Neighbors and Family

In these blogs about Searching for GSOT the family stories have received far more interest than the philosophical wanderings.[1]  I think that’s how it should be. Family should rank high in our understanding of GSOT.

It’s not just my birth family or yours. The idea of family extends to many other people with whom we have shared education, sports, church and Sunday School, military or public service, and work. Some of happiest times of my life have come at reunions – Murrah High School Class of ’65, Harvard Med Class of ’73. My experience with these events is that rivalries fade and everyone treats others as part of an inclusive family.

Some reunions I’ve missed to my regret. I went to a surprising one, the 25-year reunion of the youth choir at Wesley Methodist Church, a group that experienced life-changing revival together. It was thrilling to have almost everyone coming back to sing once more with Brother Don Hickman. You will all forever be family to me.

The point is that birth family relations can be a model for many broader settings. But how does that happen? Beyond the birth or childhood family, how do we develop the idea of what a family is and who belongs to it?

It seems to me that there are two quite different ways to establish family-like relations:

  • The first way is to establish what is going to characterize any potential member, that is, what allows someone in or keeps someone out.
  • The second is to accept anyone willing to join on the basis of closeness. The closeness might be physical – by location – or it might be emotional – through kinship of shared experience, memory, and vision. Here it’s not a choice that contrasts physical versus emotional closeness; either should qualify and lead to acceptance.[2]

There is a word for people who are physically close – neighbors. So, when might neighbors become family? I have listed examples above. However, a large group of neighbors through the early years of my life were excluded.

Our house stood in a meadow on the northern edge of Jackson very near the black town of Tougaloo. As years passed, black people moved into the communities around us. I had no contact with these neighbors at all, and the lack of contact created anxiety.

The civil rights struggle in Mississippi was intense in the sixties during my teen years. My way of dealing with it was to stand apart from it as much as possible, a stance affording me no pride then or today.

Let’s be clear. The submerged anxiety of a white teenager growing up in Mississippi in the sixties would not even compare with the distress of black Southerners, young and old, over much longer periods of time.[3]

Many white boys in the South grew up with the experience of working side by side with black people in various jobs, perhaps in farming, construction, or factories. That simply was not the case for me and some of my friends. I literally did not know the name of a black person near my own age.

We had contact with our maids like Clara Mae Tate in Jackson, whose fried chicken far surpassed our mother’s. We had contact with trusted black men who did various jobs for our families, like Andrew and Willy who on occasion drove the children to catch a train in Batesville, or Ginger Howard who supervised the small team that built our big concrete house in Jackson.

Those relationships, at least in my experience of them, were asymmetrical, always a bit cautious, and conversations were never open-ended as might occur among members of a family or friends at school. I remember hearing about a comment made by a black woman who attended the funeral of my grandmother, “Mrs. Guyton was the only white woman who ever invited me into her living room.” Meaning, of course, as a guest and not merely to clean or serve.

Katie Mae Wilson was the first black person with whom I ever had frank conversations about events happening in Mississippi and around the world. She had worked for my grandparents sometime earlier, then left and lived in Chicago for a while. After my grandmother died in 1961, Katie Mae was persuaded to return to Oxford to help widower Billy Guyton. I and three of my brothers at various times lived with him in an antebellum house on South Lamar Street while attending Ole Miss. Katie Mae lived in a small house on the back side of the property.

Neighbor Vase 2Katie Mae maintained the big house, managed the yardwork, and cooked our breakfasts and weekend meals. She was a spry, active woman who kept herself in good health (as far as I know), except  for an allergy developing to tomatoes that set her skin on fire and deprived her of a food she loved. She took up pottery and made a vase to give to me, which I still treasure.

Katie Mae had grown up in the Oxford area. Before my grandparents employed her, she had a job with the University laundry service. She believed in education. Her daughters graduated from college, including Elsie who obtained a Ph.D. and became a college professor.

Katie Mae told me a little about her church work such as her activities in the Heroines of Jericho. One big project, described enthusiastically, was to serve as a foster grandparent. She had 7 grandchildren by direct descent, but found room in her heart and her schedule for a succession of less fortunate ones. Later I found this wonderful description of Katie Mae’s busy life, centered around her church:

She was a member of Burns United Methodist Church, where she was a stewardess, former Sunday school teacher, and a member of United Methodist Women and Church Women United. She was a member of the Household of Ruth No. 953, Bathsheba Chapter No. 27 Order of the Eastern Star, St. Mary Court of the Heroines of Jericho and Order of the Golden Circle. She served 16 years as Most Noble Governor of District 14 of the Household of Ruth.[4]

Neighbors Burns UMC 2

The Burns Methodist Episcopal Church had been founded just after the Civil War on property deeded to a newly freed slave by the widow of a University of Mississippi law professor. The story of the church, told here, would make a great movie. During the civil rights movement, the church forged alliances to achieve a smoother transition to integrated public schools and improved race relations in Oxford. The job is not yet finished.

