Return to Utopia
Linda Jones Weber
© Copyright 2021 by Linda Jones Weber
I roll the jeep slowly through the dusty cow town
Utopia, Texas, absorbing each detail—the antique store fronts,
every tree, the raised wooden sidewalk—and pull up in front of
the Lost Maples Café. Here there are signs of life. It looks
like a good place to slake our appetites and inquire as to where we
might find the old “Jones Homestead.” My father, William
E. Jones, and his sister, Maizelle Jones Prucha, are eager to find a
house that only exists as a vague memory.
Inside the bustling café we are seated in a narrow-benched booth, designed by and for the hardy souls of this town time passed by. Rusty, the burly red-haired man pouring our iced tea, is eager to help us. “Ah’m afraid I cain’t say for sure, but my grandma’d know,” he drawls. “Y’all go on out to the ranch and ask her.”
He makes a quick phone call, then says, “‘Gramma’s nappin’ but my wife ‘ul get ‘er up so’s she’ll be ready by the time y’all git there.”
I scratch directions on a napkin, and we head off to meet Rusty’s grandmother, Katherine Redden.
The door to the old ranch house stands open. A battered, unlatched screen barely keeps the flies out, and it bangs against the doorframe when I knock. I peer inside and realize that a dark-haired woman is pushing someone in a wheelchair from the back of the house.
“Y’all come in!” A woman’s voice rings out.
I pull the screen door open and step inside. The woman parks the chair and steps toward me to introduce herself as Rusty’s wife, Barbara. We shake hands and she turns to introduce me to the woman in the wheelchair, now getting her first clear look at me.
The old lady’s hands fly to her face. Her watery blue eyes open wide as if she sees a ghost. “Oh my!” she exclaims. “Who did Rusty say you were?”
“I’m Linda Weber, but my maiden name is Jones. My father is—well, you would have known him as Dubbya E.”
“Little Dubbya E?” she asks, eyes darting wildly from side to side.
She rests her eyes on my face. “Oh my, honey. You favor Maizelle.” She shakes her head in disbelief.
There. It’s out. Now I know why she looks like she’s seen a ghost.
“Where is he?” Her eyes dart past me toward the open front door.
I turn to see my arthritic, elderly father, step gingerly across the threshold. “Right there,” I say as I turn away from her to help Daddy inside. When I turn back to introduce him, tears pool in her eyes. “Daddy,” I start, “this is Katherine Redden. Katherine, this is…”
“I know,” she says, her eyes riveted on his face. “Come here.” She extends her frail boney arms, and he bends into her embrace. “Oh, honey. I held you in my arms and rocked you many a night.” The pooled tears escape and wend their way down wrinkled cheeks as she clasps her arms around my father’s neck.
When he finally lifts himself and steps back, I see his face is wet with his own tears. Barbara pushes a kitchen chair up beside Katherine, and my grateful father slides onto it.
Katherine barely loosens her grip long enough for him get seated before she leans to the side and reaches for him, cradling his head against her chest. “I know, honey, I know,” she coos. “You just cry it all out.”
My Aunt Maisie perches on the edge of an overstuffed mohair chair opposite Katherine and Daddy. The scene feels so intensely private that neither of us speaks. I am standing between Maisie and Daddy. Barbara is frozen in place, holding a second kitchen chair.
Daddy fishes in his pants pocket for a handkerchief and blows his nose. He dabs at his eyes. Katherine reaches for him again. He lets her hold him. I hear him choke out something only she understands.
“I know,” she says, “my own brother shot and killed my first husband.”
Barbara steadies herself on the chairback and grasps her throat as if to hold her head in place, lest it fly off somewhere from the shock of what she just heard. I glance at her and see the color has drained from her face. It’s obvious this is the first time Barbara is hearing this bit of buried family lore.
The two old people cling to each other and cry together. Daddy continues talking in a low, garbled voice. Katherine strokes his thinning grey hair as she comforts him. After a time, she says, “I have some pi’tures I want to show you.” Daddy raises his head from her embrace and wipes his eyes. She motions Barbara to bring a stack of loose photographs from the bookshelf.
