Archives for posts with tag: family

Today would have been my mom’s 98th birthday. To commemorate the occasion I have one of her stories that makes me smile.

One day when she’s a little girl, she follows her mother around the house, helping with chores as much as she can. They hear a clatter from outside, and Grandmother sighs wearily. A peek around the curtains reveals the last thing a tired housewife wants to see. Honest John, a traveling salesman with a route that brings him to Miss Georgie’s door more often than she’d like. With a house full of children and a tight budget, temptation can be a curse. Even in the form of a walking store.

In no mood to be forced into roles as both hostess and reluctant shopper, this always (almost) sweet and welcoming housewife turns to her little daughter, bends low so as not to be misunderstood, and whispers into the small ear. “It’s Honest John! C’mon, Sarah. Let’s hide!”

A little shocked and a lot thrilled, by the unexpected game, Sarah takes her mother’s outstretched hand and creeps quietly with her across the big stretches of floor, until they reach the kitchen. They carefully pull out chairs and sit at the big wooden table where the family shares meals, celebrations and, apparently, sudden impromptu clandestine adventures.

The thing about impromptu clandestine adventures is that, not being well thought out, they they tend to fail. 

Not for lack of trying. 

Miss Georgie holds a finger to her lips, Little Sarah suppresses a stray giggle, and they relax, certain their unwanted visitor will soon leave. 

A knock at the front door.

Silence.

A second, more insistent knock.

“Miss Georgie?”

Breath-holding quiet blankets the house.

The conspirators share a smile. Surely, he’s halfway down the road, now that he’s given up….

“Good afternoon, Miss Georgie!”

Miss Georgie and Little Sarah nearly jump out of their chairs.

There stands Honest John, at the kitchen window, grinning at them through the screen. 

Of course, he is graciously invited in and most likely soon clutches a welcome glass of iced tea. He carries his wares on his circuit in a large case, which he opens and begins his well practiced presentation. 

Miss Georgie, of course, must buy something, as she knew would be the case, so Honest John’s persistence is rewarded with quenched thirst and the sale of a thimble.

Little Sarah is rewarded with a charming memory, complete with a suppressed giggle, that still carries a smile after almost a century has passed.

(An aside: My mom was a very mischievous child. Her older sister wanted to take a nice picture of just her mother, but my mom was determined to be in it too and kept sneaking in. No matter how many times she was chased away. She eventually achieved perfect timing, which resulted in my favorite picture of them together.)

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Some stories are so sad and poignant that they’re still painful a century later. This beautiful little baby was my mom’s sister, Reva Vernell.

I don’t know when the picture was taken, but I found her birth date in an old Bible. She was born on November 24, 1914, so she was five years older than my mom. The date of her death was on another page, August 18, 1916. Her little life wasn’t even two years long, but here I am today in 2017, remembering an aunt I never knew, a sister my mom didn’t know. As was the rest of her family, Aunt Vernell was well loved all the same.

Though old and faded, this is one of my favorite pictures of my grandmother. Of course she was elderly when I knew her, but I’ve heard so many stories about her that it seems as if I was a part of her entire life. 

The one story that is absolutely haunting, though not in a supernatural sense, is that Grandmother said that after little Vernell died, it felt as if she still pulled at her skirts as she went about her household chores. It’s so vivid in my imagination (I almost typed “memory”)…the lovely little toddler, clinging to her pretty Edwardian mother’s skirt, wanting to be close to her always. I can also imagine that Grandmother must have gone to bed crying many nights, after her baby died. They never knew exactly what caused her death. She was in agony from stomach pain. It could have been appendicitis. There was even some thought that perhaps she swallowed a little peach pit. That was a time still in the early stages of medical diagnostics, which left many illnesses a mystery. That uncertainty must have made the loss even more unbearable. 

My grandparents had two more girls (Pearl and Sarah) and three boys (George, Billy, and Earl), but losing Vernell after too short a time surely left a sad, empty place in their family. And their hearts.

‚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.

My mom was six weeks shy of turning 97, when she died this summer.

Sarah McCage taken April 18, 2012

I took care of her for a long time, as she succumbed to Alzheimer’s, but even before that whenever we were together she told me stories from her remarkably long life. She loved to tell them. I loved to hear them. They weren’t just flat, rote stories. They were a give and take, question and answer, memories and love part of our lives. She lived a fascinating near century. Her very life entwined with important historical events and I’m privileged to be the one to hold her history in my own mind and heart. 

This studio portrait was taken when she was a teenager. I think she looked like a movie star from The Golden Age of Hollywood. 

People who knew her know how cool she was. Several have asked me to write down the stories she told me. Make a record. Keep them alive. Oral history is a dying art. I feel so fortunate and honored to have been a part of a decades old tradition that, while technically oral history, was in actuality simply a mother and daughter cherishing reminiscence. 

