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Way Down South After All These Years, Spokane Woman’s Heart Still Belongs To Dixie

Wed., April 24, 1996

Stevie O’Roarke looks like she hails from Spokane, with her new Nike tennis shoes, bluejeans and Washington sweat shirt dotted with umbrellas and rain.

But underneath, she’s a Southern gal. She still calls her mother “momma” and her father “daddy,” though both have been dead for decades. She keeps an old childhood porcelain doll on top of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture in her living room. Occasionally, she lets her voice slip, saying “turbull” instead of “terrible.”

For most people in Spokane, a second home means a cabin at the lake or in the woods. O’Roarke has one of those. But her home away from home is the cottage where she grew up, 2,000 miles away in Atmore, Ala., a small town tucked near the Florida state line.

No one lives there anymore. The family keeps up the place - just for visits.

“I don’t know of anyone my age who has the home they grew up in to go back to,” O’Roarke said. “It’s just an unusual thing. We’re at home again is what it amounts to.”

O’Roarke’s tale is about family ties. She talks openly about two dead husbands, dead parents, a dead sister and three dead brothers. But she cries when she speaks of her roots that stretch from here to Atmore, where she was born 71 years ago.

She left the town, which then held about 1,200 people, when she graduated from high school in 1942. Her four brothers and three sisters also abandoned the homestead, a modest cottage built by their father on 100 acres two miles outside of town. The three older daughters slept in the back bedroom, the sons in the front room.

Instead of selling the family home and cutting ties after their mother died in 1966, the siblings have kept the house up. O’Roarke’s brother owns the home and hired a caretaker to watch it. The azaleas and camellias still flower. The gardenias make the yard smell like a high school dance. The house has been repainted and remodeled. A new roof is in place.

“Momma’s greatest wish was for us to be able to keep it and to be able to go home and see each other,” said Lucille Owens, O’Roarke’s 74-year-old sister who lives in Macon, Ga. “She wanted us to stay a family. She was afraid when she died that we wouldn’t come home. She wanted us to be together, to love each other. If she could stand up today, she’d be real proud.”

The family holds mini-reunions every year. Owens sometimes goes to the home alone, but if none of her siblings is there, she won’t go inside. She just sits outside and thinks.

O’Roarke goes back, lately twice a year. She went in March; she’s planning a fall trip.

“I guess ‘cause that’s who I am,” said O’Roarke, wiping her hazel eyes with a tissue as she started to get teary.

Growing up in Atmore, the girls played outside in starched dresses and the boys played in overalls. O’Roarke followed her brothers fishing. They played dodge ball and house.

O’Roarke occasionally visited a neighbor known as “One-Armed Maggie,” her arm having been shot off by one of her husbands. Maggie made the neighbor children gingerbread. She hung O’Roarke in a tree until she cried.

O’Roarke played with dolls with one of her older sisters. They dressed the dolls and put them to sleep. They carted them down to an old Baptist cemetery, built on land donated by O’Roarke’s father. They played with their porcelain dolls between children’s wooden grave markers, decorated with broken colored glass.

O’Roarke’s doll, named Sunshine, now sits in front of her fireplace in Spokane. She’s wearing a new pink and white dress and a bonnet, too, to protect a head cracked like a nut by a horse’s bite.

The children ate sugar cane, peanuts, okra and sweet potatoes from their mother’s garden. They invited as many friends as possible to Sunday dinner, which often meant four fryer chickens and biscuits. They celebrated hog-killing time in late fall, when O’Roarke’s father would shoot one or two pigs with a pearl-handled pistol.

O’Roarke talks like a family tree. A question about one family member trails into children into grandchildren into great-grandchildren. She speaks Southern, a roundabout breathless way of getting at her point.

She moved to Spokane with her husband after World War II. She used to drive back to Alabama, making a family trip of it with her first husband and three children. They once put 8,000 miles on the car, taking a leisurely Southern route with lemonade and sandwiches and trekking back to Spokane through Washington, D.C.

“In the early years, all my family thought I had moved completely out of the country,” said O’Roarke, who lives in a house decorated in shades of beige in north Spokane. “They thought maybe I was dangling over the ocean up here.”

Owens said family members were afraid they wouldn’t see their sister much.

“She won’t tell you this, but she had been married a couple of years and living in Spokane,” Owens said. “One day, she waked up and realized, ‘Hey, I’m here for keeps. I’m never going back. I’m gonna be buried up here.’ And she cried all day.”

O’Roarke’s last trip home was in March, when she met two sisters, a brother and scads of nieces and nephews who all still live in the South. They visited places they had known in their youth.

O’Roarke carted home her mother’s old milk bucket, which now sits, filled with dried flowers, in a corner of her living room in Spokane.

She has at least 11 boxes of pictures and clippings and memories of the South. She has an old Southern cookbook, given to her in 1944, the year she first was married. She can fix Bess’ party salad, jellied beets, avocado aspic, Mrs. L’s lye hominy, Mrs. F.H.’s lye hominy, Lucile’s corn fritters and Cecilia’s ice cream cake.

She keeps her mother’s tools on a side table: an old biscuit cutter, a damper opener for a wood-burning stove and an old kitchen hammer.

“I’d go home, and they’d say, ‘Ah, you sound like a Yankee,”’ O’Roarke said. “Two days there, and I’d slide back into talking Southern.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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