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Thursday, August 4, 2011

No. 61 The "Tiny World' of Cecil Nelson

"I would prefer not to," said he. I looked at him steadfastly. His face was leanly composed; his gray eyes dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him., ...not the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner ...” Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener

One summer morning my father was working on his boat, “The Ralph,” at the landing when he called for my youngest sister, Lillian. He didn’t call her by name because, he like everyone else before and since,  just called her “Sister.” He gave her a dollar bill and sent her along the shore to the west’ard on an errand. She was to go to a store, almost half a mile away, and get a quart of “copper paint” that Daddy would then mix with kerosene to make sure he had enough to cover the bottom of his vessel.

“It should be less than a dollar, and you can keep the change,” he promised her, knowing that the prospect of even a few pennies as a reward would cause her to hurry on her way.

Within a few minutes, Sister, who was yet to reach her teens, was standing in front of the counter of a small wooden frame store and was doing just what her father had asked. A middle-aged man listened to her request and reached to the shelf behind him where he found the item my father had wanted. He explained to Sister that the cost was 95¢ and that he would have to get full payment before he could give her the paint. She immediately laid out the dollar that she had been carrying and waited anxiously for the change.
My sister, "Sister," holding a baby at
about the time of her errand.

“I don’t have any change in my pocket right now,” the store clerk stated, “but I’ll drop it by your house the next time I’m in your neighborhood.”

“No you won’t,” Sister quickly responded, “because you don’t ever leave your yard, much less come all the way to our house.”

“You’re a smart little girl, ain’t ya?” the man replied, as he reached under the counter and found a nickel. He handed the coin to my sister who, as soon as she held it in her hand, grabbed the small can of paint she had been sent to secure and ran all the way back to our landing.

The man behind the counter at the paint store was the store’s owner, Cecil Nelson. For him that store, and the dock that ran from it into the Sound, and the frame house that lay a few feet farther inshore toward the road, were his whole world – not just figuratively, but literally. Cecil suffered from what is often called “agoraphobia,” a common symptom of which is an unwillingness to leave home, and sometimes even a room.

By the time I came to know him hardly anyone could remember ever having seen Cecil anywhere other than on the small spot of land that held the home he shared with his wife, Myrtle. My father, just four years younger, could recall seeing him at the Banks when they were boys. He often mentioned that he had been so pampered as a child that his father, Sam Nelson, would carry him on his back as they walked across to the beach side of the Shackleford so that young Cecil would not have to strain while walking in the soft sand. And the fact that he was married suggests that he earlier must have had at least a some sort of social life outside of his own home and family. But those days were now long gone, and almost forgotten.

His little store sold only paint (Wolsey was the preferred brand of the day) and nails, two staples of life for everyone who worked with boats. Both suppliers and shoppers were obliged to come to him if they wanted to do business. He was not one to make a sales or buying call. The counter of the store was stacked with the magazines and newspapers that he got by mail, and that he read from cover to cover while passing what must have been long and frequent intervals between customers.

Some people still talk of how “smart” he was about news and affairs, and how he was often the first to know about most of the important things that were happening in the world. They also mention his beautiful penmanship, and how he wrote out receipts and signed his name as if he were preparing documents to be displayed behind glass or on a wall.  But more than anything, they recall about how he absolutely refused ever to leave his yard. They lament that near the end of his life, he grew increasingly more reclusive and it was said that he would not step off of his own front porch.

In addition to the store, he supported himself with a small clam house situated at the offshore end of a short dock that jutted out from his shop. There was a high white sandy shoal on both sides of the pier that was used as a bed for smaller seed clams until they were big enough to sell. Jimmy (Fulford), Roosevelt (Davis) & “Cooter” (Ernest Davis) were his usual suppliers. They would dump their smaller clams on the shoal beside the dock and then wait for them to grow. Then, months later, using a forked rake on a wooden handle, they would dig them back up. Cecil would buy their harvest and then resell them to a dealer in Otway.

For a while he even had a truck of his own that he used to carry the harvested clams to the market. He would be seen sitting behind the wheel steering it in a circle around his house, and especially near his front fence, but not once venturing as far as the paved road that was less than fifty feet from his door step. Instead, he had someone on hire that would drive the truck for him, and then return with empty baskets to restart the cycle.

One story, as poignant as it is revealing, is told by one of his younger neighbors, who upon getting his first car was eager to show it to “Old Cecil” as he was by then called. He drove it directly into the yard and in front of the porch and honked down hard on the horn. Within a few seconds both Cecil and Myrtle were standing in front of him, smiling broadly at the new automobile they were being shown. Cecil came down and looked into the window at the shiny leather, and even sat behind the wheel and tugged it in both directions, pretending to steer it as if it were moving. When at length he arose from his seat to look more at the bright finish and the chrome bumpers, his young friend asked him in a pleading tone, “why don’t you jump in and let me drive you to Shell Point? It won’t take five minutes. I want you to feel how she does when she goes into passing gear.”

Without the slightest hesitation Old Cecil just smiled and shook his head and stepped back up on the porch. “I don’t think so,” he said, but apologizing only for his friend’s obvious disappointment; not for his decision.

Not unlike Melville’s Bartleby, “... his face was “leanly composed, ... [with no] anger, impatience or impertinence.” He was comfortable in his own little world, and only in that world. He didn’t ask you to join him in it, only to respect its boundaries.


  1. That could bring you to tears, Pa. What beautiful storytelling... I could see that in a movie...

  2. Sometimes I can put my dad's voice to your stories, and it works!