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Miss Walton

“My time isn’t worth very much,” the older voice had warned me on the phone. I’m driving west this morning to visit ninety-one-year-old Minnie Walton. Miss Walton graduated Alameda High School April 28, 1933. She lives at Mineral Well’s Crazy Water Hotel, built in 1927. The hotel gets its name from a local woman, crazy they say, who drank from Water Well Three beneath where the building is now and was healed. Eighty-one years later, the Crazy Water’s brick shell houses a glorified rest home.

I pull into Mineral Wells a little early. The once resort hotel soars six stories into unending sky. I haven’t planned for this, my fear of heights and all. I walk into the expansive, once-palatial lobby. Dusty paneled walls and gilt chandeliers grace a wide stairway up to the promenade. Young Judy Garland, Tom Mix, Gen. John J. Pershing, D. W. Griffith, Bob Wills and one bank robbing couple using made up names strode these marble floors, signed in at the now-vacant registration desk against that far wall over there. Prohibition booze fueled midnight flappers dancing the Charleston to big band orchestras atop the glass-walled rooftop high above us, broadcast by radio all over the South. Today the lobby is dark, two clumps of old people sitting here and over by the piano on past-its-prime cast off furniture.

Breakfast was served at eight, about an hour ago. Whoever came down to eat is nowhere to be seen now. I meet a nice man. Call Miss Walton on the house phone, he suggests, seeing that I’m lost. Minnie answers on the second ring–Room 438, the fourth floor, great, the elevator. Twin doors open. The elevator is cruelly slow, enjoying itself – wobbly, unsure. Days pass while it totters one floor at a time–uncertain. The tomblike, weathered box mercifully opens, releasing me onto the fourth floor at last. There are no paintings, no pictures in this monotonous hallway of painted concrete walls.

Minnie pokes her head out from an opening four doors to my right. “I’m down here.” Her crowded room might be ten by twelve, one small window on the far wall, drapes tightly shut. Her bed boasts an intricate, brightly-colored patchwork quilt. A breathing machine the size of a console TV waits on the floor beside the bed. The room is clean, but there’s clutter everywhere. This woman’s life possessions have followed her here.

She asks me to sit down, in either her wheelchair or a five-wheeled stenographer’s roll around, pillows in the seats of each. Minnie is a small woman, frail. She takes short, shallow labored breaths. She has painstakingly arranged old photos all over the top of her bed. We begin our visit.
Minnie’s mind is sharp, precise, though she forgets names sometimes. She thinks she has Alzheimer’s, but she’s too alert. Her memories unspool like newsreels. She confirms that her doctor thinks she’s fine as well, but you can tell the Alzheimer ghost is on her mind.

Miss Walton attended first grade at the Alameda School, then grades two through seven at Cheaney’s school up the dirt road. Minnie remembers the wood frame Cheaney School as a one room building, a movable partition wall separating the space into two classrooms. Mr. Stephens or Stephenson was her teacher. The Alameda Trustees successfully talked Minnie’s momma into letting this bright young girl return to Alameda in the eighth grade, sweetened by the promise of a bus ride. I glance at the oxygen machine on the floor behind her.

Minnie never married. I don’t bring it up. I don’t know it for 100% true while we talk, but that’s the direction her family names lead me – still a Walton, her maiden name. It appears she merged into her brother’s family at some point as she traveled through life. He’s gone now. His daughter lives south of town.

Minnie could hear Alameda School’s first bell from their house across the dirt road, the Tucker place to their east, Ollie Pilgrim’s store to the south. That black Liberty Bell-like alarum stood high on a steel pole, pulled by a knotted rope by farm kid hands from the ground. Miss Walton remembers with a smile when the Alameda and Cheaney schools became one. Jagged feelings were raw with some about the consolidation, certain folks suspecting that Cheaney joining Alameda would leech identity from Cheaney, the community.

Both school buildings were moved from opposite ends of each settlement, slamming together like bookends on the new midpoint campus. The Cheaney structure came to a stop on the northern “Cheaney” end of the schoolyard. Alameda’s building was planted on the southern, “Alameda” side of its new neighbor.

Times were hard, she told me. Students could buy six school photos of themselves for twenty-five cents. She and her siblings did without. That money could buy food. The large class photo of the entire school cost one dollar, but in 1933 it too was out of the question for a family struggling from one day to the next. Minnie borrowed a friend’s all-school photo after she was grown, which she had copied. Her delicate fingers hold the treasure. She passes it across for me to take a look.

Miss Walton grew up in a log house, bigger than a cabin, later expanded with plank rooms on two sides. A third plank room, an attached second building, was added later. The log house survived into the 1940s. The boys slept in a loft above the main room. Drinking water was drawn from their cistern, a rock-lined hole in the ground into which rain water flowed from gutters nailed to the house. Later a clear water well was dug northwest of their home. Wells were a little unusual in that sandy country back then. That fresh well water flowed into a trough built to pass under the Walton’s fence facing the New Alameda Road (now FM 571) so neighbors and passersby could partake.

Minnie’s grandfather George Washington Love (1858-1922) moved to the Cheaney Community from East Texas, following some of his children who had already migrated to Eastland County. Three Love boys ended up marrying three Tucker girls from the Tucker farm next door. Joe Tucker was her grandpa’s favorite son-in-law. Joe seemed to help with everything, including digging that well. Miss Walton’s parents were William “Willie” Everett Walton and Martha Margaret “Mattie” Love Walton. William and Mattie married at the Love home in 1915.

