Queen Envy

My mother, Kathleen, has suffered from Royalty Envy her entire life. First of all, Princess Elizabeth was born two years ahead of Kathleen, giving her an unfair advantage. Seeing Princess Elizabeth featured in magazines and newsreels in gorgeous dresses surrounded by her retinue fascinated and frustrated her. Clearly the young royal had done no more than she to deserve this sumptuous life. To add insult to injury, Princess Elizabeth had beautifully curled hair. Kathleen suspected it was a much coveted permanent wave.

One or two fortunate girls of Kathleen’s acquaintance prissed about haughtily showing off their permanent waves. Kathleen knew every penny in her household had a purpose, so it never occurred to her to mention her yearning for a permanent wave. Periodically, her older sister curled her hair with rag curlers, but those curls paled beside the beauty of a permanent wave. Even worse, Princess Elizabeth’s hair might have been naturally curly. What cruel accident of birth would bestow curly hair upon a royal child and condemn Kathleen, a tow-headed, child of American The Great Depression, to struggle through at least ninety-four years of lanky, string-straight locks.

Kathleen avidly poured over any mention of Princess Elizabeth in newsreels, news papers, and magazines, alternately admiring and envying the girl unaware of her existence. Every time she visited to outhouse, she read and reread a magazine article about the princesses, fully aware Princess Elizabeth wasn’t reading about her in her dainty water closet.

Kathleen excelled at the tiny school in Cuthand,Texas, sometimes helping her janitor father clean after school, aware that Princess Elizabeth was educated by governesses, later attending the finest private schools. While the princess attended soirees, Kathleen picked beans, fed chickens, and gathered eggs. There was definitely nothing privileged about her rural life.

As time passed, Kathleen had less time to devote to her rival who was now queen, though she noted with satisfaction her own children were more handsome and probably smarter. She was a bit critical of the queen’s style; too many pastels and over-large hats., though it seems she would have been pleased that something that obscured the queen’s curly hair.

Some things never change. I mentioned the other day the queen might be schmoozing with the heavenly hosts right now since she’d beaten Mother to Heaven. Mother remarked snidely, “You don’t know that for sure, do you?”

I knew she’d say that!

You Don’t Have to Have Money to Be Rich

This is a revisit of a story I posted last year.  My mother, Kathleen, was raised during The Great Depression.  She often told this story of a happy Christmas when her family had no money, but didn’t let that stop them from having a joyous Christmas.  In the photo below, Kathleen is the small blonde child.  Back left is her cousin, Johnny Bell, center back  sister Annie, back right, brother John.  They are pictured with her parents, Lizzie age forty and Roscoe aged about 50.  Johnny Bell was the son of Roscoe’s beloved orphaned niece, Katie.  Katie’s mother had died in childbirth, so she was raised by Roscoe’s childless, widowed sister.  They all lived together till Roscoe’s marriage.  She was like a daughter to him, so he probably thought of Johnny as a grandson.   R G Holdaway Family with Johnny Bell early 1930's

We don’t have the money.” I’d heard that so many times I knew not to ask for candy, bright rubber balls, or coloring books at Miss Lonie’s store. If Daddy had a few cents to spare, he’d fill three small brown paper bags with candy for us…..peppermint sticks, gumballs, bubble gum, lollipops. Kits and BB Bats were five for a penny. A few cents would buy a pretty good belly ache if I’d done like John and gobbled it right up. As soon as John finished his, he’d be eyeing my candy. Demanding at first, then wheedling, he’d eventually try to win me over by being nice, a sure sign something was up. I’d fold and unfold the small bag till it was shredding and soft as cotton long before the last jawbreaker was gone. Annie’s candy could last for days. Sometimes she’d surprise me with a gumball or lollipop a week later.

Times were hard for my folks during the depression, but never having known anything else, I didn’t feel poor. Clothes were homemade, food home-grown and canned for the winter. As the days got shorter, Christmas was on my mind. More than anything else, I wanted a red bicycle with a basket and horn. When Mama said they couldn’t afford it. I reassured her, “That’s okay. I’ll just just ask Santa Claus to bring me one.” Hoping I’d forget about it, Mama said maybe I’d like a pretty rag doll with yellow hair. Knowing what a good girl I’d been, I returned, “Oh, no. Santa’s gonna bring me a red bicycle with a basket and a horn.”

