Thursday, March 12, 2015

What a life! 1965

The family and an excerpt from one of Daddy's letters, January, 1965

For those of you who read my blog, you are aware of the fact that my mother kept a type of journal [Notes My Mother Made} and my dad wrote weekly letters to my mother’s family in Virginia.  I have just spent some of the last hours reading through the combination of his letters and her notes, dated 1965.

I was ten years old and in the fifth grade – my older brother Hunter a high school sophomore, my sister Margaret an eighth grader, and my brother Kenneth in the sixth grade.

My parents both worked, my dad two jobs: he was a seventh grade teacher at Mt. Carmel Elementary in Douglasville, Georgia, and worked nights and weekends at the local library; Grady Hospital in downtown Atlanta employed my mother as a dietitian in the cafeteria, a job that required some weekend hours.

In the notes and letters, my parents concluded that we were frantically busy, and at the end of her journaling dated, May 16, 1965, after having celebrated Hunter’s sixteenth birthday, my mother signed off with the salutation of  “what a life.”

My father loved teaching seventh grade, but since he was a gifted speaker and had extraordinary interpersonal skills, the administration  tapped him for leadership and recommended that he get more training so that he could “move up.” Thus began his “going back to school.” {He would eventually get two additional degrees and move rapidly into the central office staff in Douglas County.]

Since the school where he taught was twenty-five miles west of Atlanta, he had arranged a car pool with three other teachers who lived, relatively speaking, nearby. Saving the extra money they gave him for gas, my father’s dependability and responsibility to those other riders is evident in one of the letters written in February of 1965.

He was violently ill with a stomach flu, that ran through the whole family, no pun intended, but he knew that those other teachers counted on him for a ride. He picked them up, and under physical duress, delivered them to school.  He wrote in his weekly letter that “it was raining so hard and I felt so bad myself that I wondered how I managed at all.” He had already gotten up early to walk my mother to the bus stop at 5:45 am as he “didn’t wish for her to be standing on a corner by herself in the dark.”

My mother’s hours at Grady were irregular, and it seems that in 1965, her boss “sicked out” frequently and the weight of the job fell on her shoulders, in spite of the fact that she wasn't in charge. She fretted about the household chores getting done, and even though my parents had hired two different maids, Pearl for the ironing, and Nora Lee for the heavier work, keeping house to her standards just didn’t happen. She writes about staying up till three in the morning to wax floors or while “the children were at choir practice, I cleaned the bathroom floor.”

Hunter with one of his speech trophies

Hunter, the brainiac of the family, seemed to be getting honors left and right --- what a bore. He had won second place in an Atlanta Optimist Speech contest, been chosen for All-State Chorus, and gotten chosen for the Governor’s Honors Summer Program. Everywhere he landed, people seem to laud his “vocabulary,” his bringing recognition to Sylvan, our high school, and teachers recognized his all around brilliant self. My mother recorded his willingness to finally take an interest in the way he looked. According to her, he enjoyed the clothes, snappy jackets and ties, needed to compete in some of the contests of which he was enrolled.  That must have been just a momentary lapse in his fashion sense, because we have photos of him from this same year in black socks with sandals and mismatched plaids. Just cause you’re smart doesn't mean you’re a good dresser.

Roommate with a duck-tail and Hunter at GHP, both are styling

He and my brother Kenneth had paper routes of ninety or so houses [See Skip One Throw One], and were constantly fixing flats on their bikes and collecting money. Daddy wrote of how Hunter saved up “$35 to buy a bike from Western Auto.”  Kenneth threw the route by himself many times while Hunter scurried off to be honored somewhere.

Margaret, not much for studying, had tried hard to not do well in French, but took beautifully to dance lessons at the YMCA and cooking the nightly meals. My mother bragged quite a bit about her ability to cook full meals including desserts, even though she had to be told repeatedly to “take off her school clothes before she prepared dinner.” In her rebellion, Margaret improvised this request by mother one afternoon apparently by donning three or four aprons to cover her school clothes. Mother recalled this get up with humor and wished that the camera had film cause “you just had to see her.”

on family vacation

In demand as a baby-sitter, my neighbors with small children called on Margaret to babysit – some nights she made a cool 1.50.  She also sang in choir at both church and school, ran around with her girlfriends, and needed rides to school for one project or another. She and Hunter attended Friday night football games when they could “get rides with friends.”

An avid sports lover, Kenneth wanted to play ball of all sorts – baseball, he played on Gray Y and little league, and when he got birthday money, he bought a basketball that he “dribbled every where he went.” He loved school, especially the new math, and volunteered readily to go to summer school to take “whatever.” A kind sort, Kenneth wrote Hunter a note to tell him that he had found in "their collecting money"  a “1919 penny” and saved it for Hunter’s coin collection. For an eleven year old, Kenneth seemed amazingly diligent and determined. The responsibility of the paper route fell on him.


Note: I asked Hunter if he still had that penny and he said “No. My coin collection was stolen along with my 1965 VW Beetle while I was living in the dorms at UNC [in 1972]. Why did I think it was a good idea to keep that in the car? My only answer is that I was 24.”

In the winter of 1965, I became a real challenge and worry for my parents. I developed an anxiety disorder about attending school, or so that’s how I diagnose it now. Each morning before school, I woke up complaining of stomach aches  – no fever, no other symptoms, but I would whine that I just “didn't feel well” as Daddy wrote. If they insisted that I go on to school, the symptoms seem to worsen -- I became an emotional mess, and no amount of their encouraging or coercing persuaded me that I would be fine once I got there.

