Tuesday, September 27, 2011
On Visiting: Few Choices - One Expectation
We put on clean clothes, washed our faces, and spiffed up our appearance in order to be presentable in some one else's home. Good clothes meant good behavior.
Eh. Not necessarily, but it was a start. *giggles*
Our parents expected us to go with them when they visited friends or family, and the expectations were simple: sit quietly while they talked “grown up." My siblings and I amused ourselves by closely examining the rooms, the houses, or the people with whom we visited.
There was much to observe.
My parents met in St. Louis, Missouri, married in 1948, and then settled to live out their lives in St. Louis. When daddy was transferred to Jacksonville, Florida, in 1953 and then again to Atlanta in 1954, they had been heart-broken to leave their good friends behind, especially the ones in Missouri. Determined to set down roots, Daddy changed career paths and made the choice to stay in Atlanta. The rest is our history.
One of the things my parents missed about St. Louis was all their friends, so in Atlanta they began an investment in people that blessed them with long term relationships, close friends who they eventually were able to, as a friend of mine says, "do life with."
In Atlanta, they carved out a time to visit, and visiting day was Sunday, a day of church, dress up, and rest from the work week. After church and a home cooked "dinner," they rounded us up, put us in the car, and we went visiting. :)
I actually liked these Sunday drives, but TFAB.
My parents' friends whom I remember visiting the clearest were the Watts', a couple my parents met at their first church in Atlanta, West End Christian Church. Even when we moved to Sylvan Hills and changed membership to Mary Branan Methodist, my parents and the Watts' kept in close touch through the rest of their lives, and this relationship partially cemented in those early years of Sunday afternoon visits.
Harry and Billie Watts became life long friends of my parents, and in the last years of their lives, they were blessed to be neighbors again as the Watts' and my parents settled in Roswell, Georgia, for their twilight years.
When Billie Watts suffered from Alzheimer’s in the late 1980s and early 1990s, my mother made them a full meal once a week to help Harry who kept Billie at home as long as possible. Mother's care and preparation of those meals for their lifelong friends resonated with me greatly. Billie had long ago forgotten who my mother was.
When we visited them in the late 1950s through the 1960s, they lived in an area of Atlanta known as Cascade Heights. I thought that the Watts were rich. Their modern brick ranch house had four bedrooms and three baths, a glassed-in porch, brick courtyard and stepping paths, and furnished, it seemed, on the level of Rich's showroom.
Their living room, only used for company, featured a blue couch with a smooth textured fabric, flower printed wing-back chairs, one with an ottoman, Chinese screens, polished [and totally unscratched] coffee and end tables, and lamps that dripped with sparkling crystals and topped with pleated fabric shades. The beautifully decorated room completed its splendor with painted vases and other accouterments that to my childhood eyes meant they had “money." I didn‘t dare, even though I was always tempted, touch or *gasp* pick up any of those beautiful objects, but I admired them greatly.
Their den was for casual living and boasted a color television, the first I had seen, and wood paneling, the epitome of the family who could afford to have an extra room just for watching tv or hanging out. If we were lucky when we visited, Harry Watts would turn on the color television and allow us a moment of its glory.
We mostly sat stiffly in the living room, itching to do touch something, while Billie Watts, like a hostess in a movie in her Sunday dress with perfectly matching shoes, served afternoon coffee in china coffee cups and offered slivers of almond flavored pound cake on small, fragile bone china dessert plates. The adults visited; the children sat, looked around, and tried not to break anything.
As I recall, it was pretty hard stuff those afternoons of "not."
When we went back to Lynchburg, Virginia, where my mother’s parents and sisters lived, my mother took us to visit relatives for a different reason, I think -- perhaps to show us off? Except not. It was for the same reason --- to teach us what it means to establish relationship with our extended family. This was the way she was raised, and she wished it for us.
We were the only grand-children of her parents in her very large extended family, so we were on display in a way. We hated all of this fuss over family [a little -- the people were interesting], but we hated what we perceived to be boring visits with them. We visited, well, because we were not given a choice. It's what we did. It's what my parents' generation did. They kept ties to family and friends. Period.
That, blog readers, pretty much sums up my childhood : few choices -- many expectations.
We visited relatives all over Lynchburg, Appomattox County, and Spout Spring, Virginia. I mean all over.
We always stopped to see my mother’s first cousin, Kathleen Dunn and her husband Floyd, who lived in Lynchburg. Since we had only one uncle [my dad was an only child and my mother had four unmarried sisters], Floyd was a hoot to be around. To my puzzlement, he called me “Richard,” a nickname that I tried to explain to him did not fit since I was a girl, and he always gave me a Buffalo nickel, a value of which escaped my young mind.
