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My mother - age 8

My mother grew up in the Cumberland area of Tennessee during the Depression. They had no electricity or running water – unless you counted the mountain spring that ran beside her house. My mother was the only female in her house and therefore was in charge of most of the household chores. She cleaned, did the laundry, and cooked for her older brothers and father. According to my mother’s story, all the boys had to do was to provide the wood for heating and cooking. They were free to play all day long.

Her father was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse and also owned a store that was adjacent to their home. His wife – my grandmother – ran off with another man when my Mom was 6 months old and proceeded to rob a train. My grandmother served 4 years in prison. (See Archive the Photo AND Tell the Story My grandfather wasn’t home much due to his jobs, but managed to be a rather good single-parent to his 3 sons and young daughter – my Mom. It was a hard life for them all.

Birthdays were very special days for my mother. It was the one day that stood out among the difficult days in her life. It was the one day when she was given the day off from her chores. It was also special to her because her father gave her a dollar bill and told her that she could spend it on anything she wanted in the store.

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My Grandfather's store & house

What my mother wanted was candy. It was a precious commodity in the hills of Tennessee, but for my mother’s birthday, my grandfather would stock up on the sweet stuff in his store. My mom was a smart young girl and her father’s favorite. She cleverly asked her father to keep the dollar bill for her for safekeeping. She spent a little bit at a time. For one whole year, all she had to do was to approach her father and ask him for a little bit of her birthday money.

It was the best birthday present – mostly because it lasted an entire year. My mother told the story that she is sure that spent $10 per year on candy – a sizeable sum in the 1920s. That birthday dollar bill was perpetual. Her Dad would play along with the charade and hand her some coins each time she asked for “her birthday money.”

This birthday gift might explain some of the dental problems that my Mom had later in life. But it also explains how her father made her life just a little bit better for my mother when she was growing up. And it only cost him a dollar a year.

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During my childhood, I only had 2 real family vacations. I have vivid memories of both of these vacations – I can remember the tiniest details of each trip. Traveling in the car through the countryside made quiet an impression on me. Other than visiting my mother’s brother in Indiana or going to Cedar Point for the day, we stayed close to our home in Ohio. It was a real treat to venture for an extended trip on a “real” vacation.

My childhood vacation in Tennessee

The first vacation was when I was seven. My Mom grew up in mountains of Tennessee  (See: The Story part of Family History) and though she left the hills when she was young, her brother and his family still lived there.  My older brother, my Mom & Dad, and my two sisters and I fit into a borrowed truck with an attached camper on the back and we drove to Tennessee. We stopped at roadside picnic tables to retrieve the prepared fried chicken with honey from inside the camper. Mom thought it would be a good meal for our travels because stopping to eat along the way at a restaurant was too expensive and fast food was not very available. We loved the chicken with honey, but the bees loved it too and swarmed us as we tried to eat it. My dad’s potato salad (See: Schlumgolian ) and Kool-aid rounded out the lunch-time meal. It was a perfect lunch for a family with kids.

The Smoky Mountains

Before we went to my Uncle’s house, we spent some time in the mountains at a camping ground. We feared the bears and stayed close to the camper during the day. There was something about this trip that made my mom anxious. She was not enjoying herself and perhaps her anxiety rubbed off on us. I thought at the time that she was afraid of the bears as well, but found out later  – much later – that she was claustrophobic in the camper. She couldn’t sleep at night and stepped out to be able to breathe, only to be chased back inside by mosquitos. She later remarked that she grew up without indoor plumbing or electricity, and by cooking over wood. She had absolutely no appeal for camping. It reminded her of her tough upbringing and she liked the comforts of home. Camping was a means to an end, as we could afford to take this vacation in the camper. We would not have been able to pay for a hotel room for sure (see My Dad – the Original Organic Gardener).

We visited a Cherokee Indian reservation in the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and watched an exhibition and tribal dance that the natives put on for visitors. Bears lived in the area and we saw a baby bear just off the road. We wanted to hug it – thinking it would be like our stuffed animals at home. But my mother was aware that the Mama bear some distance away would be protective of her cub and Mom kept us away.

