The Woman Who Lived in the Little Brown House

The night of March 21, 1961 was dark and moonless. A young man was walking back to his home in Maymead after visiting friends in Crackers Neck. It was just a few days before his 20th birthday. The two communities are next to each other in a rural area of Johnson County, Tennessee.

As he passed a gravel road that crossed a small bridge and led to a big two-story farmhouse at the bottom of a hill near a creek, something caught his eye. The house was aglow, with a bright light shining through the windows. The golden light was shining through every window, but was brightest in the lower, northeast corner of the house. The light was so strong as it poured through the windows of that corner that it illuminated the yard.

The young man stopped and gazed in awe at the sight. His great aunt Lillie Vaught lived in that house, and those windows in the northeast corner were in her bedroom. She had been ill for a while and rarely left her bed. As he watched, the light faded and was gone.

He ran home and told his parents what he had seen, and they hurried to the old woman’s house and let themselves in through an unlocked back door. The house was dark and nothing had been disturbed. They found the woman in her bed. She was dead, and she been dead only a few minutes, as her body was still warm. No one could ever explain the bright light the young man saw and over the years it was eventually forgotten. The old house, without anyone to live within its walls, slowly decayed and by August 14, 1994, it was barely standing.

That was the day I was on a plane headed for Tennessee, and I kept wishing that it would fly faster. A special friend was near death and I was desperate to see her before she took her last breath.

“She can die at any moment,” her nephew told me, so I had taken the first flight possible from New York, where I was living and working. As soon as the plane landed, I rented a car and drove as fast as the speed limit would allow, passing pastures and trout streams and forested hills as I headed into the farmlands of Maymead, just outside of Mountain City, where I had grown up. I arrived at the nephew’s home, across the road from that old, dilapidated farmhouse, and knocked impatiently on the front door. “She’s still alive,” I was told as the door opened. “Maybe she’s been waiting until you get here.”

I had known Bulah Dean Vaught all of my 31 years of living and always called her “Bub.” When I was born, my parents lived across the street from her, and being a spinster without many responsibilities, it seemed natural for her to become my babysitter. Actually, she was not my first babysitter. An older woman named Ada Gentry was the first person who took care of me. I am told that I was a very fussy baby and whenever Mrs. Gentry would put me on her lap, I would cry and squirm and try to get away. After a couple of months, my mother started looking for someone else. When Bulah came over to meet me, I apparently took to her right away. My mother was fond of telling the story that as soon as Bulah sat down, I crawled over to her and wanted to be picked up. I smiled and giggled, snuggled into her lap and then fell sleep.

“I told her that Jeffrey isn’t even that comfortable with me,” mother would laugh as she told the story. “I hired her on the spot!”

Bulah Dean Vaught in 1940, and in 1980.

We moved from the Maymead community in 1967, on my 4th birthday, but I have many memories of Bulah from those early years. I’ve heard that memories before the age of four are rarely very clear, but mine are. She was very motherly and took very good care of me, and our bond became especially close on one spring day when I was three.

My parents kept a bowl of hard candy out of my reach, but knowing where it was hidden, I managed to climb up a bookcase and get to it! I grabbed a piece of that candy and dropped to the floor.  Bulah was outside hanging up the laundry and so I put the candy in my mouth and walked out the backdoor to find her. But something unexpected happened. The candy got stuck in my throat and I started choking. I could not breathe. I tried to scream for help but no sound came out. I was only a few feet away from Bub, but could not get her attention. Panic set in and I was frozen in place. All I could do was stomp my foot.

She finally turned around and when she saw me, a look of horror passed over her face. She told me later that my lips had turned blue. What happened next is a blur of images, but I do remember being picked up and slung over her shoulder as she started running down the road. I’m sure I was beginning to lose consciousness, but I do remember looking at the dark pavement as she ran, being jostled with every step, and then seeing the candy fly out and bounce on the road. I gasped and let out a scream, and she stopped so suddenly I almost flew off her shoulders! What I remember next is sitting on the kitchen counter and sipping some warm salt water from a brown coffee cup. She was looking at me and a tear was running down her cheek. “I’m OK, Bub,” I remember saying. “I’m not,” was her reply.

Even after we moved to the nearby town of Bristol, the bond between us did not weaken. And when we moved back to Mountain City a few years later, Bulah was at our house often. When my mother died in the spring of 1977, she came to live with us for the summer, taking care of my father and me until dad remarried. I remember those summer days so well. A 14-year-old who is suddenly motherless needs attention and understanding and sympathy, and she gave me everything I needed.