Finally, Mama just had to tell me. “Santa won’t be bringing you a bicycle. He’s having a hard time too, and we don’t have the money to help him.”

“But that’s just not fair. Rich kid’s parents have money to buy things and Santa Claus still brings them bicycles.”

Mama agreed, “It’s not fair, but that’s how it is.”

Normally after supper, we gathered in the front room as Daddy read and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes while he and Mama talked of all that went on that day. Mama usually had mending or did some embroidery or handwork and played on the floor at their feet. When the older kids finished their homework, Mama read a chapter or two from a book Daddy had borrowed or the kids had brought in from school, but as the evenings got longer and colder, Daddy busied himself in the barn and Mama took to keeping her sewing basket covered, telling the kids curiosity killed the cat. That was okay because Annie and I had our own secrets. We cut up an old sheet to make handkerchiefs for Daddy and John, snipping and pulling threads along each side to make a cutwork pattern and hemming the edges. We made Mama some tea towels and a dresser scarf. Mama helped me make Gingerbread men for Annie and John. Christmas Eve, I was so excited I could hardly sleep, hoping Santa Claus might leave me a bike, despite what Mama had said. For once we hopped straight out of bed when we heard Daddy starting a fire and Mama making coffee, but Daddy made us go back to bed. It seemed like it took hours before Mama said biscuits were in the oven and Daddy said the room was warm enough for them to get up.

We lined up, smallest to biggest, and for once, it was good to be small. I tiptoed into the room to the magic of our Christmas tree illuminated by the warm glow of the fireplace, the room scented by the rare treat of Mama’s sweet, hot, chocolate. Only Christmas held this special joy. our lumpy stockings were so full they were about to pull away from the mantle. Santa had filled mine with bright wooden blocks, an apple, the biggest orange I’d ever seen, chocolate drops, ten new pennies, a bright rubber ball, a giant candy cane, and a brazil nut at the very toe! More riches than I’d seen all year! Thrilled, I dropped to the floor to play with my blocks and ball when Mama said there might be more. High on the tree hung a beautiful rag doll with yellow yarn hair, brown eyes, pink lips and cheeks. She was dressed in a blue flowered dress and bonnet and flour sack bloomers with the letters Ai Fa printed on the seat and rick-rack edging on the legs. So that’s the surprise Mama had been hiding. It was so beautiful! I’d seen this same pattern on the feed sacks at Miss Lonie’s Store. While I was still pondering the glory of my doll, Mama and Annie gave me a gift they had worked on together for me: a matching dress, bonnet, and bloomers with Air Fair printed across the seat, and rick-rack edging on the legs, just like my doll’s. No girl had ever had anything so perfect! When I was as big as Annie I’d have the whole label, Airy Fairy Flour on the seat of my bloomers. When I’d had time to play with my doll a few minutes, Daddy brought out what he’d spent his evenings working on: a little doll bed and a table and chairs just the doll’s size. This was the most wonderful Christmas of my entire life!

Ann got a dress and matching scarf, a card of bobby pens, and a bottle of Evening in Paris Perfume, John, a wooden pop gun, a sling shot, a shirt, and harmonica, along with the things Santa put in their stockings. Happiest of all were Mama with her tea towels and dresser scarf and Daddy with his handkerchiefs. You could see they’d never had such wonderful gifts. How lucky they were to have us!

Christmas dinner was a wonder. Mama had killed an old hen the day before and made chicken and dumplings and dressing. To go along with it, the table was heaped with mashed potatoes and gravy, Mama’s wonderful canned green beans, okra and tomatoes, biscuits with homemade butter and sweet potato pie. Grandma and Grandpa and Maude, Mama’s snooty baby sister showed up with ham and Aunt Ellie, Cousin Katie, and Johnny walked over with a berry cobbler and fried squirrel. There was so much, my stomach would be hurting before I could even taste everything.

