Friday, July 18, 2014

In Gratitude for Eleanor

 Framed patterns

Last fall, my sister came across boxes of fabric and hundreds of patterns packed away in her basement from when we closed my aunts’ three story house in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1992.

My Aunt Ava died in July of 1991, and Aunt Eleanor, who had shared that house with her for over thirty-four years, delicately declined in health.

In December of 1991, Eleanor fell and broke her hip, and while recovering in the hospital, she grew disoriented, frightened, and confused. My mother recalled a conversation that she had had a year before with Ava about how Eleanor could no longer remember how “to put a collar together.” Neighbors also mentioned to mother later that they had noticed that Eleanor, after Ava’s death, had difficulty with everyday, household chores – like not remembering how to turn off the stove.  

Knowing that Eleanor could no longer live by herself,  my mother and Aunt Harriett found a facility for her care, moved her, and then they, my siblings and I began the arduous task of dismantling, parceling out, and estate selling the contents of that house that had been their home since 1957, and to us it was “back home.”

Aunt Eleanor, 1947, and circa 1935

Not only was the house full of the normal stuffing of a household but also the leftovers that they had moved from their own childhood home, Poplar Tree Farm in Appomattox, which included family memorabilia dating back to the mid 1800s.

Traveling to Lynchburg and spending time in that house on Westover Boulevard for Christmas and summer vacations had been a ritual in my family.

I spent time in Virginia in the summers with my maiden aunts from the late 1950s until 1967. Recollections of that house, its contents, and the precious giving nature of my mother’s sisters lie at the forefront of my memories.

My aunts gave liberally to my siblings and me, as we were their only nephews and nieces, and when we were around them, they doted on us as if we were extraordinary.

One of the most precious gifts was Aunt Eleanor’s talent as a seamstress, a talent that she generously shared with her sister, my mother, and her nieces, my sister and me. She also sewed for herself and her four other sisters – Nancy, Ava, Harriett, and Lois.

 Mother, Harriett, Eleanor, Ava, Nancy, and Lois, 1961

A perfectionist, Eleanor got exact measurements and altered patterns to fit precisely. My sister Margaret, tall for her age, would have had some trouble fitting in the sizes of ready-made clothes. Aunt Eleanor custom-made her dresses, night gowns, shorts, tops, and one time a suit that fit her perfectly.  A lot of the time, she matched my clothes to my sister’s, knowing that anything she made her, she had to make me, or I might, I don’t know – throw a fit.


A favorite custom-designed piece, which she made for both Margaret and me each Christmas, was a flannel nightgown that ended perfectly at the top of our feet. {I grew tall myself and wore those gowns until my early 30s.} Several years ago, I came across one of those nightgowns, folded in a bottom drawer, that I had lovingly saved. I touched the well-worn material, my eyes welling with tears, as I thought of Aunt Eleanor.

Here in Atlanta, anytime we received a package, wrapped in brown paper and tied with white string and addressed to “The McDaniels” in Eleanor’s neat handwriting, we wriggled with excitement at the thought of what she’d made.

For years Eleanor picked out the patterns, but as my sister and I aged and cared a little more, she allowed us to pick out the style. Once we had done that, we wrote a letter and included the maker of the pattern, Simplicity, McCalls, or Butterick, [as I recall, she wasn’t much of a fan of Butterick], and the number. A couple of weeks later, our customized outfit would arrive in the mail.


 Aunt Eleanor sewed, and she did so beautifully.

When I spent time in Lynchburg in the summers, Aunts Eleanor and Ava would take me to the fabric store at Pittman Plaza, a u-shaped grouping of stores within walking distance of their house on Westover. There in the store, I flipped through the oversized books of patterns, trailed my hands along bolts of polyester and cotton, studied ric-rac, buttons, and lace, and dreamed of the fashion that Aunt Eleanor created.

 Aunt Eleanor and the blogger, 1963

In her upstairs bedroom, Aunt Eleanor laid a cardboard pattern sewing cutting board across her double bed, placed the tissue pattern pieces on it, and painstakingly and flawlessly cut the pattern.  Then with straight pins, she pinned the pattern piece to the fabric and cut again with precision.

