To my nieces and nephews, My Precious Memories
Someone once said, “The only lasting things you can give your children are wings and roots.” It is with this thought in mind that I am writing to you about your grandmother Mattie Harper Ball. She was born December 12,1911, in McCaskill, Hempstead County, Arkansas, to Walter Hampton and Ollie Brown Harper. She was the fifth child and the youngest of three daughters. With this I can give you one of your roots, perhaps the strongest one you have.
Sadly, I do not know much about her before my memory began at about age four. I wish I knew something to tell you about her as a young girl and as a teenager, but I can only tell you about her from the time that she was about 32 years old. What did she look like? Well, she had the blackest hair ever. It grayed as she was in her seventies, but was so black for so long that most people thought she dyed it. She had green eyes, high cheek bones and thin lips. She was about 5’5” tall and most of her life she was overweight. But she wore her clothes in a smart fashion and was able to minimize her weight. She was very attractive probably because she had a great smile and was vivacious.
I started this piece “My Precious Memories” on my mother in 1989 in Saudi Arabia as I was listening to Willie Nelson singing old gospel songs. It took me back to my childhood and all the familiar surroundings of family, relatives, friends and the house in which I grew up. Of course, ever present there was my mother and the central place she had in my life. I listened to the songs and cried and cried because I realized that all I truly had was memories. My mother (though she still lived at that time) had vanished from me. She lay dying in a nursing home, robbed by pain of her strength and energy and life. It was an awakening to me that I had to reach the age of 48 years before I would recognize that I was no longer a child and that I couldn’t go “home” again, and that I had to learn to live with and enjoy my precious memories. I don’t know what it is about all the old songs unless it is a rekindling of a wonderfully secure feeling that surrounded me in those days, a feeling that made me happy and it lasted so very long. I think the tears came because it really wasn’t that way anymore. My mother, because of her illness, didn’t hold that central place in my life or in our family anymore. She was once the person we all looked to and leaned on, but she had become the dependent one. Even when we got together as a family, she wasn’t there because she was in the nursing home and couldn’t get out to be with us. We didn’t have our gathering place anymore as she she had sold the house, and even her little apartment was no longer a “place.” All of that was gone, and I was left with only memories. I think I must have thought (subconsciously) for a long time that all those marvelous feelings would last forever, that I would always have those experiences, and I didn’t want to let go of the hope of having them still. I struggled to prepare myself to let the memories take the central place in my life. Giving up a tangible thing for an intangible thing isn’t easy. Yet, I now know that the intangible is the everlasting and the most valuable.
I had struggled with keeping the memory of my mother and what she was--- alive in my mind. I had seen her suffer so long that I couldn’t remember what she had been. Her condition in those last three years dimmed her being to me and I saw a stranger. It troubled me that I couldn’t see the vibrant, dynamic, outgoing and alive person I had known. I tried to remember her laugh, her smile, her walk, her voice, and I couldn’t. I remembered all the things she did and said, and that helped. She had some really good sayings such as: “the sky’s the limit,” “if you want to accomplish anything, you’ve got to get out of the bed,” “if you really know someone, you will love them,” “spare the rod, spoil the child,” “always do the best you can with what you have,” “pretty is as pretty does,” “always start at the top, most top,” “jippity jump, jippity jump,” (she said that mostly on Sunday mornings to get us up for Sunday school and church.) “that heads anything I have ever seen,” “well, she’ll get over it, or she’ll live a lifetime of not getting over it,” “she’ll be pregnant by morning,” “don’t forget you’ve got a mouth,” “jump in that sink,” (that meant wash the dishes.)Well, those are few of her sayings. Each one has its own story behind it.
Some of the things she did included: First and foremost, she was an excellent cook. She shined and sparkled in that kitchen. There was hardly any food that we didn’t like as kids because the way Mother cooked, we thought it was so good that we never considered not eating it. What she cooked we liked, and what we liked she cooked. She fooled us into eating squash by making us think it was fish. She fried it and it was delicious. I think we thought we didn’t like it because of the name---squash--- to a kid that sounded awful. She was known for her apple and pecan pies and all sorts of cobblers. She made the cobblers from whatever was fresh. She was also known for her cornbread and biscuits baked on top of the stove, pinto beans, vegetable soup, chocolate cake, coconut cake, chicken casserole and roast beef. Desserts never lasted long around our house. Nothing ever went bad or got stale. My mother was truly at home in her kitchen. It was the center of our home. Everyone gathered there. When I look back, I am amazed that so many people could fit around that table. We used the dining table for special occasions, but most of the time we gathered in the kitchen around the table there.