Minnie Walton was ten months old when her daddy tragically died of pneumonia in 1918. She never knew him. Her mother was left with two babies and one on the way. Minnie’s sister Josie died in 1932, also of pneumonia.

Miss Walton’s grandmother started having health problems about this time – falling and getting hurt. She’d been taking strychnine pills hoping to get better, a common practice back then. Minnie’s grandmother severely burned herself with a pot of hot coffee after one fall. Minnie’s granddad had a long talk with her mom Mattie one day – with her husband dead, and his wife unable to be left alone, their family was in a fix, he told her. They patched two limping households together and made it work.

The Waltons farmed peanuts like most of the community. Although times were tough and they had no money, Minnie said they never went hungry. The family worked a vegetable garden, had eggs, milk, and hogs. Minnie later moved with her mom to Ranger, working at the Ranger Peanut Mill, then a shirt factory owned by O. K. and Myvan Gray. Minnie followed that shirt factory to Brownwood in 1950, later working for Brownwood Manufacturing Company, retiring in 1982.

Miss Walton went to school with a girl named Minnie Bell Browning (her mother was a Cheaney), who she believes was an only child. Minnie Bell wanted a pair of gold fish for one of her teenage birthdays, Miss Walton remembers. The big day arrived. Minnie Bell’s wish arrived in a big round glass fish bowl. She took meticulous care of those fish and they grew and grew. They finally got so big that the family decided to put them outside in the water trough.

The gold fish went to having babies. It got to where there were more and more fish. So Minnie’s dad built a great big fish pond on the back side of their place. He also built a fence around the pond, with a gate.

Miss Walton paused, looked down at her hands, remembering. Years went by and her friend Minnie Bell’s fish prospered. But the little girl grew up, married a boy from up the road, Obie Elrod, and moved away to make a life. One Mothers Day, Minnie Bell returned home to celebrate with all her childhood family – parents, brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews.

Minnie Bell had one small son, Burnice “Dale” Elrod – fifteen months old, her first born. The older children played and cut up that warm spring day as the grown ups visited up at the house. One of the kids’ stops on that carefree afternoon was the gold fish pond. But as the big kids moved on to their next adventure, they left the gate protecting the gold fish pond standing open. Fifteen-month-old Dale managed to toddle in, climbed to the top of the tank, and looked down into the bubbling water. Imagine the delight in the young boy’s eyes, seeing shapes of gold and orange dart back and forth in the wonderland beneath him. The little boy fell in. No one was close by. He drowned. Miss Walton and I sat silently, for more than a moment.

Even now it’s a hard story for her to tell. Her friend from school, a young loving first-time mom, returning to her childhood home on Mother’s Day, her only child, dead, pulled from the gold fish pond she wished for, she loved as a little girl. Her little boy was laid to rest May 15, 1934 in Desdemona’s Howard Cemetery.

Miss Walton cherishes Alameda’s good times and the great friends she enjoyed as a girl there. We talk about her current life as I wind up to leave. I thank her for her time. She takes a Kleenex in her hand, and repeats “my time isn’t worth much anymore”. The hotel sponsors activities and little outings, she tells me, but it hurts her to ride in a car for very long. She pretty well stays here, in this little room, going downstairs three times a day for meals. She can visit with other residents whenever she wants, she assures me. I remember the cold, uninviting hallway – the silence.

When I arrived she had asked me to close the door–the bright sun hurt her eyes. Standing to leave, shaking her gentle hand, I pull the wooden opening closed behind me, glad of having met her. I stand alone in the sterile hallway, looking at the outside of her many-times-painted door resting in its frame. I cross myself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit–do it without thinking, like swatting a fly from your face. A blessing or a petition, I’m still not sure, but involuntary nonetheless.

Jana drives back to the Crazy Water the next morning with my jabbering four-year-old Savannah, returning photos Minnie let me copy. I ask Jana some follow ups for Minnie about the pictures. Also, woman to woman, to delicately explore, if the chance presents itself — about kids, about husbands.

“Minnie was quite vague when I asked about children and marriage,” Jana tells me that night, after our own children are asleep. “She told me her childhood nickname was Monk. She got a kick out of Savannah, gave her a sucker. I asked if she had any children of her own. She said no. Said she never married. I said Oh. She shared that she just never found the right one. She seemed reluctant to talk about it. Kind of sad, like there was something she’d missed, but moved on in the conversation without a second thought. I didn’t press it further.”

It’s been a year since I last saw Minnie. I still call her with obscure questions, her memory better than most. Minnie’s ridden up and down that rickety elevator over 2,100 times since her own wooden door closed to me that day.

It’s almost five, on the clock by this computer, on the clock in Minnie’s room. She’ll stand, maybe put on a sweater. She’ll head down the hall, push the prehistoric Down button, and wait. She’ll ride to the lobby, walk into the dining room. What will they serve? Will the dining room be loud or somber? Will she push into a table full of friends to gossip, or sit alone in a corner, eyes down? When dinner’s over, that elevator will carry her back to her room, will carry her home.