Sometimes Floyd just gave me the nickel; but mostly, he entertained me by hiding it on his person -- in his coat pocket or shirt sleeve, and he also handed us all peppermints, which could be a half hour of good times if you knew how to make it last.
As a child, I was saddened that Floyd didn’t have his own children to spoil, but all of my siblings and I loved Floyd, who smelled of pipe tobacco and always emerged from the upstairs after we had been there a few minutes, as if he were making an entrance.
Kathleen, plump, bejeweled, and powdered and very gregarious, always sat comfortably in an overstuffed chair and held “court” with my mother. They would talk about family, the state of the world, and giggle over unknown things. I was always kind of put off by Kathleen, as she seemed regal and un-motherly, but she was older than my mother by ten or fifteen years, and after initially examining us -- she was done and more interested in my mother's news.
Floyd seem to understand how hard it was for us to sit still while mother and Kathleen blathered, so from time to time,he would tell us of stories -- perhaps of his exploits in the war, but I remember little of that.
*hangs head in shame*
When Kathleen’s unmarried sister Ina, a thin version of Kathleen was also there, fresh from her mysterious, single life in Alexandria, Virginia, Floyd, a wry guy anyway, seem doubly entertaining as if we were all in cahoots over some secret thing.
We also visited with Ethel and Jim Redford, another childless couple, who were cousins of my maternal grandmother’s and lived in a house full of wonderful and gorgeous antiques [they had the coolest claw-footed bath tub and allowed us to turn on the water for it from an overhead lever]. Again, mother and Ethel would prattle away while Jim would make wisecracks to us kids.
Sometimes Jim vacated us to the front porch where we sat on a swing and watched all kinds of people pass by on the sidewalk. Other times he took us to the back porch, which loomed up two stories and was like being suspended high on air, and tell us about his garden. If left unattended for a minute on that porch, we amused ourselves by examining the menagerie of items stacked haphazardly around or by opening the many doors to the built in cabinets and snooping like bad detectives.
We loved having these two men in our lives who were surrogate uncles to us. When Floyd and Jim were around, the visits weren’t that bad, and they seem to secretly sympathize with our plight.
When I was really young and more of my mother’s cousins and aunts and uncles still lived about the home place in Appomattox, we visited them in "the country."
Piled in my daddy’s car, we would ride from place to place, where I have faint memories of farm houses in disrepair, people who smelled of kerosene, wood smoke, camphor, and old clothes, and their houses had, what seem to me, the old curiosities of a by-gone era such as wells, outhouses, and dirt floors. There we sipped water from a ladle dipped in a bucket, a taste both metallic and foreign but strangely delicious.
My memories of these visits are faint as by the time I was older and better able to remember, most had passed away or were in nursing homes, their children scattered to other towns, and their homesteads closed up, and land, that had been in the family for generations, sold.
The last people we would visit in Appomattox was a couple named the Myers who lived adjacent to the land where my mother was raised and was their nearest neighbor. Unlike the Watts' or my mother‘s family, the Myers were what my mother called “dirt poor” but “salt of the earth.” Mrs. Myers was a frightening as a ogre out of a fairy tale. Sitting on her front porch in a cane chair with the bottom so broken down it sank to the floor, she dipped snuff, cackled like a hen with a mischievous grin that sported only a few yellow teeth, and on the side of her face was a huge mole that as a child both fascinated and repulsed me.
Her husband, a humped back man who rarely talked, usually made excuses when we arrived to fool with a piece of farm equipment or a mule. While his wife seemed to talk endlessly with my mother about people they had in common and was quite interested in us children, I would try not to make eye contact with her and instead focus on the mounds and mounds of junk that lay sprawled around their home, a ramshackle affair that looked on the edge of collapse; the house reeked of wet dog, burnt bread, wood smoke, and chicken poo.
My mother faithfully stopped by to see them whenever she was in Virginia , and she always brought them something: hand me down clothes for their only daughter, canned food, or magazines. In turn, the Myers handed us vegetables, and one time a scrawny puppy ["not fit for killin'" according to Mrs. Myers] that my mother emphatically turned down.
My mother had a huge, giving heart, and since this family knew her well, her parents and siblings, she always felt and had a kinship with them. My mother’s life became very different after she left the farm work of her childhood and moved away, but she never forgot where she came from or the people she had known and loved.
So, we visited them too.
As I look back on this, it was a sweet time, wasn’t it? To be able to visit -- and not be thinking about what else I had to do, but simply to be focused on the moment -- catching up and sharing stories.
I wish I had listened better.