I don’t remember life without Aunt Louise Bray. I was a Bray by blood and she, by marriage, but she bore the name nearly as long as I have–having married my daddy’s brother before I was even two years old. So when my memory really began, Louise was already part of my life.
I was born “Leslie Bray” into a world with a big happy family of Brays surrounding me–Grandpa and Grandma next door on one side, Uncle Sam and Aunt Louise on the other side, Uncle Ira Lee and Aunt Sammie Jane within sight up the road, and Uncle Donald and Aunt Sylvia not too far away. My first memory of a visible place other than my own home was the teeny white house beside us where Sam and Louise lived; it was the only building within my sight in those early years.
I faintly remember it burning down one horrible night, and then Sam built them another house in the same spot. Before long, Mama was sending me trotting on my little-girl legs up the dirt path beside Daddy’s tobacco field to Aunt Louise’s if we needed to borrow a cup of sugar or something else. We didn’t have a telephone at first, so I’d have to relay the message in person.
Then progress made it out to Dry Hollow where we lived, and Ma Bell hooked us up! But we were on a party line with Sam and Louise–or rather, with Louise, because nearly every time I picked up that turquoise phone receiver, she was on the line. She was rapidly moving up the ranks in Hazel Keller Cosmetics at that time, so she was always talking to somebody.
Somehow my childhood memories of Aunt Louise seem to be summertime memories. Mama, Louise and the Bray aunts would take us cousins to Hanging Rock State Park to swim. In later years, Louise would sometimes load a bunch of us kids up in her little Volkswagen bug and off we’d go to swim at Tanglewood, windows rolled down and that little engine chugging.
I remember a few times she’d have a bunch of people over to their house when Uncle Sam would play the guitar and sing with some of his friends. He had this one song about how he used to date a skinny gal but then he married a fat girl and was so happy with his life. I remember Aunt Louise throwing her head back and laughing that loud, contagious laugh when he’d sing that one.
As I became a teenager, sometimes Louise was my co-conspirator in girly things. Or maybe I should say she was the instigator; I just followed along, as you tended to do with Louise and her take-charge style. She sure enough instigated the secret eyebrow-plucking session at her house when I was about 14. By the time I went home, nervous about what Mama would say, my bushy eyebrows were gone, and in their place was a thinner, nicely-arched brow. I don’t remember if Mama was mad or not; I just know I was thrilled with my new look.
Before long, Louise decided to take charge of my hair. She loaded me up in that VW Bug and drove me all the way to Eden in neighboring Rockingham County where Toad Warren had a hair salon. I came home with a new do that was one of the best cuts I ever had. I think of Louise and that trip to Eden every time I look at my sophomore school picture and see that fabulous hairstyle.
I don’t sport that short haircut any more, but I still have the plucked eyebrows and a bottle of “Patricia Gale” perfume Louise awarded me when I won a contest at her daughter Rosanna’s birthday party long, long ago.
If there was anybody who seemed to have the golden touch, it was Louise. If she joined any type of sales company, you could betcha by golly wow she’d soon be a top producer. So when she said she was going to open a restaurant on her property in Dry Hollow, who was I to doubt her? This woman could sell an igloo to a desert nomad and convince him he just HAD to have it.
Sure enough, before long, the Hillbilly Hideaway was open, and tantalizing smells of country ham and fried chicken were wafting through the atmosphere to our house. Friday and Saturday nights would see cars parked up and down our normally lonely country road, and Louise would charismatically welcome them all into her and Sam’s dream-come-true restaurant.
And adversity didn’t stop her. When the first Hillbilly Hideaway restaurant burned down, she and Sam built another one in its place. Not long afterward, they built one in Reidsville about 45 minutes away. When that one, too, burned down, they opted not to rebuild it but continued to thrive at the restaurant beside their house.
If you asked Louise why she had such success in her life, she was quick to give the glory to God, with a mention, too, of the work ethic she was taught in her farm girl days in northern Stokes County. She vowed and declared that Jesus visited her restaurant one day, and after hearing her tell the story numerous times and feeling the goosebumps rise up on my arms, I don’t doubt that she entertained an angel unawares.
It was July 4, 1979. Due to larger than expected holiday crowds at the restaurant, the staff suddenly ran out of natural gas for cooking. Rather than shut down as many people would’ve, Sam and Louise gave customers the news at the door and told them they’d feed them whatever they had already cooked ’til it was gone, and the customers could pay whatever they thought it was worth.