Johnny came over showing off his new trucks and toy guns. ‘ It just wasn’t right the way Aunt Ellie spoiled that Johnny. She only gave me some peppermint and a handkerchief. He was no more to her than I was, even though Aunt Ellie had raised his mama when Aunt Sally died and left Katie motherless about the same time Aunt Ellie’s only baby died. I was so sick of hearing about how Johnny’s daddy had died of tuberculosis when Johnny was only eight months old, and he and Katie had lived with Aunt Ellie ever since. It did look like Aunt Ellie would get tired of raising people’s left over kids and pay a little more attention to a nice little girl she wasn’t stuck raising. Aunt Ellie brought Johnny something every time she went to the store, and hardly ever even got a lollipop.’ Even though it was unfair as usual, Aunt Ellie’s partiality toward that rotten Johnny had worked out in my favor once. At some time in the past, apparently forgetting Johnny was a boy, Aunt Ellie had bought him a china doll with long, curly blonde hair. This dainty charmer was dressed in pink silk, patent leather shoes, and delicate lingerie. She came with a change of dress, coat hangers, and could be tucked neatly into her own trunk for storage. She was eventually passed on to me after Johnny ignored the doll for a couple of years.

Uncle Dave and Aunt Ethel’s car pulled in, packed tight with and the kids in the back seat. Kathleen and John raced to hide their stuff while Aunt Ethel waddled in with nothing but a bowl of greens. ‘Why in the world would anybody bring greens to Christmas dinner?’ Robert Gordon and Wayne fought their way out of back seat pounding each other for the privilege of being first, though it was hard to imagine why it mattered why unless they needed the toilet. John, Johnny, and I certainly didn’t want to see them. Whatever Robert Gordon and Wayne couldn’t tear up, they tried to haul home. Between us, John and I didn’t have a shoebox full of toys and had no intention of letting those little demons of Satan make off with them. Thank Goodness, John was big enough to hold them up by the ankles and shake them while I grabbed the stuff that fell out of their pockets. There was nothing too bad for those heathens to do. Last time they were here, they ate a whole quart of crackers and a quart of mustard. They chased the chickens and threw eggs against the barn till Daddy put a stop to that. Most of the time, John and Cousin Johnny teamed up and picked on me but it took all of us to keep Robert Gordon and Wayne from taking the place apart.

Thank Goodness, Mama didn’t believe in making kids eat at the second table. She told the women to fix their kids a plate and let them go play. Grandma, Aunt Ellie, and Aunt Ethel didn’t think it was right, but Mama said she wasn’t going to make her kids to starve while the grown-ups sat around eating, drinking coffee, and talking all afternoon. Mama didn’t insist we eat everything, just try just a bite to see if we liked it. She didn’t make us eat greens at holidays, though. It just didn’t seem right to insist greens at Christmas when they had the rest of the year for that! Mama didn’t have enough plates to go around, so as a special treat on holidays, she let us kids eat on syrup can lids and sit on the floor, just a little something special for company meals. As soon as we’d had our fill, we headed for the barn, anxious to get Robert Gordon and Wayne as far from their Christmas loot as possible. Though Robert Gordon was a year younger than me, he was bigger and a lifetime meaner. The last time he was here, he’d entertained himself by hiding behind corners and jumping out on my back, knocking me forward to the ground with him on my back. I’d complained to Mama and we’d hatched a plan and was ready for him this time. I sauntered alluringly past the barn door several times, till Robert Gordon leapt out, locking his arms around my neck. Prepared for his attack, I collapsed backward, banging his head against the barn wall, his shoes scooting in manure. He squalled into the house tattling that I’d had hurt his head, but got no sympathy when John, Johnny, and I got to tell our side of the story.

Soon he was fully recovered. Looking for trouble, Robert Gordon and his partner in sin ambled toward the pasture, where the hellions spotted Nanny Goat, grazing peacefully near the barnyard fence, her bag already engorged. Her young kid goats were penned nearby, already bleating hungrily, denied the comfort of Nanny Goat till evening milking was done. Satan possessed the boys as they ran at Nanny, chasing her till she collapsed, exhausted, then stripping her of her milk in a way no Christian ever would. All this in full view of her horrified, hungry kids and any neighbors who cared to watch, a equally deep sin in Mama’s view. Nanny’s terrified screams dragged the diners from the Christmas feast and it was clear that not only were Daddy and Mama furious at the abuse of livestock, but the look on Mama’s face showed she was outraged knowing “what the neighbors would think.” As for poor Nanny; she was so traumatized, she didn’t give milk for the next three days. Thankfully, our horrible cousins soon left to make the long trip back to Clarksville. We settled in front of the cozy fire to enjoy the remains of another wonderful holiday all together.