I realize she has been waiting for us. Rusty told her who we are, and she has prepared. But her shock upon first laying eyes on me and then my father, unhinged her. The apparition she saw when I walked through her open door was my grandmother, Maizelle Clark Jones, who was murdered in 1926, at the age of twenty-four.
My father has little memory of his mother. He was six years old when she died. What memory he does have has been successfully repressed for the past seventy years of his life. I had no idea I looked anything like my grandmother. I had no idea when I proposed this trip to my father’s hometown of Utopia, Texas, that the ghosts of his past would march right up to greet him. I planned the trip to take advantage of his long-term memory as he descended through advancing Dementia. He had questions about his life he needed answered and so did I.
The emotional part of this reunion appeared to be waning. I am eager to ask Katherine the questions swirling in my mind. It’s exciting to see photographs of my dad and his siblings as children, but I’m anxious to see a picture of my grandmother.
“Do you have any pictures of Maizelle?” I ask. “We only have one picture of her that shows her face. In everything else she’s wearing a big bonnet with a wide brim.”
Katherine shakes her head. “Maizelle didn’t like to see her own image. I know the pi’ture you’re talkin’ ‘bout though. She was sittin’ out in the yard in front of their house dryin’ her hair in the sun.”
“Yes! She’s holding a large comb in her hand.” Maizelle is wearing a dress in the photo—complete with heavy dark stockings and clunky shoes—but her long hair, parted in the middle, looks wet like she has been swimming. “Whose house is she sitting in front of?”
“Dr. Clark’s. Her Daddy,” Katherine says. “That’s the only pi’ture of Maizelle I know of. There was a man goin’ through town takin’ people’s pi’tures and he stopped and asked Maizelle if he could take hers. She was very shy, but she agreed. She had that beautiful long hair … I think that’s what attracted him.”
“Do you know how old she was when that photo was taken?”
“Oh, honey, I think Maizelle was ‘round thirteen or fourteen. It was before she run off with Will.” She shifts in her wheelchair and looks up at Barbara.
Afraid she is going to ask to go back to her room, I say, “How did you know my grandmother?”
She returns her weary face to me and takes in a deep breath, her bone-thin chest heaving up and down with the effort. “Well, honey, I was the girl they hired to help out with the babies. Maizelle was so young, ya know, and the babies just kep’a comin’. The family hired me when little Dubbya E was born.
“How old were you?”
“Fourteen. Maizelle was just a couple a years older’n me, ya know, and she already had two babies. We was good friends. I was the only person she could really talk to.”
“Do you know how she died?”
Katherine looks at me as if I’ve lost my marbles. “’Course I know.” She’s indignant, her jaw set and her eyes flashing.
“Were you there that night?”
“No, honey. I was away visitin’ a friend, but my folks tol’ me all about what happened.”
“Something has always puzzled me,” I say. “We know she was murdered, and we know it was Will’s uncle, but we don’t know why. Do you know why?”
Daddy and I keep our eyes on Katherine, who is struggling with how to answer the question. Her eyebrows scrunch together, and she purses her lips, sizing me up, searching my eyes. I can almost hear her thinking how much should I say? She doesn’t speak.
“Katherine,” I say, “I’ve been writing a book about what happened. It’s like my grandmother is giving the story to me. I think she wants it to be told. I keep getting this feeling that there was a romantic entanglement of some kind. Do you know if that’s possible?”
“Oh yes, honey. Jimmy loved Maizelle very much. He wa’nt much older‘n Will, ya know. He threatened Will—before he and Maizelle run off and eloped—that if Will married her, he would kill him.” The words tumble out.
“Is Jimmy the man who shot her?”
“Yes. He planned it, too. He give the teacher at the school a box for keepsakes. He made that box for her an’ he was real proud. That same day he shot Maizelle, he went up to the school and tol’ that teacher she should be sure ta take her box home with her that night.”
“I never knew his name. He was always referred to as Will’s ‘uncle,’ or ‘the deaf mute.’”
