March 20, 2018

Christmas gift comes on St. Patrick’s Day

     While the masses—along with Vice President Mike Pence—celebrated St. Patrick’s Day on River Street, my heart was doing an Irish jig 65 miles away on Orange Street.  Saturday morning, Tony Reneau showed me his latest project—my dad’s old funeral home.  When the work is done, Tony’s daughter, Misty Reneau, will move her law office to 111 W. Orange St.
     Tony’s a history buff who has done extensive restoration in Savannah.  The old mortuary redo is small in comparison to his other efforts, but this work is of huge importance to me.  When he asked about the small frame structure’s history, I gave him a room-by-room account.  Our family of five moved there in 1955.  The next seven years were the most memorable of my youth.
      Tony was kind enough to listen to some of those memories:
  • My dad left Harrison Funeral Home and borrowed $3,000 to start his own business.  Big Dink had said, “Margie, we’ll never be able to send our children to college unless I make more money.  This way, I believe we can.”
  • His dream came true slowly.  He took a pay cut to $50 salary per week.  His first employee—Rodney Poppell—earned $40 per week. 
  • In 1961, he merged with his former employer, Bob Harrison Sr., to form NeSmith-Harrison Funeral Home.  Sandy, Sheila and I got to go to college.
  • Until our apartment was expanded, my folks slept on a pull-out couch in a closed-in porch.
  • My sisters and I shared a small bedroom that had been divided.  My bunk bed was in a narrow space with just enough room to slip in and out.  We often went to sleep hearing mourners on the other side of the wall.
  • The kitchen was across the small hall from the embalming room.  The body—draped in a white sheet—had to be rolled into the kitchen and then across the hallway.  That exercise brought some surprised looks from unsuspecting guests at the supper table.
  • We started out with just one bathroom.  Our family had to plan its pit stops and baths around the schedule of people coming to visit families up front.
  • Big Dink believed: “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”  He was a stickler about keeping dust off the vehicles, the front porch and sidewalk swept, and the grass mowed.
  • One time, I saw Guy Fussell—using a cane fishing pole—knocking leaves out of trees in the front yard.  He said, “This is the last #@%& time I am going to rake these leaves this year!”
  • And it wasn’t uncommon to see James Gordon—later a partner in the business—on his hands and knees polishing the heart-pine floors with Johnson’s Paste Wax.
  • As a brand-new teenager, I enjoyed going to the office to visit the lovely and not-much-older-than-me secretary, Linda Hires.  Today, Linda Rinehart Williamson runs her family’s funeral home.

     When Tony and I walked into the biggest space, I said, “This was the showroom.  The house didn’t have closets, so things were stored under the caskets.  When Sandy and I went to retrieve the vacuum cleaner, we also found Santa had helper elves.  I guess Mother had forgotten what else was under there.  And we never told her.”
     To most folks, the 90-year-old craftsman-style bungalow is just another old house sitting near the railroad tracks.  But for me, Tony saving it from probable demolition was like a Christmas gift on St. Patrick’s Day.
     And, yep, my heart is still doing an Irish jig.