At night with the light of a single bulb of her gold, cast iron, gooseneck, adjustable desk lamp, she bent over the work at her Singer cabinet sewing machine and sewed.

I slept on a single bed in her bedroom, and I have a distinct memory of her silhouette, after sending me to bed, humped over her sewing into the late hours.  She lovingly and selflessly did this for us after having worked a full day as a beautician.

In the evenings, she sat in her chair in the living room and stitched or hemmed or crochet or pieced quilts as she and Ava watched Lawrence Welk or Perry Mason on their RCA television. Her hands never were in the devil’s workshop…

Her buttonholes round, her pockets, seams, zippers, and darts flat, her hems even, her hook and eye lined up perfectly,  she did gorgeous work – and the clothes fit.

One story about Eleanor and her sewing that I heard only as an adult was about my mother’s wedding dress. My father asked my mother to marry him in March of 1948 and planned their wedding for June.

My mother, of course, asked Eleanor to sew her dress. Into the project, Eleanor determined that it was “too much,” and another seamstress stepped in to finish what Eleanor had started. In retrospect, I imagine that Eleanor, who would not settle for anything less than perfect, put herself under too much pressure. I ache now to think of how hard that must have been for her to tell my mother that she couldn’t do it.

Sweet Aunt Eleanor, the second oldest of my mother’s sisters, quietly and sacrificially gave much to my family. 

Aunt Eleanor, 1981
When my siblings began to have children of their own, Eleanor made each of her grand nieces and nephews quilts, and had she lived long enough, she’d made them more.

 I mean, how cute are we?

 and here we are in our 1967 matching suits -- obviously, I had rebelliously rolled my skirt.


Thursday, June 5, 2014

Notes My Mother Made

Janet, Nora, and Mother in Underground Atlanta, 1989

When our parents died sixty days apart in 1995, my siblings and I were in the middle of our working years and careers [actually both of my brothers are still working, but you know]. My brothers and sister had children to raise --- as there were eight grand-children under the age of twelve.

Closing their house in the spring of 1996, we carted away boxes and boxes of photos and memorabilia that ended up being stored at my sister Margaret's house.

Busy teaching high school English, I didn’t make time in the summers for going through papers accumulated by my parents in their almost forty-six years of marriage. A huge project to undertake, my sister and I just kept finding other things to do.

Packing away pictures in photo boxes, we stored the thousands of photos in her upstairs closet, and we filed and dumped haphazardly memorabilia and other paraphernalia in a five-drawer filing cabinet. Included with my parents’ papers past were those of my mother’s three unmarried sisters, one of whom spent her retirement years in research and family history.

The amount of paper and photos collected by our family seemed overwhelming.

My Aunt Harriett wrote twenty or thirty books on her family’s genealogy and on Appomattox County, Virginia, her birthplace. Some of the material that she gathered and bound into periodicals is quite dry with titles like “The Tax Records of Appomattox County 1856-1890” or the “Attendance at Sunday School for Salem Methodist Church, 1948.” Not. That. Riveting.  To her, a preserver of the past, the information mattered.

 Mother and Aunt Harriett [in her office] Falls Church, Virginia, 1987

 Aunt Harriett, 1986

Her tireless work in family genealogy and history in a time before common use of the internet and computers is quite impressive. Her research on her extended family includes a book titled “A Hundred Hunter Cousins” and “Grandpa Chilton’s Diary,” all meticulously documented and full of lists and dates and places and people.

About ten years ago, my sister and I began to work through the photographs by sorting them by decades. We also bought hard backed over-sized scrapbooks in anticipation of putting together information for the next generation.  We embossed the scrapbooks with “Chilton” for my mother’s family and “McDaniel” for my dad’s. Left empty on a shelf for this past decade, we had good intentions but never quite got around “to it.”

In the last two years, with both of us retired, Margaret and I started plugging away at this family history of photos and paper – and of course, the technology now available is invaluable. Few people do hands-on scrapbooks anymore since we embrace so much digitally. 

Too bad.

We already had the scrapbooks, and [stomps foot], we’re using them.

We’re not all old school, however.