“Well, he was both, only he could talk some. His ma and pa spent a lot a money on special schoolin’ for that boy and he got along pretty good for havin’ the difficulties he had. Maizelle, she was always real nice to him. Not ever’body was, ya know. Him bein’ the janitor at the school was how she come to know him.”
“So, you think he planned to kill Maizelle? Why would he do that if he loved her?”
“Oh, no, I don’t think he planned to kill Maizelle. I think he planned to kill Will. Only Will wa’n’t home when he come up to the house. Anyway, he planned to kill somebody, ‘cause he already fixed to fire the schoolhouse and burn hisself up. That’s why he tol’ that teacher ta take her box home.”
We sit in silence as I let this sink in. Katherine’s chin drops to her chest and her eyelids drift shut. When they open again, she reaches for another photograph. Her hands quiver as she holds the picture and tells Daddy who the people are. He looks confused. It’s too much. Dementia has robbed him of the ability to absorb new information, but his long-term memory is still keen. He has clearly relived the murder of his mother during this emotional visit. I decide it’s time for us to move on.
“Katherine, we’re hoping to find the house where Daddy and Maisie were born. Can you give us directions?”
She struggles, realizing we are leaving. Her eyes shift from me to Barbara and rest on my father. It’s clear she does not want to let go. After a long pause she looks up and says, “Ah kin.”
She recites directions and tells me there are new people living in the trailer up on the rise above the homestead. “Y’all ‘ul need to stop there and git permission to go down ta the old place, but ah think they’ll let ya.”
I thank Katherine, bend and give her a quick hug.
Daddy stands and grabs my arm to steady himself, as he reaches for Katherine’s hand. Their eyes lock. She pats his gnarled fingers, bringing them to her lips for a kiss.
I gather my notes and guide Daddy and Maisie toward the door. When I turn back to thank Rusty’s wife, I realize she is still standing in a state of catatonic shock. “Thank you for welcoming us into your home,” I say, and her eyes snap back from their reverie and meet mine. She manages a weak smile and a nod of her head.
I think, I’d like to be a fly on the wall tonight when she tells Rusty about the skeleton in his closet.
A brief stop at the trailer home perched atop a knoll surrounded by dry grass gives us permission to trespass. Pam and her mother are recent transplants from California and very friendly. There wasn’t any sign of the suspicion I’d seen in other eyes when I asked impertinent questions. After a brief explanation of why we were there, they were more than happy to give us permission to visit the home my grandfather built for his family in 1918. “Just go on in and make yourself ta home,” Pam said. There’s no one living there, and it should be unlocked. Just follow this road to the river and cross at the bottom of the hill.”
I didn’t realize I would have to ford the river to find the old homestead house. The Jeep Waggoner bumps across dry pasture toward the shallow spot in the Sabinal River where I’ve been told to cross. Daddy leans forward, peering out the windshield. “There used to be a bridge here somewhere,” he says, a note of genuine excitement in his voice.
“I know,” I tell him. “But those ladies in the trailer said it washed out a long time ago and we have to ford the creek at the bottom of this hill.”
“That doesn’t seem right. It was along here somewhere.”
I stop at the river’s edge and put the Jeep in four-wheel drive. We cross the streambed heading for visible tire tracks on the opposite bank. The Jeep growls as we crawl up the uneven hill away from the river. We continue through a stand of live oaks until we come to a small clearing where the tracks head downhill toward buildings in the distance.
“That’s it!” he exclaims. “There it is!”
Aunt Maisie chimes in from the back seat. “Are y’all sure that’s it?”
“Yes, yes,” Daddy says, “there’s the chicken coop, and over there’s the hay barn. The house should be right below us, facing the river.”
I haven’t heard my father this animated in years. His eyes fill with tears, and he digs for the handkerchief he is never without. We bump down the hill and curve around the edge of the chicken coop, where a wire fence stops us.
“Stop!” He pushes both hands into the dashboard and makes brakes with his shoes against the floorboards. I barely have the Jeep in park before he shoves the door open and stumbles out. Aunt Maisie joins him, leaving the car door standing wide open.