After a few days of camping, we arrived at my uncle’s home in Eastern Tennessee – near Cumberland Gap. He lived in the country, near a pond and a wooded area. We warmed up pretty quickly to our older boy cousins and were playing outside. Cousin Bruce pushed us on their swing set. Mom came off the porch and asked us if we had seen Jane – my youngest sister who was 3. We didn’t know where she was. Panic surrounded us when my Mom ran inside the house, then back outside shouting her name. Mom started out into the wooded area near their property, shouting her name more and more loudly. She instructed my Dad to check near the pond. Neighbors quickly sensed that an emergency was occurring and dropped their activities to join in the search. Eventually someone called the sheriff to report my missing sister. My Mom started to cry and she N-E-V-E-R cried. I went back into the house to see if I could find her and looked under beds and in closets, but there was no evidence of my sister anywhere. After what seemed like an eternity, my aunt came out of the house carrying my sister. Jane became tired after playing outside and retreated to one the bedrooms to take a nap. She had crawled under a makeshift mattress on the floor that we slept on the previous night. It had been propped up to dry when one of us wet the bed the night before. She was under it far enough to conceal her nap. Afterwards, Mom seemed as protective as the Mama Bear that we had seen a few days earlier. She kept a watchful eye on us all. She enjoyed visiting with her brother and sister-in-law, but we could tell she was ready to return home.

Our second vacation didn’t happen until I was in high school. My dad’s favorite childhood cousin had come to town for a visit and asked my Dad to return to Michigan with him for a week. My Dad was unemployed and it was easy for him to take the week off. This cousin lived near a lake located on back side of a state park in Machinaw City. They intended to fish for a week – just like they did in their younger years when they were free and unencumbered with family. The following week then, we would drive to Michigan to visit for a few days and drive back with my Dad.

The trip to Michigan was in our family car and it held 6 of us. It was crowded  and we even took a tent with us as there wasn’t room in the their house for us all. My younger sister’s boyfriend came with us and my Mom forced my Dad to sleep outside with the kids to make sure that all was totally proper. We all drove north to visit the locks at Sault Ste. Marie and even ventured into Ontario, Canada. It was a big deal that we left the United States – even if it were only for 1 hour.

The thing that impressed me the most was the blueberries. We strapped the handle of gallon plastic water jugs that had been cut back at the top to our belt loops and set out in the woods to pick blueberries. I ate twice as many as I put in my gallon container. I tried to conceal how much I ate, but the blue on my teeth gave it away. We still came back from the woods with gallons of blueberries. For dinner, we celebrated with blueberry pies and cobbler. It was probably the best dessert I ever had.

We drove home as quickly as we could. We now had 7 in our Chevy Impala and with 4 in the back seat, we couldn’t get home fast enough. It really was an adventure to go on vacation. But sometimes just the process of getting away makes you appreciate home even more.

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To an outsider, Mom probably appeared to be a dour person. She was nice to people, and she always taught us to be respectful. But unless she had a reason to really be friendly to someone, she didn’t necessarily smile. Now to her family and friends, she laughed more often. But to people who she didn’t know, she gave a grave impression.

My Mom Smiling

Part of the reason for this was because her childhood was difficult (See: Archiving Photos and Videos – Preserve the Family Story). Another reason to keep an austere demeanor was that she was ashamed of her smile. She feared dentists from a very bad childhood experience. I recall a story about the dentist in the mountains where she grew up wasn’t a dentist at all, just a town barber that owned a chair that would tilt back. The only remedy for a toothache was to have it pulled. Out of fear, she simply didn’t visit the dentist. My mother conserved her smiles and laughter.

