By Steve Yates
When my sisters and I knew Mary and Roma best, in the 1970s and 1980s, divorce and contumely raged among our aunts and uncles, our neighbors, and the parents of our peers. Our own parents practiced spectacular, frightening conflicts. Nothing it seemed was too small to spark outrageous clashes, even though my mother and father lived with far more material wealth and seemingly more comfort than Mary and Roma, my paternal grandparents.
One- or two-week long summer visits to Buffalo, Missouri, represented, then, a gulf of peace. And I observed my rural grandparents and their love with as much curiosity as I did my well-to-do, citified St. Louis German grandparents, my mother’s people, who slept in separate rooms of an enormous suburban Kirkwood home and frequently expressed unmistakable disdain for one another.
Mary A. Yates was born August 20, 1913, daughter of James and Anne (McConnell) Wing. She married Roma Yates, pronounced Ro-mee, March 23, 1931. The marriage produced five children, four of whom lived to adulthood. Mary died June 8, 2014, just short of her 101st birthday, and we buried her in Buffalo alongside Granddad. Roma died at age 85 when I was in college, September 27, 1989. So poor Mary spent almost 25 years without the man she loved more than anything in the world. Really I mourned that lengthy separation much more than her final passing. I knew some of the depth and breadth of their attachment to one another, their affection, and I found Mary’s being without him an especially hard fate.
In their home, there was no alarm clock save the daylight. When cardinals and robins began to herald the coming of the light, Roma arose and moved slow and long down the hall to the kitchen. He suffered greatly from emphysema, and so in all movements he took a meticulous care. Though stooped, he was still quite tall, thin, bald, with blue-green eyes and very tanned, aged, and sun-creased skin. Whenever I was visiting he wore polyester slacks and a button-down, long sleeve, western-style shirt with slippers for the morning and work boots for any outing. Once he reached the kitchen, he used a battered sauce pan to warm the remainder of yesterday’s coffee, black as shoe polish and kept overnight in a jar in the fridge.
For that first thirty minutes of his day, he sat alone near the quietened radio. But even at lowered volume, I could follow its broadcast. Buffalo then boasted an independent FM station on which a man’s pleasant, country voice read the livestock values at the Springfield auctions, commodities prices from Chicago, and also the dispositions of local citizens being treated in surrounding hospitals. If the county extension service bore news of a crop pest, a drought, or a coming workshop, then the smooth, Ozarks voice relayed details. Last of course came any deaths and funeral arrangements.
Buffalo, a town of 2,000, seemed contained, measured, unchanging, reasonable, so much simpler than Springfield, the big, Queen City of the Ozarks. On that radio, there were no politics to be heard of—just corn, wheat, hay prices, pork bellies, stable but guarded conditions, and black walnuts on the way. In our summer ecology workshop during sixth grade, we had learned of the scientific method, of Karl Popper, and of the reassuring proving of a theory via the repeatability of an experiment. To me then Buffalo seemed that repeatable, assuring, never-changing fortnight each summer—the radio reports, pancakes for every meal if I asked, fish waiting in Boggs’s Pond, katydids and cicadas calibrating the late afternoon, fireflies beckoning like starry galaxies embedded in dusky meadows, and spectacular cat fights outside in the dead of night. Mary and Roma turned off the air conditioner and welcomed the night air into the house whenever weather permitted. There was no need to mourn a goodbye at the end of two weeks—next summer would be dependably, blessedly, and deliciously the same. And yet at the end of my first summer visits, I hid from my mother and raged when it was time to go.
Mary would not rise until six or seven a.m. After Roma’s death she admitted sleeping until eight or later each morning, an act which was both a luxury and a reminder of her separation and grief, even though that extra sleep was probably her natural need. He was not there to love, and so she was alone and could rise whenever she liked.
When she joined him in the kitchen, they did not turn on any lamps, and she cooked breakfast by natural light. They asked each other whispered questions in a mutual, loving tone I had never heard from my parents. They wondered aloud about how the day might go, and what their city kid grandson would wish to do, and how on earth he tolerated such boring, country people.