Daddy finds a wire gate, rigged with a pole woven through the fence. He fumbles with the loop. When he lifts it the gate collapses. Aunt Maisie and Daddy step over the crumpled wire and head for the unpainted house. When Mom and I catch up, they are on the front porch trying the door. It resists, although it isn’t locked. Daddy pushes with his shoulder and whatever is against the door scrapes along the floor enough for him to get his hand inside. He works the heavy object away, creating an opening large enough to squeeze through.
Suddenly he stops and says, “This is where it happened. Right here. When she opened the door he stuck the gun in the crack to push his way into the house and shot her in the stomach. The noise woke us kids up. She was on the floor here, right inside the door, and she was bleeding.
“I remember she sent Charles for help, and we covered her with the rug because she was cold. I don’t remember much else except that dad came home and put her in the rocking chair. He told us to stay with her and he’d go for help.”
Tears spill down his cheeks. His voice chokes, “She died before he could get back.” He looks at his sister. “She was holding Maisie on her lap.”
Maisie gasps, covering her face with her hands.
Daddy pushes the door open. One after another we squeeze into the dark room. The old trunk that was blocking the door is pushed akimbo. I open the lid but am greeted with nothing but musty smells. My eyes scan the room. A braided rug lies on the floor in front of an old rocking chair. A large, framed mirror leans against the wall behind the chair; the glass shattered and scattered on the floor. Aside from the trunk there is no other furniture in the room.
Daddy heads for a small bedroom to our left. I follow and find him riffling through some old photographs on an oak dresser. Dust mites dance in rays of sunlight spilling through the dirty window glass.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“I think its pictures of us kids.” He sounds so hopeful. Before today, he had never seen photograph of himself as a child.
Returning to the living room, I stop and absorb the space. It is an ordinary room in a plain little house on a barren piece of ground where a most extraordinary event took place seventy years ago.
I walk toward the back of the house and find myself in a modest kitchen with my Aunt Maisie, who is staring at the cupboards as if they have faces and are speaking to her. I put my arm across her boney shoulders. She slumps against me. “Are you okay?” I ask.
She begins crying and buries her head in my shoulder. “I remember being in my highchair and looking up at these cupboards. Daddy built these cupboards for Mama. I didn’t think I could remember any of it.”
Maisie was fifteen months old when her mother died, the youngest of the five children her mother gave birth to between her fifteenth and twenty-fourth years.
This time in our family history has been shoved under a rug for the past seventy years. There has never been any reminiscing together about a happy, carefree childhood, for these old folks. Maisie didn’t even know she had brothers until she was in her teens. Daddy spent the bulk of his childhood in an orphanage. The time they shared as children ended on April 13, 1926.
The house has a long covered back porch. I step outside where I see the privy, a small storage house and root cellar. A single live oak tree stands between the root cellar and the outhouse. Daddy and Aunt Maisie join me. They’re holding hands; he, the namesake of his father, she, the namesake of her mother.
Maisie points to the tree and asks, “Is that where my swing was?” Daddy looks confused. “Because I remember you pushing me in that swing. Don’t you remember?” He nods, dabbing his eyes. They hug.
My eyes mist as I watch them. They’re whispering to each other as I approach. “Would you like to walk over to the chicken house and the barn,” I ask. They nod and we start across the yard.
The chicken coop is a long, oddly configured structure with low walls.
“They had cock fights here!” Daddy exclaims, lapsing into a Texas drawl. “I remember people a comin’ here and standin’ around out here. Us kids were too little to git to watch, but I remember hearin’ the cheerin’ and shoutin’ from my bedroom!”
I step outside into bright sunlight. Daddy and Aunt Maisie follow. We walk toward the hay barn. It’s cool inside, and we each sit on a hay bale and take a breather, inhaling the smell of rotting straw and old horse manure, coupled with the distinct odor mice leave when they take up residence.
“Have you seen enough?” I ask.
“No,” Daddy says, “I want to walk down to the river and see if the bridge is still there.”
We stand and brush loose straw off our clothes. I take Daddy’s hand and move toward the yawing barn door.
“That’s how he escaped you know,” he says. “He ran down to the river and hid. When it got dark, he snuck across the bridge and made his way up to the schoolhouse.”