  Kenneth, Amy, Mother, Margaret, and Daddy, Mother's Day, 1985

Margaret spent months scanning photos and negatives, birth certificates, diplomas, grade reports, tax receipts, World War II souvenirs [odd word] and other interesting [well, anything we found interesting, that is] papers into her computer. Then we began to take some of the print photos, papers, and placed them in the scrapbooks immortalizing three generations of my mother’s family.

In the last two days, we tackled the file folders crammed into that old five drawer filing cabinet that sits in my sister’s bonus room. Labeled with each relative’s name, we unloaded them and set out to organize, save, and toss the detritus gathered there.

We came across part of my mother’s journal. Eh. Not exactly a journal. It’s notes my mother made….

Though they are loosely dated, her notes are not in journal form as in a leather bound book, lined with porous paper, and inked full of her thoughts and interesting tidbits about what adorable children we were. What we found and read were pieces of paper dated from around 1979 to 1993. In three recycled, blue file folders, she scribbled information about telephone calls between her and two of her life long friends, Dot and Sarah. Within those jottings lies little information about her, but then what she did write told much about her caring nature.

In her famous, illegible handwriting, mother recorded explicit details about her friends’ lives – their children, their husbands, and their woes and worries. Extensive notes they are, so that the next time they talked on the telephone, she could review the notes and ask questions specifically. 

 Mother's notes, 1983

In a type of shorthand known to her, she used initials for us when she did make a note: as in “H & D said only goldfish” or “K & S new car” or “Hunter’s award” or “M’s garden.” In March of 1988, she devoted a page to my nephew Paul, who as a newborn, spent time in the neo-natal ICU. In her manic shorthand, she recorded details about his condition. She also made proud notes about her other grandchildren as well: “A eats well” and “C’s precocious.”
Paul, 1988

Writing mainly with a dull pencil, she scribbled on the back of dot-matrix computer paper, old green and white computer sheets with the names of patients she treated in the Cardiac Clinic at Grady, on small slips of note pads with different company logos, on the back and front of sheets of lined notebook paper, and occasionally on the back of Xerox copies of handouts from my father’s days as Reading Coordinator for a local school system. Her copious notes also included particulars about the failing health of her sisters – as she worried about each of them as they aged.

From the notes that I read, now faded with time, her focus lay with her family and friends. How sweet it was to read how she kept meticulous notes on their health and needs. Occasionally she would write, “did not tell about H’s angina” or “forgot to mention M’s scare” or “[my] fender bender.”

My mother loved her family and friends, and as I scanned her notes, the memory of how much she did came flooding back.

Now there's a legacy.



Monday, June 2, 2014

Hydrangeas 2014

I dug up  seven or eight small oak leaf hydrangeas from my friend Debbie's yard back in 2011. I love saying "back in '11 -- it sounds so history book.
These plants flourish in the rich, mulched soil on the west side of my house -- a mostly shady area.
The bloom in the second photo stands twenty inches in height, and the oak leaf plants themselves rise to over eight feet.
The lace capped hydrangeas came from my sister in 2012. My brother-in-law rooted and nourish them to a decent sized plant before they were given to me. They have quadrupled in size.
It's so awesome.
Underneath the hydrangeas are hostas, coral bell, daphne, and ferns.
Gardening is a gift from God,
when friends share their plants with each other, He smiles.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Bulletin Boys

Kenneth and Hunter, circa 1959
When we moved to Atlanta in the late summer of 1954, our first home, a rental, lay on the west side, a once prominent and affluent suburban area [not that had any impact on why we settled there]. While Daddy and Mother shopped for a house they could afford, we lived in “West End” on Westmont for six months and long enough for Hunter  to enroll in kindergarten and for my parents to choose a church. As religious church-goers, no pun intended, my parents took us to nearby West End Christian Church, a small but growing congregation [when we joined in the process of building a new sanctuary] of young families and well-heeled Cascade Heights dwellers.

I have no memories of “Westmont,” but Mother and Daddy fondly referred to their first house by its street name when they talked of their time there, and Hunter and Margaret both retain some vague memories.

By Christmas of 1954, my parents bought a house about ten miles south of West End on Oana, but we remained faithful attendees of West End Christian; each Sunday in rain, snow, sleet, and heat, we rode the roads, crossed the railroad tracks, and passed other churches to get there.

