, but we did swim in their pool on Harden Street just up from Five Points.
Aunt Virginia and Uncle Capers lived on Kilbourne Road only minutes away from my grandparents on West Buchanan Drive.
Aunt Virginia and Uncle Capers capably gardened. Goldfish ponded under water lilies. I should have fallen in that pond as close as I teetered on the edge every time we were there.
“Aunt Virginia, can I go see the goldfish?”
“May I go see the goldfish?”
“Yes, you may, Son”
Aunt Virginia was known for her camellias and her hydrangeas.
Often, we would go round to Aunt Virginia and Uncle Capers’ house for dinner.
Dinner was the main meal of the day, eaten in the early afternoon.
When we didn’t eat in the dining room, we would eat in the sunken breakfast nook off the kitchen.
After one dinner, Aunt Virginia stepped down into the nook with cut glass bowls of dessert. Aunt Virginia baked chocolate cookies that I loved. I knew that’s what she was serving. Nope. That day, she served canned fruit cocktail. Starting to fail. Must have been.
“Aunt Virginia, what is this?” I inquired
“It’s fruit cocktail, Son. You will eat it, and you will like it.”
“No, I won’t,” I retorted.
My grandmother gasped. Uncle Capers and Papa giggled.
Aunt Virginia pinched me under the table with long bony fingers.
I ate the rancid canned fruit in front of me.
I ate it; I didn’t like it.
Uncle Capers died when I was thirteen. He served in World War I and had given my grandmother a dud grenade from Flanders’ fields. At least we were told it was a dud when we were lucky enough to play with it. Yes. We played with a dud grenade from World War I.
A few years after Uncle Capers died, the house on Kilbourne Road sold. My grandmother and her sisters used to say that “Well, Virginia’s broken up housekeeping” even though she had simply moved into the Cornell Arms apartment building uptown, the same building where one of my grandfather’s cousins lived. Back then, the Cornell Arms was for the newly wed and nearly dead. Friends of mine lived there during law school.
We would go up to Cornell Arms to visit Aunt Virginia and my grandfather’s Cousin Easie. At least there were drinks in jelly glasses for us children. We had to sit on uncomfortable sofas covered in silks, brocades, and slip covers in the summer. For what seemed like hours. No amount of iced cookies from the Winn Dixie could alleviate the boredom.
People visited more back then.
“Bring the boys. Come for a visit.”
Constant refrain from my great aunts and uncles when we were in Columbia.
“Latch strings are on the outside.”
“Come see us, hear?”
At such visits, family news and local gossip dominated. We were inculcated in who was related to whom. We knew every branch on the family tree. At least I did.
Aunt Virginia died in 1992. I didn’t go to her funeral at Elmwood Cemetery officiated by one of the assistant priests from Trinity, her church to which she could walk from Cornell Arms. That’s a regret on my part. One of the side tables from her dining room is upstairs in our house. A set of her glasses is in my kitchen cabinets. I went to Trinity when I was in law school and always gave flower memorials in honor of Aunt Virginia and Uncle Capers. Small penitence for not attending her funeral. I could have made it.
My grandparents foisted me upon my Thomas cousins on numerous occasions, which I loved. We were double, triple, quadruple kin to the Thomases on several levels. Aunt Laura Thomas was my grandmother’s sister. Her husband, Uncle Bob Thomas, was my grandfather’s second cousin and running mate from growing up in the small town of Ridgeway, South Carolina, meaning my second cousins were also my fourth cousins. We were kin through the Rosborough family more than twice.
Non-branching family trees aren’t uncommon in the South.
I spent happy hours at Aunt Laura and Uncle Bob’s house, which had been built by Uncle Ike Thomas in the late 1800’s. Uncle Ike was also one of my cousins. My cousins in Ridgeway used to say I was their coastal kin when introducing me around town. Then they’d say, “This is Arthur and Emma’s grandson.” Everyone would smile with acknowledgement. It’s a tiny tiny town.
“How’s Emma? How’s Little Ahhthah?”
My grandfather was Little Arthur until he died.
“Oh, Son, I’m your cousin So and So through the So and Sos.” Another constant refrain when there are nine siblings in a family.
On my visits with the Thomas family, we put on talent shows. A group of children in dress up clothes can sing “Rhinestone Cowboy” loudly and well for grandparents and great aunts and uncles. Old hair brushes make great microphones.
“I want to be where the lights are shining on me.”
Aunt Laura and Uncle Bob encouraged us to gather fresh eggs from the chicken coop.
Don’t walk barefooted through the chicken yard.
I did it all the time.
