Archives for posts with tag: history

​I should know by now that something amazing may be encountered at any time. Shopping is a particular activity that provides opportunities for random fascinating conversations. Once, among the treasures of a Macy’s purse sale, a woman noticed my subtle Phantom of the Opera T-shirt and struck up a conversation about the musical, different versions, Michael Crawford, Broadway in general, and eventually my obsession with all things Wicked. Best Buy was host to a chance conversation with a young army veteran who worked there. We both enjoyed exchanging tales of foreign travel and historical landmarks so much that he would subsequently spot me across the store and come over to resume our conversation, as if it hadn’t been weeks since our last encounter. And a handicapped man at Walmart once told me about his sad, courageous life, obviously a very rare occurrence, spurred into an unfamiliar need for a sympathetic ear after a car almost ran him down in the parking lot. A simple shopping trip can lead to memories that become woven into the fabric of daily life.

Yesterday, I stumbled into a conversation with a sales girl at Pier 1, while lamp shopping. As random discussion will, it started simply, with my love of art glass. Eventually it wound around to some of the cool glass I’m finding among my mother’s things, from Depression Glass, to antiques, to very old photographs. My century old badly faded image of my maternal grandmother, in Edwardian attire complete with a giant hat similar to the awesome ones I was dazzled by in the movie Howards End, tends to trump anything most people have in their family collections. Many modern families don’t even have more than a handful of old pictures, if that. The woman I met had what will probably be the greatest antique photograph story I’ll ever hear.

I mentioned that many people find my mom’s stories of her life fascinating, since she lived through so much history. When I said she was born just a few years after the Titanic sank, this articulate and intelligent young woman quietly stated that more than one of her ancestors were on the Titanic. One of them was a member of the orchestra that famously accompanied the doomed ship on her tragic swansong. A particularly poignant event that’s become a point of consternation among those deeply interested in the fated first and last voyage of the most famous ship in history was that the orchestra member’s wife was charged for his lost uniform. Imagine being informed that your beloved lost spouse’s company uniform must be paid for…as it was lost to the depths of the sea. These are parts of the story I’ve heard about in countless TV documentaries. It was breathtaking to talk about them as someone’s family memories.

People Who Died on the Titanic

Advertisements

​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.

So here’s a twist on Valentines I didn’t know about, even though it’s Victorian in nature. This article about Vinegar Valentines is fascinating. Somehow it manages to be eyebrow raising, disgusting, and a bit charming all at the same time. Far removed from our own commercially overridden holiday of love, the Victorian Era brought not only lovers to their special day, but haters as well. Googly eyed with adoration? Why, send your beloved a card with a pretty picture and prettier flowing, waxingly poetic verse. Squinty eyed with loathing? Just send along a card displaying an insulting poem, often accompanied by an ugly caricature! As time passed spinsters, suffragettes, and medical practitioners that quacked like a quack doctor could all look forward to missives of disgust. Also known as Penny Dreadfuls, these little insult bombs went off in many an unseemly heart, even as loving tributes were showered upon the beloved and beautiful. The contrast and idea of how unpleasant Vinegar Valentines must have been to their recipients make the sight of our modern store shelves, festooned with red heartshaped boxes full of everything from the disappointing questionably flavored chocolate like substance to the good stuff that’s gobbled at breakneck pace, a little more palatable. 

Happy Valentine’s Day!

​Late last year I got a new phone and wanted to test out the camera. My old one was 8mp and not up to the use I was trying to put it through. It was fine for Travel Tuesday tweets, but for these posts and uploads to Fine Art America, I needed better resolution. So, suddenly armed with 16mp, I drove up to an area a couple of hours away that boasts a lake, a couple of rivers, and a historic Civil War battlefield. 

Here are some of the results:

This is Paris Landing State Park. The vista of the distant shoreline reminds me very much of the Chesapeake Bay. There are even some diehard sea gulls that seem content to call such a landlocked body of water home.

Its title indicates an interesting history. It was a steamboat landing for exchange of goods and exports a couple of centuries ago. In the middle of the 20th century, Kentucky Lake was formed by damming the Tennessee River. The result is that the actual site of the steamboat landing is now underwater, but it takes little imagination to conjure up the sound of the ship’s whistle and the bustling workday loading of cargo.