She was at our house Monday through Friday and went to her own home on weekends. On Sundays, after the evening church service, my father would drop me off at her house and then drive to the nearby town of Butler, where he would spend a few hours at the home of a woman named Eleanor Holloway whom he was romancing. At first, he would return to pick us up about 11, but every week it got later and later until sometimes it was a couple hours after midnight before he’d show up. I remember asking Bulah what dad could possibly be doing at Eleanor’s house so late at night, and she’d just grin and say, “hush, Jeffrey! That’s something you don’t need to know.”

Bulah was a good cook and prepared some wonderful meals for us that summer. One evening, as dad was complimenting her cooking, I looked at him and said, “dad, you should forget about Eleanor and marry Bulah,” which caused them both to laugh uncomfortably. “Jeffrey!” Bulah said. “Your father could be my son. He wants someone his own age.”

She had never married but she often told me about having lots of boyfriends when she was young. “I sometimes had two dates on one night,” she laughed, “with two different boys! As soon as one would drop me off, I’d turn around and go out with another one. I turned down several proposals. Only one boy meant something to me, but he never asked me, and he married someone else. His name was Ross.”

“Who did he marry?” I had to ask, and a far-away look came into her eyes.

“He married a woman who had caused a lot of unhappiness when she was very young,” she said. “She got involved with a married man, and he killed himself. I don’t know how happy Ross was with her, but I think he would have been happier with me.”

As a single woman living alone, she did take precautions to protect herself. She never unlocked or opened her windows, even on hot summer days. And she had a gun, which she kept in a small box by her bedside. She showed it to me once, and I remember that it was a black pistol wrapped in a thin white towel. I asked if she’d ever fired it, and she said only once, on the day she was taught how.

“But one night late I thought I was going to have to shoot someone,” she admitted. “A noise woke me up. Someone was on the porch, so I grabbed my gun and sat on the sofa. I pointed the gun right at the front door and waited. I saw the doorknob turn and I was shaking so hard that it took both hands to hold the gun steady. I was going to pull the trigger as soon as they broke in… but after a few minutes they gave up and went away.”

As I grew older and life took me to distant places, I kept in touch with her by phone and by letter, and I made sure to spend a couple of nights at her house whenever I’d go home for a visit. Bulah loved going out to see a movie, and the scarier it was, the better she liked it. Every time I went back to Tennessee, we’d go to the theater to see a horror film. Some of the films I remember seeing with her include Christine, Pet Sematery, Ghost Story and Nightmare on Elm Street. I’d often have to look away from the screen, but she never did.

When I’d get back to New York and start unpacking my suitcase, I’d find little pieces of paper tucked in the folds of my shirts with sweet messages written on them, things like “I’ve enjoyed your visit,” “Please come again soon” and “I’ll miss you when you’re gone.” I still have those little notes.

Some of the little notes I’ve kept through the years.

She lived a simple life with very few complications. Her house, with its brown-shingle siding and wide front porch, was cute but very small. She had running water in her kitchen (cold water only; no hot) but there wasn’t any bathroom. It wasn’t until she broke an ankle in 1977 and could no longer walk down the path to the outhouse that a toilet was installed for her. It sat in one corner of her dining room just a few feet from the table. A few years later, a proper bathroom was put in, but she never did use the bathtub, preferring to heat water on the stove and use a washcloth.

Like so many country women of her generation, she used snuff. I remember watching as she’d grab some of it between her fingers and and place it in the back of her mouth, next to a cheek. And every few minutes, she’d spit dark liquid into a tin can.

She had no schooling beyond the eighth grade, but what she lacked in education or sophistication, she more than made up for in wisdom, common sense and kindness. She had a deep love for God, but she rarely went to church. She preferred to listen to religious services on the radio, following along with her well-used Bible. I asked her once why she didn’t go to Sunday services and she said there were too many hypocrites in the churches. She also had an uncanny way of sizing up a person’s character right away. She could see through any pretense.

After I moved to New York, I came out as a gay man. I never discussed my homosexuality with Bub, although I think she understood me better than I understood myself. She once said to me, “you may never father children in the usual way, but have you considered donating to a sperm bank?” And on another occasion, after AIDS was in the news almost every day, she remarked that “it’s unfair that men can’t love one another without worrying about dying” and then added, “that kind of sex must be the most pleasurable thing in the world.”

I loved hearing stories about the people and events that had shaped and molded her life. And many of those stories were very dramatic, about suicides and floods and romances and even the supernatural. She liked to talk about her parents and grandparents, long since dead. Her father died during the flu pandemic of 1918, when she was just two years old, leaving her mother with six small children to raise. I remember well the story of her grandmother Eveline Vaught. As the old woman’s life was ending and she lay on her deathbed, she lifted up a trembling hand as though she was trying to touch someone just out of reach. And she would repeat over and over, in a voice barely above a whisper, “David… David… David.” Bulah said that was the name of her grandfather. He had been dead many years by that time “and I think he had come back to take my grandmother to Heaven.”

