Archives for posts with tag: family

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 

​My mom’s only surviving sister was 10 years older than she was. Charming and fun loving to the point of being goofy at times, Aunt Pearl was also beautiful.

She had long, coal black hair that she coaxed into ringlets with a curling iron. Unlike our modern day ease of curling irons that plug into any convenient outlet to heat with electricity, Aunt Pearl’s curling iron was heated by putting it down the chimney of a coal oil lamp! This feat could be iffy, as it involved metal, a flammable substance, and uncontrolled heat…not to mention lighting those lamps was essentially setting a small piece of fabric (the wick) on fire, then the light was constantly fed by the flame that burned until it was put out. There was also the fun prospect of singed hair and soot getting in the hair as well. In that instance Aunt Pearl was fortunate that since her hair was already as black as it could be, it hid the worst of any damage that was the price of wanting nice curls. Later on she set it into marcel waves that looked wonderful. Eventually, she wore it in a Roaring Twenties super short bob. Add the drop-waisted dresses that were all the rage, topped by a cloche hat, and she looked as if she’d stepped straight out of a talkie, the newfangled motion pictures that took the flapper set by storm.

During this era my mom was a small child, who adored her big sister. Aunt Pearl was wonderful with children, as I discovered for myself. People back then, early in the twentieth century, had more family members than beds, and sisters often shared a big four poster, piled high with a feather bed and several hand made quilts. The quilts were composed of fabric pieces salvaged from worn out dresses and blouses, so that a pointing finger could trace the story of each piece through remembered occasions from  the time before its original form was worn out. 

Aunt Pearl liked to tell stories, particularly of the ghost variety. When I was little and she’d come to visit, I would sleep with her and be deliciously thrilled by whatever story she wanted to tell me in the wee small hours of the night. One in particular that I’ve never forgotten was about two elderly sisters, who shared a bed as girls. Every night there would be terrifying knocking sounds, eerily seeming very near to them, though there was nobody else in the room. It was only when they were old and any day could be their last that one sister finally confessed to the other that she had been the mysterious knocker who kept the hoax going on for so very long, and utterly convincingly. It turned out that she had double jointed toes that she would carefully crack against the wooden footboard to make the terrible knocking sounds. Aunt Pearl had read about it in a magazine or book and did a very effective retelling in the dark.

My mom and her beloved sister were as close as a child and young woman could be.  There came a time when my mom started to notice whispered conversations and furtive activities between Aunt Pearl and their mother. Eventually, when she saw Aunt Pearl packing up her things, my mom asked Grandmother what was happening. They had dreaded that moment and Grandmother so hated to cause pain to her little daughter that she pursed her lips for as long as she could bear her own silence and then reluctantly answered the question “Where’s Pearl going?” with the puzzling “She’s going to M.” A bit of explanation followed, and my mom finally understood that her near constant companion and always game playmate was getting married. It must have been heart rending to watch the wonderful presence she took for granted as being hers always leave their home for a new one of her own. Aunt Pearl and Uncle Dick got married by a Justice of the Peace, while seated in their buggy. That seems to have been a thing at the time, though I think not overly common. I imagine it was quite the ice breaker at parties and such. 

My mom and Aunt Pearl remained very close the rest of their lives. They relied on each other in times of trouble and celebrated together during every eventful moment. They took care of each other in bad health, cooked together for holiday celebrations, and were sources of joy for each other just by spending time together. The only time I can remember ever seeing them argue was the moment the check arrived when we were eating out. They would snatch it out of each other’s hands, the bit of paper like a flat, rectangular shuttlecock in a never ending match of restaurant bill badminton. Aunt Pearl usually persisted until she emerged the victor, since she didn’t drive and wanted to repay my parents any way she could for their unending willingness to take her wherever she needed or wanted to go. I’m not sure how she managed it, since I was usually elbow deep in a banana split by the time the check came. All I know is that while she was getting out money to pay, a couple of dollars or a fistful of change would find its way into my pocket, along with a wink and a smile from the person who was to me the same wonderful, beloved companion and always willing playmate that my mom had known in her own childhood.

As she grew old in that remarkable way indomitable spirits have of never quite really seeming to reach true old age, even poor health couldn’t suppress her twinkle or the smile that lit up so many hearts she touched throughout her life. Aunt Pearl was one of those people you never forget. One of a kind. Her memory is indelible. As is the legacy she left me of joy in telling stories. Her dream of being a published author was never realized. That mine has been is in part thanks to her. Dreams can be contagious. Their enthusiasm. Their hope. And their twinkle that burns like a pilot light for my muse. Quite the legacy from a woman who never had children of her own.

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.

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.)

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.

​Even 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.