I plan to eventually put together an eBook titled the same as this blog feature. For now, I’ve decided to post individual stories here (including old photographs), as they come to me and I put them into written form. I’m partly sharing them here so the people who have shown interest will have early access and partly because many of the experiences she lived through have a historical and national, even worldwide, importance. As her generation dies out, so do the stories of their lives. Her memories range from the small every day bits lost to most, to being present during much of a century’s events. I’ll be recounting them from my point of view, as she told them, because that will help me remember them best. I hope everyone who reads Stories From My Mother comes to know her and our generations of extended family, and enjoy reading of one woman’s walk through time.

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Today was my mom’s funeral. I planned every detail meticulously, with great love. She was surrounded by people who knew her, admired her, and remembered her from some point along the great, long winding road of her remarkable life.

I was so pleased with the elegant, beautiful service. My only disappointment was that music wasn’t provided for graveside services. I chose a longtime family friend to speak, and as he began his beautiful remembrance of her, he asked us to all sing the first stanza of Amazing Grace. He didn’t tell me that in advance and, as I sat there beside her for the final time, I was so grateful that he had thought of it. She loved music and some of her aides at the nursing home would sing hymns with her, bringing her joy as her life wound to its close. It was such a joy to me that her final song was sung to her by an impromptu choir composed of the voices of people she loved. And what a rare occurrence, privilege, and honor that I got to sing my mother to sleep, as she had done for me so lovingly as a child.

I would have loved to speak, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to be understood through my weeping. If I could have, I would have read one of my favorite poems. Funeral Blues, by W. H. Auden is not about a daughter and her mother, but it captures the beauty-lined pain of saying goodbye to someone beloved for the last time. Since I couldn’t read it for her, tonight I’ve found this wonderful reading, by actor Tom Hiddleston.

Rest in peace, dearest one.

Funny how you can remember something from childhood one way, and then a long time later realize you’re only remembering the surface. When I was young my daddy always insisted I go to the annual Memorial Day Service at a nearby Cumberland Presbyterian Church. It wasn’t even “our” church. It was where his parents were buried.

I dreaded it every year. Not just because I always got antsy about sitting quietly, while adults droned on and on about…anything. It was mostly because I was expected to be…well, I’m not sure what they called me. Being a flower girl is a wedding thing, but that’s essentially what I was. I wore a pretty pastel dress and walked down the aisle, scattering flower petals as I went. I was the opening of the ceremony and lived in fear of tripping, or dropping my basket of petals, or starting before the music did, or heaven forbid all of that in one fell swoop of falling, swooping, out of sync aisle marching, flying flowers disaster. Apparently living in fear tempts fate to go the other way around, because nothing bad ever happened. Nothing bad at all, except that I was so nervous and focused on performing perfectly that I entirely missed the point. The whole thing hadn’t been designed to make me a ball of walking stage fright. It wasn’t about me at all.

I’m sorry to say that it wasn’t until quite recently that something reminded me of those petal strewing walks down a church aisle and for some reason I started really thinking about it. We often see things so differently through our adult eyes. Things a child knows to be true may be vastly expanded upon once the child matures enough for even a little clarity and wisdom. I was suddenly struck by memories of the stillness in that church, the sincerity and solemnity of the people there. While I worried that I’d make a fool of myself, the other people in that lovely big white building were thinking of the loved ones who were no longer sitting beside them, holding their hand, wiping away their tears. They were remembering their beloved, their fallen, their lost.

I’d always assumed my daddy was sitting with such quiet dignity, sometimes with a hint of a smile, sometimes near tears, because he was so proud of me. Which I’m sure he was. But it went far beyond that on that particular day, in that place, with those people, most of whom we barely knew. There were other people there as well. The cemetery was full of them. Only they were memories.

I mentioned already that my paternal grandparents were buried there. Some of their close family too. Shadowy mental figures for me, of people I’d never met and knew little about. There was one though, with a reputation that transcended a mere name on a tombstone. My daddy’s little brother who went off to war and never came back. I wish I could have known this brave sailor, who was lost at sea and memorialized with a headstone over an empty grave.

J. B. McCage, Gunners Mate Second Class. U.S. Navy.

I don’t know much about him. When my daddy, Gerald McCage, was 12 years old, his father died in a car accident. He left school to become the man of the house, farm the land, and help his mother raise his younger brother, sister, and a niece. All that responsibility kept him at home when WWII broke out, but J. B. went to war.

