JOHNNY ROBINSON: Lessons From The “Old Maids”

Blanche and Annie Davis getting ready to serve it up with a very young Johnny Robinson.

Miss Annie worked for my dad as a dental assistant for many years. She was quite a bit older than him, and she in fact had also worked for my grandfather in the same capacity. So when I was a little kid she was already pretty old. An exceedingly good-natured woman, Miss Davis was very sweet to me, and always greeted me with, “How’s my little Johnny?!” She had a faint mustache too, which I thought was neat.

Miss Annie lived with her sister Blanche in the house in which they were both born! Judging by the italics, you can tell that I was amazed by this. I mean, those sisters were almost ancient, it seemed to me, and still living there in the old farmhouse they had lived in their entire life. The place was east of Roanoke, not far from the hamlet of Bonsack. At the time I considered it way out in the country. The ladies invited my family there for dinner once or twice per year, and I always looked forward to it. For me it was a glimpse into quite another world, and I did love Miss Annie and Blanche.

When my family would arrive at the sisters’ rambling but neat-as-a-pin farmhouse on an early summer evening, Blanche would invariably just be finishing up from working in her garden across the creek to the rear of the house. I would hop out of the car almost before it came to a stop and run and jump the creek to meet Blanche and to check out the strawberries hanging heavy on the plants.

Standing over me among the neat rows of lushness, her wild grey hair flying in all directions and her faded gingham gardening dress flowing, Blanche would give me a report of the animals she had seen that day, the groundhogs, foxes, and rabbits, the crows and the vultures. And there’d always be a snake story. “Yesterday I killed a black snake with my hoe. He was longer than that creek is wide!” she’d report with a grin and a cackle.

On the way into the white clapboard-sided house to join the others we would grab some firewood from the tall, neat stack under the porch. “We just might need some more kindling for the stove,” Blanche would explain.

In the kitchen we’d find Miss Annie, bent over the massive wood cook-stove that dominated the small room at the rear of the house. That’s right, all of the cooking was done in, on and around an old cast iron beast of an appliance, a wood-burning stove that the women had known all of their lives, the very one on which their mother had cooked when the sisters and their two brothers were little. The sisters, especially Blanche, were masters at managing all the nuances involved in preparing meals with such a cantankerous –to me, anyway– contraption.

There would be a real spread of hearty good cookin’ coming together in that kitchen, and everything felt right. Under foot was a floor of pine; wavy, undulating and polished smooth through a century of passage. The cozy warmth of the stove was in delightful contrast to the cool evening country air coming through the creaky screen door to the side porch. And the delicious aromas could overwhelm a hungry person.

There would be chicken and corn and lima beans, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, homemade applesauce. There were home-canned pickles which I especially loved. And the rolls. My goodness, the rolls. I can smell them now, (and picture them on my plate beneath a substantial slab of butter and a dollop of homemade strawberry preserves). Creating perfectly-done rolls on a finicky wood stove is high art indeed, and Blanche was an Old Master.

Seated at the oak table in the very plain dining room, grace was delivered with special gratitude. Besides enjoying the fruits of their labors, my family and I traded life updates with the old ladies. The sisters would keep me enthralled with their stories of growing up in the house, and Annie had a special gift of remembering and telling funny stories about happenings in the dental office over her forty-year career.

Further, Miss Annie had the knack for collecting humorous names. “Did you hear about the dentist named Dr. Root? or Dr. Savage? And I knew of a doctor named Dr. Payne, and another named Dr. Hurt.” It was very entertaining. And with that sparkle in her eye she would tell us of Mr. Green and Mr. Orange, of Mrs. Peach and Miss McGillicutty. She loved the sound of the name Kalamazoo, that Michigan city, and she often said to me, “Johnny, sometime we’re going to ride the train to Kalamazoo!”

The sisters had never married; they were what you might call ‘old maids.’ But that’s not to say they were sheltered or prudes. Lord, no! In fact, Annie was known for being up on all the ‘dirt’ spread across the members of Roanoke’s high society, and her humor could at times tend to the racy side. But mostly I remember their kindness and wisdom, their gentle nature, big smiles and love for life.

Our bellies laden with all the aforementioned bounteous dishes, we could barely eat another bite. That is, until Blanche placed her homemade coconut cake before us. Ok so she didn’t grow the coconut, but she did crack it open and break out the meat, grate it, and who knows what all else. That’s called ‘made from scratch.’ My mom, bless her, was not into that kind of cooking, so I was always amazed at contemplating the effort applied to building that magnificent coconut cake.

On a visit with my then-girlfriend Marybeth to see the sisters when I was about twenty-four, I had a feeling that it might be the last time I saw them in their ‘natural habitat.’ Old age was beginning to tighten the screws on the ladies’ health, and it was obvious that they would be unable to stay independently in their home of eighty-five-plus years for much longer.

Nevertheless, their spirits were as bright as ever –”How’s my little Johnny!?”– and it was grand to see them and soak in the feel once again of that special home place. On that last visit Blanche gave me an old violin –a fiddle– that had been in the family for a couple of generations. Although I’ve yet to learn to play it well, I have lovingly cared for that instrument in the thirty years since, and plinking on it today reminds me of the bright eyes, laughter, and high spirits of two women who lived life very well, in their own unique way.

May we be ever inspired to do the same, in our own way.

Johnny Robinison