But when my mother did find something funny  –  Oh My! – laughter would erupt out of her. She had no control over it. One event that triggered this was someone falling down. She couldn’t help it. She wasn’t mean, in fact, she would empathize over the embarrassment and certainly hope they weren’t hurt. But if someone fell, particularly an awkward fall, my mother would start to quiver. She’d bit her lip, her eyes would start watering, she’d hold her side and then explode with laughter. She would laugh for a long time. Just as she would get it under control, she would catch someone’s eye who was enjoying this spectacle, and she would start all over again. It could go on for what seemed like an hour. We grew up in Ohio and the winters were icy. There could be several episodes of people falling on ice each winter. She was never able to control herself. Each time was like the first time that she had ever seen someone fall.

Another instance that would elicit this outburst of laughter from Mom was someone mixing up their words while speaking. Actually, Mom did this quite more than most people, and she laughed at herself as well. If, for instance, someone said “amn dapple”, meaning to say “damn apple”, she commenced into another spell of uncontrolled spasms.  Man, she would crack up. An hour later, she would return to her serious expression, as if her portion of humor was over for the day. That is, unless she tried to relay the story to someone else. She would start laughing all over again in the re-telling.

I remember when I was about six years old an event that made the top of the all-time story-telling list in our family. My younger sister and I were playing on the swing set in the back yard. My 5 year-old sister wore corrective shoes and one shoe was larger than the other on the sole of the shoe. There was an old tin coffee pot in the back yard (perhaps used to water plants) and while we were playing, my sister ran and accidently put her shoe into the coffee pot. Her foot wouldn’t come out of the shoe and the shoe wouldn’t come out of the pot.  My sister was crying because she was walking around very awkwardly with the coffee pot stuck to her shoe. I ran inside to tell my Mom what had happened. When Mom saw the predicament that my sister was in, she started laughing so hard that she could not do anything but convulse into laughter onto a swing on the swing set. She couldn’t  help herself. She was hysterical.  Eventually, the neighbor man saw that something was amiss and came over to cut the coffee pot off of my sister’s foot with tin snips. My sister was fine. There wasn’t a thing he could do to help my mother.

My Dad a few weeks before he died

When my father died unexpectedly at the age of 60, laughter was Mom’s best medicine.  She mourned and cried to be sure. She weeped uncontrollably many times. But two episodes happened during the course of the funeral that caught her off-guard and the laughter started. She didn’t mean to be disrespectful – in fact, my father would have enjoyed the circumstance. He agreed that laughter – even through tears – is the best emotion.

At the funeral, Mom stood at the casket and greeted the MANY people who came for visitation at the funeral home. As the night wore on, a trio of ladies that she didn’t know came into the room. They seemed to move in one unit as if they were tied together. They all had scarves tied under their chin and huddled together as they approached the casket. The site of them was humorous. Mom stood the side, and waited to talk to them. One of them said while dabbing her eyes, “Boy – he must have been really sick for a while.” (Pause) Another one said, ” Yes, this just doesn’t look like him at all”. (Longer Pause) The third finally said, “Wait a minute, this isn’t John – we must be in the wrong room.” Mom heard all of this and just started laughing so hard that she started crying and couldn’t stand up straight. She summoned me to come over and escort her out of the room. She thought that people would think she was crazy because she was laughing so hard, so she pretended to be breaking down crying. She left until she could compose herself. It took several minutes for the laughter to stop.

A few weeks later, my two sisters and my Mom went to the National Monument Memorial Stone Company to pick out a headstone for my father’s grave. My father received a flat military stone for his gravesite (See: The Front Line) , but my mother decided that she wanted a headstone as well. On the way, they started talking about some of the “memories” of Dad and they started laughing. As they pulled up to parking lot, they were already laughing pretty hard. Then my sister opened her door and caught her foot and fell out of the car.  My mother witnessed it and you can guess the state she was in. As they walked into the place uncontrollably laughing, the fellow that was trying to help them was fairly perplexed. I imagine that was the first time anyone came into his store acting like that. They really tried to stop and gather ourselves before we went in but it was impossible. Somehow they managed to purchase a double headstone for both my father’s grave and one that would serve in the future for my mother’s as well. It had my father’s name, his date of birth and his date of death. On the other side, it also had my mother’s name, her date of birth and a placeholder for the future date of her death.  I would have liked the grave stone to also say “A smile starts on the lips. A grin spreads to the eyes. A chuckle comes from the belly. But a good laugh erupts from the soul.”

