Southern Legends

I’ve been to two fortune-tellers, though naturally they eschewed that term, preferring “psychic” or “spiritual adviser,” and have been twice disappointed. The first was such a transparent quack it was embarrassing. She actually had an assistant ask to see my driver’s license before the session, so she could rub a quartz crystal and tell me I was from somewhere in Georgia and that I was, she was sensing strongly, a Leo. The second just didn’t get me at all, and failed in the fundamental skill of her trade: finding out what I wanted to hear and telling it to me. Not that she didn’t try. She probed me for material and took such obvious baits, deriving from them such obvious and irrelevant conclusions, I was not embarrassed, just disappointed. Being at the time in the state of spiritual disarray I’m still in, I longed for an encouraging word from Beyond. I longed for the real thing. I wanted, it’s clear enough now, a Rena Teel.

Ben, Rena, Marvin and Dolly Teel in 1919 (Ammie Anderson’s Irene Vansandt Teel)
Ben, Rena, Marvin and Dolly Teel in 1919 (Ammie Anderson’s Irene Vansandt Teel)

I had always been aware of Rena Teel. Hers was a semi-mythical name in my childhood, but it was not until I was in the printing business in the eighties that I became curious enough to try and find out more about her. My grandmother obliged me with updated versions of the stories she remembered, accompanied by an unexpected note of dark reservation. Citing scripture from Deuteronomy about “observers of times,” and “enchanters” and “consulters with familiar spirits” and people who made their children “pass through the fire”—references, I believe, to the vile religious practices of the Canaanites the Israelites were trying to displace—she wasn’t sure but what the woman’s power wasn’t “of Satan.” Well, no one questioned the power itself—though I believe Mrs. Teel was mostly innocent of those practices—and I couldn’t help noting that the satanic question was something of an afterthought—particularly if you asked my grandfather, the Methodist preacher, who drew a spousal rebuke by not masking his fascination with her.

Planning to write a little article, I drove up to Clay county, Alabama—locale of the tale and ancestral home of the maternal side of my family—sometime in the mid-eighties, and interviewed a few people who’d known Rena Teel, including her daughter, Dollie. With that material, and drawing upon a little book by Mrs. Teel’s neighbor, Ammie Anderson, I wrote the article. It languished, however, with a number of others as the magazine I’d hoped to found remained unfounded. With the help of the resourceful library staff of LaGrange College, where I work, I’ve since located some more information. What follows is essentially the original piece, with an extra tidbit or two.

One summer day, about 1920, my maternal grandparents traveled from their home in Clay county to Birmingham to fetch my grandmother’s younger brother, Buddy, for a visit. The next day, they tied Buddy’s suitcase to the running board of their Model-T, and drove back home. When they arrived, they discovered that somewhere along the 60 or 70 mile route, Buddy’s suitcase had fallen off.

They debated for a while the best course of action, and eventually decided to visit young Rena Teel—who had an interesting local reputation—in a nearby community.

The passage of time has obscured her precise modus operandi of those days, but however she went about her work, she peered into the heart of the question, as her stare became glazed and far-off, and described to the smallest detail the setting where the suitcase at that moment lay. In fact, though she’d never been there, she described that particular stretch of highway so vividly, my grandfather knew precisely the spot she meant. So off they went and, just as she’d assured them they would, they found Buddy’s suitcase in the weeds in a roadside ditch.

Shortly before my mother’s marriage in 1948, which was shortly after her graduation from high school in 1947, she and a friend participated in an informal tradition of high school senior girls and made a pilgrimage to Rena Teel for a reading (i.e., to get the scoop on their future husbands). The seer, “a nice plain country lady,” was in her fifties then, and known far and wide. She had a business license and charged a small fee. She took my mother into a back bedroom of the old house, closed the door, closed the curtains, and invited her client to sit down opposite her, across a table. She took into her hands a small bowl, with tea leaves or coffee grounds in it, and rolled it around, peering into its secrets, as she spoke. Sometimes she would look up at my mother; at other times her eyes would glaze over. My mother reported feeling slightly uneasy, and relieved when the session was over. The woman, meek at all other times, made her pronouncements in a very assured tone—adamant and final.

Mama told me that much of what she said was “double talk” and hardly awe-inspiring. “You are witty and smart, people like you.” “You will come into a small sum of money.” “You will soon take a trip.” But when she got down to specifics, things got a little more interesting. She said Mama would marry the proverbial “dark” man and have three children rather close together, then a fourth later in life. The second would be a girl. She would marry twice.

