Willie’s Place

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Willie is pictured back row, center 

I wouldn’t be into anything weird if it wasn’t for Willie Lee Watkins, who babysat my brother and me under moss-draped Florida oak trees when we were kids.

Willie‘s albinism resulted in poor eyesight, but she considered it a gift; this is why, she used to claim, she was able to “see” in other ways. And “see,” she did.

She used to talk about “bigfoots” the way other people would talk about raccoons. “Oh, we had a bigfoot out back last night going through the trash. I turned on the porch light and scared him away.”

If she said it, it happened.

She used to give me cheap paperbacks full of “true” ghost stories, even though my parents didn’t want me to have them because they knew I’d stay awake at night totally freaked out. “Don’t tell your daddy,” she’d say, surreptitiously slipping me something regarding terrifying alien abductions or ships that disappeared into the sky. I was totally freaked out, but Willie knew I could handle it.

She loved talking about how she launched a campaign of “metaphysical terror” against her arch-conservative neighbor?—?a surly Florida redneck nicknamed “Redbird”?—?by tricking him into thinking she’d cursed him with loud chants and dancing around a fire and a ceremony involving a dead cardinal. He never bothered her after that. Causation or correlation? I’ll never be sure.

She would often mention the angel who drifted at night through the cemetery of the tiny church down the street from her place, back in the Florida pine scrubs, in an undeveloped part of town known as “Wildwood.”

Wildwood Church, St. Augustine, Florida. This is where Willie saw the angel.

 

She collected dolls, and talked to spooks, and the two would sometimes go together. “I think my mama’s here,” she told my friend K. and I when we were visiting her one sweltering afternoon. As soon as she’d said those words, the atmosphere in the room changed; the fan on the floor started moving faster. A glassy-eyed poppet on a shelf cried out, “MA-MA,” and she showed us there were no batteries in the doll’s back.

She gave incredibly accurate (down to clothing color) “psychic readings” to anyone who asked, but never charged for them. Anyone who did so, she insisted, was a fraud.

Her daughter died in a car accident on an empty Georgia state road in the middle of the night; Willie swore that she’d been chased off the road by the UFOs she’d reportedly seen so many times on that very same lonesome stretch of highway.

Mostly, though, Willie was a genuinely good person, who genuinely cared about people. Even though she’d grown up poor in the backwoods of Florida, she was about as progressive-minded as could be, in favor of whatever increased the amount of love in the world. She loved kids, both her own and other peoples’, regardless of their external qualities. She wrote a children’s book about two trees that lived in her yard, and how they taught one another about the best way to live.

She moved away from Florida some years back. The TV and appliance repair shop and daycare center she and her husband owned is long gone; the corrugated tin Quonset hut where she watched us in the cricket-filled Florida heat has vanished into the ether of modernity. Wildwood and its environs, enveloped by subdivisions and paltry stucco-covered developments, now sits occupied by people who have no idea what ambling creatures hopefully still dig through their trash at night.

Willie passed away in 2015; I’m not sure about the details because I found out on social media. However, if anybody decided to stick around for a while to mess with people, it would be her. I’m keeping my eyes and ears open.

My last communication with Willie Lee Watkins, one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known. 

Rest in Peace, Willie. I’m sure we’ll see you around.