Miss Alyne

Learned a few minutes ago that Alyne Payton, Walter and Eddie’s mother, died last week. She was 87.

A couple of things were written in the immediate aftermath of her death, all rightly warm and effusive. “Miss Alyne,” as she was universally called, was a marvelous, strong, beloved woman who never allowed the racial ugliness of a Mississippi upbringing to result in bitterness or hate. In my 2 1/2 years of reporting Sweetness, I learned different things about different people. Good. Bad. Middle. Nobody, however, had a bad word for Miss Alyne.

Nobody.

To me, what speaks most eloquently of Miss Alyne’s decency was the way she embraced Walter’s out-of-wedlock son several years ago, when he finally came to Mississippi for a visit. There was no awkwardness; no standoffish-ness. Just love and warmth and good food and Southern hospitality.

What more can one ask for?

Here’s a passage from the book, RE: Alyne Payton.

RIP

Though she held no elected position or official post, Alyne was a mayoral-type figure in Columbia’s black community. She dispensed myriad pieces of wisdom (“Never give your kids soda,” “Rise early, sleep early, work hard.”), advised her friends, helped whenever help was needed. When Archie Johnson, Walter’s pal, describes Alyne as “remarkable,” he echoes a sentiment shared by many. In another era, in another location, she is a trained chef. Or maybe an interior decorator or artist. In Columbia, however, she was simply “Miss Alyne.”

“Everyone loved Walter’s mama,” said Johnson. “One thing I remember is that she was really into making her home look nice. During the falls she’d drive out to the country, to a rural area called Hawthorne where some of her family lived. We’d ride up with her, and on the way she’d inevitably want to stop and get us to pick the Cat Tails for her.

“When I think about her, and all the self-help books she could have written, she was amazing. Nothing about her life was haphazard. Everything was organized. She had a plan.”

Alyne served as a church usher and was the leader, nurturer and moral guide of the family. Peter, in turn, was the disciplinarian. Though only 5-foot-5 and maybe 140 pounds, with dark chocolate-toned skin and unusually long fingers, Peter demanded respect from his children, both with his scowl and his belt. Docile in his day-to-day demeanor, Peter seemed to derive his greatest pleasure from meeting up with his closest friend, a neighbor named Brady Lewis, in the back yard. There the two would reside for hours, lounging back on a pair of lawn chairs, telling stories and polishing off a couple of $1.50 glass bottles of grape-flavored Mad Dog 20/20 until they were drunk. Because Columbia was a dry town, the two tried keeping their ritual a secret. But everyone knew. “Walter’s dad was real quiet and agreeable,” said Robert Virgil, who grew up with Walter and Eddie. “I remember his dad used to come to my house, and he’d help us kill a chicken or a hog. Then he’d drink his Mad Dog.” Peter wasn’t merely known by his first name. With the exception of his wife and kids, he was “Peter Payton” to everyone, in all circumstances. “Peter Payton didn’t do no harm, and he wasn’t a bad man, but we called him the town drunk, because he seemed to be drinking his Mad Dog all the time,” said Earnestine Lewis. “No one ever bothered him because he never bothered nobody, but it was always the same thing—Peter Payton being drunk, Peter Payton stumbling around. Sometimes Miss Alyne would holler at him, make him come inside the house. He’d yell back, ‘Oh, Alyne! Let me be!’ But then he would always obey her. She wore the pants.”

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