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From the sunny, gentle wave-caressed beaches to the gray, wild
storm-ravaged shore, Hatteras is an island of contrasts, a
characteristic that makes it so appealing. For many, it is
the brilliant days that stimulate an adventurous independent spirit and
the dark nights that for some spark apprehension and
dependency. This was the case with Aunt Katie. When
her husband, Monroe, died, she never spent another night at
home alone. Understanding her anxiety, Grandmom invited her
sister, Katie, to spend the nights with her, Pop Pop, and Sister, my
unmarried aunt who was a surrogate mother to me and my brother during
our annual summer visits.
As soon as Aunt Katie finished eating supper and cleaning her dishes,
she would check her house for any signs of fire that she may have left
in the kitchen or elsewhere, pick up her white cotton nightgown, and
cross the road to spend the night with us. The next morning
before breakfast she always returned home.
Every night at our house after everyone had gone to bed, Aunt Katie
would make one of several nightly fire inspections. To say
she was compulsive is an understatement. Her greatest fear
was fire consuming the house in which she was staying.
Without fail, each night when everyone had settled in bed for a
peaceful night's rest, Aunt Katie would get up, and beginning with the
rooms downstairs she would search for fire. When that part of
the house passed her scrutiny, she proceeded with her investigation to
the rooms upstairs. It made no difference to her who was
sleeping in a room. Without hesitation, she entered, looked under the
bed and sometimes under the covers of the sleeping occupants.
How she found her way around the darkened house without falling and
hurting herself will forever baffle me. Both my brother and I were
frightened more than once when we were suddenly wakened from a deep
sleep by her plundering while she searched for fire.
Her appearance was
unnerving to us. She always wore a floor-length, white, cotton
nightgown that flowed behind her lean bony body as she
walked. Her ashen face, wrinkled from more than 70 years of
exposure to the Hatteras sun, was framed by fine neck-length, straight
white hair. When the rooms of the house were dimly
illuminated on a bright moonlit night, she looked exactly the way my
brother and I visualized an apparition that Pop Pop told us about
seeing one night along the road as he was walking home. When Aunt Katie
leaned over the bed and raised the covers in search of fire, her
appearance could startle the bravest individual.
One night she scared my brother so bad that he spent the rest of the
night sleeping with Sister. Pop Pop, Grandmom, and Sister
took her nightly routine in good stride. They never exhibited
any signs of fear. My brother and I were horrified. We never knew if
what we were seeing was a spook or Aunt Katie. We found it
was best not to go to sleep until she was through with her vigil. That
way, we were not awakened to any surprises. After her first round of
observations, she returned to her bed only to repeat her performance 15
or 20 minutes later. Generally, after two inspections, she
was satisfied that there was no danger of fire and she would drift off
On one particular night, the mosquitoes were unusually thick, and
instead of sitting on the piazza until dark to enjoy the evening
breeze, as was our after supper custom, everyone, including my brother
and myself, settled in the sitting room to escape the blood-thirsty
The conversation began by centering on the day's happenings.
Sister, who worked at the local grocery store, shared some of the news
she had learned that day while at work. It seemed that there
was always someone who was either sick, who had an accident, or who
died. Pop Pop told about his day at the fish house, informing
us of the day's catch and how many boxes of fish he had iced that
day. Grandmom told Aunt Katie what she had prepared for
dinner, and Aunt Katie did likewise. Grandmom always served bacon,
eggs, hot yeast light rolls, apple butter or a fruit jelly, molasses,
and coffee for supper every night. So that meal was never
discussed. My brother and I called that menu a "Hatteras
supper," and we still enjoy it as an evening meal today.
Clifford, my brother who was named for Pop Pop, and I were always
intrigued with any story he had to share, and he had an inexhaustible
supply of interesting tales in his repertoire. This night he told us
about the time he was walking home on a dark evening and saw in front
of him a white apparition fly from the road and disappear over the
adjoining marsh. Both my brother and I were curious and
anxious to hear this kind of story but we always wished afterwards that
we had not. Aunt Katie was not amused at all. She
was scared of her own shadow. At the conclusion of Pop Pop's
yarn, fright was written in big bold letters across her wrinkled face.
Grandmom was fearful of storms, but aside from that, my grandparents
and aunt were not frightened by anything.
My brother once asked Pop Pop, "What do you fear the most?"
His reply was, "I'm not scared of anything." My brother said,
"Well, I am." To which Pop Pop replied, "Then you're not
living right" --a profound statement that lives with both of us today.
A lull in conversation followed his story. Sister broke the
silence as she took the fly swatter that hung on a nail in the sitting
room wall beside the entrance to the kitchen, and she began an assault
on every mosquito that she could find in the room. They
usually landed somewhere near the upper wall adjacent to the ceiling,
and if Sister saw them, that is where they died. Each of us
pointed out one or two of the pests for her assault. The
celedon colored walls were stained with dried, squashed, blood-stained
mosquito bodies from former attacks.