That they would define themselves as different from me, and, from the sound of it, as less important, less sophisticated than me! It broke my heart at first. I knew well what a “city person” was. That was my mother and her St. Louis German kin, who said Missour-eee and not Missour-uhh, who certainly did not live where, according to Mother, unclean ditches trickled in every front yard. I longed not to be who Mary and Roma thought me to be. But I could not tell them I overheard their talk, and I did not know yet how to change myself.
They worried, they planned, but they also teased and cajoled in a morning duet they believed was private. “I will not have you eat a cold biscuit,” Mary whispered. “That is your best gravy. Don’t you waste all that on me,” Roma rasped. And sometimes I could hear her swat him for what I knew was a pinch, some teasing touch. In that daily, dawn espionage of mine, the bedroom door ajar, my face crammed into a pillow to hide my devouring curiosity about them, they behaved unlike any two married people I had ever witnessed.
Mary and Roma never owned a home. The one-story American foursquare on McCown Street and then the much newer ranch style on suburban Cooper Avenue were both purchased for them by their sons. This I learned when Mary wrote me a letter of congratulations after my wife and I risked buying our first home in Elkins, Arkansas.
In her tight cursive script on typing paper folded in half so as to make four writing surfaces of each 8-½ X 11 sheet, Grandma lauded me for taking a gamble with a bank loan, a transaction that Roma had never trusted. She apparently had abided his fear to her heartbreak. “Granddad would never take a loan for anything, not a tractor, not a car, not even groceries,” she wrote.
I imagine this was not uncommon Ozarks fiscal practice among the poor and among tenant farmers. Mary and Roma were both. It was the first and only time I ever perceived anything like real criticism of Roma from her, though I do not believe she meant it as such. She told me this both to praise courage and to acknowledge how far the family had come.
And the family had advanced a tremendous long way. If children are a measure of the success of a marriage, then take in this Ozarks parable. The blacksmith’s daughter marries the itinerant but motivated son of a family largely distrusted and frowned upon locally as both “too Indian” and, in its means of living, somewhat suspect, even possibly dangerous. Neither of these newlyweds has beyond a third grade education, though both can read and Grandma can write. They settle in rural Dallas County, Missouri, and their three boys have access to what would be by today’s politically fraught standards an “unaccountable” C-minus public school system.
Yet something remarkable happens in that tenant farmer’s household. Though Roma disparaged higher education as a waste of money, those three country boys became an engineer at Beechcraft and later at Boeing in Wichita, Kansas; the head of nuclear medicine at St. Louis’s Baptist Hospital; and the marquee partner of his own law firm in Springfield, Missouri.
While Mary was alone for all those years, my wife Tammy and I would visit her whenever we returned from Arkansas and later from Mississippi. Both my sisters suffered divorces as had Tammy’s only brother. Ours was the one original marriage in our family circle that was working. And of Roma and Mary’s love, I built in my imagination, during the hour-long drives from Springfield to Buffalo, something ideal, something legendary. Tammy and I became fascinated if not obsessed to learn from Mary all we could glean.
At first she did not cotton to these questions posed over lunch and during shopping errands in Buffalo. Maybe the grief was still too near, and the widening gulf of being without Roma too acute. She was in rock solid health, still gardening, still walking her subdivision every day. It was clear to us and maybe clear to her, that her life without him would be a long one.
Over time she grew more at ease, and began tell us tidbits, then full, narrative scenes. She even came to enjoy the chance to recollect him, to remember the two of them aloud. But she allowed herself only one story per visit it seemed. There was, she scolded me, so much that needed doing. Soon, though, Tammy and I were able to piece together the loving story of how they met and how Roma saved her.
She was a short woman and had been, at flush or worrisome times of her life, slightly stout. She grew lush, fine, straight white hair that her son-in-law, my Uncle Wilbur, cut and kept in a pageboy. A short, barrel-chested man, bald save for a ring of salt-and-pepper hair and a neat moustache, Wilbur was the ideal match to the merry, feckless but loving Aunt Donna, Mary’s only daughter, who died young of cancer. Pampered, all three Yates brothers insisted, for they recalled a childhood in which Donna did nothing but read tart love stories and overeat.