In the midst of the hubbub, a strange man suddenly walked in. He was bald, dressed all in white and had knots the size of chicken eggs, according to Louise, on his neck. “I’m hungry, and I don’t have any money,” he told her. “Could you just give me some bread and water?”
Big-hearted Louise placed him at a small table to the side and went to get him a biscuit and a glass of water, as he had requested. He was appreciative when she placed the simple meal before him, and Louise turned away to handle the crisis the restaurant was experiencing.
When she thought of the mysterious customer a few minutes later, Louise figured she’d better check on this man who looked somewhat like the cartoon character, “Mr. Clean,” on television commercials. But he was gone–a half-eaten biscuit, a partially-empty glass of water and a napkin on the table to prove he had been there.
Louise ran to the front door where Sam was keeping watch to alert arriving customers of the restaurant’s dilemma. “Did you see that man leave?” she asked him, knowing that there was only one door in and out of that first Hillbilly Hideaway building.
“No one has come by me,” Sam assured her. He, too, had seen the lone man walk in several minutes before.
“But are you sure?” Louise pressed him. “Because he’s gone!”
Sam nodded his head vehemently, “Yep, I’m sure. He didn’t come out this way.”
Louise walked slowly back into the restaurant, cold chills running over her body. He had vanished. The man had simply vanished without a trace. She formed the opinion right then and there that she had fed Jesus.
“Maybe Mr. Clean was in white a long time ago–I don’t know. But THAT Mr. Clean didn’t come to my restaurant. Jesus did,” she told me. “And I would go up against a knife on my neck on that one. I am positively sure of that. I’ll believe that to my dying breath!”
And so she did.
That vibrant, vivacious soul left us on Thursday night, May 8, after a blood clot went to her lung earlier that day. She had been at the Kate B. Reynolds Hospice Home for a few weeks. The last time I saw her she was sleeping there when the hubster and I went to visit and pray for her. She had no memory of us being there, but my cousin Rosanna said that after we left, she woke up and was alert, asking for her lipstick. We laughed over that because that was so much like Louise to want her makeup on, no matter what.
I kept hoping for a miracle like the many other times Louise had stared death in the face and come back strong into the land of the living, but it was not to be this time. I know she is in Heaven where regrets are no longer known, but I’m here on Earth where I regret she didn’t get to see the book I was writing about her life published. My goal is to present her bigger-than-life story in such a way that those who knew her never forget her and those who didn’t know her wish they had.
She was a woman of such strength that I somehow thought she’d live ’til the Lord came back–this determined woman who stood her ground when banker after banker refused to give her a loan to build the restaurant back in the late ’70’s because she and Sam refused to sell alcohol there. “You’ll never make it out there in the middle of nowhere unless you serve alcoholic beverages,” these masters of finance told her.
“There will never be alcohol sold in our restaurant,” Louise vowed. “It will be a family restaurant. Jesus will own it, and me and my husband will just run it for Him.” That was her firm stand, and she never wavered.
Now people from 120 countries have visited the Hillbilly Hideaway, including Barry Manilow, “Garfield” creator Jim Davis, Billy Ray Cyrus and countless other celebrities. Weekends still find the place packed as crowds travel long distances to sample the fried chicken, patented Hillbilly slaw, buttery hoecakes and other delicious examples of country cooking.
The restaurant will undoubtedly continue to thrive, but there will be a big hole in the heart of those who loved seeing Louise’s beautiful face and smile when they walked into the quaintly-decorated building. I know my heart is missing her right now. I wish just one more time I could sit and read aloud to her the latest chapter in her book and see her eyes get big with interest as if she’d never heard it before, even though it’s her own fascinating story.
“You know, it’s like it really ain’t even me you’re talking about, Les,” she said to me one of the last times I read to her. “But I really lived that life, didn’t I?”
Yes, Louise, you did. And you lived it well. We’ll miss your big laugh, your big heart and your big zest for life. I figure Heaven lit up with even more joy when you entered the gates. And your happiness when you saw your Savior must’ve been indescribable. Give Samantha and Ethan those kisses you’ve been longing to give them ever since they left you way too early, and tell Grandpa and Grandma we’ll see them soon. When we all get to Heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be!
But until then, we’ll keep making happy tracks on this ole Earth–just like you did.