Tabor City life wasn’t easy during the 1930s, but hard times helped create a special woman.
Essie Nealey, often known by the name of “Aunt Essie,” even to those who truly weren’t related, is still remembered as one of the hardest working women in Tabor City, and has a reputation of kindness and grace that follows. She lived the kind of life that today’s generation can only read about, as a child of the Great Depression and all that came with it.
She rose early to feed the hogs, and tend the garden, before heading off to work in the tobacco fields, while her mother kept up the house duties and her father sold fish and produce off the back of his truck to keep 12 kids fed.
“Fresh fish!” he would call out, as the old pickup truck made its way through the once-flourishing town.
Aunt Essie would become a mother to five children, and a staple prayer warrior in the community. She did her part to keep the town and her family moving, spiritually and economically. Deeply rooted in her Christian faith as one of the founding members of the still-standing Holiness Tabernacle, she worshipped God first, took care of her family and never hesitated to take care of anyone else’s if they fell in need. Her doors were always opened to anyone who needed a hot meal, a cup of coffee, or a listening ear.
In 1973, she first stepped foot in her little white home on Floyd Street, where her rent was $75 a month. For years the home had holes in the floor, where you could see straight through to the ground below. At the same time, Aunt Essie’s house would see many joyful moments as well as many heartbreaking ones.
Aunt Essie began working at a young age, and never slowed down until her retirement from Atlantic Publishing in 1995 at the age of 62. The loud factory had left her half-deaf by then, but she still seemed to see and hear everything in the neighborhood. She still sang in church, and cooked fried chicken on Sundays, while Lassie or Andy Griffith played from the old box TV in the living room. Widowed in 1982, she would continue to raise many grandchildren and work daily, rising early enough before work to get the housework done. Her family says she is still instilling these values into every life she touches.
Even though she never owned the old house, and rent slowly climbed throughout the years, for 48 years that little place was home to her, and nothing less. Every Christmas the old house would snugly fit her children and grandchildren, and every year the number soared. Great-grands were born and she was proud of every one of them. A proud display of dozens of photos of her family and friends, her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren sat on the old buffet in her dining room.
Despite aches and pains of advancing age, she stayed strong and independent. It wasn’t until the death of a beloved grandson, followed by her own two sons and a daughter, that she began to break down. Aunt Essie’s health declined after her terrible losses, but still she laughed, pulling dimples to a gracefully aged face, and still she prayed to the God she kept her faith in.
Christmas 2020 was the last one that the family would spend there at the little house, and amid the pandemic, the remaining children and grandchildren scattered to have Christmas dinner with their own families. It was a somber holiday. With her escalating symptoms of dementia, and inability to walk well on her own, she would have to leave the old house.
After 48 years of laughter echoing off the walls, friends and relatives sitting out on the screened porch drinking hot coffee, she slowly walked away from her homestead for the last time.
While she’s doing well in her new home, a retirement center in Tabor City, just blocks from her original home, she still longs for the old yellowed walls of her home of 48 years, and despite her forgotten memories, she remembers the old place well. Perhaps it isn’t the house itself she longs for, but all the memories within – the Saturday mornings when the house was full of the laughter of grandchildren and cartoons, the loud nights when her sons yelled about the unfair call on the Tar Heels, the smell of baked turkey on Thanksgiving as everyone gathered in the kitchen to say grace. Indeed, maybe it is the people she longs for – the loved ones gone ahead. The husband, the grandson, the daughter, the sons, whose last breaths were taken in that old home.
Now, when her remaining children and grandchildren pass by the old house and see the empty shell of a living memory, they hope the next inhabitants will treasure such a wonderful place.
If walls could talk, they would speak of joy and sorrow. They would speak of laughter and tears, and all the wonderful and wild human emotions that emanated off the old beadboard walls. They would speak of all the prayers she prayed for her family and loved ones.
Both friends and family said they often long for one more day with Aunt Essie, at what was known as Grandma’s house.