The Boogerman’ll Get You By the Hair of Your Head!

shamMother and I natter on incessantly.  Yesterday we went to visit my aunt a couple of hours away.  As we rode along, I was asking Mother more about the details of her early marriage at eighteen.  She slipped up and confessed a tale she’s felt guilty about ever since.  I couldn’t believe she stumbled and told on herself after sixty-nine years.  She usually bumbles right away.  To set the stage, you have to know she has a ridiculous conscience.  If she suspects there is a rule somewhere, she is obligated to follow it, no matter how senseless.  If she fails, she is required to feel guilty.  That’s the rule.

Mother, married at eighteen.  Within months Daddy moved her into the house with his widowed mother and her two daughters.  They were poor and lived in a decrepit unpainted house miles out in the country, not the newlywed home she’d envisioned.  To put the icing on the ruined cake, Aunt Julie with her two squalling brats had settled in as well.  The house was uncomfortable, Mother felt unwelcome, Daddy was never home except to sleep.

The kids, two and four, whined without ceasing, unless they took a break to throw a fit.  One day, she was alone in the room with them and was totally fed up with the whining.  She told Yvonne, the oldest, “Stop that squalling or the Boogerman will get you!”  To reinforce the lesson, she stepped into the next room, scratched on the door-facing and wailed “Wooooooooo!”  The terrified kids shut up immediately.”  From then on, when the whining started, she’d give them another little dose of Wooooo, if she got the chance when Aunt Julie wasn’t in the room.

“Why didn’t I ever hear this great story before?” I had to know.

“Because I felt guilty, I guess. I didn’t mean to tell it now.  I’m still ashamed,” she confessed.

“Well, you should be.  I am sixty-five years old and I could have been enjoying this story my whole life!”

Cousin Wayne Saves the Day (Part 2 of Robert Gordon, Wayne, Robbing Nanny, and Look Out Pope)



I wrote of my my mother, Kathleen’s laundry list against her cousin’s Robert Gordon and Wayne Perkins just the other day, mentioning her intention to tell Robert Gordon what a hellion should she ever met him again, even if he were Pope.  It’s fortunate she never had that little conversation with his partner-in-crime, Wayne, since she found herself in need of his friendship one day early in her marriage.

Daddy was a busy man who had priorities.  These included good times with his brothers and brothers-in-law and manly business.  That being said, we spent endless weekends with his family, careening out our drive on Fridays after and not often not getting back till late on Sunday night, despite the fact that there were young children to be bathed, homework to be done, and the week ahead to be prepared for.  That was woman’s business.  Fortunately, he was not a woman.

At any rate, at the close of school every year, Mother would break the news that yet again, she was going to visit her parents this summer.  They’d fight a while till they’d reach an impasse.

Outraged, he’d insist she wasn’t going.  She’d go on making her plans.  Finally he threw out a challenge, “Well, If you go, you’re not coming back.”

She went on with her packing. “We have to be at the train by two.”

Defeated, he asked.  “When will you be back?”

“Pick me up two weeks from today.  I’ll travel through the night so I won’t have to wrestle with the baby so much.”

Two weeks later, when we got off the train, Daddy wasn’t there.  Mother was disgusted, but not too surprised.  He was always late.  At nine, she called Aunt Julie who told her Daddy and Uncle Parnell had just left there to see a man about a dog, but had mentioned he was supposed to pick her up.  He was just going to be a couple of hours late.  Of course, Mother was furious, but had no choice but to wait.  She called Aunt Julie back later, who hadn’t seen the men.  By eleven she had thirty cents left, we were starving, and the baby was guzzling the last bottle.  Mother wracked her brain till she remembered her Cousin Wayne lived nearby.  She looked his number up and called.  Miraculously, he and his wife were  home.  Upon hearing her plight, he picked us up at the train, took us home for lunch, fixed the baby up with a bottle and a nap, and let Mother use the phone to tell Aunt Julie she’d found a ride, after all.  It was mid-afternoon by now.  Daddy still hadn’t gotten back from seeing about that dog.  Cousin Wayne kindly took us home.  Daddy was delighted to see us when he finally came in with his new hunting dog and not surprised at all that Mother had somehow gotten a ride home from the train station.  What a guy!  I don’t know why she never killed him.

