With October comes homecoming at the little white church up Moore County way.
And, of course, memories of my late Aunt Ethel.
Some of you may remember stories of the past about Aunt Ethel, whom I’ve often described as the ugliest woman in Moore County history. Some folks scold me and say Aunt Ethel couldn’t have been that ugly, so I’ll give them that. But if Aunt Ethel wasn’t the ugliest woman in the history of Moore County, well, bless her heart, Aunt Ethel was close.
Uncle Danny was patriarch of the McNeill homeplace along N.C. 690 just outside of Vass, when he came home one night to tell my grandmother and Uncle Frank that he’d taken Ethel Mae Cameron as his bride. Aunt Ethel Mae took up residence in the homeplace, where Aunt Ethel was known for her yellow pound cakes that weren’t very tasty, but Aunt Ethel pawned ‘em off on you no matter.
Seems like Aunt Ethel spent her life in the kitchen, where she kept Uncle Frank mainlining Pepsi-Cola, until Uncle Frank died of diabetes in 1960, and they brought him home for a wake in the front parlor.
“Don’t your Uncle Frank look good?” Aunt Ethel marched my cousin and me alongside his coffin, all but shoving us in the casket with Uncle Frank.
Uncle Danny spent the ensuing five years driving his motor-grader on Fort Bragg, tending to the farm fields at the homeplace, serving as the ruling elder and lead deacon at his beloved Cypress Presbyterian Church and keeping as far away as he could from Aunt Ethel as any right-minded man could. Aunt Ethel spent most of her time with her brother, John Cameron, who wore the same coveralls every day and kept telling all of my cousins and me and anybody else who would listen about the ghosts upstairs.
Aunt Ethel and Uncle Danny were feuding in 1965, when a hernia operation sent Uncle Danny to Moore County Hospital in Pinehurst, and he died.
Mama and my Aunt Mary Frank were heartbroken, and members of the little white church, too.
Aunt Ethel vowed not to attend Uncle Danny’s funeral. Nobody tried to talk her out of the decision, and everybody agreed it might be best, but Aunt Ethel at the last-minute changed her mind and into the little white church she came and plopped down on the front row right in front of Uncle Danny’s coffin.
And that’s when all hell broke loose at the little white church.
The preacher was doing Uncle Danny’s eulogy and started reminding us about what a good man Uncle Danny was to his family, and about his giving ways and devotion to the little white church, and how he paid for perpetual care of the cemetery.
Now here comes the rest of the story, and it’s the gospel truth if Bill Kirby Jr. ever told it.
The preacher kept reminding us of how good of a man Uncle Danny was.
“Dan McNeill was a good Christian man, who loved and took care of his family and loved this church,” the preacher said, “and may he now rest in peace. Amen.”
‘DEAR GOD IN HEAVEN!’
Aunt Ethel started whooping and hollering and boohooing like nothing you’ve ever heard, and as the funeral folks and the pallbearers began wheeling Uncle Danny’s coffin down the aisle … Aunt Ethel dove onto the top of Uncle Danny’s casket.
Carnations and ferns and baby’s breath were dropping to the sanctuary floor, and the gurney wheels supporting his coffin were giving away.
Mama was sitting next to Aunt Mary Frank with her mouth open in stunned disbelief.
“Mrs. McNeill!” June Blue, the funeral director, was pleading with Aunt Ethel to let go for the sake of the gurney wheels now sideways at about 45 degrees. “Mrs. McNeill! Mrs. McNeill!”
Sweat beads were popping out on the funeral director’s head, and he was patting them away with his handkerchief.
About now you likely are thinking this story cannot be true. You’d be wrong. You can’t make up what transpired on that summer day at the little white church at Uncle Danny’s funeral. The last we saw was Aunt Ethel spread eagle on the lid of Uncle Danny’s coffin heading out the narthex and toward the cemetery.
Most folks in those days returned to the homeplace for consolation and condolences, and perhaps punch and cookies and light finger foods. Most of the McNeill clan, family lore has it, returned to the homeplace and made a mad dash for the corn liquor stash, my Aunt Mary Frank, my Aunt Vivian and Mama likely among them.
Aunt Ethel was 69 when she died Sept. 16, 1971.
She’s buried in the McNeill plot, along with Uncle Danny … and about 12 feet away from where I’ll be buried next to Mama.
Most all who experienced that day in 1965 at Uncle Danny’s funeral now are gone, save some cousins and Aunt Vivian.
“You had to be there to believe it,” Aunt Vivian, 89, says. “Talk about an embarrassing moment. I just dropped my head. I couldn’t believe it. It’s a true story. Every word for word.”
Yes, all who were there at the little white church in 1965 may not remember Aunt Ethel as the ugliest woman in Moore County history, but they’ll tell you the legend of Aunt Ethel is the gospel truth, and I’ll hazard a guess Aunt Vivian will tell you if Aunt Ethel, bless her heart, wasn’t the ugliest woman in Moore County history, Aunt Ethel was close.