This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 9 No. 2, "Festival: Celebrating Southern Literature." Find more from that issue here.
Sue was dead and Cousin Dell was making her shroud.
The days of my staying in bed with my sister so that people would not think she was really sick were over. Sue had always wanted me to stay in bed, too, on those days when her “poor little mortally wounded heart,” as our old doctor had told Mama, was so bad. I always did, for my big, lovely 14- year-old sister had been my idol as far back as I could remember. Now she was no more.
And frail, little wispy Cousin Dell, with her agile, tiny fingers, was busily stitching in and out on the soft, creamy cashmere — her bright, buttony eyes following the needle with a certain fixedness that fascinated my 11-year-old imagination, as the shadows of the fading January sunlight made grotesque figures on the heaps of material.
Cousin Dell was an institution in our family at such times. As soon as the word ever got around among our big family connections that the Death Angel had paid a visit (and it seemed often — epidemics and disease took a heavy toll), she moved in.
Her tiny, dark figure domiciled itself inconspicuously in the corner of Mama’s bedroom, where to the quiet comings and goings and soft weeping and chattering of bereaved relatives and friends, her needle plied its sorrowful task. Bewilderment mingled with fright as I sat on a little stool by Mama’s machine, watching the bright, beady eyes dart from stitch to stitch until the long row became the side seam of my sister’s gown. The nimble fingers flew hither and yon in swift, calculated course, like the humming birds in the obelias outside the dining room window. I wondered if Sue could see me.
The sullen day faded into evening as Cousin Dell tirelessly put pieces together and fashioned sleeves and ruffles, until when I saw my sister for the last time, the terrible, deep hurt was gentler — for the creamy cashmere and the lacy ruching made her look just like an angel, and I now had the feeling that what Mama had told me about meeting her in heaven was really true.
And all through that shadowy half-century-ago childhood, my cousin Dell moved in as regularly at our family bereavements as did our mortician, until the great Industrial Age finally moved in ahead of Cousin Dell to take over her task of love, and expertly and efficiently present handsome ready-made gowns for The Last Sleep — to be selected to your liking, stiffly and presentably fit — but with none of the gentle stitches nor aura of ritual of Cousin Dell.
As far back as I can remember, she had always figured as an important branch in the rambling ramifications of our family tree, although I do know that Papa said the connection was getting a bit dim, her grandfather having been a first cousin of Papa’s grandfather. But by our Southern ways, a few generations removed made none the difference, as long as one stemmed from the same forebears.
On Sunday afternoons, whether they be hot and sultry of a summer, or brisk and invigorating of a fall when the wind whipped in from the Gulf, Papa would always summon the younger of the clan to go for a walk with him. Invariably, these strolls led either down to the wharf of our seaport town to see and go over the new ships that had put into port during the week (and we were always welcomed by those elegant ambassadors of good will, the gracious Captains), or to visit with Cousin Dell in the lower flat of the once-beautiful old antebellum home, now generously let out, in apartments, mostly to fallen aristocracy, of whom our Cousin Dell was, definitely, part and parcel. Here, in the far corner of what was the former grandeur of the dining room, was Cousin Dell’s hemstitching with its surrounding tables piled high with bits and packs of materials which generous clientele had brought for her handiwork.
The machine was never opened on Sunday, but we all sat around while Papa and Cousin Dell discussed the comings and goings, marriages and offspring of our big connection. Restlessly, I would pull off my Sunday patent leather baby doll slippers and wiggle my cramped, hot toes, and watch the poor marble fawn, toppled from its fountain base in the front yard, where it lay pitifully prostrate, and wondered why someone did not come to its rescue and place it aright on its former pedestal of grandeur.
But as I grew older, I was to know the true Cousin Dell story.
She was 16 that summer when Meredith Cassel came South to regain his health after a bout with tuberculosis contracted while he was in medical school.
I loved to hear her tell about the afternoon he put his fraternity pin on her and asked her if she loved him. She replied: “I’ll ask Mama!”