On many occasions, they wrote of how “Harriett Sue stayed home from school today, and Hunter stayed with her.” Both of them noted how if I was allowed to stay home, the aches passed and I was returned to “good spirits.” What a huge problem this was for two working parents. They would not leave me alone at home, and as the letters told one of my siblings stayed home with me. This problem didn't occur every day, but its frequency made an impression in the weekly letters.

One day in March, I pretended to go to school. Got dressed, went up the street, but instead of crossing the street to the school, I ducked down and hid in bushes in a neighbor’s yard. When I thought enough time had passed, I ran back down the street, into my house and back to sleep.  After seeing me dash down the street, a concerned neighbor alerted the school that “a young girl had been seen running.” The school, noting I was missing, called my father at his job, and he phoned home to check. I lied to him and told him I had been sent home by my teacher, but Daddy called my elementary school and talked to the teacher who said “she never came into the classroom.” I remember little tidbits of this, but not the repercussions of my deception. I promise you it wasn't pretty.

Daddy, wishing to solve my problems, convinced himself that I wasn’t getting enough sleep while Mother worried it was something” deeper” as it seemed to revolve around “[their]” leaving for work. What a mess I was – and it seems that after several months of this, whatever malaise it was righted itself or at least the events quit making the notes and letters.

In addition to my school attendance problem, our cat Pete disappeared in April, and I was convinced it was dead. As mother wrote, “Harriett Sue read a book about a lost cat and convinced herself of Pete’s demise. She blamed us because we put him out on a cold night, and he hadn’t been seen since. I sent the other children to look for him this afternoon to no avail.  She’s cried most of the afternoon and wore us out. I think the only way to placate her is to get her a kitten. Once we told her that, she perked up.”

Another way I added to the family drama was in my wearing or should I write not wearing my prescription glasses.  According to my dad’s April letters, I was always losing them – many times they were found, after much searching, in the yard or once I dropped them outside a nearby apartment complex. My dad wrote, “we have told her she has to put them on or in her glasses’ case on her dresser.” I guess I didn’t learn that lesson since he wrote another time about my calling him at work in a panic because I couldn’t “find my glasses.”  He shared pretty honestly how “she hasn’t learned to wear them.” I thought I just had trouble learning math – what a doofus!  I couldn’t even figure out how to wear glasses.
the stomach-achy one in "good spirits" [and note -- no glasses]

I’m sure I had lots of other, fine qualities, not discussed in these epistles, but I can read from the tone of both the letters and Mother’s “notes” that I had them quite concerned. 

It’s hard to look back on this time and think about the anguish I must have caused them even though they wrote fairly straight-forwardly about it. In reading between the lines, I can sense their worry. Sigh.

My dad began most of his letters with a type of weather report: “It is a beautiful Sunday afternoon” or “balmy and expecting rain” or “we had a day of night of solid rain that came down in sheets” or my favorite “we woke up his morning to a hot 14 degrees.”  

From the weather he moved on to each of us – himself included –  and wrote details of their daily obstacles:  “I got my license and the car inspected – cost me $25 dollars to get the front end aligned, headlights adjusted, and new tie rods for the front wheels. It was a pretty expensive day.”  Or – “ They came for the icebox on Monday and then called me on Thursday to say that it would cost $85 to have it fixed. So that was a nice unpleasant amount we hadn’t planned on.” From his writing, money concerns seem an underlying theme that he faced with dignity and fortitude.

He wrote of mother’s woes at work as she had to “work an extra shift since Mrs. Rutledge, [mother’s boss] was sick” or called mother in to do it. He wrote of Hazel’s “having to stay up to iron since Pearl [our maid] didn’t show up.” My mother’s more fragmented notes at this time suggested many personnel and management type conflicts that she dealt with.

Note: I remember Mother and Daddy sitting at the dinner table late into the evenings sometimes and discussing the many and varied problems of my mother’s employment.

We were a one car family, and my parents manage schedules to get Hunter to this practice or that, Margaret over to the high school for this, or Kenneth to the ball park. I had to be babysat, so they put me in the car with them to move from place to place or I was sent to the library with Daddy, all the time juggling their own work schedules around what we needed or wanted to do.  If I pitched a fit as I was wont to do, my parents allowed me to play and stay with my best friend and next door neighbor Marcie, but they limited that time since at Marcie’s, the children had “unsupervised television viewing.”

The letters and journals recorded the ordinariness of our lives, and as I look back on it, at my ripe old age of sixty, I see how we were raised in such normalcy – they wrote of the cedar bush dying at the corner, of the beautiful, blooming roses, of the loss of a close friend, of painting the cabinet doors, of mother’s visits to the beauty parlor, of my brother Kenneth’s pitching a Little League game for the first time, of how Hunter read the Oxford History of the American People for entertainment, of going to dinner at G&M cafeteria, of washing clothes, of Margaret’s sewing lessons at Singer Sewing Machine Company, of spraying the bushes in the yard, of car batteries dying, of Margaret’s election as Secretary of her Sunday school class, of looking forward to their summer vacation to Virginia, and of Sunday meals, and of going to church and school.

What a life.

Seems like a good one. Thank you, Mother and Daddy... :-)

FTR: My dad typed the weekly letters on an Underwood that sat on a small side table in our den – some of the copies we have are on carbon paper. He learned to type early on in his life, and he told us that it “kept him from the front line” during World War II.  He pounded accurately and rapidly on that manual -- his rare mistakes, in his quickness, seem to just be in leaving out a letter in a word. 


  1. My wife grew up in Shreveport, and I think she had a pair of glasses just like yours.

  2. Oh Harriet, how I love the stories of your family. I want to meet your folks when we are all in Heaven! They sound wonderful. Is that the missing cat you are holding in the first picture?

  3. “$35 to buy a bike from Western Auto.”

    I used to drool over the bikes at Western Auto. But $35 in 1965 was a lot of dough. Wonder what kind it was ?