There is a grave in Union Cemetery on West Euclid Avenue that haunts me. There rests the body of Julia A. West, the soul who devoted her life to teaching me right from wrong, how to make my bed, tuck a hospital corner, iron a man’s shirt, and so much more.
I never in life adequately thanked her. Can I do so now — some 88 years later? Before I have to face her again?
Julia came to work as a housekeeper for my family in 1933 when I was but 6 months old. I was the last of five children, and Mother had her hands full, so Julia took over the heavy lifting. And a lot more, from nursemaid to disciplinarian to mentor. It was not long before I was “Julia’s baby.”
Where she went, I went, clutched-hand-in-tow, from my home to Mr. Wright’s grocery, to Julia’s own little coal-stove-heated cottage across from Greater Union First Baptist Church on South Clara Avenue in DeLand.
On our walks, she taught me by example. “Good morning, Mr. Ziegler. How are your chickens?”
She supported me in ways I did not comprehend at the time. At the end of our driveway was a large garage with doors that pulled in from both sides to meet in the middle. It was a perfect set-up for kids wanting to put on a play! And that we did, writing our childish scripts, plots and words totally plagiarized from the Brothers Grimm.
Our audience was invariably the beaming-with-pride Julia West and what colleagues she could strong-arm to attend from up and down Clara and New York avenues.
At age 9, I fell ill with scarlet fever, a highly contagious and life-threatening disease before the discovery of penicillin.
Dr. Hugh West was my attending physician. All the family but Mother moved across the street to the Lexington Hotel. Sheriff Ed Stone pasted “QUARANTINE: STAY OUT” across our front porch.
No one but Dr. West entered or left, except for one person who refused to leave.
Each day I awoke to Julia sitting by my side. Mother could not budge her.
Had Julia caught the disease, it undoubtedly would have killed her. She suffered all her life from diabetes. Nor was she ignorant of its dangers. Julia’s sister was Bea Coleman, wife of the physician and surgeon Dr. Senator Coleman. Medical advice was always at Julia’s fingertips.
Julia was not, however, without human flaws. Julia and Mother shared a passion for an illegal and corrupt gambling scheme: bolita, a lottery game imported from Cuba.
It was with hopeful anticipation that players would turn their meager Depression-era dimes into dollars. A “Dream Book” assigned numbers 1-100 to subjects and objects.
Each Saturday morning would find Mother and Julia with their heads together comparing their dreams that week, confident they would somehow conjure up a winning return. Then off Julia would go with a fist of dimes and a list of numbers to find the Bolita Man, whose home grounds remain a mystery. (If someone was going to get “nabbed,” it would be Julia, not Mother,)
Life with Julia was not without its dark humor. She firmly believed in a literal heaven and hell; heaven was above and the other was below.
Thus, one Saturday morning, as Julia was hanging the sheets on the clothesline, we heard a terrible shriek from the back yard. Rushing to find the cause, we found Julia hanging onto the clothesline with all her might.
“Lord help me!” she screamed. “The Devil is taking me!”
The cesspool next to the clothesline had caved in, dragging her into its putrid depth. Our poor Julia truly felt that she was physically going to hell at that moment.
Dark humor aside, she was a formidable force when it came to teaching me the fundamentals of life — right from wrong — with clarity.
At some point when I had passed from childhood into early teens, I got one of those pesky stomach viruses that lasted a good 24 hours, and I felt I would retch my innards out into a sink in my bedroom.
In the summer heat and humidity — long before air conditioning — it festered into an unbearable gagging stench. Finally, I went to Julia and asked her to please clean it up.
She looked me squarely in the eye, and said, “No ma’am! You made that mess. You will clean it up. You will never ask another soul to clean up a mess that you made.”
I cannot adequately describe the horror of having to do just that. Clean up my own mess. That experience became a metaphor for shouldering responsibility; a lesson so forcefully taught that it never left me.
In the end, I failed her in the most fundamental way. Although I took and held her hand in the hospital the day before she died in 1962, I do not recall ever telling her just how much I truly loved her.
Julia West may not have been the bone of my bone nor the blood of my blood. But she was most definitely the heart of my heart. She was my guiding North Star. And I am forever in her debt.
— Bohon’s grandfather, Cary D. Landis, who came from Indiana to DeLand to start a law school for Stetson University, was among the founders of the Landis Graham French law firm that still serves Volusia County today. Her father, Erskine Landis, also was a lawyer with the firm.