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AUNT YOU LISTENING? Amusing and Endearing Ancedotes from Amer Lee
Most of us have probably never wondered what we would be like in our 90s, but we can only hope to be as robust and lively as my Great Aunt Amer Lee. At the age of 93, she is as quick-witted today as she was decades ago. If you were to spend just a few minutes in her presence, she would have you in stitches. She uses a walker to steady herself these days and takes precautions to watch her step, but she might “step on your toes” in conversation in order to tell you a thing or two. I guess she has earned that right after living nearly a century.
“Moody, Sweet Child & Beauty"
Amer Lee was born December 5, 1919 and spent much of her childhood running through the thick red clay of Edgefield, South Carolina with her three brothers and five sisters. Most of them had nicknames that described their appearance or demeanor: she had a brother called “Moody” and a sister called “Sweet Child”. Amer Lee’s nickname was “Beauty”, because she possessed so much of it. Her parents were Geat (pronounced Jeet) and Mattie Sullivan. In Amer Lee’s words, Mattie was an “Indian” from the Cherokee Tribe. One day Mattie was in the smokehouse (an outbuilding in which smoke was used to cure meat) when one of her legs slipped into a hole between planks in the floorboard. Mattie was put into a cast up to her stomach and she chose Amer Lee to be her unofficial nurse during her recuperation. When asked about the origin of the name Amer, she says her mother saw it in a newspaper and she liked it. Someone told the family later that it is a Pakistani name usually given to males, but it fit Amer in a unique and feminine way.
Families tended to be quite large back then because the children could contribute to the household by working the fields or helping with the chickens, hogs and other farm animals. As Amer Lee sprouted up, she recalls spending many long days picking cotton, corn, peas and about anything else that grew in the soil. As they sweated and toiled in the fields, she says “little white children passing by would yell the ‘N’ word at us. “ But she never had to deal with sitting in the back of the bus, she says, because they didn’t have a bus!
Every Fourth of July, the family would travel to the Bettis Academy in Trenton, S.C. for a celebration and fundraiser. Bettis was a big religious school established by a former slave to provide an educational opportunity for African American children. Amer Lee couldn’t attend that school because she had to help out in the fields, but she did become a teacher’s aide at the one-room schoolhouse she attended in Edgefield. She says during those days, the children would actually do the teaching and the teachers would “oversee” the lessons.
He's a Big Un
Amer Lee’s soon-to-be husband joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in Abbeville, South Carolina and was sent to Modoc, a small city near Amer Lee’s town. The CCC was created by President Franklin Roosevelt to provide employment for young people whose families were suffering during the Great Depression. CCC enrollees would seed the land, build picnic shelters and park cabins, and construct roads. During this time, Amer Lee budded into a young lady of rare natural beauty who caught the eye of CCC workers, in particular - a young man named John McAdams. He had model good looks and a magnetic personality. John was trying to court her older sister at the time but when he saw Amer Lee, he was smitten. John was the baby of his 11 siblings. As the story goes, he wasn’t named for several days after he was born. But when his relatives saw him, they called him “The Big One,” and in Southernspeak it became Big Un. It was a name that stuck with him for a lifetime. Amer Lee says he used to call her “a crazy little gal.” She says she just laughed at him because “he talked funny” (despite the fact that she was a southern talker too)!
When Amer was about 25 years old, she and two of her sisters ” ran away” from home to Washington, D.C. in search of a more exciting life. Soon after she got there, she started writing love letters to her sweetheart, Big Un. He pursued her all the way to the nation’s capitol and brought her back to his hometown of Abbeville, S.C. She was about 27 years old then and Big Un was 28. She has fond memories of their wedding ceremony at his sister Daisy’s house in front of the fireplace.
Pa Jim's Feet
“Broke off his toes”
During the early days of matrimony, Amer Lee says they lived in New Jersey for three years, before building their own home on land owned by his parents, Pa Jim and Granny Rose. They settled down and became farmers. But when an electrical fire devoured their home, Amer Lee, Big Un and their 4 children moved in with her in-laws. She says Granny Rose was strict with a stick, while Pa Jim was a soft touch. When it seemed as if Granny Rose was trying to meddle, Pa Jim would always say, “Now Rose, stay out of their business!” Granny had her “way,” but they were good people, says Amer Lee. She remembers a daily ritual of giving Pa Jim his insulin shot to help treat his diabetes, and washing his feet, which were deteriorating. There was a period of time when Amer Lee was pregnant and unable to go “see about” Pa Jim, and his feet started to rot. Granny Rose told her that it was so bad that Pa Jim “broke his toes off and throwed ‘em in the fire!”