I shade my eyes with my other hand as we emerge into bright sunlight, and glance at Daddy to see if he is going to say more. The walk isn’t long, but the heat and humidity are draining, even in mid-March.
“He poured gasoline all around inside the school before he fired it. They say he was planning’ to burn himself up in there, but he chickened out.”
I’ve never heard him say anything about that night. I’m afraid to speak in case he has more memory to share. We walk in silence until we reach the thick undergrowth beneath the Cypress trees that grow along the banks and in the riverbed. Here the slow-moving Sabinal River meanders. The water is clear and many hues of green. Dark shadows dance on the placid surface as a slight breeze ruffles the trees. When my eyes adjust, I see the remnants of an old bridge on the river bottom.
“There it is!” Daddy shouts.
For him the bridge is the last piece of the puzzle. Nothing we have seen seems right in his mind without it. When we leave the river and start back toward the house there is a bounce in his step I haven’t noticed in years. Aunt Maisie talks non-stop. She can’t remember the things Daddy remembers and is intent on making sure he shares every shred of memory. After all, it is her story too.
We inch the Jeep down the hill and gingerly pick our way across the river. It was bad enough fording a river in broad daylight. I lean forward, nudge the wheels into the water, and hope for the best. We break out of the dark shadowed stream and crawl up the hill in low gear.
I almost miss the trailer in the disappearing light and make a hasty last-minute turn. “I’ll only be a minute,” I say to the three sleepy people in the car with me.
Picking my way up the rickety wooden steps, I ring the bell. The older of the two women, who earlier gave us permission to visit the homestead, opens the door.
“I wanted to thank you for letting us visit the old homestead.”
“Come on in, you can tell Pam.” She leads me to the other end of the trailer where Pam sits, hooked up to oxygen. The breathing tubes coming from her nose bubble as she smiles and extends her hand.
“Thank you for letting us visit the old homestead,” I say. “We wondered if it was lived in, since it had furniture.”
“Oh no. No one can live there,” Pam says.
“Why not? It’s in good condition.”
“Yes,” Pam says, “when we bought this place two years ago, we had a nice young couple workin’ for us as ranch hands. They moved into the little house. She was pregnant, ya know, and a couple weeks after the baby come, she marched up here and announced they was quittin’! Out of the blue. I asked why, and she looks at me real funny. She says, ‘Well, the rocking keeps the baby awake at night. It’s hard for us to get any sleep. Besides, every time I hang a mirror on the wall in the living room it falls off in the night.’
“I could see her mind was made up, but all the time I’m thinkin’, that place is better’n this’n so maybe I’ll just move down there. Well, they left, and I moved into it m’self. I only stayed two weeks. The second day I was there I hung a great big mirror on the wall in the front room. In the mornin’ it was sittin’ on the floor leanin’ up against the wall. I put another nail in the wall—bigger this time—and hung it right back up. The next mornin’ it was on the floor, smashed to bits. Looked like somebody hit it with a sledgehammer and I never heard a sound.”
She pauses. “I can tell you don’t believe me.”
“Quite the contrary. Please continue, then I’ll tell you something I don’t think you know.”
“Well, the mirror thing was bad, but that weren’t the half of it. That girl was right about the rockin’. See, ever’ night around midnight that rockin’ chair in the front room would start rockin’—creak, creak, creak, —back and forth like it had somebody heavy in it, ya know? I never did see nobody, and ever’ time I got up it stopped. I finally give up on it and moved back here.”
There is a long silence as I digest the story. Finally, I swallow and say, “My grandmother, Maizelle Jones, was murdered in that house. She died in a rocking chair, holding her baby in her lap.”
Both women narrow their eyes and shoot me looks that could peel the hide off a bear. It’s clear they have not heard the story. I fill them in, then say, “…and just today I learned that Maizelle didn’t like to see her own image.”
As I drive away, I can’t help but wonder if Maizelle not liking to see her own image has anything to do with those mirrors flying off the wall in the middle of the night. Was she still in the house? Would our visit bring her enough closure to move on?