As darkness set in, there
was a knock at the front door. It was Millard. He
stood at the door brushing the mosquitoes from his clothes with a small
branch with leaves from a myrtle bush. He used this weapon to
fight the mosquitoes as he walked from his house up the sandy road to
ours. He carefully brushed the mosquitoes from the screen
door before he let himself inside. We knew it was Millard as
soon as he stepped on the piazza. Millard was a deaf mute
whose only means of verbal communication were guttural sounds and
laughter. When he stepped on the piazza, he made grunting
sounds that were unmistakably his, as he knocked the sand from his
shoes by lightly stomping on the floor. Everyone on Hatteras
recognized the sounds peculiar to this beloved island native.
I always enjoyed his visits.
Grandmom and Aunt Katie had a sister who was a deaf mute and who died
when she was 13 years old. Grandmom learned to sign so she
could communicate with her. Actually her self-taught form of
signing was limited, since she only knew how to represent on her hands
the letters of the alphabet. Since Grandmom was one of a few
people in the village who knew any form of this language, Millard
frequently visited our family, so he could have someone to "talk" to.
I was fascinated with the exchange between Millard and
Grandmom. It was a show that kept everyone's constant
attention. Millard signed to Grandmom, and she translated to
everyone else in the room. Any comments that we had to make
were relayed to Millard through her. For me, trying to
understand the words they were relaying to each other was an engaging
challenge. Even though Grandmom had taught me how to form the
letters of the alphabet on my hands, I seldom could interpret the words
being spelled by their rapidly moving digits. Sister conversed with him
by writing on a tablet Grandmom kept in one of the drawers of the
sideboard. She passed him the tablet with her one sentence statement or
question. He replied with either a gesture or a one- or
two-word note. Millard always had some village news that none
of us had heard. He stayed about an hour, during which time
Grandmom served everyone a piece of "penny" candy that she kept for
special occasions in the upper right-hand drawer of the old sideboard
in the sitting room.
After Millard left, Grandmom started her nightly ritual before going to
bed. She began by saying, "Young’uns, I think I'll
turn in." She turned to Pop Pop and asked, "Clifford, have
you brought the buckets in?" He made no response but got up
from his wooden rocking chair and retrieved the buckets from the back
We had no
indoor plumbing. There was an outdoor toilet behind the house
but it was somewhat inconvenient to use at night. It was also a bit
scary to use the toilet at night. It took all the courage my
brother and I could muster to use it in the daytime. There
were spiders and insects lurking in all kinds of hiding places. But the
most alarming sight was the maggots that lived in the pit below the
seats. The buckets in the house at night were a most welcomed
sight. Aunt Katie, who slept downstairs, had a bucket in her
bedroom, and the other one was placed in the hallway and was shared by
the rest of the family who slept in the two bedrooms
upstairs. Grandmom and Pop Pop had a bedroom on the southwest
side of the house. Sister, my brother, and I slept in the northeast
bedroom, which was directly over Aunt Katie's room. Clifford
and I shared a bed on one side of the small room. Sister's bed was on
the other side.
went in the kitchen and filled a glass with water from the water bucket
that sat on a corner table by the door that led to the back
porch. She filled a second glass with water in which she
placed her false teeth. She carried both glasses into the
sitting room and sat them on the sideboard.
Sitting in front of the mirror of the sideboard was an Aunt Jemima
cookie jar in which she kept her medicine. Her entire
apothecary consisted of a bottle of camphor, a bottle of mercurochrome,
a vial of Carter's Little Liver Pills, a jar of Mentholatum salve, and
a roll of Tums. She retrieved the jar of Mentholatum,
unscrewed the cap, and stuck her little finger in the Vaseline-like
contents. She proceeded to rub a thin coat of the
methol-laced salve in both her nostrils. She said "it opened
up her head" and she could breathe better. After returning
the Mentholatum to its proper place, she picked up the two glasses of
water, one of which contained her teeth, wished everyone a good night,
and climbed the stairs to her bedroom.
another fly-swatter attack on the mosquitoes that managed to slip past
Millard when he opened the screen door on his way out. After
returning her weapon to the nail by the kitchen door, she reached under
a table in the corner of the room by Grandmom's wooden rocking chair
and pulled out a spray gun. It consisted of a glass jar
filled with an insect-killing liquid. The jar was screwed to
a metal handle that contained a piston like plunger, which forced air
through an atomizer at the end of the handle above the jar. A
fine mist emerged from the device when the plunger was forced
inward. She soaked each of the screens in the house with the
insecticide whose odor lingered for most of the night.
Aunt Katie and Sister were the next to retire. Pop Pop joked
around with my brother and me for awhile before we followed the others
to bed. When we heard the ringing sound caused by a liquid hitting the
bottom of the white porcelain bucket that was upstairs, we knew
Grandmom was not long before getting into bed.
intentionally the last to leave the sitting room. With no one
looking, I opened the Aunt Jemima cookie jar, reached in for the bottle
of Menthalatum, and placed it in my pocket. I walked to the
middle of the sitting room, stood on my tip toes and reached for the
string that hung from the on/off switch of the ceramic light fixture
attached to the ceiling. I pulled the string cutting off the
electricity to a bare 60-watt bulb. Light from another bare bulb in a
similar fixture in the upstairs hallway lit the steps well enough for
me to see to make my way up to my bedroom.