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My Mother told some stories that were just a bit difficult to believe. Now, I’m not saying that she was fibbing or anything. They are, certainly, her stories and her history. I’m just saying that they seemed a bit far-fetched. Several years before my mother died, my sisters and I persuaded our mother to travel with us to Tennessee. We wanted to hear the stories that she told in the environment that she grew up in. We wanted her to point out where her houses used to be, where her father’s schoolhouse was located, and mostly we wanted to re-live her childhood years with her. What an adventure for us all.

The Creek

The House by the Creek

We had always heard about the creek that ran behind my mother’s house when she was growing up. We knew my Mom was terrified of  bodies of  water. She reasoned to us that when she was 4-5 years old, the creek behind her house flooded.   Her Dad couldn’t swim and her brothers Warren and Bill had to break the pigs out of their pen.   The next morning, the water ran very swift between their house and their neighbor Nan’s.   Warren swam across the swift water, got Nan’s horse, and rode everyone across to eat. It was necessary to get to Nan’s house since she fed the family after my Mom’s mother took off with another man and robbed a train (See: Living on the Edge ). They would have a big breakfast at Nan’s and then she would pack their lunches — sandwich of cold biscuit and cold meat or pinto beans and cornbread.

When we traveled to the site of this infamous story with my mother, my 3 sisters and I could see where her house had stood and couldn’t see a creek or river of any sort. We questioned our mother about her version of the story and perhaps the creek was only a few inches deep (but probably seemed deep to a 4 year old), it started to rain. The rain  flashed off the mountain and filled the ditch behind the homestead in a hurry. Perhaps there was merit to her story after all.

Rufus

The SchoolHouse

While we were standing there at her old home site, she pointed up the road where the one-room schoolhouse used to be where her father taught (See: Campbell Mountain). It was a gravel road and the road was named “Campbell Road” after her father in honor of  his years of teaching at this school. My mother started relaying the story about going to school with her father when she was four years old. There wasn’t any childcare at her home since her mother moved out. The desks in the schoolhouse were 2-person desks but she had her own desk and her own schoolwork to do. That is, unless one of the older students misbehaved. In that case, the misbehaving student was moved to the empty seat at my mother’s desk. Rufus, it seemed, occupied her desk as often as he did his own. And when Rufus was at my mother’s desk, he tormented her relentlessly. My mother got in trouble then for the commotion that was caused.

She told us this story and she was getting intense in the re-telling. Her arms were flailing as she was standing on the side of the road with us. And as she spoke, an old model Ford – perhaps a 1955 – drove slowly down the mountain on the stone road. This car slowed down and peered cautiously at this group of women  – my sisters, Mom, and I – by the side of the road. He said, “Mary?”. My mother remarked back, “Rufus?”. We couldn’t believe that Rufus, the tormentor was there in person. It must have been a set-up, we thought. Again, she proved that this story indeed was historically correct.

Wearing Bibbed Overalls

Mary Jean in a Skirt

My mother was the youngest child in her family, with 4 older brothers. During the Depression, she told the story about never having a dress to wear. Instead, she wore hand-me-down bibbed overalls from her 4 older brothers. According to her tales, she was 13 before she owned a dress. The week that mother died, her older brother came to spend some time with her and with us. As my mother slept, I asked my Uncle about this particular story. He said that it wasn’t the same memory that he had. My mother had twin cousins who were 2 years older than she was and they had some money in their family. They donated their dresses to my mother throughout her childhood. He said that my mother was a tomboy and that she refused to wear the dresses that were given to her. I later found a photo of my mother when she was 8 years old. And she was wearing a dress and leggings.