The park marina houses an interesting mix of vessels, with the extremely blue sky reflecting onto receptive water, along with colorful leaves that lingered into December.

Not far to the Northeast lies Fort Donelson National Battlefield. Driving around to the different battle sites not only immerses one into Civil War history, but also provides beautiful views of clifflike ridges, battlements, and the scenic river. And to enhance the scenery, some of that out of its time fall foliage.

The River Batteries saw fierce fighting in 1862. It’s easy to stand looking down on the canons overlooking the Cumberland and imagine the sights, sounds, and smells such a battle would generate.

A picnic area on a small bluff above the Cumberland takes dining all fresco to the extreme, with the tables practically hanging over the considerable drop. I’d like to think erosion has had a hand in the, er, edginess of the table situation, but maybe some people enjoy eating so close to the river below that if you drop your sandwich from on high you could probably hear the splash.

Though it’s a bit unsettling, I’m glad the fall colors lingered a couple of months beyond their usual season. They made the hills and valleys and riverbanks breathtaking at times, and put my phone camera to the test in a way that made me happy I had those extra megapixels.

Funerals and flowers are on my mind again. My mom’s sister-in-law Aunt Maxine died last week. They were the last of their generation in the family, and she was my last person to call Aunt or Uncle.     

Seeing her surrounded by beautiful floral arrangements reminded me of a story my mom told me about a time long ago, when most people were so poor that the things we take for granted were beyond reach. Though people desperately wanted to honor their loved ones with flowers, sometimes it was simply impossible. Or so it seemed.
My mom was a little girl, going about her day, most likely following her mother around the house as she did her daily chores, helping when she could. When a knock came at the door, my grandmother opened it to find two very sad black neighbor ladies.

After exchanging greetings the ladies explained that a little child in their family had died. They were distraught, because they couldn’t afford to buy flowers for the funeral and couldn’t bear to bury such a beloved family member without flowers at all. 

They had come to Miss Georgie, known for her yard full of beautiful flower beds, to ask for a few of her flowers. My grandmother was also known for her kindness and compassion, and with good reason. She said of course they could have flowers. Then she thought for a bit. She smiled and told them to leave for a while and then come back. She would have some flowers ready for them.
Most people would have gone out to select a bouquet for the child’s funeral. Others would have picked her most beautiful blooms and tied them with a saved scrap of ribbon. Miss Georgie was neither. Her category was extraordinary people.

She went into the veritable garden she lived in and picked the most beautiful of her roses and lillies. She gathered ferns and any other complimenting small flowers she thought would help make the collection as beautiful as possible. When she came inside, she did find ribbon, but she went far above and beyond what had been asked of her.
My mom watched, fascinated, as her mother collected cardboard, newspapers, and sewing supplies. She sat down to cut a wreath shape out of the cardboard, then again from layers of newspaper. Somehow, she knew how to fashion a funeral arrangement, by sewing the flowers and ferns to the newspaper sheets thickened by layering, then sewing that to the cardboard, complete with the requisite ribbon bow. My mom told me that by the time it was finished the handmade funeral wreath was as beautiful as anything made by professional florists. 

The grieving ladies came back expecting a handful of simple flowers they could lay on a little child’s grave. What they were presented with was a gorgeous handmade funeral wreath that looked as if it had been professionally made. They were thrilled and so very grateful. My grandmother had been very moved by their plight and was so happy to be able to make a terrible time just a little better. And that day, watching her work so lovingly to help a family in need, made my mom love her mother just a little bit more.

Last summer when I was ordering flowers for my mom’s casket, I got started talking to the florist about this story. He thought it was wonderful and told me that was actually the way they made funeral wreaths so long ago. I don’t know how my grandmother learned to do it, and so well. What I do know is that I’m very proud to be Miss Georgie’s granddaughter.

​When my mom was a child her family didn’t have a lot of money, but they made up for it with love and small traditions. The way they celebrated seems strange to us now, but at the time it was all they knew.