Wilbur brought his kit and cape all the way from Kansas City, where he was a renowned barber with a shop near University of Missouri–Kansas City. Writers, judges, intellectuals, even several members of the Kansas City Royals baseball team graced his chair. And when director Robert Altman filmed the movie Kansas City, every male head of hair on that screen was styled by Wilbur Caldwell, so trusted was his historical knowledge of the barber’s art. No one knew the stylings of the jazz era in K.C. like Wilbur. A Korean War infantry veteran, he was a tent mate of actor James Garner, and that’s how he met Altman. In the war, Wilbur refused a medal to protect his mother from learning the dangers he faced. Trapped twice for two weeks and more behind lines when the Chinese Army overran his unit, he was not to be awakened from any nap. Aunt Donna assured us cousins Wilbur would wake up a killer if startled. Yet he was gentle, self-deprecating, and jolly around all of Mary’s sons and me. Mary loved him like he was her own, and they became very close after Wilbur lost Aunt Donna to her cancer and Mary had lost Roma to an aneurism. Everyone’s favorite uncle was Wilbur, the barber, the reluctant hero, and the devout pacifist from big Kansas City.
On one of my visits—I was in college and could drive myself by then—Wilbur came to cut Mary’s hair and get a ride in the 1957 Karmann Ghia my father and I had finished restoring. That day, though, while Grandma closed her eyes and submitted to a styling from her son-in-law, something snapped in Wilbur. Mary waited in the afternoon sunlight, in her small kitchen, seated in a chair borrowed from the dinner table. Working behind her, Wilbur of a sudden froze, comb and scissors clutched in his hands, still poised to minister to her. But he began, then, to weep and tremble so profoundly that I feared for him but did not know what to say or to do. I did not understand then the emotion I was witnessing, that, once you have lost someone as sweet as Aunt Donna, the presence of familial love and resemblance can overwhelm you no matter what chore is at hand, no matter what horrors you have faced.
At last, realizing himself and recollecting that I was there, Wilbur pushed a knuckle to his nose and snorted deeply. Grandma’s blue eyes were wide open by now, her forehead wrinkled in puzzlement. Wilbur was behind her; she had not witnessed his lurch and breakdown. Her eyes had been closed; she was waiting. When he spoke, his voice was thin and gasping and unlike any tone I had ever heard from him. “It’s just . . . have you ever seen such a beautiful head of hair as your grandmother’s here in this sun?”
With the green light of summer pouring in from the small rectangle of the kitchen window, I saw her transformed then. The cape covered the plain, blue slacks she favored, the simple white- or powder blue-collared button-down blouse, even the black, thick shoes, like nurses and nuns wore. Her kitchen was tiny, with busy, brown linoleum flooring, dark, wood-stained cabinets, a hunter-green refrigerator, and a stove the color of overripe squash. There in that close, tidy darkness, the summer sun framed in angelic white and verdant green her lovely, oval face, her deep blue eyes, the bulby nose of the Wing family, and that white, shining hair almost in its perfected style.
She blinked and blushed, rigid with embarrassment. “Wilbur, look to the time,” she chided.
With a deep breath, he steadied up and resumed.
That hair had once been red, and Mary was called among her family The Irish One, meaning that the genes of her Irish grandfather, Red McConnell, and her mother, Anne, had taken over this Mary and made her in demeanor, stature, and coloring separate from the stalwart and bulby Scottish Wings. She was a little red light in a plaid forest of black locust and knobby bois d’ arc.
Roma entered her ken when she was very young. He was born in 1904, and so was nine years older than she. She was serving the Wing men, her father and brothers, at supper. All the men were seated and listening, as they did at any meal, to the loud disquisition of the burly blacksmith, the head of household, James Wing, who grew deafer by the day hammering at his anvil.