Well, Mama, involved at that time with a golden-haired All-American boy (please see my story “Bruce” on my website: www.manwalkingbackward.com), had yet to meet my “dark” father, though that fateful event was imminent. Then—the three children close together came to pass. The fourth child did not, thought there are a couple of candidates for metaphorical substitution. And I’m not a girl—and Mama, who had forty-five years with my father of blessed memory, did not need to marry twice, and certainly didn’t.

A couple of years later, in 1950, my mother and her new mother-in-law, my other grandmother, made another trip from Montgomery to Clay county to consult Rena Teel. Her pronouncements of that day apparently weren’t sensational enough to live on in family lore. Except for one thing.

My newlywed parents’ house at that time, on Lewis Street in Montgomery, had a back porch which had been converted to a sort of sun room, its three exterior walls entirely windows. Mama had made a laundry room of it. A lover of flowers, she had had my father build for her around the inside of those spacious, sunny windows a series of glass shelves for her collection of African violets and other exotic blooming plants. Rena Teel described the room, the shelves, the plants, with minute accuracy. But she added that some catastrophe was in store for them, and that they would all be lost, save one.

One day a few weeks later, as the washing machine went into the spin cycle and began to shake the porch, as it always did, my mother, in another room, suddenly heard a thunderous, horrible, multi-staged crash. She rushed into the laundry room to find a scene of devastation—shattered glass, broken pottery, dirt, gravel, plants. In one window, a single small potted African violet still stood.

In a remote churchyard in Clay county, behind the church, on a lonely and isolated hill, is a small cemetery. One of the graves is Rena Teel’s. She was buried there in May of 1964 and lies beside her husband, Ben Teel. I wonder if she foresaw this quiet place.

She was born, with a caul, on April 8, 1894, the fourth child of James and Mary Smith Vansandt, near Rockford, Alabama. Her parents were uneducated, and Rena herself left school at age fourteen, though she was a promising student. Life simply presented too many hindrances for her to continue.

Her clairvoyant experiences began in her earliest childhood. She had a way of knowing where lost things were, and was no fun to play hide and seek with. If a hen laid outside the nest, Rena could easily find the place. She always seemed to know about newborn calves and colts, and where they could be found. Her family had a cow named Star. Star had developed a bad habit of getting out of the pasture. Rena told her father where she was getting out. Mr. Vansandt wanted to fit the wayward bovine with a yoke, but Rena said, “Don’t do that—it will kill her.” Mr. Vansandt did it anyway. One morning not long after that Rena began to cry. She ran to her father and told him Star was dead. Sure enough—in a ditch, tangled in her yoke.

Once, when Rena was twelve, she tearfully told her mother that her infant brother George was going to die. Because the baby was healthy, Mrs. Vansandt didn’t take the claim seriously. Rena continued crying for three days, and on the third, George died.

So the Vansandts had a “fortune-teller” on their hands. Mr. Vansandt, who feared the stigma, warned Rena to use her gift sparingly and not to draw attention to it. Once, while still rather young, Rena went to Dr. M. J. Slaughter, who would be a lifelong friend, and said, “Tell me what I am.” All he could tell her was that she had a “sixth sense.” Throughout her childhood and teen years Rena tried to hide her unnatural knowledge of things from others. Like any teenager, she didn’t want to be different. As she grew older, however, she came to accept her gift and even to see it as her life’s work.

She married in 1912, and the Teels moved to Millerville, and later to Salem where Rena began to give her first “public” readings. About this time her daughter Dollie was born. Dollie, who lived near Millerville when I visited her twenty-something years ago, enjoyed talking about her mother and her gift, stressing that she was a pious, God-fearing woman, who insisted her power came from God, and who strove to use it beneficently. And it is striking how many of the stories about her feature her kindness and generosity. Her readings were confidential, she did not gossip, nor tell clients of their death. Rena had asserted that, when she died, her gift would pass to her daughter, but this seems not to have happened.

Once, while the Teels were living in Salem, a neighbor rented a house to his nephew. Rena told the neighbor that his son would kill the nephew, and to send him away. Evidently the neighbor put great stock in Rena’s vision. He sent his son to Florida. But he returned. And murdered his cousin.