Around 1970 I found myself visiting Oxford with my father. My grandfather Billy “Pop” Guyton had recently suffered the first of a terminal series of strokes. Katie Mae kept the household going as before. My father, brother Steve, and I decided to take Pop out for a drive in the countryside. Despite 56 years of medical practice, Pop still had the heart of a farmer, and he would enjoy the trip immensely. My father knew just where to take us.

In Mississippi where the soil is easily eroded, you can sometimes tell the age of a road by how deep it has sunken below the fields or woods on either side. Daddy described how it happened in the old days. The road surface usually lacked gravel, and deep ruts would form in the mud after a rain. The highway department sent out graders to smooth out the ruts, but after each grading some dirt washed away. Thus after every rainstorm the road sank lower and lower below the surrounding land. In time, many roads had gravel added to stabilize the surface, and eventually the roads were paved.

Beside one of those old deep roads, we pulled into a short driveway to witness a sad sight. A house had burned down. An elderly black man and his wife were living in what had been a tool shed. This was Andrew, who had maintained the Guyton Clinic in Oxford and performed a variety of jobs for our grandparents as far back as Daddy’s adolescence. Andrew came to greet us smiling, his joy at seeing old friends dampened only by his assessment of Dr. Billy’s incapacity. For Dr. Billy, this was the focal point of the car trip. His face brightened, and he managed a few words. The two friends seemed to understand something I could only guess at. To my father’s expression of distress at the loss of his house, Andrew replied, “Oh, we’ll make it all right. We’ll do all right.” Some money was given and we left, our conversation muted most of the way home.

Some years later, Dr. Billy was gone, but Katie Mae continued to work for the people who purchased his house. I brought my family on a visit to Oxford. My sister Jeannie, her husband Kees, Susan, and I planned an attempt to find the old Guyton house in Ingomar, Mississippi, where our grandfather grew up. We had a problem, because we had never been there and had no idea what it looked like. Katie Mae, who lived just across the street from Jeannie, had visited the house and remembered it well. Would she be willing to come help us find it? Certainly, she would be happy to come with us.

Neighbor Katie Mae & 2Gs Ingomar 3
Visiting the old Guyton house in Ingomar, Mississippi, around 1987. From left, adults John Guyton, Katie Mae Wilson, Kees and Jean Gispen; children Morgan Guyton, Fiona Gispen, Julia Guyton.

With her help, we located the old house in Ingomar, which more than fulfilled our expectations. To my eyes it showed a French influence.[5]

Billy Guyton’s sister Hermia, a spinster, had been the last person to live in the house. She lost her mind there. According to Katie Mae, the neighbors would sometimes find her walking down a road going nowhere, and they would take her home. When the current owner kindly allowed us to enter the house, we found a box of letters Aunt Hermie had saved. One letter from her sister-in-law Kate Guyton enthused about the birth of a second daughter, Jean, to the Arthur Guyton family in Oxford.

We were perplexed that stacks of newspapers and magazines in a tiny bathroom made the one toilet in the house completely inaccessible. Katie Mae had the answer for us, “The boys thought that their parents should have a toilet, so they installed it some time after the original house was built. But nobody ever used it. Mr. and Mrs. Guyton were accustomed to using the outhouse. To do such a thing in their home did not seem proper to them. Hermie didn’t use it either.”

When I went to medical school in Boston in 1969, I met and became friends with African American classmates for the first time. I learned their names (bear with me, names are important) – Eddie Skipper, Morgan Jackson, Spencer Lewis, Shirley Marks, Noah Alan Harris, Robert Lonian, Michel Jean-Baptiste, Cuthbert “Tuffy” Simpkins, and perhaps others escaping my memory now. By our senior year I and another student joined Morgan on an internship interview tour in his BMW around the U.S.

At dinner one evening with Tuffy and several other classmates, someone agonized about the war in Vietnam, saying, “It’s so hard because it’s the first war our country has ever lost,” But I was a white guy from Mississippi, and we lost the war. “Speak for yourself,” I wisecracked. Nobody laughed, and then I tried to apologize. I still hope that Tuffy let it slide.

