The Belle of Star City

People

June 29, 2024

Illustration of Great Aunt Lily by Gerry ONeill

May her light shine on

essay by Jim Dodson | illustration by Gerry ONeill

“I think you are really going to enjoy your Great Aunt Lily,” my dad says cheerfully. “She’s quite a colorful character. I call her the Belle of Star City.”

It’s a warm July morning in 1964. We are driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains to Roanoke, where I am to be dropped off at Great Aunt Lily’s apartment for the weekend before my parents take my brother, Dickie, on to church camp, then head to a newspaper convention in Hot Springs, Va.

He explains that Lily is my grandfather’s beloved youngest sister, a strong-willed beauty who spurned several suitors in rural Carolina before fleeing to Washington, D.C. There, she worked for years as a stage actress and theatrical seamstress.

“I suppose she was something of the family’s black sheep, but a delightful woman. You’ll love her.”

Though I fear I’m simply being dumped for the weekend on a boring maiden aunt, my old man turns out to be right. 

Lily lives alone in a gloomy Victorian brownstone on Roanoke’s First Street, in an apartment filled with dusty antiques and Civil War memorabilia, including a Confederate cavalry officer’s sword she claims belonged to an ancestor who fought at Antietam and Gettysburg. There are also exotic paintings of classical nudes and wild beasts adorning her walls, including the stuffed head of an antelope, a gift from her “favorite gentleman friend” who passes through town every winter with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.  

On my first night with her, Lily — a large-boned, blonde woman, endlessly talkative, swimming in White Shoulders perfume — takes me via taxi to a Chinese restaurant in the Market District, where we dine with a snowy-haired “gentleman friend” she says was once mayor. He talks about the recent Kennedy assassination and makes a half-dollar coin appear from my ears, pointing out that Roanoke is called Magic City.

The next morning, Lily takes me to breakfast at The Roanoker Restaurant, a legendary diner where she knows everyone by first name. After that, we are taxied up Mill Mountain to have a close look at the famous Roanoke Star. The cab driver, Ernie, has a gold tooth and a quick smile. Lily explains that Ernie is a true “Renaissance man,” a part-time preacher, former Navy cook, full-time house painter and her “dearest gentleman friend in the world.” Reverend Ernie is also her “business partner,” who occasionally drives her to estate sales and auctions to buy artwork and antiques, which Ernie sells to collectors, splitting the profits with her. The sword is one of their recent “finds,” which she hints might someday pass my way. This thought thrills me.

On the Sunday morning of my visit, we attend a small red-brick church to hear Reverend Ernie preach, followed by lunch at the historic Hotel Roanoke, the planned pick-up spot with my folks. Naturally, Lily knows the waiter, who brings me something called a “Roy Rogers” and her a small crystal glass. After we order our lunch, Lily discreetly removes a silver flask from her purse and pours herself a bit of ruby sherry. 

She looks at me and asks if I’d like a taste.

I say yes.

She asks how old I am.

Twelve, I lie, giving myself an extra year.

She slides the glass across the table. 

“Just a small sip, dear.”

Illustration of plaid suitcase by Gerry ONeill

During the two-hour drive home through the mountains, my folks are eager to hear about my weekend with the Belle of Star City. I tell them about her gentlemen friends and the interesting places she took me, and even mention the sword she promises to give me someday. 

My dad glances at my mom. “I told you she’s a colorful character,” he says. “Glad you enjoyed her. But here’s the thing . . . ”

He reveals that Great Aunt Lily is about to move into a special-care home due to what we now call Alzheimer’s.

“In the meantime, sport, she’s coming to stay with us around Thanksgiving.”

My mother chimes in, “And since your bedroom is the bigger bedroom, sweetie, we’re hoping you won’t mind giving it up to Aunt Lily. You can bunk with your brother. It’ll just be temporary.” 

Four months later, Lily arrives with a large wooden trunk and her sewing machine in tow. On the plus side, she tells me stories about famous men she’s known — the actor David Niven, golfer Sam Snead, Will Rogers. Even better, she keeps boxes of Lorna Doone cookies hidden under bolts of fancy cloth in her trunk, which she shares with me. One afternoon as we are having our daily cookie conversation, I ask about the sword. Lily gives me a blank look, then waves her cookie dismissively. “Oh, goodness, child! I gave that silly old thing to the church auction ages ago. I think I paid 10 dollars for it at a yard sale up in Fincastle.” 

Predictably, as Christmas Eve approaches, my clean-freak mother grows concerned over our private cookie sessions. My father says all Aunt Lily needs is a good hobby. So, he sets up her sewing machine and she goes to work on a new project behind closed doors, with her machine humming for days.

It turns out to be quilted, floral potholders. Two dozen quilted, floral potholders.

“Lily thinks you can sell them in the neighborhood for Christmas money,” my dad says. 

I am mortified. Two pals from my Pet Dairy baseball team live on our block, and so does one Della Jane Hockaday, who I hope to give a mood ring. 

“Look, sport,” my old man reasons, “Aunt Lily is here for only a couple more weeks. Just let her see you go down the block selling them. You’ll make an old lady who has just lost her home very happy. Lily is very fond of you.”

So, I grit my teeth and do it early on a frosty Saturday morning a week before Christmas. To my surprise, I sell a half-dozen five-dollar potholders and make thirty bucks. Years later, my mom lets slip that she’d phoned every woman on the street to grease the skids, including Della’s mom. The next morning before church, my dad and I drive the remaining potholders to the drop-off box of the Salvation Army store. 

He gives me an extra 20 for my trouble and insists that I tell Lily, if she asks, that her beautiful potholders sold out in just one morning.

But Lily never asks. Not long after the new year, my dad drives his aunt and her big wooden trunk and sewing machine to the special-care home. 

I get my bedroom back and never see Great Aunt Lily again.

She passes away in the springtime two years later.

Every time I drive through Roanoke or eat Lorna Doone cookies, I think of her with a smile.  SP

Jim Dodson is a writer in Greensboro.

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