Today’s subject was an intriguing change, for James Wing had witnessed at an auction something unforgettable. A mere boy had taken to the lectern and, with the gavel in his skinny hands, enticing and shepherding with his long arms, had called that whole auction—every stick of furniture, every corn bin, every binder, several seed drills, all the animals and tack and furniture, in a voice as clear as bells and bounding, never pausing, enthralling. A strange name he bore, Roma, and he had a visage like an American Indian’s, but not quite like any Indian known around Niangua, Missouri.
Stranger still that some years later this prodigy auctioneer became as well the local postal rider, burning on long trips through the wilds of the Ozarks. In Niangua it was much remarked how his route seemed consistently doubled around the blacksmith’s home, and for no official reason anyone could discern. But Mary’s friends and sister noted how often this Roma and his tired, bony postal horse frequented their paths and followed that little red light, teasing, protecting, tipping his hat and clowning. Mary detested all this attentiveness with the same sharp embarrassment she later directed at her sentimentally stricken son-in-law, Wilbur, in her kitchen.
Such attentions came to the notice of the old, respected, and very Baptist blacksmith. And though Roma, the prodigy auctioneer, had seemed such an appealing presence some years before, this postal coursing was in no way welcomed.
The Yates, you see, were a dark-skinned clan of sketchy origin, having fled to the Ozarks not respectably from Tennessee or Kentucky, but in a downward slouch from Southern Illinois. They were descended of an old Tory rascal who abandoned one wife, and brought with him another he claimed was a Blackfoot Princess. Princess and many boys arrived on miserable, swift, and battered horses. The men served on the just and victorious Union side in the Civil War, that much was certain and a positive. But it was rumored that the Tory’s sons, Roma’s father among these, had not instantly quit in peacetime what they did so well with the Union cavalry, which was to ride and take and burn. Some confirmation surfaces in devastating court records. Yet Roma’s grandfather, Jas Yates, insisted he had served on Union gunboats and not among any fearsome horsemen. After all, he would remind, stroking his goatee, there was that longish Mark Twain story about the Great River, and at story’s close (here Jas Yates gave a wink) Twain mentions a certain vacillating Yates who piloted steamboats. Aside from Roma’s accounts of this, there is no record I have found of any Yates serving on the Eads’ gunboats that helped win back the Mississippi River. Jas and his dark-skinned sons in the cavalry all missed the call to muster out in Illinois, claiming yellow fever in St. Louis detained them. This we know from his widow’s vivid appeal for the old marauder’s pension via the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Yates were a brood for which many shrouds of story were worn as crafted necessities. And not one affidavit of these shadowy deeds appealed in the least to the Baptist, Scottish paragon, the blacksmith of Niangua.
Entertainment for a young girl in those days often consisted of shared pleasure in industry. Mary counted as keen adventure quilting, canning, and cooking with other girls her age. One March she set out with her best pal. They walked the miles towards her friend’s house for a short stay over, holding hands along the wooded trail, humming the hymns they had just sang together in church.
Weather then, like the entertainment, was not something discovered on phones or screens. And in the Ozarks in March, cold air down from the Plains often met moisture swirled up from the Gulf, and these colliding powers hit our ancient, rounded hillsides and laid down blinding blizzards.
In the midst of their happy tramp, a storm front coursed the sky in a surprise rolag of black and leaden gray. The temperature plunged and a snow began to cascade through the just budded trees, a sound like shifting foundry sand or grain slipping rapidly, fulsomely down a chute.
“Come on,” Mary’s little friend urged, and they stepped up their pace. But soon—flakes falling and whirling as big as awful, white butterflies—the trail vanished, and the hills became a rounded sameness of gray stubble upon balds of flashing white. The girls’ teeth chattered.
“We should go on,” her friend cried.
“No, we should go back,” said Mary.
“We don’t both have to die,” said her friend, angry and afraid.
“Well, you go to yours and I to mine, since you are so sure,” Mary said fiercely.
