By Carmen K. Sisson | The Commercial Dispatch
NOXUBEE COUNTY, Miss. — Death did not ride in with a thundering of horses’ hooves on a cloud of gun smoke, though no doubt Heaven is a bit more lively since Macedonia native Bessie Morton’s arrival April 27. After a lifetime of adventure, it must have seemed anti-climactic, but at 87, she had slowed down a little, so perhaps death took note and crept softly, so as not to awaken Noxubee County’s self-proclaimed honky-tonk angel.
That’s not to say she didn’t still have a sharp tongue and a mean right hook. She had been at Louisville Healthcare Nursing Home less than a week when another resident wandered into her room and Morton punched her in the nose. She didn’t take kindly to her space being invaded, and before she was finished, she made sure she had popped nearly every staff member upside the head or at least threatened to shoot them if they didn’t leave her in peace.
No one took it personally. She had been a free spirit all her life, and the loss of independence didn’t come easily.
She would be no one’s doormat, something she decided as a teenager when, fed up with being worked like a man by a farming father who needed a boy, she cut her hair and hopped a Sumter Lumber Company train to Mobile, Ala.
She had heard men were making a lot of money at Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, so she donned a disguise and slipped in among them, taking a job as a welder. A year later, when they discovered she was a 16-year-old girl, they fired her. World War II was heating up, so she headed to Grand Prairie, Texas, becoming an early “Rosie the Riveter,” working on P-51 Mustangs — combat aircraft — at North American Aviation.
I know to some people she seemed like an eccentric, elderly country lady living all by herself deep in the woods, and she was. But she lived a life most of us can only dream of. ~ Lillian Latham
She was a no-nonsense woman who could break horses, mend fences, play any instrument and keep anything alive that wanted to live. A self-described “competitive gardener, ” she insisted on having the reddest tomatoes and leafiest greens.
She was as handy with a pistol as she was with a hoe. She received her first gun at age eight and grew up hunting with her brothers, helping found the Macedonia Hunting Club.
Granddaughter Lillian Latham of Philadelphia remembers Morton sitting on the creek bank, pistol by her side, as she and her siblings swam. Approaching snakes were no match for the “Annie Oakley” of Noxubee County. Cousin Earline Howard of Shuqualak remembers the day a snake bit her daughter while they were picking blackberries. The last thing that snake saw was the muzzle of Morton’s pistol.
But she had a soft side, too.
One night in Columbus, she met the love of her life, George Morton, 17 years her senior. Unable to have children, she busied herself raising his, along with three grandchildren, including Latham.
She made biscuits every morning and cornbread every night and sewed outfits for teddy bears and dolls. At best estimate, Latham says, she pieced more than 600 quilts. No one knows for sure, because she gave them away as gifts. The only way to count them would be to count the people she loved, and there were many.
She lost her taste for hunting. Too many hunters killed too many doe, bringing her the orphaned babies. She would raise them and turn them loose.
“Wild animals are meant to be wild,” she told Latham. “You’re doing them a disservice trying to fit them into your life. It’s not about you.”
She remembered all too well sitting in her front yard as a child, watching passing trains and dreaming of escape. Wild things must be free.
As Morton got older, she regretted her youthful indiscretions, from the tattoo bearing the initials of a boy she couldn’t remember to the nights raising hell in towns she couldn’t forget.
In her last years, she worried about her spirituality and hoped God wouldn’t hold those years against her. Some of her wild things, she was proud of, like Ingalls and the planes she built. But as far as being a honky-tonk angel, she was embarrassed about that. ~ Lillian Latham
“In her last years, she worried about her spirituality and hoped God wouldn’t hold those years against her,” Latham says. “Some of her wild things, she was proud of, like Ingalls and the planes she built. But as far as being a honky-tonk angel, she was embarrassed about that.”
But Morton never pretended to be someone she was not. She loathed laziness and liars and was as adept with a fly swatter as a peach tree switch when it came to making children behave. She wouldn’t mistreat anyone, but if she didn’t like something, she would let you know, Howard says. A life of hard work and hard living had given her a strong backbone, and she lived as she wanted and said what she felt.
In later years, mornings found her sitting on her front porch, enjoying coffee and a cigarette before heading into the garden. When she wanted to relax, she watched Gunsmoke on television — Marshal Matt Dillon was a favorite — and listened to Boxcar Willie and Kitty Wells. Though she only attended Salem School in Macon through eighth grade, she became a Noxubee County justice of the peace and a school bus driver, fighting on behalf of the black children in whom she saw unlimited potential instead of skin color.
Hers was a vivid life, dimmed by dementia but kept alive by the stories she passed on to family and friends. In her last days, she returned to childhood, carrying teddy bears down the nursing home hallways, distributing love and admonishment equally, just as she had with so many children in her lifetime.
Latham and Howard say they will miss her warmth and her feisty spirit.
“I know to some people she seemed like an eccentric, elderly country lady living all by herself deep in the woods, and she was,” Latham said during Morton’s funeral. “But she lived a life most of us can only dream of. The last thing she said to me two weeks ago was, ‘I love you. You are my baby.’ And I expect when I get to Heaven, she will be there at the gates, telling me to straighten up and behave before she will let me in.”