After that, Rena’s clientele grew broader, more varied, and prestigious. She had to start booking appointments, and began accepting donations—usually ten to fifty cents. Dollie recalled as a child the variety of license plates on the cars crowding the yard. We all long for a word from Beyond. When somebody reported her for not having a license, she got one and kept it the rest of her life. She hadn’t known it was necessary.

In Talladega one Saturday, Rena saw a scaffold and knew something was wrong. She hurried to see a friend of hers and told her they must go to the judge at once, and stop this. The man to be hanged, she insisted, was innocent. It was a rape case—the victim had sworn he was the man. Rena’s friend feared the girl’s family would kill her if she interfered. In despair, Rena prophesied that within two years the real offender would confess. The execution went forward. Two years later, the uncle of the wrongfully hanged man confessed the crime on his death bed.

One of my cousins told me the story of a boy who disappeared while fishing on the river. Searchers consulted Mrs. Teel, and she told them he had drowned, and described where his body would wash up. They went to the place, and found his body. She sort of specialized in washed-up bodies. My uncle discovered his billfold missing once, and went to Rena Teel, but all she could tell him was, “The man who took it is dishonest—you won’t get it back.” Astonishingly, he didn’t. Another of my cousins once went to Rena around Christmastime to ask about her wandering brother, whom she hadn’t seen for a while, and about whom she had grown anxious. Rena told her that he had made a trip out west, then back east and up the coast, and that he was sick this sap-falling (November), and probably wouldn’t live until sap-rising. They brought his body back in February.

There are many other such stories and testimonies—just as there are about Rena’s more colorful and well-known near contemporary, some sixty miles away: Mayhaley Lancaster. But I wish more people addressed the main issue here: how the hell did she do it? Mayhaley said, “Crawfishes’ eyes are in their tail, and mine is in my head”—but that’s not much help. Rena had a sixth sense. Okay, what is a sixth sense? Obviously, her relationship to reality was not paranormal to her. And presumably she was only able to do what anybody could do, if they only could. That part of the brain seems not to be switched on in most people. But why not? And why is it in a few? And what does that say about time and reality themselves if somebody “knows” what hasn’t happened yet? “Sees” a place she’s never been? It seems to me, either there is a way for the prevailing worldview to accommodate these things and stay intact, or we are looking at clues to an inevitable deep adjustment to that worldview: the squiggle that unravels.

I favor the latter, and keep my sensors open. Just knowing that there’s more to knowing than we know is good enough for now.

 

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Editor’s note about the photo: This photo appeared in the Fall 2009 issue number 94 of the Alabama Heritage Magazine’s Remembering Mrs. Rena: The East Alabama Soothsayer, by Elizabeth Wade. This magazine issue can be purchased by clicking here. Alabama Heritage Magazine is published by University of Alabama, University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Alabama Department of Archives and History.

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John M. Williams

John M. Williams

I teach at LaGrange College–a small, pleasant island in the ocean, Academia.  My colleagues are my friends; we are collegial.  I deal with creatures of inexhaustible charm, a foot on either side of that just beginning to widen crack which will force them shortly to leap one way, or fall the other.  They have vastly more promise than ignorance, but are rich in both.

I’ve been here so long I’m beginning to suspect some sorceress is playing a joke.  How did I get here?  Circuitously.

I was riding a stick horse in the pecan tree filled yard of a flat-roofed house in Auburn, Alabama–that much is vivid.  Then, it all begins to blur.  All my grammar school teachers were old (perfectly lovely) women; my children’s grammar school teachers were all hot babes.  Why is that?  The main thing I remember about high school is Mr. Goff.  Him, and a handful of friends (you know who you are).  I think everything I learned in high school could have been easily condensed into one strenuous afternoon.  Then college, where I was rejected by calculus and attracted to letters, my favorites being M and G.  The eras of my life have all been covered, one way or another, in my scribblings.  My childhood is encoded most accurately and completely in my story “In the Beginning Was Kitto.”  That gripping tale is not included here because it’s in a collection called Snake Dreams that I’m trying to sell!

After college, travel–then grad school, then travel, then five years in the printing business, then aimlessness, then LaGrange, grad school again, marriage, children, and a series of red felt-tipped pens.  Here, the birthdays have become like cards being fanned in a deck.  Like I said, a blur.  Blur blur blur.  You have to fight the blur!  Speak truth to blur!  You have to nail little exertions of precision to the shadowy walls of life’s dubious corridor.

To those of you in other trenches who hear this faint tapping–tap back!