The Early Years

Lucy Slowe learned of her mother’s death when she heard her oldest brother, John, say, “She’s dead.” Both he and their Aunt Martha were overcome with tears, but Lucy, who was six years old at the time, reported that she was simply bewildered. So, she announced that she was going out to play with James Williams, her cousin and favorite playmate. When her aunt told her not to go because her mother had just died, Lucy wondered what her mother’s death had to do with her playing! After all, when her pet chicken had died, she and James Williams had dug a grave, sung a song, and buried it – but they did not stop playing.

Fannie Slowe, her mother, had been gentle and easy with her because she was the baby of the family. She did anything she wanted to do, despite the protests of her brothers, John and Bill, and her sister, Charlotte. Her sister regarded herself as Lucy’s boss, and Lucy felt she had a perfect right to “scratch her, pull her hair” and hide behind her mother’s skirt.

Because Lucy’s father had died five years earlier – and the children were now orphans – his sister, Martha, had traveled to Berryville from her home in Lexington to help with the arrangements.iii On the day of the funeral, Aunt Martha dressed Lucy in a stiff white dress with a black sash. She kept the child close by her side so that she would not run out to the road to play. Once, while Aunt Martha, whom Lucy feared, was pinning on her long, black crepe veil, Lucy darted to the door, but she was not quite quick enough. “You little demon,” Aunt Martha hissed, “What am I to do with you? If you don’t stay right here, I will put you to bed for the rest of the day.” After quietly waiting for Aunt Martha to finish dressing, she was led into the “front room,” which was what they called the best room in the house. Her mother lay in a black casket. The family – John, Bill, Charlotte, Aunt Martha and Lucy – sat near the head of the casket and near where the minister stood. They joined Aunt Caroline, who had been her mother’s helper when she made apple butter, and their “friends, enemies and relatives,” who crowded themselves into the room as best they could. The minister and everybody but family members sang “Nearer My God to Thee,” and he prayed and talked about her mother. Everybody cried but Aunt Martha and Lucy. Aunt Martha did not cry “because she was too busy watching” Lucy and Lucy did not cry because she was “trying to figure out why Aunt Caroline wore a red bandana handkerchief on her head when everybody else wore black ones.” Fannie Slowe was buried next to her husband in the Milton Valley Cemetery.

Later, while they were eating supper, John agreed that the siblings would have to be separated because he could not get anyone to look after the girls. Moreover, Aunt Martha could not be expected to stay there in Berryville to look after them. He was candid about the girls’ dispositions, acknowledging that Lucy needed a strong hand. Charlotte, on the other hand, was a good child. Because of this assessment – “Lucy was bad” and “Charlotte was good” – Lucy got mad with the whole family. She then made up her mind to give Charlotte “a good pinching” when they went to bed that night.

Aunt Martha concluded – “batting her eyelids rapidly” – that she would take both Charlotte and Lucy home with her and give them both a “Christian raising.” Lucy did not know what that was, but she knew she was not going to like it, especially if Aunt Martha had to give it to her. Lucy rolled her eyes at her aunt, but said nothing, for her throat was getting tight. Lucy’s eyes filled with tears because she knew she would have to give up at least three things: her pal – James Williams – the road up and down which they raced, and the mud hole in the yard. Her aunt did not believe in playing in the mud, or playing with boys, or running up and down the road.