[This is the story that my aunt told me when I was about nine years old, in the trailer in the big woods, while a cold wind howled outside.]
Mary Shepherd was only 16 when her parents announced that they had arranged for her to be married to 33-year old Ell Hicks.
She didn't mind: he was a good catch. He had a nice farm near Pyramid, Kentucky, about 14 miles south of Prestonburg. And he was handsome, athletic, and "well-knit." Girls had been trying unsuccessfully to land him for years.
Ell turned out to be a good provider. He bought Mary the latest fashions, and took her to moving picture shows, and in 1904 they became one of the first families in the hills to own a new horseless carriage.
He was always kind to her and the children. He never raised his hand in anger.
There was only one problem, something that Mary couldn't tell anyone about except her mother. And many years later, her favorite daughter, Gracie.
Ell wasn't...um...we'll, he wasn't keen on his...um...on doing his duty as a husband.
Mary had to coax and cajole him, and even then it happened only once in a blue moon.
Sometimes those two stayed out carousing until midnight, leaving Mary rumbling around the house all by herself.
Finally Mary put her foot down. "You can't visit Silas unless I go with you!"
That quieted things down, for awhile.
One day in the summer of 1905, Ell told Mary that Silas's elderly grandmother was sick, very sick, and everyone was gathered at the house to "sit up" with her, like you did in the hills. She gave her consent for him to "sit up," too, as long as he was back by suppertime.
Well, suppertime came, and then sundown, and no Ell. At first Mary was worried. Then she got angry. Maybe he wasn't sitting up with Silas's grandmother at all. Maybe the old woman wasn't even sick! No doubt it was just an excuse to go carousing with that wastrel!
Near midnight, Mary had enough. She woke Dewey, her toddler, wrapped six-month old Gracie in blankets, and set out to catch Ell in the act.
Ell took the carriage, so she had to walk.
It was very dark, but she could see well enough in the moonlight.
There was something glowing on the side of the Prestonburg Road!
At first she thought it was someone holding a lantern. But no -- the light was pale and cold, like moonlight.
It was like a human figure with legs spread and arms akimbo. But much bigger -- at least ten feet tall! She couldn't make out a face.
It moaned like a ghost.
Mary was petrified with fear, but she couldn't run away, with Dewey clinging to her legs and Gracie howling.
She thought of going back, but Silas's house was closer, and there were people there. So she persevered, walking slowly, with the boy still clinging to her legs and the baby still howling.
Finally she made it to the house, where she discovered that Ell was telling the truth. It was full of people sitting up with Silas's grandmother, who died at the precise moment that Mary saw the figure in the woods.
But there was a problem: the figure was definitely male. It was naked. She distinctly remembered seeing...um...manly parts. . .dangling between its legs.
If it wasn't Silas's grandmother, who was it? What was it?
Gracie didn't remember the incident, of course. Mary told her about it when she was a teenager, just before she married my grandfather.
Years later, Gracie told the story to each of her daughters, just before they married.
Aunt Mavis broke with tradition, and told me.
No doubt the details changed over time, but I'm certain that the core of the story is intact: the wastrel, the sick grandmother, and the ghost in the woods that couldn't have been her.
What kind of cautionary tale is this for mothers to pass on to their daughters?
Maybe to be careful -- some of your husband's infidelities might not involve women.
But wait -- did Mary even know that gay men, or men on the downlow, existed? Did Gracie? Or Aunt Mavis?
See also: The Ghost Lovers of Eastern Kentucky