This past week or so has been a time for realizing, once again, how precious our friends are and that we must not take them for granted. I say this now because on March 4 a long-time, dear friend died unexpectedly. Red Bailey was an extraordinary man we’d known for 33 years, and his death has been hard to accept.
One evening not so long ago we were at the Bailey’s home in the country. We were sitting around after dinner, discussing this and that, when Red said, “Sydney and I have been talking recently about when we lived in the neighborhood. It was a very special time, almost a magic time.”
I knew exactly what he was talking about: it started in the early 1980s when we moved to Hattiesburg and to Hattiesburg Historic Neighborhood, leaving behind our close circle of friends in Houston. Making new close friends at our ages is not easy, so we were lucky to hook up with Baileys and others who were doing the same thing we were – renovating an historic house.
We had bought a Victorian cottage built in 1884. Baileys were tackling a 5,000 square-foot two and ½ story grand house with a huge lot. We soon were to meet others taking on different challenges.
One day I was sweating over stripping the paint from an oak mantel in the parlor when a younger couple showed up at the door. It was David and Mary Halliwell, who’d heard that we had moved in and came by to say, “welcome.”
Earlier, of course, we had met Angie Henson, the woman who sold us our house, who introduced us to Neil and Beverly McMillen, who had invited us to dinner when we first got to town. Their children attended the same schools ours would.
At gatherings of the neighborhood association, formed in 1976, we met more residents: sons and daughters of original neighborhood residents, those who built the houses, younger families that had been in the neighborhood for some years, and there were those like us, younger families still, who had come starting in the mid-70s.
It was a core group that formed, however, that made living in Hattiesburg the good experience it has been. Over the years we hosted events that attracted new neighbors to move into vacant houses and renovate them. We gathered for theme dinners – no holiday was too small, no occasion too unimportant for us to celebrate. We even created new events such as the HHN Oktoberfest and the Hattie Hardy 1st Second Annual Hell Hath No Fury Chili Cook-off.
One fall when everyone was nearly worn out from house renovating, our group decided it was time for a big neighborhood party. Halloween was coming soon, so that was the theme with the center to be Halliwell’s house on Walnut Street. Mary and I made up the invitations – a take off on Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” and everyone went to work on costumes. The hosts were all to be ghosts.
The older kids created a House of Horrors in the unfinished upstairs. Traditional games such as bob-for-apples were set up outside, and hot dogs, candy apples and apple cider prepared for the food. The front porch was decorated with ghosts, goblins and angel-hair spider webs.
As party time neared, the guests started coming. One guy came as a roach motel, another as The Military Industrial Complex. One couple came as a nursery rhyme: she was dressed in a pumpkin suit and he as — well, Peter.
Vying for the prize of best costume were Sarah Gillespie and Billie East, two older ladies who lived down the street. They came down the walk pushing a wooden casket on a gurney they’d borrowed from the neighborhood funeral home: they were Sister Mary Atrocia and Sister Mary Ignatia, their “habits’ flying in the evening breeze.
Oktoberfest came along some years later, when the men of the group got into brewing beer. I think Red started it, but a number of them were soon deep into brewing, acquiring big pots for cooking plus bottles and bottle cappers. Sources of supplies were sought, and information and recipes exchanged. After some time of just drinking the products themselves, they decided an event was needed.
The first Oktoberfest in the neighborhood was done as a party at Tally House (Baileys). Tables were set up on the expansive lawn, and wildflowers gathered for decorations. German style outfits were organized. Recipes for German potato salad, sauerkraut and apple cakes were distributed and assignments made for cooking the sausage on a grill (after marinating in beer).
Needless to say, the party was a huge success, so successful in fact and so much work, that we decided the neighborhood association ought to sponsor it as a fundraising event. Oktoberfest continued as a fundraiser for a number of years.
We staged many theme dinners over the years. The Halloween party was just one example. We had a 19th century Russian dacha party, Chinese New Year, Greek Easter, Bastille Day and of course, birthday parties. One or more couples would think of an occasion and set the time. Food duties were always divided up into assigned dishes from the agreed upon menu.
The Russian dacha party was based on the movie Dr Zhivago. Of course, it was a winter party. We hosted, and the party started in the front center hallway where a large bowl of ice on a hall table held the flavored vodkas everyone had made for the occasion. Shot glasses circled the bowl along with a tray of caviar toasts. The evening progressed with borscht and other dishes befitting a 19th century Russian country house dinner. The guests wore costumes, of course.
The Chinese New Year’s dinner, held at McMillen’s was memorable for the amount of food involved in many courses and how long the event went on. Why so many dishes got assigned no one confessed to knowing. Some were quickly bypassed to go on to the next – a version of drunken chicken was one of those. The main issue became the time and being too full: everyone just gave up and went home, leaving the remainder to be eaten on another occasion.
Birthday parties or special events led to unlikely dinner menus. On the occasion of his newly published book winning a major award, Neil McMillen was feted with a dinner like no other. It was an elaborate hoax on him. The menu was hand written on a large poster and prominently displayed on an ornate easel. The dining table was set with china, silver and crystal with an elaborate centerpiece created by David Halliwell.
The featured dishes included Tomato Bisque and Seafood en Papillote. In truth the inspiration was Neil’s many stories about his mother’s bad version of unimaginative Midwestern cooking. The actual dishes were canned tomato soup with milk and fish sticks baked in paper a la the actual gourmet recipe. There were other menu items that took off on the theme, but the truly funny part of the evening was that he didn’t realize what was going on until we got to the fish sticks – those tipped him off.
For a time, the group went through a Greek phrase, researching and learning to make Greek dishes. Lamb was a big favorite and from that evolved our traditional Greek Easter celebration. We celebrated on American Easter but the menu was Greek. I learned to make dolmas – stuffed grape leaves, so that became my regular assignment.
I was considered one of the best lamb roasters, although it would be hard for me or anyone else to outdo Neil or Mary. Red and Sydney always favored my meat roasting, however, and one time he showed up at our door with a whole suckling pig for me to roast for a party they were hosting.
On Monday, March 18, neighborhood friends plus other friends and acquaintances will gather once again. This party will have an Irish theme with food, drink and storytelling, just as Red would have wanted for St. Patrick’s Day. As we come together to share Red stories, we’ll reminisce about all those other wonderful, crazy parties and adventures and how much we’re going to miss sharing it all with our friend Red Bailey.
In the meantime, this week I’m going to see some friends from my school days in Nebraska. I’m going to hug them and tell them how happy I am to spend time with them. I’ll make sure they’ll understand that we can’t take our decades of friendship for granted.