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Drawn to Dawn


Things take longer these days; Spurlock turns 90 in August.

She eases up the steps of the porch, which holds neatly stacked firewood for the Wonderwood stove inside, and settles into a chair to look for the key in her purse. "I'm so tired I don't know what to do," Spurlock says.

Today, as she does every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Spurlock has spent time with a group of friends at the Rappahannock Area Agency on Aging. "We don't do anything much," she says — have a devotional, just sit around, talk, sew. Sometimes they go out for lunch, she says, but she'd just as soon stay at the center to eat. "We're going out somewhere Friday," she says.

She usually gets food to take home, too. Today, it is a store-bought, plain Bundt cake, swinging in a plastic grocery bag. She peeks inside. It is sugar-free. "I don't think I need sugar-free," she says.

Spurlock finds her key and opens the back door. On the way in, she passes a pair of praying hands on a plaque that reads, "Give thanks unto the Lord." She walks inside, and into a palace. On every wall, in every nook: vases, beads, dolls and figurines, doilies and tassels, rugs and lamps, a red velvet chair.

There are 12 candlesticks on a coffee table in the living room. A Singer sewing machine. There is a metal sculpture of a peacock on a wall in the living room. When it is noticed, she points elsewhere. "And there's one over there, and one there on the other side," she says.

But this is no jumble. You get the sense of tidy grandeur, as though you have peered into a thimble and discovered a queen's castle. Spurlock, who keeps her red crocheted hat on her head, says little. She just watches you take it in.

"Nothing special," she says.

She's lived here 25, 30 years, she says. For 14 years, she was a housekeeper for a family in Richmond. She is the youngest of three brothers and two sisters. "And they're all gone except me," she says. Her two sons are grown and married, and she has five grandchildren and … four great grandchildren? (She's counting.) Her husband, Anthony, used to work on the tracks of the RF&P Railroad. He died seven years ago.

It's hard thinking back over so many memories. "I got so I have forgotten part of what I used to know 80-some years," she says. "When I got married, I guess, I guess that was my happiest day." Her father was deceased, so one of her brothers gave her away.

Now her grandson, who lives across the street, checks in on her every day. "I don't get lonely," she says. But she does get tired. "I don't know," she says. "I manage some way." She glances toward her bedroom. "Well, I've always said my favorite bedroom was my favorite room," she says. "If I can get there and get some rest."

Outside, it's after 5. The wind has come out, the temperature has dropped and the rain is coming down. Up the road, next to the Frog Level Volunteer Fire Department, is J.J.'s Café Express. There, Landron Johnson is smoking a Philly in his truck. His wife, working inside, doesn't want him to smoke. He can't smoke in there anyway.

Johnson's son bought this outdoor café a year ago, but he's busy managing another restaurant tonight, so his parents are helping out. Johnson, who also works as a service attendant at the Ladysmith rest area, makes a mean steak-and-cheese, he says. His wife works the register.

Johnson was born in Dawn, but by 16, he was dying to get away. "Old people were like I am now," he says. "They were running the town. You didn't ask questions. You just took orders."

So when his cousin got out of the Army at age 19, he asked Johnson how things were going in school. Not good, Johnson told him. The two took off for New York City, riding with friends and hitchhiking their way to Brooklyn.

The first thing they did was visit Coney Island. They sat in the front car of the famous wooden roller coaster. "Man, I haven't rode one since," Johnson says. "Man, that sucker looked like it was going to come off the tracks."

After the ride, they got down to business. Johnson found a job in New York's garment industry. He preshrunk material, running it through water in an 8-foot-wide vat until the manager said it had shrunk enough. The work was hard, he says. But it was easy for him because he grew up farming. (His house burned down when he was 6, so he and his parents moved to his grandfather's 40-acre farm.)

After three or so years in New York, he says, he moved back to Dawn before he joined the Navy. After four years in the service, he returned to his hometown. "I had never planned to come back," he says, "and I've been here 40-some years." When his brother died, he married his brother's wife. "They still talk about it," he says, grinning. "It gives them something to talk about."

Today, he's 66. He has heart problems, he says, but "I love living."

As for the town's young people today, he says, "I think they're pretty good. They're not dumb. But they're young."

Tree frogs are chirping in the rain.

Johnson's wife calls to him from inside J.J.'s. She needs help making two barbecue sandwiches. "Come on in, please," she says. Johnson goes. S

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