A NIGHT OF TERROR
Reeling from a night of little sleep, mulling over the previous day’s spectacular and spooky events, I rousted Aunt Maisie and suggested we get on with it. We had many mysteries to
solve and a wealth of people to talk to.
With Mom and Daddy in tow, we headed for the Lost Maples Café for a hearty breakfast of pancakes with Maple syrup and fried eggs with bacon. I collared Rusty Redden again and bombarded him with thanks and new questions. “Who would you suggest we talk to about the events of that night? Who still lives here who would have been here when it happened? Who in town knows everything about everything?”
Rusty called into the kitchen for “Sis.” It turns out Sis is the person in town who knows everything about everything, and she pointed us to the local museum to talk to the woman who runs it. Mrs. McClain was a genial woman of a certain age, plump and round with a full head of beautiful white hair and a dress I could swear I’d seen on my size twenty-two and a half grandmother in the 1940’s; flour-sack print of some tiny blue flower, buttons up the front from bodice to hem, three-quarter length sleeves, and darts under the V-necked bustline. I did a double-take, certain there was a corset cinching her tightly beneath the neatly ironed cotton.
She listened to our story and suggested we talk to her husband. “He lived through that horrible night and recalls it vividly,” she said. A quick phone call to her house and the visit was arranged. We made a cursory swing through the museum and a hasty exit, each of us in a hurry to hear what our new lead had to say.
The lot of us descended on poor Jack McClain. He wobbled to the door when we knocked, cowboy boots scuffing, and his walking stick thumping against the wood floor. He was as thin as his wife was plump. They looked like the illustration for the Jack Sprat nursery rhyme. He wore Wranglers, held aloft with red suspenders, and a tattered plaid shirt that hung on him like laundry in a stiff breeze. His hands were wrinkled and covered with varying shades of brown age spots. He looked old, he sounded old, and he moved like he felt old. The tidy room he ushered us into was small and there were not enough chairs for all of us to sit. He explained that he needed to sit down and said, “I hope this won’t take too long. I’m due for my mornin’ nap.”
I assured him we wouldn’t be long before I sat in the chair he indicated, across from him, facing the door. Mom, Daddy, and Maisie stood behind me. I briefly explained our visit and introduced him to my father and my Aunt Maisie. They approached his chair and shook his hand. He did not stand.
“I was there,” he said, meeting their eyes. “Well, right here as a matter of fact,” he corrected, launching into the story his wife had told him we came for.
“Here?” I asked. “You mean in this house?”
“Yes, ma’am. I was borned here and I’ll die here. This here house is the one my Pappy built.”
“So, you were home the night Maizelle Jones was murdered, and the school burned?”
“Yep. I was settin’ in that chair you're a settin’ in, holdin’ a 12-gauge shotgun across my knees.”
“‘Cuz my pappy put me there. He come home from fightin’ the fire at the school soon’s he heard a madman was on the loose. He got his gun, sat me down, and said, ‘Son, you got to be a man tonight. There’s a madman murderer on the loose and I got to go with the posse to help find him.
“I wa’n’t but barely six years old and what he said scared me plenty.”
“Why’d he put you in this chair with a shotgun?”
“He said, ‘Son, you got a mother with a newborned baby in there and you need to protect them.’
“He sat me down in that there chair and laid that gun acrost my knees. He said, ‘Don’t you open that door for no one ‘cept me. If I come back, I’ll say, ‘It’s me, Pappy, and then I’ll knock three times. If anyone else comes up to that door and tries to get in, you shoot ‘em. Don’t open that door for no one but me.”
“That must have been terrifying for you,” I said.
Tears welled in his rheumy eyes and his hand trembled where it gripped his walking stick. “Yep. You might could say that,” he said. “I was never so scared before in my life and I ain’t never been so scared in my life since. I sat like that until six o’clock in the mornin’. The sun was just startin’ to come up when Pappy called through the door to me. He said it just like he told me, “It’s me, Pappy. And then he knocked three times. When I heard that, I started to shake and cry, and I put the gun on the floor and opened the door. Pappy grabbed me and hugged me and said, ‘You done good, Junior. It’s all over now. We caught him.”