It’s my understanding that he was lost at sea on August 23, 1943, when his ship collided with an ammunition ship near New York, his body never found. I heard the story of a nearby banker learning of the telegram about to be delivered and volunteering to take it out to the farm himself, out of sympathy and respect for my grandmother and the family. Even before I ever wrote a word of fiction, I would imagine the banker in his nice car and business suit driving along the road, billowing plume of summer dust trailing in his wake. He would pull into the  driveway, step out and put on his hat, only to take it back off to break the news, yellow telegram in hand. My grandmother would emerge onto the porch, perhaps in an apron and dusting flour from her fingers to shake hands, then those fingers flying to her lips on a wave of grief. What a horrible time that was, for the world at large and particularly for the ones left behind to live in dread of those fragile pieces of paper that changed their world forever.

No, those afternoons in that church were not about me at all. My daddy was there to honor his brother. So was I. I just wouldn’t realize it until I was too old to offer my daddy the words of comfort that would have made his heart just a little lighter. As it is, I can only hope that having his little girl there with him, taking part in the ceremony that commemorated his sailor lost at sea made it a little more bearable for him. Helped remind him of what his brother fought for. And that he knew me well enough to understand that someday I would grow up to be very proud to have been the little girl who scattered the petals in remembrance of her brave Uncle J. B., on a Memorial Day in a new century.

I woke up last night and couldn’t go back to sleep. An all too common thing with me. As often happens, a wave of tangenting thoughts set in, until I landed on a weird memory I thought I’d share.

When I was a kid, my Daddy would suddenly decide he wanted to spend a Sunday afternoon visiting his sister, Bertha. Yes, I really had an Aunt Bertha! She was sweet and soft spoken. I was fond of her, but I was even more fond of the fact that I hadn’t been named after her.

Aunt Bertha lived about an hour and a half away, in an area of odd geography. Where I grew up, which is also where she grew up, the land alternates rolling hills and flat fields. Where Aunt Bertha settled the land was very flat. Except when it wasn’t. We’d be driving along, admiring the huge fields of nodding sunflowers that seemed to add an extra glow to the sunbaked afternoon. Then, suddenly, the flat fields gave way to the closest thing to mountains anywhere around. Red hued bluffs rose abruptly to loom mildly over the surrounding checkerboard of farmland. I never understood why, unless it was a place where the Cumberland Plateau swept toward the Mississippi Delta. A couple of other places where the geography changed drastically were more subtle descents, so maybe the minor bluffs were the result of the great earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 that changed the landscape of that area forever. Whatever the cause, I can so distinctly remember the change in the air, as we entered the cool, leafy contrast to the sunflower sunfest we left behind.

One curve in particular made Daddy slow our progress, so he could point out the place where a small stream of clear cool water emerged from the rock face. I had trouble believing his stories of drinking water that ran directly from the ground, and marveled at the imagery as I imagined how such water would taste. My wellwater had always come from a faucet, tasting slightly of iron with a familiar metallic tang. The very idea of drinking from a stream seemed like magic.

One particular time we were not concerned directly with water, be it from stream or a faucet or a restaurant glass. No, our minds on that day were occupied by a bizarre story we’d heard on the news. An unassuming, unsuspecting family in a town near where my aunt lived became notorious for their 15 minutes of fame, when they used up all the water in their water heater. Some malfunction I still don’t quite understand the mechanics of caused alarming pressure to build up inside the tank. Eventually the alarming pressure became dangerous pressure that basically turned their mundane water heater into a missle.

According to the news story that was the buzz of a third of the state, the water heater blew right through the roof of the house and landed in the yard! No injuries were reported, except perhaps the family’s collective dignity.

Of course we had to find that house. We wouldn’t rest until we’d witnessed for ourselves the site of such a marvel of modern ingenuity gone so horribly wrong. Now that I think of it, maybe that afternoon is where my desire to visit places I’ve read about in novels originated. Dickens’ London, Rilke’s Paris…the water heater peoples’ house.

Without an address we just drove into the small town and aimlessly went up and down streets, looking for signs of excitement. It took quite a while, but we were in no hurry. The quest for confirmation was all consuming. A time came when we knew we were on the right street, approaching ground zero. There in the distance, growing ever closer, was a small ranch style house, with a water heater size hole in its gray shingled roof.

It looked so normal. A neat yard. A well kept home. Not a single brick out of place. Any of one of a thousand small town families could have lived there. But only one family called what temporarily passed for a minor tourist attraction in the rural South home.

The Water Heater People.

We drove by slowly, gawking as if we’d stumbled into the single exhibit of a small town cabinet of curiosities. It was absolutely nothing. Yet it was everything we’d hoped to see. A house with a hole in its roof. A house I never forgot. Somehow, my child’s mind was beginning to think like a science fiction writer already. In my mind’s eye, the appliance with a bad temper and a penchant for flying took on the accoutrements of a dreamer. It sported sweeping little wings out each side.

That house had launched a water heater toward the stars.