Kenneth's SS class, circa 1956, fourth from right pointing finger;  mother stands in the background on left
My SS class, circa 1956, fourth from left [Probably making that boy cry!}
In the fall of 1962, my parents changed us to a neighborhood church, Mary Branan Methodist, when Hunter, the oldest, began high school. They believed at this formative age it would be best for him and all of us to “have school friends who attended the same church.” Leaving West End Christian, my parents left behind many friends, most of whom they stayed in touch with as well as visited for the next thirty years.

I hold many, lovely memories of West End Christian: its Carrom game table set up in the basement, the cement pad adjacent to the new sanctuary where we played “Simon Says,” the gravel parking lot, the huge heating and air turbines in deep wells, which we climbed among, along the east side of the sanctuary, its full immersion baptismal fount with the white curtain and loud, wooden stairs, the weekly passing of a silver, communion cup tray with  teeny glasses and wafers, the fashionable hats and dresses worn by the women, the stained glass windows, the covered passageway between the old and new sanctuary, and my brothers’ collecting the bulletins.

Margaret's SS class, back row, third from left, circa 1956

Hunter's SS class, second from right, circa 1956
Highly competitive children, we played to top one another in anything and everything. Even though no serious blood was shed, my childhood teemed with arguments. We poked, prodded, pushed, yelled, fought, and made ugly faces at each other as standard daily fare. As my sister’s childhood friend Terry once told Margaret:  “All I remember about ya’ll is the fighting.” What a legacy!!

With there being four of us, only separated by a five year span, the birth order and rapidness placed my two brothers three and a half years apart. They slept in the same room where they issued ultimatums and threw down gauntlets, they later shared a paper route where they argued about work equality, and at some point in their young lives when we attended West End Christian Church, they initiated a crazy, made-up, competition over whom could collect the most bulletins after church.

bulletin sample

Neither of them remembers exactly how this “collecting of bulletins” began. I imagine this: after church in the parking lot, my parents stood with their friends and talked and talked and talked. Sometimes, they hung around for thirty or forty minutes, maybe longer, catching up on weekly events --  sharing stories of work, child-rearing, and their favorite conversation with other adults  -- “ain’t it awful?” My parents could do some talking.
Mother on left, gabbing, like she liked to do...:-)

I, who was always hungry [used to savor the communion wafer!], perhaps tugged at my mother’s skirt wanting to go home and being shushed for it. They stood around as long as others were willing, and my siblings and I would just wait. Patiently? No. But wait? Yes.

Sometimes, we waited in the car, but those stories?  Later.

My bored brothers sought entertainment, and one of them created the idea of returning to the sanctuary and picking up bulletins.

So, it began.

At first, they waited good-naturedly for most of the parishioners to leave before they ran up and down the aisles, in between pews, slipping and sliding on the tile, and picking up the bulletin from the hymnal slots on the back of the pews where a member had stuck it, diving under pews to retrieve them from the floor where they had carelessly been dropped, plucking them from the end of the pew where they had hung on a cushion, and of course, just simply pilfering them from a neat stack left on a table in the vestibule by the ushers.

ETA: Kenneth told me that they took those from a drawer in a table in the vestibule until they were told that the extra bulletins were taken to "shut ins."

Eventually, that policy of waiting stopped, and they began their competition as soon as the minister said the “amen” of the benediction.

With a war whoop and a manic rush, they dashed in between exiting church members, and vied to up the other by grabbing as many as possible; this brother versus brother became a weekly ritual.
Kenneth and Hunter, circa 1962

I have a distinct, comical memory of my brother Kenneth lying on his stomach, hands and feet splayed, and scooting rapidly and awesomely, I might add, under the pews grasping at fallen bulletins.

From time to time, I would help one or the other – probably Kenneth since he was closet to me in age, and we naturally aligned a type of defense against the older two –who were smug in their “being older” experience.

In addition, my brother Hunter, notorious in the family for his sound beatings of us in board games and cards, seemed always in need of a loss.

Kenneth and I were better athletes, so I’m guessing we gave Hunter some competition at least in the dash part, but Hunter, cunning and cerebral, probably mathematically figured out how to gather the most “church news” by dividing the rows of pews by the number of attendees or something; I don’t know if Margaret ever got in the game or not – she appeared pretty prissy and probably above it. Separated by age to me by three years, she seemed vastly removed from me and more like an adult.