The snow around them made a hissing sound like a huge campfire that has just been doused with river water. Crying now, her friend turned away toward what she thought was home, fists bunched in fury and panic. She left Mary on the searing white of the hillside, where north and south and east and west all looked like the same, white, dazzling direction.
Deep in his Bible on the Sabbath, the blacksmith heard the snow churn down all across the roof of the house. But one thought, Mary, rushed to his mind. Out on the porch, gripping the rail, he watched in horror as snow showered down, a thick blizzard, the road now only evident from his snow-draped, split log fence at the border. He prayed with more force than he had ever spoken to his God before, and this prayer sapped all the mettle of his heart to say, “Mary, Mary, find her, O Lord. Bring The Irish One, my Little Red Light back to me. I beg this of you.”
And what came through the blizzard of white but that sorry, part-Indian Yates boy slumped on a horse he had worn out on God knows what circuits, looking to torment the blacksmith’s daughter even on this, the Sabbath Day. But no prejudice could the old blacksmith hold now. He trod right out to that snow-laden fence and stopped that flirting Indian right there in the road. He gripped the boy’s gangly leg and looked up into his startled blue-green eyes.
“Mary is out in this. To Skaggs’ place.” The snow fell so hard all around him, it whitened his black Sunday hat, and lingered like crystal upon his big, reddened wad of a nose. “Bring my daughter back to me. Please. I beg of ye.”
She fell. Mary fell, and it was the first time she despaired. Her fury at her friend vanished as surely as their tracks in the snow were now covered and gone. She called her friend’s name, Alma, which she pronounced Alm-ee, loud as she could. But the shirring blanket of the blizzard dampened the loudest of voices. What hymn could you sing against the sound of it coming down?
There is light all around her. Alm-ee, she calls, Alm-ee! All around her glows the freezing white of starlight on the ground, in the air. The cold goes to her bones. Alm-ee! It sounds so like another’s name. Oh, I must pull my head together. Alm-ee! The light, the cold, how awful, how lonesome to die this way!
This is where you come in. You can see all the strands, and, knowing love as you should, you can bring them all together with me. Love is a choice and an effort, yes. But the ties that bind have been before you all along. Mary said to me once as we watched my wife Tammy clear the dinner table, “Love her. You mind me. For there will be times when love is all you have.”
Imagine Mary, then, in that frigid light, shivering, confused, alone so long it seems, adrift in a deadly blizzard. And when she cries, Alm-ee, the rider, not far away now, hears another name, his own name, Roma. Ro-mee! Startled, amazed, for even he has lost heart, so long searching, so long apart. Ro-mee!
Imagine then her surprise to see the bandy legs of that old postal horse, its brown chest steaming, that teasing Yates boy stepping a tired horse from the brushy rake of spring trees, out of a blizzard of isolation and forgetfulness.
She rises. And he puts an arm and a hand down to her, transformed, young again, all sinew, and that dun, dark skin remade, perfected. A powerful grunt, a merry grunt, an exaltation as he pulls her up on the horse and settles her behind him.
In exhaustion, with some fear and much astonishment, she wraps her arms around his waist, tentatively, as if for the first time. Still the white snow is falling everywhere, but she gives in and mashes her cheek against a warm, strong, strangely familiar back.
“Roma Yates, just where do you imagine you are taking me?”
“Mary Wing, Irish One, Little Red Light, I aim to take you home.”
Steve Yates received an individual artist’s fellowship from the Mississippi Arts Commission for “Mary and Roma.” The author of two novels from Moon City Press, Morkan’s Quarry and The Teeth of the Souls, he is also the winner of the Juniper Prize in fiction, and University of Massachusetts Press published Some Kinds of Love: Stories in 2013. His novella, Sandy and Wayne, won the inaugural Knickerbocker Prize, and Dock Street Press subsequently published Sandy and Wayne in 2016. His The Legend of the Albino Farm was published in 2017 by Unbridled Books. Yates is associate director/marketing director at University Press of Mississippi. He lives in Flowood, Mississippi, with his wife, Tammy.