Archives for posts with tag: family history

My mother was a beautiful young woman. These photos are evidence of that. She looked like a super model, before there were super models. I think these were taken when she was in her late teens and/or early twenties.

I recently came across this one. I kept looking at it, not entirely sure it was really her, in spite of the fact that she’d written her name and 40s on the back. Most of the hundreds of pictures she left for me to enjoy showed her beauty staying with her throughout her nearly century of life. I think this may be the worst of them all.

I just couldn’t understand how she could look so bad. Almost like a walking cadaver. Skin stretched across prominent facial bones, hollow eyes, accompanied by a haunted gaze. She looked as if she’d walked through hell.

Eventually I realized she had. The 1940s. That was the answer. She was living through World War II. This must be several years after the lovely, carefree images. She’s standing in Aunt Pearl’s yard, which means it was likely when she lived with Aunt Pearl and Uncle Dick, while the sisters worked at a nearby arsenal, making bombs. Risking their lives every day. A bus came to get them for the ride to what might have been the last day of their lives. One accident is all it would take. Living with that alone, though with such strength and courage, was enough to take a toll.

Even if it was before she worked at the arsenal, the general wartime was nightmarish. She told me that after Pearl Harbor was attacked, they were terrified that the Japanese would bomb even so far inland. So she was already accustomed to living in a state of high fear. 

Add the deprivation of food scarcity. Meat, butter, and sugar were rationed. They had to adjust to the butter substitute margarine, adding the yellow coloring that came with it to make it resemble real butter better than it did without it. They learned to make butterless, sugarless, eggless cakes and “apple” pies out of crackers, sacrificing every way they could think of to help the war effort. That would explain her newfound gaunt look. She didn’t eat a lot anyway, so paring down her natural diet would have been drastic.

Even her vibrant smile was different. The phrase “Carrying the weight of the world.” comes to mind. It’s said that the people who lived through World War II are a remarkable generation. They were. A few remain and still are. They always will be, preserved forever, I hope, in the amber of historical memory and generational family stories.

I’m happy to say that with her innate resillience she was regaining her natural beauty, by the time my parents were married several years after the war. This picture captured them in a solemn moment, perhaps trying to portray the importance of the occasion. They look strong and healthy, with a new layer of maturity brought to them by surviving such hardship, as they embark on their new life together 

This is the family and some friends, gathered for an afternoon of croquet. I can imagine them going enmass, dressed like this, to the medicine show. My mom and Uncle Billy look like they walked straight out of The Little Rascals, which is extremely cool.

Like the last one about Honest John the traveling salesman, my mom’s memories of a traveling medicine show move past quaint right on into historical. Such experiences were certainly long gone by the time I was a child. My mom was born in 1919 and since the area where she grew up was extremely rural, it makes sense that there were still medicine shows in her early lifetime. I imagine they began to fade as more and more people bought Model Ts and did more of their own shopping, with newfound ease. 

She didn’t have a specific story about the medicine show, like the experience with Honest John. She just told me as much as she remembered. I can imagine a little girl, wide eyed with excitement and wonder, going with her entire family to see the show. There wasn’t a lot of entertainment in those days, so it would be thrilling for them all to have an opportunity to gather with their family and friends to find out what the medicine show brought to town.

It was set up in the grassy area beside the railroad tracks at the edge of town. There was the medicine wagon, where the showman would set up his displays. An acompanying Native American performer came out first, to dance to the beat of a drum. This would have been a unique and exciting way to warm up the crowd.

Then the medicine seller extraordanaire would begin his oration that probably somewhat resembled an old time fire and brimstone preacher trying to win reluctant souls, only this fist popper was intent on winning money from reluctant pockets. 

I don’t know everything he said. My mom couldn’t remember after many decades. She did retain one line that I too have never forgotten. The man with what he promised was intense healing elixer, proclaimed at the top of his lungs: 

“It’s good for your blood, liver, and bladder. If you don’t buy some now, you’re gonna wish you hadder!”

I can’t help but wonder how many of the area’s little old ladies didn’t want to wish they hadder and ended up gathered around a piano singing China Town at the top of their tipsy lungs, like Aunt Bea and the teatotaling Mayberry church auxillary ladies, when the Colonel and his elixer paid the quiet little town a visit. My mom didn’t know how much the medicine show man sold, but it seemed he didn’t linger in any one place for long. Of course, one might be able to consult any remaining records of suddenly cured blood, liver and bladder ailments….