Among that group, I had the greatest interaction with Spencer Lewis during medical school. When I heard that he died from complications of diabetes within 10 years after graduation, the world seemed to tighten around me. Spencer’s daughter, an impressive young woman, joined us at the 40th reunion of the Class of 1973. From her I learned much more. Spencer’s life was tragic only in its brevity. After residency he established himself as a valued family practitioner in his home state of Louisiana. He lost his eyesight to diabetes, but his patients wanted to continue under his care. He challenged the local hospital to let him continue his practice with few limitations, and he won. The practice actually increased in size. Then he went further. A paraplegic student at Louisiana Tech aiming for an allied health career came by for a visit. Spencer’s words and actions so inspired the student that he transferred to medical school. Together they placed ads in 18 major medical journals. As letters poured in from around the country, they launched the American Society for Handicapped Physicians.

In 2004 I returned to Oxford for a Guyton family reunion. My wife Susan and I thought about paying a visit to Katie Mae Wilson. Fortunately we found her telephone number, called, and asked if she could see us. Her daughter Elsie answered, and the quick reply was, yes, they would be delighted.

They lived 10 miles outside of Oxford in a sparsely populated area near Sardis Lake. The nearest neighbor was a quarter mile away. On a clear patch of land surrounded by woods, the house of modern brick construction and neatly trimmed shrubs and lawn looked curiously out of place. If Katie Mae could afford such a nice house, why would she live so far from town?

Katie Mae welcomed us into her home. She was weak, but comfortable and full of joy at seeing us. She rose slowly, smiled widely, hugged strongly. She asked about all our family, and we learned about hers. Before long she solved the mystery of the house for us. Her grandmother, born a slave, had a dream of purchasing her own piece of land. This country lot was what she could afford. The lot was passed along to her daughter and then to Katie Mae, who built a new house on it. Elsie, the retired college professor, would be the fourth generation to live on the site. And they had welcomed us into their living room.

When do neighbors become family? When we meet each other, talk and listen to each other, learn names and homes, backgrounds and hopes, and tell our stories one to another – all of which becomes a larger story of discovery. That story will be shared, like the shared space in which our lives unfold.

I still have much to learn. But it’s hardly a new concept. Jesus taught it.[6]

Next post:  Ole Miss and James Meredith

Previous post:  Medical Education for the World and Home

Searching for GSOT Outline:  Home

Featured image:  Own photo, 1987.  Vase, own photo. Burns-Belfry Museum and former church, from website. Own photo of family and house in Ingomar, MS.

[1] GSOT is the Grand Scheme Of Things.

[2] I know what some are thinking, because I have the same attitude:  Nobody is going to tell me who I need to accept or not! Well, maybe Jesus.

[3] If you want to begin to understand, you might read Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody (Dell, New York, 1968) or Mississippi: An American Journey by Anthony Walton (Knopf, New York, 1996).

[4] Katie Mae Wilson obituary,, accessed 5/8/2017.

[5] Our great-grandfather, who built the house in the first decade of 20th century, was only 4 to 6 generations removed from Huguenot refugees. According to Aunt Ruth, the house was built from a kit ordered from Sears Roebuck. Even so, with its gables, overhanging eaves, and trim, the house has a French flair.

[6] See Luke 10:29, John 4:7, Matthew 12:48.

4 thoughts on “Neighbors and Family

  1. Just discovered your blog via an old FB post about your dad I’d saved a while back. Enjoyed the first and last posts a lot. Look forward to reading the rest! You may not remember … Terry (and Charlotte Dabbs) Algood … Ole Miss ’65 – ’70. God bless!

  2. Hi John, this is Tuffy. I really enjoyed reading your blog. I vaguely recall the conversation about the war. At the time whatever distress, I felt over your comment had dissipated after maybe 10 minutes or less. I have fond memories of our time together at Harvard. Had I not read your blog I would not have remembered the incident. I would have remembered what I told my wife which was that you are a nice person with whom I wish I had spent more time while at medical school. I was upset over Spencer Lewes’ death too. I learned more about him through your blog. Thank you for the information. Life- our own and that of others is just a loan to us. We never know the term of the loan- 10 years 30 years or 2 months. So, it’s best that we try hard to treat each other well not knowing if we will ever have another chance to make amends. Spencer, (we called him “Phage” because a coat he wore made us think of the protein coat of a bacteriophage) was a comet who flashed brightly but too briefly across our skies. He will always be missed.

    Maybe we’ll see each other at a future reunion.

    All the very best to you and your family

    1. Hey Tuffy, Thanks so much for your note. Then and now I am very grateful for your friendship. It means a lot. You and others have taught me, and you are still teaching! Keep it up. Fond wishes to you and family.

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