With all of the excitement about the Earth project and the renewal going on in the Avondale Mill Village in Sylacauga my mind goes back to the late fifties when I first visited Arrie and J.S. Clifton’s house on 30 Pelham Avenue, when I first sat on that screened porch in those rocking chairs. Since that day, I have always wished that I knew all about life in that house and in that neighborhood, so that I could write a book about it. I found them and their lives fascinating, people cut from the cloth I was cut from, but kind and generous and accepting of the little naïve girl from Spring Street as their youngest son’s life choice.
Mr. Joe Clifton had very little to say; but when he spoke, everyone listened. He like building things (was a master carpenter), artichokes, and Patti Page singing The Tennessee Waltz. He did not like iced tea. He got the idea that he wanted some in his last days in that hospital bed in the middle room where his petite, feisty wife, Arrie, cared so tenderly for this big, tall man who was still an intimidating size despite being sick for so long. “Arrie,” he said, “bring me a glass of iced tea.” And she went into the kitchen to get it, shaking her head in disbelief. One sip and he said, “Whew, that’s terrible? I didn’t think I’d like it.” Mr. Joe liked me. You know how you can just tell those things, and I grew to love him. I did not like his pickled artichokes. He had retired from Avondale and drove his Jeep to whatever carpenter job he was doing at the time. He was in demand.
Arrie Clifton, “Mama” to all of her ten children and later to me, was just as visible as he was invisible. Their mill village house was comfortable and inviting, and was a testimony to her creativity. She was also the horticulturist, and this time of the year there were always trees and flowers blooming in every tiny spot of that yard and table bouquets to enjoy inside. She upholstered chairs and ottomans and made curtains and cushions from material she bought or from sheets if she could not find the fabric. Most houses in the village were near t and clean from tender, loving care in those days, but hers was extra special.
Arrie Clifton was such a good cook, and hospitality came from her mouth; for as soon as we came in the door, she would say, “Son, have you eaten? I’ve got some…in there.” I was always amazed to see her make biscuits from scratch and have that baking pan full of beautiful biscuits as quickly as a cat can wink its eye. Bob and number one son, Ray, ate them with fried chicken, and I liked her barbecued pork chops, and delicious coconut cream pie. No one ever knew how many people would be there for Sunday lunch after church, and she did not either; but she always had enough food and made everyone feel welcome. It was like a circus at the lunch table with her sons and daughters laughing, talking, arguing, and passing those dishes heaped with good food.
She and Mr. Joe worked in the mill while raising their ten children, and still had an amazing zest for life. She could hold her own with anyone. She was tough and could change from sweet into tough in an instant. She had buried two children before I met her; but nothing, literally nothing, ever quenched her spirit. She walked to town to get her groceries and to church at Mignon Methodist. I remember stories of when there was no car, and an older son put one of the younger boys on his back and ran with him to Drummond Frazer Hospital because he had stepped on a broken bottle and cut his foot and was bleeding badly.
The Cliftons had neighbors and friends, but most of them were hard workers with big families of their own. Almost all of the teenagers in the Mill Village who attended B.B. Comer School had nicknames. There was Cubby, Piggy, Goose, Floaty, Coot etc.. Backyards joined and children who lived near the school came home for lunch. Families loved the school and the teachers and supported the sports programs, the band, and the teachers and faculty. In the summer Lake Louise was brimming with children there for afternoons of swimming. Despite their hard work and difficult lifestyles, grown-ups and children alike respected the Comers and appreciated the amenities that were made available to them. In the summer Camp Helen was scheduled each week for different groups.
My first public school teaching job was at B.B. Comer in 1980, the year my older son went off to the University of Alabama. I was hired to teach second grade, but that changed before school started; and I ended up with more than 25 fourth graders in a room with no air conditioning. I had such good students and supportive parents who brought big fans to sit around that big old room, and we had fun and all learned a lot, especially this teacher. Mrs. Grace Pearson was Elementary School Principal, and she gently scolded me about taking the job so seriously. I raised my hand to do everything that was put out there for a volunteer to do, even chairing a schoolwide talent show. What was I thinking taking on such a huge task? It was fun!
That year I learned what the B.B. Comer spirit was, and although I was born and will die an Aggie, I learned that folks from different parts of town are still just folks, some good and a few not so much. I learned to appreciate Avondale through the eyes of people who lived in the Mill Village. It was a very different place from the neighborhoods that have deteriorated so much in recent years. The Earth project, the B.B. Comer Band and the football team, and all of the encouraging things happening in that area now makes me smile. Remembrances flood my mind of a kinder, gentler time; and it was not so long ago at that.