And according to all those old people with great old Southern accents, it’s a chicken coop sounds like book not coop sounds like Luke.
Eggs used for all manner of breakfasts, dinners, suppers. Always had to wash my feet outside after gathering from the chicken coop.
Aunt Laura and Uncle Bob also ate dinner in the mid-afternoon.
At one such dinner, my cousin Little Bob Thomas, the third of that name, leaned over to me at the dining room table and said in nothing like a stage whisper, “I don’t like eating at Grandmama’s house.”
“Why not?” I asked of him.
“Too many casseroles.”
We had a lot of casseroles.
We had a lot of aspics.
We had a lot of congealed salads with the adjectives “elegant” or “supreme” or “divine” in front of them. I may be the only person under 85 to love any recipe that uses the following directions:
Soften Knox gelatin in hot water
Wait until the Jello begins to set in the icebox, about twenty minutes
Add the fruit
Garnish with a spoonful of mayonnaise
Rinse the cherry pie filling
Chop the walnuts fine
Mix the cream cheese and nuts
Let soak overnight to sweeten
Let the 7UP go flat before adding to the lemon Jello
I don’t remember eating dinners with Aunt Rachel and Uncle Kemp at their house on South Edisto in Columbia. But, Aunt Rachel knew how to entertain us without setting a full table. Aunt Rachel baked gingerbread cookies with us. We begged for it on visits to her house. Such a prolific cookie baker, her own grandchildren called her Cookie.
Aunt Rachel would show us the painting of our ancestor great-something-great-grandfather Frederick Muller, our immigrant from Germany. Painted by his father, our great-something-great-great grandfather in Germany. The portrait intrigued due to the place in the hollow of Herr Muller’s neck. Sliced. Repaired. A hole that had been fixed, poorly.
“Boys, that’s Frederick Muller your [however many]-great grandfather. See that place under his throat. That’s where Sherman’s troops sliced his throat as they passed through.”
That generation cussed Sherman regularly.
Aunt Rachel called my grandmother every day at the same time. The phone would ring at my grandparents’ house, and I would answer knowing that it would be Aunt Rachel.
Precocious little jerk.
“Hey, Aunt Rachel.”
It would always be Aunt Rachel.
With a giggle, she would say, “Put Emma on the phone, Son.”
All males cousins were and are called Son in my family. On all sides.
Both Aunt Rachel and my grandmother would close their eyes when they talked on the phone. I do it now without even knowing it.
Like Aunt Virginia and Uncle Capers, Aunt Rachel and Uncle Kemp were amazing gardeners. Aunt Rachel put egg shells in water to add calcium to her tomato plants. She had foxgloves all over the garden in early summer. Purple and pink phlox spread amid the beds.
Uncle Kemp was a Lutheran pastor known for his work in pioneering mental health care as part of ministry.
Uncle Kemp brought back a Nativity set for me from the Holy Land made of olive wood from the Mount of Olives. He told me I was his only great-niece or great-nephew who would appreciate that. I put it out every Christmas.
We would go see Uncle Buie, pronounced Buh-ee, whose real name was Lee, but it’s the South and everyone has an Uncle Buie, Uncle Bubba, Uncle Boy, Uncle Brother. Uncle Buie kept cattle and would call them for us. He loved to make dump cakes and would show up with a dump cake in tow whenever there was a family function. He kept a running tally of Christmas cards received every year.
We used to have giant Easter egg hunts at Uncle Buie’s with second cousins running all over filling Easter baskets hoping to find the golden egg.
Uncle Buie also called my grandparents house every day.
He lived almost next door to Aunt Lucy and Uncle John Smith. Aunt Lucy used to get into heated arguments with Uncle Buie about raking leaves and the best way to garden.
“Buie, don’t tell me what to do.”
“Lucy, you should use those leaves as mulch.”
“Buie, don’t tell me what to do.”
Aunt Lucy made the best potato salad in the world.
Whenever anyone asked her about her technique, she would say, “All in the world I do is peel and boil red bliss potatoes and add a little celery, salt, pepper and mayonnaise. It’s all in the world I do.”
Mama would put is in the Impala and drive us over to Bishopville to visit with Aunt Ruth and Uncle Bob. Aunt Ruth and Mama were super close; they were closest in age. I have a sepia tinted picture of the two of them as little girls in white linen finery. In the event of fire, I will run out the house with that picture in silver frame.
Aunt Ruth remained the sweetest of those great aunts. Never a word of judgment against anyone or anything. Still not sure we were related.
The whole time I knew her, she was just as sweet as the fresh summer blackberries she covered in sugar until syrup formed.
“These need just a touch more shuga, don’t y’all think?” she would say.
