Calla Lily

Each person who tells the story changes some detail as though we were archiving various versions of an Appalachian ballad. Sometimes they add a bit information I do not know, shared with them by a relative long dead. More often, they confuse the location, placing it here, then there, on the wrong farms, in the wrong county. They’re hazy about the names of the players. All but hers. Calla Lily Hudson.

Her story haunts me. I think about it when I become careless and take happiness for granted. I think about it when I ponder the randomness of tragic news events. And I wonder if this why my family, too, cannot forget Calla Lily. Have they repeated her story for more than a century searching for meaning where there appears to be none? Have the Hudsons turned Calla Lily into myth to nudge her toward Fate? Fate, I try to tell myself, is a place I might better understand than pointlessness.

We know more about Calla Lily’s death than we do her life. We presume she was intelligent because her two siblings were. We speculate that she had a great sense of humor because her niece and great-nephews do. We think she was lovable in some remarkable way because her widowed husband grieved for her the rest of his life.

But all we really know is that she was as pretty as the flower that shares her name, Calla Lily, the blossom that helps us celebrate weddings and grieves with us at funerals. In the only photo that survives, her blond hair is rolled smoothly into a classic pompadour, framing a face as softly curved as a cherub’s. Her white lace camisole, adorned with a locket hanging mid-bodice, has weathered the whims of fashion, and is as flattering to her tiny figure now as it was over a century ago. She wears an engagement ring on her left hand, and as her large eyes open wide for the camera, she smiles sweetly, with anticipation, into the future.

Her wedding day and mine would be separated by more than half a century and two World Wars. We never met. Yet I feel as connected to her as though she passed through here last month. Perhaps that’s because the same patch of Owen County land nurtured us. She was born on my family’s farm during tobacco stripping season in November 1889. I can’t document the exact location since houses that once were no longer exist. What I do know is that her father -- my grandfather’s Uncle Ed Hudson -- once owned the land where my family’s farmhouse now stands. Her two siblings forever called ours their “homeplace,” and her brother Halcolm requested that his cremated ashes be scattered on the hillside behind our tobacco barn.

Ambitious for greater opportunities for his children, however, Uncle Ed sold out their homeplace in Owen County and moved his family to the center of the Bluegrass in prosperous Fayette. He bought a small farm on Leestown Pike, two miles from the Lexington city limits near present-day Meadowthorpe. In his photos, he looks like a man ready to meet the world straight on, a dapper, handsome man with a merry twinkle in his eye and a confident tilt in his jawline.

By 1910, Uncle Ed’s family was thriving in their new location. His son Halcolm was enrolled as a student at the University of Kentucky and was on the staff of
The Lexington Herald. His two daughters, “educated in the county schools,” were described as popular, with many friends in both the county and in town. And the oldest of the daughters, the beautiful Calla Lily, now twenty, was engaged to marry an upstanding young man from nearby Georgetown, Benjamin DeGaris, age twenty-four.

Ben and Callie were married in Lexington on September 14, 1910. That was on a Wednesday. According to newspaper accounts, they traveled that same day to Cincinnati, presumably by train, where they spent two nights. This would have been an extravagance for people of ordinary means, a wedding trip Ben DeGaris had saved for months to afford. On Friday night, still on their honeymoon, they returned to Lexington to her parents’ home. It would be their last night together.

On Saturday afternoon, Ben DeGaris decided to take his bride of three days for a ride in the family’s buggy. They returned to her parents’ place about six-thirty. As Ben was turning off Leestown Pike into the gate at the farm’s driveway, the horse balked. The animal, spooked by the approach of an automobile coming up behind it, backed to the middle of the road.

Ben urged the horse toward the gate again. This time as the horse neared the gate, it began kicking wildly and again backed into the turnpike. Frightened, Calla Lily jumped out of the buggy toward the middle of the road.

At that star crossed moment, Mr. Oscar Brown, who was driving the machine, attempted to slowly pass the stalled horse and buggy. Perhaps he could not easily brake. Perhaps he thought Ben would be able to calm the horse if he eased the car past them and went on down the pike. From the distance of the 21
st Century, however, I scream, “What were you thinking, Mr. Brown!”

Both in motion, the Model T Ford and Callie collided. The blow threw her beneath the wheels, and although Brown tried to stop, all four tires ran over her body. Her chest was crushed.

She would live for about another hour. Long enough to call for doctors. Long enough to give them a little hope. Long enough to watch her bleed to death.

In the newspaper accounts, Uncle Ed did “not blame Mr. Brown” and considered “the tragedy entirely accidental.” For his part, Brown took to his bed. “His nervous system has received a great shock, it is said, and he is in serious condition.”

Ben DeGaris eventually would re-marry and live on to the age of ninety. His only child, however, would be named Calla Lily. He is buried in the Georgetown Cemetery between his two wives.
Uncle Ed Hudson would die of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1925. They brought him home to Owen County where he rests with our people.

Copyright © July 2016 Georgia Green Stamper