My parents once lived in this cabin. Photo taken by Dwayne White in 2013. ©
This is a revised version of a previous post.
Curiosity drives some of us to become amateur genealogists because we enjoy learning about our ancestors and distant kinfolk. We also appreciate the importance of family history and want to preserve the information for future generations.
I was blessed to be the first of Hattie Staton, my maternal grandmother’s, 21 grandchildren. Although circumstances, like birth order, sometimes work against us, being the first-born grandchild also has its advantages. We tend to remember things that our younger siblings and cousins may not recall or may never have known.
The process of writing my second book is awakening memories of distant relatives and my interactions with them.
Rhea Williams was the first cousin to my Grandma Hattie (who we called Maw). I recall meeting Cousin Rhea only twice. Both meetings occurred when I was a very young girl, probably not even eight, and Cousin Rhea was in the winter of her life. I initially met my cousin when my mother took me to visit her home on the outskirt of Oak City, North Carolina. She lived in a tiny cabin down the road from grandma’s place. (Although I’ve been unable to confirm it, I was told that it was the same cabin my parents had lived in for a short while before they moved to DC.)
I suspect that mother was preparing me for the visit when she told me before we arrived that Cousin Rhea was partially blind. A frail-looking, slow-moving woman greeted us at the door and invited us into her dimly lit one-room home. Cousin Rhea’s body was stooped by age then, and thin strands of white hair puffed around her head. Childhood curiosity led me to rudely stare at her, curious to see what a blind eye looks like. I decided that the sightless eye must have been the one that was fully closed as if it were sleeping, the other eye was partially open.
Cousin Rhea appeared to be a kind woman; she smiled at me while reaching one scrawny arm toward me to take my hand, which I refused to extend. “How you doing child?” She asked in a whispery voice. I timidly backed away from her. Clinging to my mother’s side; I pulled on her skirt, concealing my face, and clung to her during the duration of our visit.
The last time I remember seeing my cousin was when her grandson, Perch, dropped her off to visit with our family at our home in Washington, DC. And I’ll never forget what happened the first night that she was there.
It must have been after midnight because everyone in the household had gone to bed and they were probably asleep when I awakened to go pee.
Sluggishly, I climb out of bed and walk toward the bathroom, where I switch on the light and step toward the toilet. I am about to turn around and sit when something on top of the tank catches my eye. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. There is a mason jar partially filled with water, and resting near the bottom of that jar is an eyeball.
For a second, as I am standing there, I think I’m dreaming. I stare in wide-eyed disbelief at the lidless eye in the jar. The eye stares at me. I stare back at it. Never in my young years have I seen an eyeball that wasn’t in someone’s face. The sight transfixes me until my imagination fools me into thinking that the eye is moving. Now it is floating to the surface.
Suddenly, wide awake, I switch off the bathroom light and sprint like the Road Runner fleeing Wile E. Coyote back to my bed. I throw the covers over my head, and until I fall asleep, I lay there shivering and praying that I won’t wet the bed because there is no way I am going back in there until daylight.
The following day when mother and I are alone, Cousin Rhea may have still been sleeping; I ask her about the eye in the glass in the bathroom. She says that’s Cousin Rhea’s glass eye and then explains that the artificial eye replaces Cousin’s natural eye and that she removes it each night before going to sleep. Although I accepted my mother’s explanation, my young mind refused to comprehend, and I left many questions unasked. Where does someone find a glass eye? Do you buy them at the grocery store? How do you put it in and take it out? Can the glass eye see me?
As an adult, looking back on what then was a chilling experience but is now an amusing memory, I decided to do some research on glass eyes. I was surprised to learn that the first in-socket artificial eyes were made as early as the 15th century. And contrary to what the naive little girl believed, a prosthetic eye (as they are now commonly called) cannot restore vision. It is merely for cosmetic purposes.
Today, a custom prosthetic eye cost will run you somewhere between $2000-$8000. If you are lucky, health insurance will cover the cost. Recently, my out-of-curiosity search on eBay found glass eyes selling for as little as $30.
I don’t know the cost of Cousin Rhea’s glass eye. I suppose they were less expensive back then. According to a now-deceased family member, the county welfare department paid for Cousin’s eye.
You are probably as curious as I was to know how Cousin Rhea lost her eye. Over time, narratives tend to get distorted, but I will retell the story as it was told to me.
One day Cousin Rhea was visited by a circuit preacher as they were sometimes called back then. During the act of blessing her, the preacher poured oil on Cousin’s head. I wonder if he was attempting to follow the Scripture that reads, “Thou anointest my head with oil.” I don’t know. Anyway, some of the oil rolled down Cousin’s forehead into one eye. (I imagine that must have burned like hell.) Not to make light of the issue, but the blessing apparently did not cover the eye that got the oil because it cost Cousin her sight.
I don’t know who, if any, of my cousins or siblings remembers Cousin Rhea. Although my memories of her are vague, memories of her grandson, Perch, are more vivid. He lived in DC as we did and I remember him often visiting my parents at our family home, and in later years, when I was married, he, his wife, Martha, and their two children lived about half a mile from my home in Suitland, Maryland.
Perhaps someday in the future, after I am gone, if one of my kinfolks decides to do a family genealogy study, this tidbit of information about Cousin Rhea and Perch will be helpful.