Last week I had to say goodbye to someone who was like family—and who had been a kind of ideological soulmate to me. It was the end of an era.
I first met Louise Dingler Smith in the mid-1990s, after the man who would later become my husband and I began dating. His mother, Bonnie, along with her sisters, had been the children of Edd and Era Estelle "Belle" Whitaker Dinglerof Marion, Alabama, not quite 30 miles from Selma. One of our early trips involved going to Mobile, Alabama to visit his three maternal aunts, one of whom was Louise. Later, we would make this same trip regularly.
When Mike’s three aunts first came to east Tennessee where I was visiting him, I fashioned the notion that they all lived together in some plantation-style home near coastal Alabama, with a yard full of live oaks, overhung with clumps of Spanish moss. They possessed that slow, protracted Southern drawl that you hear non-Southern actors try to imitate in movies, although there it sounds contrived.
I wasn’t, however, completely off the mark in my impression. Although the three of them did not live together in one large house, protected by some Big Daddy straight off the Tennessee Williams stage and depending “on the kindness of strangers,” they were indeed the epitome of strong Southern ladies. They all had vivid, memorable personalities.
The oldest, Inez, enjoyed traveling with her husband George, who was into yachting and helped build floats for Mobile Mardi Gras parades. She was quiet and thoughtful, especially enjoying sipping a good wine every now and then—but, like the other sisters, she also didn’t mind telling a person what she thought when necessary. She once relayed to us the mistake of having voted for former segregationist governor George Wallace, to which she added a note of regret by calling him a choice name.
The second sister, Jessie Mae, was a spitfire. She had a perpetual twinkle in her eye and usually flashed a mischievous grin upon greeting someone. I remember Aunt Mae’s response to one occasion of eating breakfast on a Saturday morning in Louise’s kitchen. Uncle Bill, Louise’s husband, had prepared us a healthy but non-traditional meal of sliced fruit and yogurt.
Aunt Mae burst through the kitchen door, tossed down on the counter some paper bags from a shopping trip, and without saying “Hello,” blurted out, “God Ahmighty, Louise, is that what y’all are feeding them for breakfast?” I can see her then breaking into that trademark smirk, wondering why we were not eating the more substantial fare of eggs, sausage, bacon, and the like.
Aunt Louise, the third of the four sisters, did live in a large white house with oaks overhung with Spanish moss, not unlike my original vision. Her house was always our first stop in Mobile, where we would visit with her and her daughter Selma, sprawling on the large sectional in their living room.
A retired English professor, Aunt Louise had taught at The University of South Alabama for 27 years—a point that instantly connected the two of us, even though her specialty was British literature and mine, American. She was, in many ways, a traditional Southern lady. She had sported heels and a dress to her college classroom each day, as I remember her or Selma relaying once. She also loved gardening and entertaining.
She was, on the other hand, a progressive. In the 1970s, she was awarded one of 100 nationwide grants to build a solar house, which still stands. In the 1980s, she had been part of a civil suit challenging sex discrimination at the university. She championed education and enjoyed travel, participating as a student in the university’s British Studies Program simply for the sake of learning.
On Thursday, October 19, after having suffered declining health for some time, Aunt Louise died at the age of 93. Had I not gone to her funeral, I would have regretted it; I loved Louise and enjoyed her company, as we shared so many of the same sensibilities as forward-thinking Southern women who were educators and lovers of literature.
With my brother Greg for company, I made the drive to Mobile, five hours down and five back, in two days, to express my condolences to her daughter Selma, her son Edd, his wife Melanie, and the rest of the family, including their cousins George and Bonnie.
After the funeral, partially to reminisce, I took Greg to eat lunch at Wintzell’s Oyster House in downtown Mobile, where we had generally gone for dinner the first night of visiting all those years. We drove around Mobile, through Bankhead Tunnel, and along the bay toward Spanish Fort, the location of the fish camp restaurants where we often dined with the sisters and cousins.
Now those lovely women are all gone, except for one, Aunt Inez, with whom I spoke at the funeral. Bonnie, Mike’s mother, died in 2004, and Mae died in 2009. When I saw Inez, who is now 96, in the hallway of the reception area of the church after the funeral, I was sad. I thought Aunt Inez’s memory was diminished, as she didn’t seem initially to recognize me. I recalled that her hearing had been gone for some time, but her son George informed me that her vision was also fading, and I would have to lean in very close and speak loudly.
Doing so did the trick. She called me by name, smiling and asking, “Oh, did Michael Ed receive his birthday card from last month?”—as all the sisters called Mike, whose name is Michael Edward. I assured her he likely did, and she said she was glad to see me and hoped she would see me again. I told her the same. However, if I don’t, I will always remember those four unique Southern sisters so fondly.
(Daily Corinthian columnist Stacy Jones teaches English at McNairy Central High School and UT Martin and is a consultant for the Tennessee Department of Education. She enjoys being a downtown Corinth resident.)