Bury my leg “standing up”
As Pa Jim’s health began to worsen, his brother Bob would come to lay hands on him. Amer Lee says she was a witness to Uncle Bob’s healing powers. She says if he put his hand “on your head, you could just feel” the power pulsing through you. She thinks Pa Jim lived longer because of Uncle Bob’s visits. When Pa Jim became very ill and was hospitalized, doctors had to cut off his leg. He summoned two of his brothers to come and get the amputated leg and bury it “standing up” at the foot of his gravesite. It was buried that way because an “old wives’ tale” said that that would cause him to live longer. Pa Jim told the doctors that he didn’t want to die in the hospital, so they released him to spend his last days at home. It was 1951 when he died and they buried him in the grave along with his leg.
Three babies lost
Big Un and Amer Lee had a total of ten children altogether, but three of them didn’t make it. The first, named Eva, died after being born premature. They grieved for her, she says, and buried her tiny body out in the chicken yard. The second was a “blue baby”, born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. He lived for several days, but wasn’t strong enough to survive. The third child who died was the twin to their son Jim. His name was Jessie Roscoe. The family lived “out in the country,” so it was quite a drive to get to a doctor or a hospital. “If I’d gone to the doctor like they told me, maybe the baby (Jessie) would have lived,” Amer Lee reflects. “But I just say that it was God’s will, and he has given me seven wonderful children. “
"Under the hill"
On Saturdays, Amer Lee, Big Un and all the kids used to pile into their ’54 Oldsmobile and drive to town to spend the whole day. The storekeepers knew them and would often give the children free candy. Then the children would wait the rest of the day in the car while Big Un and the other menfolk would hang out “under the hill”, where they could do business with “colored” merchants. There was Chester’s Barber Shop, a package store, a public bathroom , a beauty parlor and a jailhouse. It was a place where they could sip from bottles in paper bags and shoot the breeze.
If you start shaking your family tree, you’d probably be surprised at what might fall out. In Amer Lee’s case, she learned that her cousin Essie Mae was the daughter of former S.C. Governor and U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, who lived the first half of his life as a notorious segregationist. Essie Mae’s mother was a house servant for the Thurmond family. Amer Lee had a chance to meet Strom while she was growing up and he commented that she looked like someone in his family. She never let on that they were related, but he began taking about her daddy Geat, and how they “went back a long way!”
"Jump in the ditch!"
There were many facets to Amer Lee’s marriage to Big Un. She says sometimes he would wake up in the middle of the night hollering, “Jump in the ditch, jump in the ditch!” The nightmares were brought on by flashbacks of his army life in the Philippines during World War II, and they worried him a bunch, she says. Back then, not a lot was known about post traumatic war syndrome. Amer Lee tells of the time Big Un was involved in a traffic accident in which he was an injured passenger who required surgery. When the medical workers gave him a blood transfusion at the hospital, they mistook his name “McAdams” for ”Adams” and gave him the wrong blood type. He suffered with heart problems after that.
Big Un leaned pretty heavily on “the bottle” as he struggled to deal with the complexities of life. Sometimes he would drink for days at a time. As he grew older, alcohol continued to serve as his escape. Amer Lee says she remembers his last day, when their son Jim came over to clean and dress his dad before returning home to Anderson. Big Un asked her for a drink of water and a BC powder. She says something felt strange so she kept a watchful eye on Big Un. Later that day, he passed away in his bed peacefully at the age of 74.
“They gonna choke me”
“When asked what she wants her legacy to be, Amer Lee simply says she wants her seven children, Doris, Carlton (“Bo”), Dianne, Mary, Jim, Sherry and Tom, to be good people. She proudly acknowledges that they all finished college, some even earning a master’s degree. She says they are all helpful and take great care of her. “Looks like they love me so -- sometimes they squeeze me like they gonna choke me,” she laughs. “They are all as sweet as they can be. I guess I did a good job,” she cracks.
These days, Amer Lee lives with her daughter Mary in a comfortable rural subdivision outside Atlanta. She spends most days engulfed in her favorite La-Z-Boy chair in the living room. She enjoys watching TV or gazing out the back picture window at the man-made lake and nearby horse stable, reminding her of “life in the country.” She visits her other children occasionally, to afford Mary some “time off” and to give hugs to her 17 grandchildren.
Be careful about asking her opinion unless you really want the truth. Amer Lee can be brutally honest, and she’s known to be a bit stubborn. But those traits make her the firecracker that she is. All of her siblings have passed on and the memories of her life are becoming harder for her to grasp nowadays. Advancing age has begun to push some of her recollections into crevices that she can no longer reach and names are beginning to play tricks on her. That’s why it’s imperative that we take the time to record the historic, touching, funny and bittersweet “Amer-isms” before they slip away.