Archives for posts with tag: history

​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.

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.

I didn’t think anything could really cheer me up tonight, after a day of news watching.  This Upshout piece proved me wrong. From the first cross eyed lady to Tsar Nikolas acting silly, these pictures of Victorians loosening their legendary stiff upper lip made me smile.

My favorite one isn’t even funny. It’s just cool. I mean, two well dressed women building a snow lady that puts any of our modern day Frostys to shame? Complete with a nice snow dress and icy hairdo, their creation is more a snow sculpture than lowly slapping together of three big snowballs, with a carrot and a couple of lumps of coal. Theirs doesn’t even need outside accessories. Her natural snowy loveliness is all the decoration required. The one above her is a bit scary, once you look closely enough. Not because of the scary face the woman is attempting. No, what creeped me out once I noticed was her waist. Modern “waist trainers” can’t hold a candle to this slave to fashion’s method…whatever it may actually be. It looks like she’s wearing two  funnels under a lot of black lace. Maybe she’s not really trying to make a funny face at all. It could be that her stays are holding in everything all the way up to her face muscles and she has to give a little help to her smile mechanism!

Beyond my fascination with Victoriana, another reason I really love these pictures is that they show how the lack of entertainment as we know it really brought out the creativity in generations of Victorian loonies. Without TV, MP3, DVDs, and the rest of the alphabet of our lives that we can’t live without, however did they survive? No matter how flip I’m being about it, I really cannot fathom life without all our technological marvels. They rose grandly to their situation, however, and well above it.

They had fun with the mundane, because the mundane was all they had. I can’t help but wonder if our Civilization Selfie is missing out. I mean some of  those group poses are really cool. Not that I want to go lifeswap with people who were thrilled when they only had to strike a pose for fifteen minutes in order to make their mark on posterity. But they did leave a legacy of awesome portraits that can make us smile with true admiration of their humor and offbeat style.

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.