Daddy stepped forward and shook Jack’s hand again. “Thanks,” he said. “Thanks for telling us.”
Making good on my promise, I stood and thanked Jack McClain for sharing his story of that terrifying night in his life. I had so many more questions to ask, so many what-ifs, so many whys. But in the end, I only asked, “Was that night talked about much in the years that followed?”
Mr. McClain looked me up and down. His head wobbled and his shoulders slumped. “Nope. Nobody ever mentioned it. Seemed like there was some shame or guilt or somethin’ that made people clam up. I never understood what it was and the only person I ever told about it before now is my wife.”
Somehow, that didn’t surprise me. My Aunt Maisie had shared with me, as we sat cross-legged on our twin beds in the Lost Maples Motel the previous night, that she never knew what had happened to her mother until she was in her late teens. “They always said it would be better if I didn’t know.” And even then, all she was told was that her mother had died when she was a baby.
A MARRIAGE LICENSE
Our last day in Utopia greeted us with relentless rain. My Aunt Maisie was overwhelmed by all she had learned about her beginnings. My father was lost in his own memory-deprived world, processing repressed memories, and seeking closure for a difficult chapter in his life.
After a delicious country breakfast at the Lost Maples Café, we piled into the car and headed for San Antonio. On the way, I spotted a sign for Uvalde and made an instant decision to turn off the main highway. “Where are you going?” my mother asked.
“I want to go to the courthouse and see if I can find the marriage certificate for Will and Maizelle.”
“It’s too early,” she said. They won’t be open yet.
I drove into the little town and parked in front of what I assumed was the Uvalde County Courthouse, a three-story-plus-basement, white stone building, looming over the smaller single-story dwellings and businesses scattered like acorns at its feet. The big clock on the tower read 7:52 A.M. There were no lights in the windows, and I feared my mother might be right.
“We’ll wait until eight o’clock and see if any lights come on,” I said.
At eight o’clock sharp the windows lit up, one after another, as workers entered from the rear of the building and made their way into offices.
“Let’s go,” I said. “Let’s see if we can put this mystery to rest of how old your mother was when she eloped with your dad.”
“She was fifteen,” Daddy said. “Our dad always told us she was fifteen.”
“But Katherine Redden said she thought Maizelle was only fourteen,” I contradicted. “Let’s go find out.”
We climbed from the car and made our way up the long wide stairs to the imposing front entry. Always a gentleman, Daddy stepped in front of me and pulled the big door open so the women could enter first.
We found ourselves in a marble-encased foyer facing an imposing flight of well-worn marble stairs. A small, framed directory on the wall guided us to the second-floor County Clerk’s Office.
Aunt Maisie and I were first into the office. A tall attractive woman greeted us, a quizzical look on her face.
“Where would we find records for marriage licenses in 1917?” I asked.
The woman tilted her well-coifed head to the left and said, “In there. The registries are in order by year.”
The four of us trooped into the adjoining room. Large, slanted tables stood in the center, surrounded by four walls of bookcases holding large leather-bound record books. I walked up to the table where one of the books already lay open in front of me. I glanced at the top, which read, “July 1917.” My eyes dropped to the page and fell on the last entry. It read, “Maizelle Clark and William Echols Jones, married July 6, 1917.”
“She was only fourteen!” I exclaimed.
“What?” my father said, sliding up beside me.
“Look. This is their marriage license registry right here.”
Aunt Maisie said, “You mean the book was already here? Open to this page?”
“Yes,” I said, “Spooky, isn’t it?”
“I’ll say,” my mom piped in. “You didn’t even have to hunt for it.”
“Nothing surprises me anymore, Mom. This trip has been one strange coincidence after another for three solid days. First Rusty Redden, then Katherine, finding the old homestead, meeting Mrs. McClain and her husband, and now this.”
“Do you think we could get a copy?” Daddy asked.
“I sure hope so,” I said, as I headed for the clerk’s desk. Five dollars and ten minutes later we were on our way with two copies of the marriage certificate proving my grandmother, Aunt Maisie, and Daddy’s mother, was only fourteen when she eloped with their father.
