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FRONT-PORCH GOSPEL: This life story begins in 1973 (kind of) part 51

Sweet Buella Mae

Mama was like every other good storyteller I knew. She would get off the beaten path if needed to fill in the story within the story. But she wouldn’t forget to get back to the main trail eventually. She stepped off the trail that evening in talking about how she and Daddy met to give an overview of my short-lived coon-hunting career.

“Zeke said that they had treed a coon about midnight,” she said. 

Corrina sat near her, leaning forward, and listened almost as if spellbound, sitting on every word. 

“The coon dogs were yapping away at the bottom of a tall tree, and they were all but climbing it. Zeke and Robbie Ray and a couple other of the brothers all had flashlights on the coon as he tried to hide out on a limb thirty or forty feet up.

“Zeke was shining his light to where the coon was treed, trying to show Billy Ray, but he didn’t notice that your ‘Pup,’” she said with a smile, “kept backing up and backing up as he tried to find a good angle to get a good look. 

“Zeke said that he barely could even hear the splash for all the yapping those coon dogs were doing, but he heard what sounded like a splash. He thought at first the coon had fallen or jumped into the water, but then he noticed that Billy Ray wasn’t standing where he was before. He ran over to the edge of the creek, and by that time he got there he could hear him yelling. Zeke scooted down the hill as fast as he could and could see Billy Ray flailing in the water, because Mud Creek was always pretty deep, especially after a rain. Zeke jumped in and pulled him out all shivering and crying.

“They all loaded up and left after that and left that coon still stuck up in that tree. I’m thankful they came on home, because it was wintertime, early December, and my baby almost froze to death before they could get him back home.”

Mama laughed at that, as did Corrina, who looked back at me and grinned, not only because of my falling into the creek but probably also because of all the titles Mama had at her disposal when talking about me – It was ‘Billy Ray’ at times, then ‘my baby,’ and now even ‘the Pup.’ It wasn’t lost on me or Corrina either that she even would throw in “your Pup” now and then, too.

All of this attention, while not unappreciated, was a little embarrassing and would’ve made me turn beet red had I not already been that color due to the sunburn.

Mama and Corrina talked on for a minute, teasing me a little about it, but I pretended to ignore them and leaned my head back and rested my eyes. I’m sure they could see I seemed satisfied, so they knew I wasn’t minding it too much. It was good that we had those light moments because it wasn’t long before Mama got back to the tragic story she had begun telling that led into how she had met Daddy.

“Robbie Ray pulled that hunting gun down from above the fireplace,” she said, measuring her words, “and he walked out to the front porch with it to show Buella Mae how it worked.

“Buella Mae was always scared of guns and wouldn’t get within a mile of one if she could help it. She was more interested in planting flowers and going out to talk to them in the evenings until Ma would have to holler at her over and over to come in, that it was getting dark.

“Everyone who knew Buella Mae said she was a special soul. Her flowers were her friends, and she could never tire of digging around them, watering them, propping them up if needed, and petting them to death.”

Corrina, who had been quiet through it all, spoke up, and said, “Miss Louise, I can just picture Miss Buella Mae. It sounds as if she were just like one of the flowers she loved so much.”

I peeked and saw Mama smile and could tell she admired Corrina’s astuteness and her gentleness. It seemed to perk Mama up some, too, because she needed all of her strength to tell the rest of this story.

“Sweetie,” Mama said sympathetically, as if she did not want to break the news to Corrina of what happened next, “Robbie Ray came out to the porch to show Buella Mae the gun, probably because he knew how much she hated them. It’s not to blame him at all, it’s just the way brothers do. Ask Billy Ray, he has two big brothers, and he can tell you all about that. 

“But when Robbie Ray came out on the front porch, the screen door slammed behind him, and it must’ve startled him – or maybe he tripped on a loose plank – I don’t know, but the gun went off. They said it was like two shots being fired one after the other, with the screen door slamming loudly and then the rifle discharging.”

Mama paused, and for the first time that evening, tears welled up, and she had to take a moment to gather herself. Listening, all of this was bitter, sweet for me. Part of me hated that Mama got to telling that tragic part of the family history, then another part was glad that she was willing to share with Corrina. I think it did both of them good.

Turning to Cheyenne as he listened to my re-telling of the story, I added something else,

“Cheyenne, I said, “the truth is, even though I knew about the story of Buella Mae, you know how stories like this go. Nobody ever talked about it growin’ up. I knew about it mostly because years later, after Pa died, Ma came to live with us, and she would sit at the kitchen table at night dippin’ snuff – I’ll never forget that – and goin’ through a box full of black-and-white pictures of her family.

“She would have me come sit down beside her when she came to pictures of sweet Buella Mae. I never liked doin’ that because it really hurt me to see Ma cry that way, and I was so young I didn’t know what to do or say. I know now that it doesn't matter how old or young you are, there weren’t words to soothe her kind of hurt.”

Mama had taken her time to gather herself, I continued, and the whole time Corrina waited patiently, as if she had all the time in the world, which, in a way we did. Things moved slower back in those days, at least they did in the evenings.

Nothing was slow during the day out on the brick job, and I’m sure nothing was slow in the cotton mill where Mama worked most of her life, because all the ladies in the mill had to “make production,” as they called it.

But on this special night in the summer of ’73, with these two ladies sharing the deepest parts of our lives, time crawled along. Neither of the ladies had any desire to hurry things up, illustrating for me an amazing bond in storytelling that I don’t think I’d ever seen before.

When Mama got the words in her mind just right, she continued.

“Buella Mae was standing on the porch right by the post at the edge of the steps. She had some flowers in two pots she put on either side of the steps, white lilies, and she had been working in one of them when Robbie Ray came out the door. When the door slammed and made that loud noise, she straightened up, and that was the last thing she would ever do.”

Mama stopped again, and her lip quivered as she tried to get the words out.

“Corrina” she said, “the bullet hit her right in the chest, and they said she just folded her legs and sat down right in that spot, with her head and arm resting on that pot of flowers. The bullet went through her heart – she never felt a thing. It was as if she just sat down to rest with her flowers.”

Corrina handed Mama a tissue from the nightstand by the bed and leaned up and just held Mama for a minute. Mama cried there that night, and I could not help but think that it was as if she was standing right there on that porch at that moment watching sweet Buella Mae go down, her head resting on her lovely lilies.


Coach Steven Bowen, a long-time Red Oak teacher and coach, now enjoys his time as a writer and preacher of the gospel. And, after a ten-year hiatus, he’s also returned to work with students at Ferris High School as well.

In addition to his evangelistic travels, he works and writes for the Church of Christ of Red Oak at Uhl Road and Ovilla. Their worship times are 10 a.m. Sundays and 7:30 pm. Wednesdays. Email or call or text (972) 824-5197.

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