She also spoke lovingly of her Aunt Lillie, who had never married and lived her entire life in the big house where she was born. “I remember the night she died,” she said to me one day. “I was looking out the bedroom window toward her house and I saw a bright light. My mother was still alive then and she saw the light, too. Lillie’s going to Heaven is what my mother said.”

Bulah was a skilled teller of old stories and I wish I could remember all of them, but I do recall bits and pieces of a few… of her being taken to the burial service of a friend of her mother’s when she was a child and seeing the wooden coffin being lowered into the ground. The lid would not fit because the woman had died while she was pregnant and her protruding belly rose higher than the sides of the casket. The simple wooden coffin had been wrapped in ropes to keep the lid in place. And she told me about having to be rescued from a friend’s house when a nearby creek flooded. The water kept rising and when it came into the house she and her friend yelled for help from the windows. Their loud cries were heard by some men who tied a rope from tree to tree and then attached it to the porch banister. Bulah and her friend were able to reach higher ground by holding onto the rope as they trudged through the swift current.

But the story I remember most vividly was about a man named Joseph Yarborough Davis, known as J.Y.

From Bulah’s kitchen window, after the leaves had fallen from the trees, you could see through the woods and across a babbling creek to a small farm on the other side. In the middle of a field sat a cute farmhouse with a gabled roof. One day I asked Bulah about that house and she told me the name of the people who lived there and a few other details that were not particularly interesting, but when she added “A terrible thing happened there one summer when I was about fourteen,” I sat up and begged to hear more.

When Bulah was growing up, J. Y. Davis lived there with his wife, Sarah. They had a grown daughter named Blanche who no longer lived at home. They seemed to be leading happy and contented lives, but all was not as it seemed. J. Y. had a secret. He was having an affair with a young girl, a teenager, who was living with an old woman who ran the local post office, called Vaughtsville.

The post office was on the ground floor of an old house and the woman and the girl had rooms on the second floor. Late at night, after the older woman had gone to bed, the young girl would silently creep down the stairs and unlock the back door to let her lover come inside. The illicit affair would have remained a secret had not a man who lived close by caught sight of Davis sneaking into the backyard of the post office after dark. He followed, and when a light appeared in a window, he peered inside… and what he saw was so shocking that he could not keep the information to himself. He told someone who told someone else who told a few other people and soon the story was circulating. The only person who remained ignorant of the sordid details was Sarah Davis, the wife. A plan was being made by some men in the area to confront J. Y. and ask him to repent of his sin, and if he refused, they would tell his wife. Davis was probably aware that his secret had become public knowledge.

During that time, a visiting preacher held one of those old-fashioned, fire-and-brimstone revivals at the community Baptist church, known as Pleasant Grove. The first night of the revival, the preacher stood before the congregation and looked out at the faces for a couple of minutes without saying a word. He then turned his head toward the general area where Mr. Davis and his wife were sitting, and said, very slowly, in a voice somber and dramatic: “I know what’s goin’ on in this community. I know about the sinful ways of a man who is sittin’ here in this church tonight. I know what you are a-doin’ and I pray that God will put a stop to it, even if it takes the power of a gun!”

A couple of days later, Bulah’s mother was in the kitchen looking out a window toward the Davis farm when she saw Sarah running across the little bridge, her hands twisting and re-twisting an old apron tied around her waist. She came right up to their back door and into the kitchen. She was crying and could barely manage to say “Joe’s in the barn with a gun! Something’s wrong. Come quick!”

Bulah’s mother did go back with Mrs. Davis, but she also took along her two grown sons, Con and Charlie. While Mrs. Vaught waited in the house with the distraught wife, the two young men slowly approached the barn. The door was open and inside, in the dusty shafts of sunlight filtering through the walls, they saw J.Y. Davis. He was leaning against a stack of hay, a rifle at his feet… and a bloody hole in his chest.

A great deal of activity ensued. The sheriff was summoned, people came running and Sarah Davis was in a state of near-collapse. And things happened quickly, as though the distasteful event should be forgotten as soon as possible. He was buried the very next day in the Brown Cemetery, which sits in the middle of a cornfield on the large Mount Farm close by. Sarah closed up the house and went to live with her daughter in Greeneville, about 75 miles away. When she died several years later, the remains of her husband were exhumed and re-interred next to her in a distant cemetery. She had never re-married.