As we left the courthouse that day, I pondered the excitement my grandmother must have felt as she entered the big building to begin her life with my grandfather. By today’s standards she was a child, but in Texas, then as now, fifteen was the age of consent for a girl to marry without parental permission, and by all accounts, she had a happy and fulfilling marriage, which produced five children.
I made this journey to Utopia for answers. Answers to the questions no one had ever addressed to my satisfaction, or that of my father. Why? Why did Jimmy Calvert murder Maizelle Jones? What was his motivation? My grandfather, who I loved and adored, died in a Tuberculosis Sanitarium when I was four years old. I was never old enough to ask him these questions, and my father and his two brothers with whom he was raised, never broached the subject. Daddy always told me, “We never asked our dad what happened or why. She was gone and he couldn't talk about it. That’s all I know.”
Enveloped in the quiet of the car we rode in silence for several miles. Soon my mother said, “That lady at the museum said Edra Crow lives in Hondo. Are we going to stop and see if we can find her?”
“Sure,” I said, “I don’t know how we’ll find her but since we’re this close we should try. Edra Crow, known as Toofy in her childhood, was my grandmother’s half-sister and therefor my Aunt Maizelle and Daddy’s aunt. When the sign to Hondo appeared, I turned off the highway and stopped at the first phone booth I spotted.
Inside the booth, armed with a handful of quarters and a newly formed belief in miracles, I pulled the large phone directory onto the platform and turned to the C’s. Edra’s husband’s name was “Buddy,” but I felt certain that wouldn’t be his listed name, and I was right. There was no Buddy Crow in the directory. I counted the Crow’s —nine. “This won’t take long,” I thought as I inserted a quarter and dialed the first name.
My recitation was always the same, “Hello, you don’t know me, but I’m searching for a Buddy and Edra Crow. Would that be you?”
“No, sorry,” was the response in each case.
I looked down and realized I only had two numbers left. I dialed number eight and a man answered. “Hello,” I said, “you don’t know me but I’m looking for a Buddy Crow. Would that be you?” There was a long silence. “Hello?” I said, thinking I’d lost the caller.
“That would be me. What do you want?”
“I’m really looking for Edra Crow. Is she your wife?”
“Oh, thank you, God,” I blurted, “thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“What do you want with her?”
“She is my Great Aunt and I want to meet her. I’m Linda Jones and my father is W.E. Jones, Jr. and he was born in Utopia. My grandmother, Maizelle, was Edra’s older sister.”
“Well, now, ain’t this a surprise,” the man on the other end of the line said. “Let me ask her if she wants to meet you.”
“Wait! Before you ask her, tell her my father and his sister, Maizelle, are both with me. We are in Hondo and would like to meet her now if possible.”
His conversation was brief but when he returned to the phone he said, “This isn’t a very good time. We’re just getting ready to go to a doctor's visit. We have about a half-hour if you can get here right away.”
I knew I would move heaven and earth for this meeting, so I said, “Sure, we can be there in just a few minutes if you give me directions.” He did, I wrote them down and we were off.
If coincidences had peppered this story previously this would turn out to be one more. We met this lovely couple in their home and shared much of what we had learned over the previous three days. When we told them what we knew of Maizelle’s murder Edra said, “Did they tell you about the baby?”
My Aunt Maizelle piped up, “I was the baby.”
Buddy and Edra shot each other a look that said, “You think you were the baby, but that’s not the baby to whom we refer.” With that, they indicated they needed to leave, pronto.
I saw the look; I knew they had information we
have but there wasn’t time to explore the dropped hint. I had
to let it go. It was time for our hosts to leave for their
appointment and I couldn’t ask questions about “the baby”
with my Aunt Maizelle standing beside me ready to contradict their
story. I’ll write to them later and ask, I thought
gathered our purses and coats and headed out the door.
And I did write and ask. And they didn’t answer. I wrote to Katherine Redden as well and never received a response from her either. If this story were science fiction, I would say I felt as if there was a rent in the fabric of the earth as we entered Utopia that allowed us to learn all we did in two short days, a tear that closed behind us and sealed itself forever as we drove away.