But love and marry him she did. I watched her dimmed eyes twinkle as she told how her Meredith asked her deaf father for her in very loud tones: “Mr. Hamilton, can I have her?” Lizzie, the cook, darted out backway, shouting, “I heard Mister Meredith ask for Miss Dell and I’m gonna narrate it around!”
Life moved swiftly and tragically for Cousin Dell the next dozen years.
The two babies who came were not very strong, and Cousin Dell grew up very quickly, with the responsibility of the babies and Cousin Meredith, too. Disappointed at having to abandon his medical career, he hated the bookwork which chained him to the mill-supply house as much as he loved his duck hunting and fishing expeditions week ends. And when Meredith was accidentally killed in the hazy dusk of an early Saturday evening down by the marshes as his foot triggered his gun when he stood to take aim at a bevy of ducks, her cup of sorrow was running over.
Gradually, however, there came to her new strength — as it does to those about whom Victor Hugo says: “Sorrow is an astronomer and shows us the stars.”
Now she took things in her own hands.
“Wayne,” she confided to Papa, “I’m going to have my own business.” Then she found the flat in the Salsworth Place and moved in what lock, stock and barrel remained.
She had heard about the new hemstitching machine on the market. Papa went with her to see and help her buy it. With it she believed she could support her two boys.
Papa printed for her the neat “HEMSTITCHING” sign, and I’ve a notion the proud pillars of the old Salsworth Mansion heaved a groan as the tacks were driven to support the sign that was to support Cousin Dell’s little household.
And so began her business. In the shadow of the im posing old columns of the Cathedral, she lived for half a century, making trousseaux for the city’s belles and ever plying her needle.
With the constant padding in and out of her customers, she kept her finger on the pulse of the city’s heartbeat as surely as she did on her hemstitching machine. Histories and happenings of the families for whom she worked were hers to know and enjoy as she deftly adorned layettes and bridal outfits and graduation frocks and, always, time out for the “going away” gowns of her infinitely large family connections.
And then one day, long after her little boys were grown and on their own, they came and closed the hemstitching machine, and took down the sign. For Cousin Dell had finished her last trousseau. There were services at the Cathedral, and then at old Magnolia Cemetery. All the kith and kin from far and near had gathered there, for somehow or other the valley of the shadow has a way of thickening bloodlines.
And I remember how heavy my heart felt, as for the last time I looked at Cousin Dell. Not so much because she was gone — for she had earned this sweet rest — but because the Industrial Age had moved in and made Cousin Dell’s “going-away” gown.
Why I Write
By Regina M. K. Mandrell
No best seller am I, but now, at three score and 10 plus, recalling that dim childhood of years ago and the turbulent, restless subsequent years, I realize that my writing has been my secret ally, my confidant, my unhampered source of expression. At times, during deep distress, it has been my only mode of emotional survival.
As the twelfth of 14 siblings and the only survivor, it has been my release in sadness and joy, my most gratifying tool of communication. Through diary, letters, memos, it has served me as priestess and prophet of accomplishment and creation.
It was my mainstay during long periods of confinement with a terminally ill family member. It has been something I could share with friends who asked for assistance: a letter to an elderly prospective father-in-law asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage (boy got girl!), a series of lectures for an army officer, letters of application, reporting. Scholarships, household articles, pleasure trips, cash, all have come our way through my writing efforts.
My joy and interest in writing have enabled me to carry on business effectively and maintain a wide circle of friends — all through correspondence. I have garnered and organized a wealth of historical information in genealogical materials which will be a legacy for my family and vital to our area. It has helped give me a “voice” in my community and strength in political and civic circles.
In September of 1979, when a violent and terrifying hurricane hit our area — devastating homes and lands alike — my pen brought release to my taut and shattered nerves and myriad anxieties, as I wrote, by candlelight in my basement, the story of that night.
All through life, my love of writing has enabled me to express and share feelings and thoughts which otherwise might have been silent.
And now, in my later years, it is priceless. I need nothing but pen (or typewriter) and paper to express, to recall, to relive, to dream.
With my love for writing, I continue to sing the song in my heart!