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Monday, August 22, 2011

No. 64 Aunt Gracie's scrambled eggs

Everyone called her “Aunt Gracie.” Actually, her children and grandchildren didn’t, but nearly everyone else did. Perhaps it was because there were so many nieces and nephews - Hamiltons, Willises & Hancocks - or more likely because she just perfectly fit the mold of what an ideal aunt was supposed to be. She just seemed like she should be everybody’s aunt.
Aunt "Gracie" Hamilton Willis, holding her
great grandson, Adam Guthrie in 1971

She had nine children of her own; eight who grew to be adults. They all lived within a short stone's throw of their mama’s  porch and two of her boys, Calvin and Neal, remained in the same house they were born in all of their lives. But it was the many offspring of her eight siblings, and the siblings of her husband, Rennie, that grew in numbers so large that may have caused her to be identified in the community as everyone’s “aunt.” Add to that her kind and gentle nature, the nurturing attention she offered to everyone who caught her eye, and the way she shared her home and food with anyone who passed her way, and you can better understand why she was considered to be family by everybody who knew her.

Aunt Gracie’s house sat on the Island’s south shore, facing the Banks. Her husband, Rennie Willis, had been born just a few feet to the west in house that was built by his parents, Calvin and Emeline. There was a small stoop porch facing the Landing and from her kitchen window she had a view of Danky’s dock, and the many boats, large and small, that dotted the shoreline. On the north side of her home was a long porch, with a swing and several rockers, that looked out on a small pasture, called “Rennie’s Field,” and in every direction she could see the homes of her immediate and extended families.

The north facing porch of Rennie & Gracie's house, looking from Rennie's field.
A dirt path, at various points cobbled with clam, scallop and oyster shells, led directly from the porch to the Island’s main road that was no more than two hundred feet to the no’thard. Beside the path was a drainage ditch that sometimes was maintained by prison-workers but that was usually so full of brush and vegetation that it was more a lengthy mud pond than an outlet for run-off water. There was an almost constant stream of traffic up and down that path of people headed to and from Aunt Gracie’s porch. Some may have been on specific errands, but most were just part of the daily flow of friends and family who viewed her home as a gathering place.

Among those frequent visitors was a neighbor from Marshallberg, Julian Brown. Mr. Brown was known by almost everyone, not just at his native Marshallberg, but anywhere from Beaufort east to Cedar Island, and especially at Harkers Island. Browns Island, the uninhabited island that sits between the mainland and Eastmouth Bay on Harkers Island, took  its name from his family who had owned it for as long as anyone could remember.

Julian Brown (Photos courtesy of Becky
Brown Paul, his grand-daughter)
Julian Brown was tall and heavy set, what his generation called “stout,” with a full head of graying hair. He was an “entrepreneur,” at least in the early 20th century connotation of that title. He did some farming and fishing, raised livestock on his aforementioned private island, and marketed his crops, catch, and other assorted wares up and down Core Sound. He was renowned for several things, including his skills as a trader, his thriftiness, his generous heart, and most especially for his prodigious appetite. In short, his personality and his reputation were much larger, relatively speaking, than the small Island he used to pasture his herds of sheep, goats, and cattle.

It was said that Julian Brown would open up his home, and especially his kitchen, to anyone who needed it or him. Probably for that same reason, he expected and assumed others should be similarly charitable to him should he ever need it. As he worked his way along the shores of Core Sound, when mealtime arrived, he was not at all unwilling to drop in on whatever friend was nearest by, and then join them at their table. His impromptu visits were so commonplace that, eventually, they were expected and taken for granted.

So it was that early one summer morning, while peddling his wares at the Island, Julian Brown made his way up Gracie’s path and to her kitchen as she was preparing breakfast for her children. Treating him just like she did her own, she continued to crack and fry egg after egg, as many as her skillet could hold, and kept dropping them onto the plate of whomever seemed ready for another serving. Eventually, all of the children had left the table, but Julian Brown remained in his seat and savored every new portion his hostess placed in front of him.

Eventually, both he and Aunt Gracie noticed that along with the biscuits, bacon, and potatoes, Julian had finished off the last of the eggs still evident on her table. Uncertain if anything else was wanted or expected, Aunt Gracie got his attention and asked if he was aware that, so far, he had eaten a full dozen eggs? Washing down his meal with a cup of coffee that had been refreshed several times, the grateful visitor took stock of the situation and then responded to his host with a compliment and a simple request.

“They were real good, Aunt Gracie,” he offered, “but if you cook any more eggs, would you please scramble ‘em?”


  1. something i have learned, and i want say how long it has taken me to learn this, is that "visitin'" is part of harker's island culture. we use to visit my grandparents on the weekends and extended family on special occasions. but, i have never encountered the visitin' like ya'll do at harker's island. the all day drop in's and pop in's. i like it. wish i was there to partake in it. :)

  2. I feel the same way about 'visitin' Harkers Island!