Uncle Bob had served in World War II, jumping out with the 82nd Airborne in France on DDay. Due to a parachute malfunction, he broke his back when a French farmer’s hay bail broke his fall. He didn’t know he had broken his back, but he had. Tougher than shoe leather.
As Uncle Bob was jumping into the thick of it, his father-in-law bemoaned the fate of his distant German kinfolk.
He would say to Aunt Ruth, “Oh, my poor, poor people.”
What about his poor, poor son-in-law?
Aunt Ruth said she would just go cry when her father made such statements.
As a young lawyer, I would pop in on Aunt Ruth if I had court in Lee County. I showed up with bad fried chicken from the Piggly Wiggly or the Hardees or an ugly plant or flowers.
Never show up empty handed.
“Oh, Son, you didn’t need to bring a thing but yourself,” she would exclaim. I secretly new she appreciated even the badly fried yardbird.
After those visits, Aunt Ruth would put out the APB to everyone in the family that I had stopped by. I was her favorite of the great-nieces and -nephews. I just was. Hands down.
As I would leave her door, she would say, “Come back any time, Son.” She would then repeat her family’s hospitality statement, “Latch strings are on the outside.”
I sat on her sofa and all of their sofas for hours and hours.
I would listen.
They talked about the hired help, including “Aunt” Rachel for whom my Aunt Rachel was named. Truly. Yes, just like Aunt Jemima, there had been an Aunt Rachel. Only 100 years ago, folks.
They talked about all of the the sharecroppers who lived on the place, the commissary operated by my great-grandparents, how my great-grandparents were entrusted with the food stores and canned goods of their neighbors during the Depression because they had a cold cellar and the neighbors all around them knew that Lottie and Lee Muller would not steal, about the foster children taken in by my great-grandparents, about cousins who were even more distant kinfolk.
They reported on Aunt So and So who was in her what they called a Second Childhood. We now call that Alzheimer’s.
They discussed how my great-grandmother, a college graduate herself, insisted that all of her children would go to college. No debate, even though she had been trained in debate.
My great grandfather said they could all go work in a mill.
Over her dead body said my great-grandmother.
I need to write all of this down somewhere.
After we would return from dinners and visits and family gossip and discussions about friends, we would retreat to my grandparents’ house. Plopped down in front of reruns on WTBS out of Atlanta. Green Acres were the place for me.
My grandmother would allow us bowls of Pet vanilla ice milk and Pepperidge Farm coconut cake as only grandmothers would allow.
Parents would say such would spoil our suppers.
After watching the news on WIS in the evening, my grandmother would rise and say “Lemme go see ’bout suppa”, pushing up from the same Hepplewhite sofa that now sits in our living room.
Our decorating style could be called Early Dead People.
“Brother Kemp says we are allowed three tries,” Mama would say as she aged and rising from the sofa became more labored.
Into the kitchen she would go. A quick cook, we would be eating in no time. At the dining room table. Always. Usually a smaller meal than dinner.
My brother Arthur was a food critic, too, like our cousin Little Bob.
At one supper around the dining room table, he said, “Mama at your house we always have such little meals.”
Papa placed his napkin over his mouth and laughed out loud.
“Hush, Arthur,” she said, calling both their names.
On one trip to Columbia, we went with my grandmother to shop for something at the now defunct J.B. White’s department store. Height of elegance.
They had a display of books for some reason. I stopped to check them out. I was left behind and one of the clerks took me to my grandmother.
“He loves to read. He’s a bit bookish,” my grandmother told that shop clerk. I now realize that was a bit of an insult. But, she was right. It runs in the family.
Aunt Rachel wrote a memoir entitled, “I Remember” about growing up with all of those siblings and stories of life on the place. She dedicated that memoir “For the Cousins.”
I will be stealing it from my parents and making copies the next time I find it.
At the end of her memoir, Aunt Rachel recalled a conversation with Aunt Virginia when they were both young teachers living together before they were married and started housekeeping.
Aunt Virginia said, “Rachel, we have met many who grew up with more money, more comfort, more education, but we have met none better reared.”
Having spent so much time with that generation, I declare the same.
P.S. After publishing this piece, my cousin Eleanor Thomas Parish sent me a copy of “I Remember”. It’s actually “For the Grandchildren, Christmas, 1979.” My remembering was a little off.
Here’s the exact quote from Aunt Rachel:
Virginia asked me when were were teaching in Parker District, Greenville, “Rachel, have you noticed that we meet people who are better looking, better dressed, wealthier, have finer homes, and are better educated, but we never meet anyone better reared?”
I was close.