After my brother and I put on our pajamas, he was next to "use the
bucket" that sat outside of our doorway. The ring was much
sharper and louder when the males of the family used the
bucket. It lacked the hissing sound that accompanied the ring
created by the females. When he returned to get in bed, it
was my turn at the pot. When I finished, in an effort to
control the odor of what was now a bucket one-fourth full of waste, I
placed a lid over the top.
It was a ritual before getting into bed for me to go into Pop Pop and
Grandmom's bedroom and jump between them into the fluffy feather bed,
which was especially plump in the middle because the feathers and air
had been shifted from each side of the bed where they lay.
The sheets were damp from the ever-present summer humidity.
A light, sweet, sour musty odor from our unbathed bodies filled my
nostrils. It was not an offensive aroma but one that distinguished us
from others -- one that implied similar chemistry, one that suggested
we were family. Since our only source of freshwater was from rain,
water had to be conserved. A once-a-week Saturday bath was
Nowhere have I ever felt safer than when I was snuggling between my
grandmother and granddaddy engulfed in that feather bed. Pop
Pop and I giggled and laughed while Grandmom pretended to be
asleep. A hissing ring from the bucket signaled that Sister
was soon to settle in her bed. When I heard her replace the
lid, I climbed out of my grandparent's bed, being careful not to kick
over the glass of water containing Grandmom's false teeth or her
drinking water, both of which she had sitting together on the floor
beside the bed. I do not know how she distinguished
between the two in the dark room when she would awake thirsty in the
middle of the night. I quickly crossed the pitch-black hall, entered my
room, and climbed into bed with my brother.
Both my brother and I remained awake until Aunt Katie finished her
final search for fire in our room. Shortly, we heard a
muffled ring from the slop bucket downstairs, which signaled that she
was about to finally retire for the night. We waited about 15
minutes to make sure that she was asleep. Sister was snoring
in the bed across the room from us.
I whispered to my brother, "Did you find some twine?"
"Yes," he replied in a hushed voice as he retrieved it from under his
pillow and passed it to me. "Grandmom had some in
one of the drawers of her sewing machine."
"How long is it?"
I reached under my pillow where I had stashed the Mentholatum jar that
I had taken from Aunt Jemima, unscrewed the top, placed one end of the
string in the jar, and replaced the lid. The jar was firmly
secured to the end of the string.
quietly we sneaked over to the window and peered into the dark
obscurity beyond. It was a typical Hatteras night before the
convenience of streetlights. The only source of light outside the homes
either came from the stars or the bioluminescence of some of nature's
local creatures. All we could see was a spectacular light
show created by fireflies darting over the marsh in the moonless void
beyond the cheesecloth screen that covered the opening of our raised
bedroom window. It was a night so dark that it was impossible to see
one's hand in front of one's face, a night whose mysterious sounds
could easily be magnified into legendary stories of unexplained
phenomena. Stories that could make one's hair stand on end in response
to the apprehension they created.
We pushed out one end of the insecticide soaked screen, and lowered the
Mentholatum jar below the downstairs window. When the jar was
swinging like the pendulum of Grandmom's chiming clock, we directed it
to rake and knock against the side of the house. Then we
stopped and listened. Silence. It was after a
second round of knocks and rakes outside Aunt Katie's window that we
got the response from her that we were hoping to achieve.
With terror in her voice, Aunt Katie yelled, "Merciful Father, what on
earth is making that racket?"
We heard her bolt across the dark bedroom, kicking the slop bucket as
she made her way to the doorway that lead into the sitting room where
just a few hours before Pop Pop had told us the story of seeing an
apparition. We quickly retrieved the Mentholatum jar, and
jumped into bed pretending to be asleep.
In record time, Aunt Katie was at the top of the stairs standing in the
small hallway, wringing her hands, and breathlessly shouting, "Mag,
Clifford, wake up. There is something outside my bedroom
By this time everyone was awake. Grandmom and Pop Pop quickly
emerged from their room as Sister hurriedly crossed our room towards
the door. With a convincing look of innocence and concern on
our faces, Clifford and I followed Sister. There standing
outside our bedroom door was Aunt Katie. Her white, flowing,
floor-length nightgown, now saturated with the contents of the slop
bucket, stuck to her legs. Hysterically she told us about the knocking
and raking sounds she had heard outside her bedroom window.
Grandmom, Pop Pop, and Sister followed her downstairs and outside into
the pitch-black Hatteras night to investigate the situation. While
everyone was outside, I rushed downstairs and returned the Mentholatum
container to Aunt Jemima. Without wasting any time, I made a mad dash
back up the stairs and into my room where Clifford and I laughed and
joyfully danced about in celebration for having paid Aunt Katie back
for all the times she had frightened us. When we heard the
adults return after having found no signs of what caused Aunt Katie's
distress, we quickly jumped into bed and spent the rest of the night
with dreams of sweet revenge.