My Dead Aunts Coat ( from Memoirs of The Great Depression)

imageNot long after Aunt Ellie’s funeral, Cousin Katie brought her faded, old plum-colored coat to Mama.  “Mr. Blizzard bought this for Aunt Ellie years ago.  The material is real good.  It won’t fit me. Do you want to make it over for one of your girls?

“I sure do.  The cuffs on Kathleen’s coat are over her wrists.  I ‘ve been trying to figure out how I could come up with some heavy material.  This should do good, if you’re sure you can’t use it.”

That caught my attention. I hated that camphor-smelling old coat.  I’d seen skinny, old Aunt Ellie wrapped up head to ankles in that faded old coat, puttering around in the yard or sitting wrapped in it next to the stove on cold days.  The front was spotted and the cuffs slick with age and wear.  I imagined myself creeping around in that worn-out coat, looking just like Aunt Ellie, my white hair wound in a wild bun, like Aunt Ellie’s. A string of mean kids would be following me, pointing and laughing at the poor, pitiful kid in the raggedy, old dead-lady coat.

“Mama, I don’t want Aunt Ellie’s old coat.  The kids at school will laugh at me for wearing an old dead-lady’s coat.”

“Now Kathleen, this material is too good to throw away, and you need a coat.  That’s all there is to it.  When I’m through making it over, nobody will ever know it’s not ordered from Sears and Roebuck.”    She immediately pulled out the catalog to have me choose a style so she could cut a pattern.  Glumly. I pointed a coat out, knowing I was defeated.

I pushed the coat from my mind, though periodically, I’d come through to find Mama cutting the fabric, brushing it with cleaning fluid.  Though I had no interest in the process, she later told me she cut the coat apart, turned it, cleaned and reblocked, before finally pinning on her custom fitted pattern.  Truly, the reverse side of the fabric was a rich rose.  Stitching it and the freshly cleaned lining together, Mama polished it off with a new collar.  New buttons completed her masterpiece.  It looked nothing like Aunt Ellies’s faded old coat.  No one would ever recognize it!

I hated it!  Mama made me put it on and model it for her and Daddy.  I knew better than to complain.  On the first cold day, Mama made sure I wore my new, old coat.  Ashamed, I rushed to hang it in the cloak room as soon as I got to school.  At recess, I hung behind to put my coat on, hoping no one would remark on it.  I hid around the corner, hoping to avoid humiliation.  At lunch, Berenice and Christine admired my coat in passing, before moving on to a more interesting subject.  I was pleased but almost disappointed after I’d thought it so ugly.  In truth, it was a very nice coat, cut in a stylish pattern, but you’d never have convinced me.  The whole time I wore that hateful coat, I kept waiting for my shameful secret to be discovered.

Southern Hospitality

imageA few weeks before Kathleen’s baby was due in June, 1947, Bill made arrangements for his friend Lon’s wife Sally to take her for her doctor’s visit.  He dropped her off not long after six in the morning, picked Lon up, leaving Kathleen to spend the day with Sandy, Lon’s wife.  The couples had Continue reading

Aunt Vola, Love at First Sight (From Kathleen’s Memoir of The Great Depression)

Aunt VolaHungry one afternoon, I raced home ahead of John, hoping there might be a leftover biscuit and slice of salt pork or piece of cornbread left from dinner.   Opening the kitchen door, I was surprised to see Mama and a guest sitting at the table drinking coffee.  Mama had neighbors popping in all the time, but this guest had skin the color of deep chestnut.  Continue reading

Kathleen’s Vintage Letter from The Great Depression

K smart m1940 1Kathleen had just gotten the results of an achievement test when she was in the fifth grade when she wrote this letter to her sister, Annie.  I believe she was a bit full of herself, but did remember to ask after her sister.  I will transcribe since it is hard to read. Continue reading

Swapping Lunches (from Kathleen’s Memoirs of The Great Depression)

velda n melbaI was fascinated with the twins, Velda and Melba Peterson, from a family of eleven kids on a poor farm way down in the low country. Their daddy “drank.” They often came to school beaten and bruised. They carried their lunch in a silver-colored syrup bucket and ate it under a big oak on the Continue reading