One of the best she told me about was their Christmas tree. Her father would go into the woods and cut down a huge holly. I had never heard of holly as a Christmas tree, but it must have been magnificent. Their house had big rooms with high ceilings. Try as I might to imagine the scene, I can’t quite get hold of an image of the way they would tie the top of the tree to the ceiling to keep it firmly upright. They had small candles in metal holders that attached to the tree branches. They would only light the candles briefly. That I can certainly understand. The potential for a catastrophic fire would have been horrifying, especially inside a big old wooden house, but think of the joy the sight of that tree, with its natural decorations of green leaves and red berries, gleaming in the candlelight, brought to the children’s faces.

When time came to open presents, packages were sparse, but so very appreciated. My mom’s face would still light up, almost a century later, as she spoke of the year she got a tiny doll in her sock. They didn’t even have traditional Christmas stockings. Or perhaps the socks were traditional back then for country folks. She loved that doll so much, partly because even a little girl’s doll was a rare thing for her.

(This is a very old picture of my mom, with dolls. One of the big ones was hers, the other her older sister’s. The one she’s holding may be the little one she got for Christmas.)

Somehow, an orange and an apple found their way into each child’s sock, along with a handful of nuts in their shells. A little candy would appear in a good year. If her parents couldn’t buy any, her mother might make fudge or divinity candy. They made delicious, sticky popcorn balls and in sparser times chicken and dressing would be the centerpiece of their Christmas dinner, instead of turkey or goose. My grandmother had a reputation as a wonderful cook, even though she had to do it all, roasting the meat, baking cakes and pies and the wonderful cookies she called tea cakes, in the oven of a wood burning cook stove that practically roasted the kitchen, as well as the food.

Maybe all this is why my mom never wanted much for Christmas and was so grateful for the special presents I picked out so carefully to make up a little for the spare Christmases she knew as a child. I think the reality was that she didn’t think of those holidays as spare. She remembered each  gift she received with joy, because every single humble one was wrapped so beautifully in the love that was the best gift of all. 

​My mom’s older brother Earl lived in Memphis, after he grew up and left home. He worked in the gasoline business and knew all kinds of people, which made it easy for him to find jobs for his little sister. He would go home to visit the folks, then tell my mom he’d found her a job, if she wanted it. She always did. 

Over the years of her life that spanned the time from when she was old enough to work, until she married my daddy, she would go to live with Uncle Earl and his family and work in Memphis. She worked at Sears, filling orders for the catalog department. Another stint saw her at Western Union, slotting telegrams to be delivered. Sometimes she stayed and held her job for quite some time. Other times one of her parents would become sick and she’d quit to go home to take care of them. If she stayed very long, she might simply become homesick and decide it was time to go back to be with and help her aging parents in general. She was a good and kind person, selfless and loyal.

In the early 1940s, she waitressed at a restaurant at the Memphis Airport. Her job included taking meals onto planes and readying them for in flight dining. Passengers went to the restaurant to grab a quick meal or snack, before the next leg of their journey. One of her most memorable experiences was serving a Coca Cola to Bob Hope. Not one to get starry eyed, she just said he was very nice to her and she  treated him like everyone else. Another time her cousin Hera Jane, who lived in California, recognized her cousin unexpectedly as her waitress. They chatted and caught up, as Hera waited to continue her flight.

Her most memorable experience during her time as a waitress at the airport was far more profound than serving movie stars and a chance encounter with a long unseen relative. One day the people in the restaurant heard a terrible roaring from the sky. They rushed outside to try to see what could cause such a thing. As they stood gazing upward, a veritable cloud of airplanes passed overhead. They stared, awestruck and not a little afraid, as many bombers came in to refuel. They knew something awful must have happened. Soon enough word spread. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, all but obliterated our Pacific fleet, and killed many of “the boys”.

It was December 7, 1941. A day that FDR would soon indelibly embed in the collective world mind. “A day that will live in infamy.”

Those who lived through that day, that time, remember where they were, when they heard the news of the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor. Back home, farmers, housewives, store clerks, and, yes, waitresses were going about their daily lives . They heard about it eventually on the radio. Or someone who heard told them. Back then people gathered around their radios, for the news of their lives. It was their internet, before the internet even was. People would stand shocked and grieving around parked cars, listening together to their world falling apart.

My mom, with her adventurous spirit and deep love for her country, stood many miles from the place she loved most, among new friends and fleeting strangers, face turned with fear and courage toward the waves of bombers that ushered in a new and difficult time for the American people. Instead of being informed by a distant, crackling voice on the radio, my mom was a bystander to history.