On the day of that tragic death, Bulah’s mother stayed overnight in the Davis farmhouse and slept in a room next door to the grieving widow. In the middle of the night, she woke up and was sure that someone was standing next to the bed. She later said the room felt cold, even though it was the middle of summer, and something about the shadowy figure led her to believe it was a man. She wanted to scream out, but could not utter a sound. She closed her eyes tight, and suddenly the sound of a loud gunshot came through the open window, carried on the night breeze.

The next morning she asked Sarah if she had heard the gunshot during the night, but Sarah said she had been awake all night, not being able to sleep because of grief, and had heard nothing.

“When mom started to make up the bed she had slept in,” Bulah said, “she noticed a drop of blood on the floor, and then she saw a another drop under the bed. She threw back the covers and pulled up a corner of the mattress. The center of that mattress on the underside was soaked with blood.” 

The lifeless body of J.Y. Davis had been brought to that room, where it lay on the bed until the undertaker took it away. And then the mattress was turned over. Did the ghost of J.Y. return to the room where his lifeless body had rested on the bed?

The gravestone of J. Y. Davis. (Dec. 19, 1876 – July 31, 1930)

On the day of the burial, the teen-aged girl and a friend watched from a hill near the cemetery, where they hid in the tall grass. The girl had apparently been very calm until the hearse came into view, and then she started crying hysterically and rolling on the ground with misery. I asked Bulah if she knew what had happened to that young girl who had caused so much trouble. “Yes, I know what happened to her,” she said. “And if you have paid attention to any of the stories I’ve told you, so do you.”

There was also something very unique about Bulah. I cannot explain what it was, but I think she had a sixth sense. When she first became ill with the cancer that took her life, I learned about it not from a phone call, but from a dream. And it wasn’t even my dream. My partner at the time woke me up very early one morning and said that a woman came to him while he was sleeping and said, “Tell Jeffrey I need to see him.” I asked who the woman was but he didn’t know. When he described her, however, I knew it was Bub. I called her but she didn’t answer, so I dialed her nephew and was told that she had been admitted to the hospital the day before. She was suffering from inoperable cancer and only had days to live. A week later, she was discharged and taken to her nephew’s home, where she was cared for by hospice nurses, getting weaker every day.

I made it to her bedside just in time. She was conscious but didn’t seem to be aware of anyone. Her eyes were open, but there was no emotion in them. They were blank. A nurse was there, making sure her mouth was moist and that she was comfortable. I held her hand but I’m not sure she knew I was there. I spoke to her, but I’m not sure she heard me.

Except for a couple of short naps, I stayed by her bed for almost two days. A few hours before I had to leave, she started making noises, as though she was trying to speak. Her words were garbled and made no sense, but she would raise her arms and reach out to someone I could not see. Had someone she loved long ago come into the room to lead her to Heaven?

I kissed her cheek and said goodbye to her. As I was looking at her face and trying not to cry, she opened her eyes and looked right at me. And for a couple of seconds, there was recognition in those eyes. But then they dimmed and she was lost again in the fog of sickness.

As I got into my rental car and drove away, I took a long look at her little brown house, where she and I had spent so many happy hours, and on the other side of the creek I could see the aged farmhouse struggling to stand and the handsome white house once occupied by J.Y and Sarah Davis. A few hours after I got home later that night, her nephew called to tell me that Bulah had died.

A photo of Bulah from the mid 1980s, and her obituary.

“I have to tell you something very strange,” the nephew said. “When she was dying, her room was filled with bright light. I didn’t see it, but two neighbors called, wondering if that end of the house was on fire. And my daughter, who was sleeping in the room next door, woke up to see a blinding light glowing under her door. When it finally got dark again, she crept out of her room just in time to see the hospice nurse go into Bulah’s room to check on her, which she did every half hour. She was dead. It was just like the night my great aunt Lillie died more than 30 years ago, the night I saw that white-light shining through the windows of her bedroom.”

As he was telling me the story, I couldn’t help thinking of Elijah, the prophet in the Old Testament of the Bible, who was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. Did angels visit the bedrooms of Lillie and Bulah at the moment of their deaths, 33 years apart, and take them to Heaven in a fiery chariot? I wonder if there have been other reports of a bright light when someone dies.

The next day as I was sitting in my backyard and feeling sad, I noticed a flower in the perennial bed. I took a closer look and was amazed to see that it was a daffodil. A daffodil in August! As I admired that lovely daffodil, I was comforted by the memory of something Bulah had said to me years before. “After I am gone, look for me in a flower blooming out of season.”

Bulah was always annoyed when people would misspell her name, and she joked that it would probably be wrong on her tombstone. How right she was. She spelled her name Bulah.