Stories like this are priceless to me. They’re part of the history of the time, the community, and connect a thread through both to my family. I suspect that my mom was the last person I’ll ever know with such an experience in their past. So many people nearing a hundred years of age either don’t think anyone would be interested in such memories or they have succumbed to Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia, and these kinds of stories are lost forever.

I always loved hearing my mom talk about anything she could think of. Sometimes, when we were under tornado watches, veering toward warnings, we would sit together with the radio volume low so we could know when to dash for her big walkin closet. I would shove back my dread and fear with the words that I knew would begin the process of shunting aside my interior little girl who had always been afraid of tornadoes. “Tell me about a long time ago.”

She would smile away the worst of our fears and tell me her wonderful memories, until a night of danger was turned into a vehicle into her past. A place and time where there was no electricity, the phone on the wall had to be cranked, and a man with a mission to sell a miracle elixer enthralled the entire countryside with a little hope, a little dream, and a bottle full of promises.

‚ÄčEven in the rural south a long time ago, some people just weren’t satisfied to be like most others. When my mom told me about her oldest brother, there was always a thread of pride running through her voice. Uncle George was a true Renaissance Man, though I doubt he ever knew it. 

My mom and her brother George.

His love of music was the paramount focus of his long life. The family had a piano at home and he took great advantage of its presence. His mother played. Maybe he inherited his musical inclination from her. I don’t know how old he was when he learned, but my mom said he would play that piano long into the night, with her at his side, as they sang, and sang, and sang. Their parents must have enjoyed listening to them enough to tolerate the long hours, or perhaps they merely learned to sleep through the impromptu concerts. This was during the historical period we can barely imagine now, when people made their own entertainment at home. Until the advent of a radio in every home, at least. Even listening to duets when you’re usually asleep could very well have been a real treat. At some point Uncle George wanted to branch out, so he saved his money until he could buy a guitar. He took mail order lessons and became quite good. 

Uncle George at the piano, with  Aunt Ruby’s eternal support.

My childhood memories include gathering around his piano to sing. He had married Aunt Ruby along the way and acquired a collection of instruments that hung on the wall or rested in cases near the piano. I heard him play piano and guitar, while she would occasionally take down the violin for a brief demonstration. I remember seeing her play her trumpet a time or two. I say I saw instead of heard, because in true Satchmo style, her cheeks puffed up as her eyes practically bugged out of her head. I was fascinated to the point of not even paying attention to her music. Just wondering if her head might soon explode!

Blessed with a deep, resonate bass singing voice, Uncle George sang in a gospel quartet for many years. It was always a bit of a thrill to turn on the radio at the designated hour and wait for my very locally famous uncle’s voice to boom out into the living room from afar. 

The mail order guitar lessons were such a success that when Uncle George became interested in learning to type, he bought a typewriter and ordered lessons in that as well. Those too were a success. My mom never said whether he used that skill for anything beyond writing letters, but it was another nice self-taught ability under his belt. I’m sure she would have been glad to have him take over the dictation chore that fell to her, when their father wanted to write to his brother John in California. She said Granddaddy would go on and on, for many handwritten pages, while she grew weary and wondered if he would ever sign off. She taught herself to type a little, hunt and peck style, but that would never have kept up with the loquacious dictation fed by brotherly affection.

Uncle George and his Model T.

As times changed and technological wonders appeared, Uncle George was the first person in the community to buy a car. Not only did he drive it hither and yon for his own pleasure, he also chauffeured his family anywhere they wanted to go, thus breaking the lifelong dependence on horses for travel. Until the arrival of that Model T, they had walked to church, gone shopping and visiting horse and buggy style, and my mom and her closest in age brother Uncle Billy rode horseback to school together on “Old Charlie”. Uncle George’s fascination with his car wasn’t restricted to driving it. He would periodically take the motor apart, laying each piece out in order, clean it all, then put it back together. Apparently with no pieces left over. The Model T changed all of their lives, and he made sure it was up to the challenge at all times.

Uncle George and Aunt Ruby, happy at home.

Uncle George even spent some time using the mail to search for love. He corresponded with several young ladies, probably found through newspaper ads. Newspapers and the mail were as close to the Internet as they got back then, and he took full advantage of the opportunities they afforded. A longtime bachelor, he eventually found the love of his life closer to home. Uncle George and Aunt Ruby farmed and fished together, moved to town together, and spent their final years together sharing a nursing home room after she broke her hip. They were sweet and loving, always with candy for nieces and nephews, smiles for everyone, and always, always, a song in their shared heart.

There’s no telling what Uncle George might have done with all of his interests and skills in a different place and time. The unwitting Renaissance Man certainly knew how to make the best of every opportunity and live a full and varied life.