A Rose for Miss Louise

A few of the more colorful selections from my Aunt Louise’s hat collection

I was seventeen when I first read “A Rose For Emily,” William Faulkner’s eerie tale of tribute to a spinster with attitude. I loved it. The story had just the right blend of macabre romance and Southern sensibility to appeal to my teenaged self, at once idealistic and sentimental. What’s more, I felt a whisper of warm recognition, even affection (despite the arsenic), for Emily Grierson and the “big squarish frame house” where she lived alone in early 20th century Mississippi. I knew that close musty air, the heavy walnut bed beneath rose-shaded lights, the Victorian trinkets and the lace doilies on coffee tables and upholstered chairs. In fact, I knew Emily. I once had a spinster of my own, my Aunt Louise, who walked with a cane and wore frumpy dresses, cameo brooches, pearls, and hats. Always a hat, and for Sunday Mass, a netted veil to cover her impish face.

Louise was my father’s aunt, my great aunt, though when I was very young that relationship failed to compute. She was just Weezer (pronounced Wee-za), sometimes “the Weez,” and I loved her the way my friends did the grandmothers they visited on Sundays or shared jello with at Morrison’s Cafeteria or listened to on the phone with half an ear (Yes, Weez, I’ve done my homework and passed a healthy, ahem, stool today).

As I’ve mentioned all too often, my father’s mother died when he was four. In the chaotic aftermath it was Weezer, thirty-something and single, who stepped in to raise him and his brother. A staunch Catholic, by the time I came along she lived three blocks from the cathedral and the parochial elementary school I attended. On afternoons when my mother was off at her book group or shopping, I would sling my book bag over my shoulder and walk those three blocks in my plaid dress and saddle oxfords. Weezer would greet me at the door with a smile (not much of a hug on account of germs), ask me about my day, and dodder off to dish up the snack I was allowed only at her house: Underwood Deviled Ham on Sunbeam bread.

The Beck and Gregg catalog, 1941, priced for collectors now at $200. I like to think Weezer, a clever writer, had a hand in editing it.

You were expecting Tollhouse cookies? A slice of peach pie or at the very least, homemade fruitcake? Nope, Weezer wasn’t much of a cook. I’m not sure she even owned a mixing bowl. Born the third of four daughters in 1886 in Greensboro, Georgia, Louise Bourne Bickers was a working girl. I’m not sure how she ended up in Atlanta, but I know she and at least two of her three sisters did. For fifty plus years, Weezer worked at the headquarters of Beck and Gregg Hardware downtown. She was good at it. Her obituary mentions that for a time she served as “Mr. Beck’s private secretary.” Early on, Weezer needed the money, the stability to weather the Depression with her adopted sons, but as I sift through some of the letters and memorabilia that migrated from her attic to my mother’s and now, figuratively speaking, to mine, I have to wonder. Did something more keep her on board at Beck and Gregg? Could it be my great aunt kept taking dictation and typing up work orders even as her septuagenarian joints protested, because she, like Faulkner’s Emily, had a dangerous liaison?

A holiday greeting from the man I knew only as “Mr. Strickland.”

“Dear Louise …” writes one Paul B. Strickland, also late of Beck and Gregg, in a shaky blue script. “Being a poor hand at selecting presents, it is hoped the enclosed will be acceptable as it carries my wish for you the merriest of Christmas greetings … It would be best if you would use it for something you desire for yourself. Very pleasing to me but use it as you wish and I will be happy. Sincerely, with love, Paul. December 25th, 1961.” This is the only missive in which Paul addresses Weezer as Louise. Otherwise, it’s “Miss Bickers,” though tellingly, he signs off Paul, and with love, in each of three I’ve found. A 1962 letter concludes “with a heart full of love to you.”

Family letters as early as the 1930s mention him. In a note from September 1953, my uncle writes from Ohio to make plans for a visit home. “Reckon Paul would let you off Monday afternoon?” he asks. Aha! Paul was the boss. Attagirl, Weez. My father used to joke about catching Weezer and “Mr. Strickland,” as we knew him, together on the living room couch when they were younger. If Mr. Strickland’s arm happened to have found its way around Weezer’s shoulders, he did the quick head-scratch retraction upon my father’s approach, as if they were naughty teenagers. My brothers and sister remember his Sunday afternoon visits in later years. Dressed in coat and tie, he would sit a proper distance from Weez on the dusty glider on her front porch, smile, and say little. By this time, Paul lived alone in the Hotel Georgian Terrace in midtown while Weezer had retired and moved six miles north to that big squarish house. After seeing each other over their second cup every day for decades, they must have felt oceans apart.

