My mother, Belle Williams, is about to be 90 years old. She’s spent around 50 of those years loving Effingham County.
It wasn’t always that way, though. Mama grew up a “city girl” in Savannah. The closest she came to living in the country was a short stint as a tyke in a house near Victory Drive. If you can imagine, that area of Savannah was pretty rustic in the 1920s. She loves telling about her mother sending her to “borrow” the phone at a tiny little barbecue shack run by now-famed restaurateur, Johnny Harris. Service hadn’t reached as far as their house at that time. Harris would hold a Coca Cola crate while Mama climbed up to reach his wall-mounted, hand-crank telephone.
Mama later loved dancing to the big-bands of that era on the old Tybrisa Pavilion. She still swoons talking about Bob Crosby, brother of Bing.
“He had the most gorgeous blue eyes you ever saw in your life!” Mama tells with a winsome smile and a wave of her hands. “Black hair and those blue eyes — he was really handsome in those white trousers and a blue blazer!”
Mother never dreamed of ever living in “the country.” She also never dreamed, though, that her first marriage to an alcoholic husband would dissolve and leave her struggling to raise a young son and a tiny daughter. By that time her mother had moved near Shawnee in Effingham County.
“I thought it was the other end of the world,” she once told.
It was on a visit there that Mama was persuaded to go to a dance near Oaky Pond. Across the room that night stood a strapping, handsome country-as-they-come young man named Mack Williams.
I don’t know if they used the term “redneck” back in those days, but, if they did, it probably suited my daddy perfectly. He was, as they used to say, “rough as a cob.” But let Mama tell it.
“Your daddy was unlike anyone I’d ever met,” she remembered not too long ago. “He was really handsome and — oh — he had muscles! He was so strong!”
Daddy had little experience with such things as dancing, though. She found him to be less than a Fred Astaire, to be charitable. Mother didn’t understand why, after men had been lined up to dance with her all evening — they all vanished once my father showed an interest.
“Once your Daddy asked me to dance, not a single other man would come close to me, much less ask me to dance!”
Grandma laughed out loud when Mama came home wondering.
“That Mack Williams is about the toughest young fellow around,” grandmother enlightened Mama. “None of those men wanted to mess with a girl if they thought he was interested in her.”
Daddy was rough-and-tumble and dirt-poor, but he was hard-working — and never touched alcohol — and that raised his stock in Mama’s eyes. It wasn’t long before Savannah’s “Belle” was a resident of Springfield, building life anew with Daddy. That knot was tied tight. Times were often tough over the years but only death parted them in 1996.
By that time, Mama and Daddy had long retired and moved to Blackshear to be closer to me and my children. They settled in and enjoyed life but the comparisons to how much better things were “back in Effingham” haven’t stopped to this day.
In Mama’s eyes, no one offers meat to compare with what’s handed over the counter at Snooks Store. No ball teams were ever as good as the Rebels. No place without an abundance of guttural, Germanic names like Rahn, Exley, Gnann, Zittrouer, Zeigler or Zettler will ever really be “home.”
Mama’s latest home is at the Baptist Village Retirement Community in Waycross, though. Alert, in good health — downright spunky even — Lord willing, we’ll all celebrate her 90th birthday Aug. 2.
The little lady who constantly reminds me: “I’m tough!” is tender enough to be excited about her party. We’ll be marking the occasion with a reception at my home, 191 Heritage Circle, Blackshear from 2-4 that day.
If there’s any old friends, those salt-of-the-earth types that my mother misses so much who would like to join us, I hope you know you’ll be more than welcome.
Robert M. Williams Jr. is an Effingham native and publisher of several Georgia weekly newspapers. His commentaries can also be heard on Georgia Public Radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.