After my parents stopped their chatting with their friends and we drove from church, my brothers in the back seat of the car counted the bulletins they collected and tallied their totals at each other with pride:  “I got 94” or “Ha! I got 106.”  When we got home, they filed the bulletins in the deep drawers of a lady’s old, dressing table used in their room for storage.

Did they have a score card? A money bet? Did one or the other have to pick up a chore for the winner? At some point, this competition turned into a team effort, but when did it change from competition to collusion? That answer is lost family history.

Why did they do this? I don’t know, and they don’t either.

Did my mother eventually make them toss the bulletins when they cleaned their room?

I don’t think so because I, being a natural snoop, looked in those drawers and remember seeing the bulletins so tightly packed that I could run my fingers across the tops of them as if they were manila files.

Mother probably thought the collecting of church bulletins wholesome – better than comic books or baseball cards. And, of course, they were free!

Over the years, they must have accumulated thousands.

Then they stopped.


When we changed churches? Sooner that that?

In my memory, those bulletin boys still run those aisles. 

Margaret [on right] in front of West End Christian church entrance, circa 1959
Mother and Daddy, circa 1954 :-)

ETA: After reading this, my sister emailed me and told me that "I was not too prissy and slid under those pews for my share of bulletins.  I actually think Hunter and I were the first ones to do it."

Ha. Ha. Ha.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Wedding: New Orleans Style

Wedding attired and bucked up for the drive into NOLA for Chapman and Margaret's wedding, we didn't know what to expect. We did seem to be in a little Twilight Zone meets formal wear episode as my family caravan-ed into the crowded, party filled streets of the area of New Orleans known as the French Quarter. Narrow, one way streets, restaurants and bars spilling onto the sidewalks, [a lot of the streets leading to the French Quarter were under construction], we battled our way down, parting teeming and swelling crowds, parked the cars for twenty bucks, and hoofed to Woldenberg Park for the exchange of vows. 

Park nuptials? Second line to the reception? Hankies? Umbrellas? Blisters?

Well, you haven't been to a wedding until you've been to a New Orleans one.

Chapman and Margaret married at 5 o'clock in the afternoon at Woldenberg Park on the green space of the upper French Quarter on a perfect, spring day with the water of the Mississippi lapping soundly behind and a blazing blue sky for backdrop.

The invited guests, gathered on the grass, parted for the bride on the arm of her brother, and the Reverend yoked the two in matrimony in front of a hundred or so friends and family and three or four hundred tourists who gaped, watched, and then not only took photos but videos of the whole thing.

When the minister announced them as husband and wife, the horn attached to some type of party barge sounded long and frog-croaking deep [perhaps prompted by a cell phone call] and the wedding invitees chuckled.

Perfect timing, I'd say.

Following the Second Line to the Napoleon House [love this fun tradition -- and before the night was over would observe three more Second Lines following brides and grooms], we dined on plates of shrimp gumbo and other spicy appetizers.

A DJ spun some tunes, and I laughed out loud at Chapman and his engineer friends singing and dancing to a set of 80's tunes queued up and blasted for dancing.

I dunno why it seemed so funny, but to watch them mouth the words to songs like "Billie Jean," "She Blinded Me with Science," and "She's a Beauty" struck me as hilarious.

Weren't they like toddlers when those songs ran the top ten on the radio? Cuz, I was really young. :-)

Never mind.

Photos follow.

 the fab four

 the cousins wait

 David and brother Ken

 Margaret and her family

 the bride

 Sunglasses and hat moment..

 Kenneth and his family [minus Amy who couldn't make the trip] :-(

 the umbrellas aloft [almost] the Second Line to the reception

 Hankies high

 We pause to sing... "the saints go marchin' in"
No lie.  :-)

 the amusing cake topper --- bride and groom hugging and looking at their phones -- bwha

 Chapman's awesome tie


 the newlyweds...

 view from the Napoleon house

 Bryan and Nora

David and Andrew

Then it was over.

Now, who's next?  James? Glenn? Stephen?