As Frank Delaney says in Tipperary “Memory is a canvas – stretched, primed, and ready for painting on. We love the ’story’ part of the word ‘history,’ and we love it trimmed out with color and drama, ribbons, and bows. We always decorate our essence.” My Mom was entitled to the ‘story’ part her family ‘history’.

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It was Scottish tradition that when the patriarch died in an Scottish family, the oldest son inherited all the land and the others received nothing. And, as luck would have it, my Scottish ancestor was not the oldest. My great-great-grandfather left Virginia and moved to the Appalachian mountains with his family. The mountains of Tennessee reminded the Scottish people of their native land. They set up their homesteads despite the rugged terrain of the land.

Campbell Mountain

My great-great-grandfather was given a land grant in 1830 of 250 acres and my great-grandfather was given a total of 1200 acres, perhaps for in return for their Revolutionary War service. This area is known  as Campbell Mountain.

1830 is right after the treaty with the Cherokee to move them to Oklahoma, and 10 years after Daniel Boone roamed the area. Davy Crockett moved from Tennessee in 1834, after being defeated in his seat for the US representatives. He disagreed with President Andrew Jackson about the Indian Removal Act and angrily left for Texas. Jamestown, Tennessee, a mountain town, was established in 1828.

Timothy's birthplace

My grandfather Timothy grew up in a house in a valley next to Campbell Mountain close to a mountain spring. Farming was his family’s livelihood. He stayed on the mountain after he grew up and became a vital part of the community. My grandfather helped with the family farm, but also was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse.  He stayed there until he and his brother lost the land during the depression. (See: Living on the Edge ) He started a grocery store in a building next to their house. Timothy worked as the Justice of the Peace — he had trials and received no salary.   He was able to keep a percentage of the commission from  the fines and fees collected.

Justice of the Peace Decree

My mother grew up on this Campbell Mountain in eastern Tennessee. It was Appalachia, not only in geographic location, but in extreme poverty and way of life.  Not one thing was easy for my mother living in this part of the country. We heard as children about walking to school in the snow barefoot. But it wasn’t until we returned to the area with her that we realized that this was exactly how she got around the mountain and traveled to school. It was not exagerated. We had more respect for her when we realized that it was also uphill all the way.

Because my grandmother left her family (See: Archiving Photos and Videos AND Telling the Story ), my mother was in charge of the household and did the family laundry in the nearby spring, cooked dinner over the wood stove, and read at night by kerosene. My uncles who were older than my mother, ran moonshine through the mountains during prohibition. They knew the mountains better than the revenuers and were able to outwit them. This area of Tennessee didn’t have electricity or running water until after World War II in the late 1940s.

My mother left this area for college, but returned  after graduating from Martin Teacher’s college in 1941. She taught at a nearby school in  a mining community called Stockton, teaching all 8 grades and 72 kids in a one-room schoolhouse.   Many of the students were older than she was and disobedient.  She stayed there 2 months.   Her brother had taught there and had carried a gun back and forth to school with him after being by a parent there.

Her father lived 3 miles  out-of-town, and was  teaching at neighboring Round Mountain, at the same time my mother taught in Stockton 8 miles away.  There was a corduroy road in between the two towns and the logs broke in the road and the car fell in. During the war, tires were scarce and my mother drove down the mountain on the rims. The stick shift came off into her hand while she was driving down the mountain and panicked about how continue her travels. It was treacherous traveling around the mountains.

It was also treacherous living there. In 1955, my grandfather died at the age of 68. He returned to his homeplace on the foothills of Campbell Mountain in the Campbell family cemetery. Buried next to him is my mother’s sister-in-law – her best  friend – who died in childbirth delivering her 7th child at home on Mother’s Day 1953. Her baby girl also died and lays at her side. And next to her is her husband – my mother’s brother – who when burdened with the remaining 6 children and a problem with alcohol, died of a broken heart one year later.

For those who are born in the  mountains, the struggle can never end until their lives end.  For the ones who manage to survive, a feisty zest for life remains after the lesser parts are scraped away.

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