Still they kept up their visits, and after Weezer lost another sister and a niece in the 1962 Air France crash at Orly, Mr. Strickland was right there by her side. Why did they never marry? Wherein lay the danger in this liaison? Simply in workplace etiquette? Perhaps early on Weezer hesitated to introduce a new father figure into what was already a dysfunctional situation for my father and uncle. Or maybe Mr Strickland was reticent about engaging in that dysfunction, though there’s no evidence of it. But later? Ten, twenty, thirty years later? My mother’s theory, which no doubt trickled down from my father’s clan, was that Weezer was afraid of passing along the TB she contracted as a girl, that even after being cured she vowed never to kiss a man. Hmm. My brother Tom posits that perhaps Mr. Strickland was, God forbid, a Protestant. Might Weezer’s fierce faith have led her to resist his advances, maybe even to use the TB rationale to soften the blow while avoiding a “sinful” entanglement?

The Attic, though teeming with rosaries and relics of the saints, has yet to provide a clear answer. Weezer was a prolific letter writer, or letter-typer, I should say. She tapped away with dry wit on Beck and Gregg letterhead, often annotating and always signing by hand. Two weeks before my parents’ wedding, she needles my father about expensive gifts and potential guests and updates him on a family controversy concerning their write-up for the paper. “When I get ready to announce my engagement …” she writes. “I’m going to write it myself, or get St. Peter to do it.” And handwritten on the reverse is this: “Will there be any question about the priest marrying you in Sara’s back yard? Better see!”

Letter (misdated 1951 but sent in ’41) Weezer wrote to my father a few weeks before his wedding.

My mother was a Baptist. The logistics of getting them hitched by a proper priest in her small Florida town created many a sleepless night for my father’s kin. Heck, the idea of their marrying at all gave them apoplexy. In this day of destination weddings and bachelorette weekends and TV rose ceremonies, it’s easy to look back and laugh at their anxiety, but to Weezer and her family, marriage was more sacrament, less party. The traditions of the Church mattered to them. A lot. And yet, in the end Weezer gave my parents her blessing. She bent the rules for the man she’d raised and loved like a son. Why not for herself?

I googled Paul B. Strickland/Beck and Gregg the other day, and came up empty. I did a search on Ancestry.com and found a possible match in a man born June of 1883, died August 15, 1970. Makes sense. My clearest memories are of visiting Mr. S in a nursing home. Beyond that, no updates, no ancestry leaf-hints. Who was this man my surrogate grandmother loved? I couldn’t let it go. So I went to the downtown library, wrestled long minutes with the microfiche machine, and found his obituary: “Services for Paul B. Strickland, 87, … will be held at Concord Baptist Church at 3 pm.” Baptist. It was also noted Mr. Strickland had resided in Atlanta and that he’d retired as vice president from Beck and Gregg Hardware seven years prior. Retired, at 80. He was survived, as Weezer would be two years later, only by nieces and nephews.

Late in her spinsterhood, Faulkner’s Emily Grierson finds a sweetheart in Homer Barron, a Yankee foreman on a scalawag-inspired construction project. Some in town are hopeful Emily will marry at last. Others, namely her out-of-town kin, are scandalized by the idea of Emily taking up with a Yankee. Their outrage, perhaps stoked by Emily’s pride, leads to a haunting conclusion some see as a twisted sort of triumph for Emily. Faulkner later said this about his story: “I pitied [Emily], and this was my salute … to a woman you would hand a rose.”

“Mr. PBS says they are Fine Children.”

I don’t pity my Aunt Louise. I admire her. She bound together a splintered young family, supported her sisters, cared for her aging parents. In a time when women didn’t much, she built a career for herself and found fulfillment in it. She lost two sisters far too young and outlived a third. And across town–who knows, maybe just where she wanted him–she had a partner through it all. December, 1949: Weezer writes my father to thank him for sending a Christmas card and a photo of my older siblings. “There is a Santa Claus!” she begins, and goes on to describe the scene in her office when she opened the card: “First Man: ‘Who are those children?’ Weezer: ‘My grandchildren.’ First Lady: ‘Whose children, All three so pretty?’ Weezer: ‘My grandchildren.'” This goes on through another Lady and three Men with like responses before Weezer signs off, with love. Then a PS, as if she just can’t hold it in: “Mr. PBS says they are Fine Children.”

A tip of the hat to your beau, Miss Louise, and a dozen roses to you.