Another of my mother’s accomplishments was her gardening skills. She had the most beautiful lawn in town. She had flowers blooming all year long (with the exception of the dead of winter). She rose early in the mornings to work in her yard to be able to enjoy the cool of the day. At the beginning of spring there were always jonquils along our sidewalk to lead us and our guests to the front door. What a welcome! The yellow of these lovely blossoms was complemented by the dogwood and red bud trees that gracefully framed the walkway as one neared the porch. The blossoms of these trees looked like lace. She also had iris and a lilac tree along with azaleas, japonica, forsythia and a crabapple tree which had gorgeous fluffy blossoms. In summertime the hanging pots of petunias and the blooming crepe myrtle overwhelmed the front porch and backyard. The autumn brought out the marigolds. In the winter she had the evergreen of the pine trees she and Rowland planted in the backyard and the shrubs with red berries in the front.
She was a master seamstress. She sewed all our clothes when we were very small and continued to make dresses for Jean and me all the way through high school, and even a few things in our adult lives. I remember hearing her say that when she was in high school she used to do some of the homework assignments in home ec class for her friends because she was so handy with the needle and thread. I remember that one time she and some relatives were at home and sewing came up in the conversation or maybe they were actually doing some needlework, and Aunt Milly said that she never learned to make a French knot. Mother, in a disbelieving way said, “Why, Milly, you don’t mean that you can’t make a French knot!” Needlework came so easy to Mother, she thought anyone should be able to do it. She also quilted, and in her retirement years she learned to crochet, one of the few things that she did not seem to master as a young woman. I am sure that if she had gone to college she would have majored in home economics, yet she was a home economist without the degree that said so.
She did crafts for a while, too. She gathered wildflowers and used them when they were properly dried to make attractive note cards and small decorative plaques for wall hangings. She never perfected these crafts, but she had a lot of fun doing them.
She was the decorator in her home, wall papering, painting, doing window treatments and some minor upholstery work. She was the bargain finder of all times. She probably never paid more than a couple of dollars for fabric with which to sew (this included the materials for our clothes too.) I remember distinctly that she found a huge amount of pink diaphanous fabric for the windows in her bedroom, laid them in swags and drapes over fishing poles, and it looked so pretty, like something out of a home decorating magazine. Actually I should tell you about our house.
When we moved back to Nashville in 1944 after having been in St. Louis for a year and a half, Mother bought a turn of the century house at 416 North Fourth Street. It was a wonderful house with an upstairs and large rooms, a formal living room, dining room, bedrooms, a large kitchen and a huge screened porch on the back. It was built about 1900, and as result did not have a bathroom, but she quickly had a bathroom installed. I don’t remember when we didn’t have the bathroom. My earliest memories of anything are about the time we returned from St. Louis. We lived in this big old house with the lovely white Doric columns that supported the wraparound porch along with Aunt Irene and Uncle Jewel, my four Harper cousins, my Uncle Eli, and Cecil and Jessie Porterfield (who rented the upstairs). Can you imagine 13 people all using one bathroom? I think that is the reason I was always wetting my panties. I could never get into the bathroom in time. This was our home until about 1949 or 1950 when Mother had it torn down and she built our “new house.” She salvaged much from the old house--windows, doors, the columns, the fret work from the staircase and some of the lumber. She built a house of her own design which had a large kitchen on the front of the house with lots of cabinets, a large living room, three bedrooms and one and one half bathrooms. I guess she figured we had done without enough bathrooms too long. On the north side of the house she built a small three room apartment which she rented. I always felt so secure in that house. It was the one place where no one could ever harm me. I used to think I could never give it up, but there comes a time when we give up those things that we can no longer keep. She made the decision to sell her house when she realized she could no longer take care of it and herself. That was 1983. She moved to the apartment one half block down the street, across from Aunt Irene. She lived in the apartment until 1987 when she decided (against the wishes of Jean and me) to go to the nursing home.
The house my mother built was more than just a home and refuge for me, it was “grand central station.” It was the place where friends and family came for special occasions and for summer vacation visits and then there were the “drop ins.” Thanksgivings and Christmases were the most special occasions. At Thanksgiving Aunt Theo and Uncle Bert and Uncle Joe always came to our house and sometimes for Christmas, too. The Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners were the results of the combined efforts of Mother and Aunt Theo’s cooking expertise. Mother always cooked a baking hen and from that broth (which she said was tastier than turkey) she made the dressing. She had trimmings of cranberry sauce, fruit Jell-O salad or just a fruit salad and mashed potatoes, while Aunt Theo brought the collards and sweet potatoes. Mother made homemade yeast rolls and pecan pie for dessert. At Christmastime, the menu was pretty much the same, except Aunt Theo made a gum drop cake, a cake (of spice flavor, I think) with gum drops stuck all over the creamy frosting. It was as delicious as it was pretty. Uncle Bert killed hogs after the first “killing frost” and our Christmas present from them was the best homemade sausage I ever had. You could never buy that in the supermarket.
Mother decorated our house at Christmas. The tree was nearly always a pine that she would cut herself from someone’s woods. Rowland probably helped her, but I don’t remember for certain. She used blue lights and old fashioned ornaments- round balls in different colors and icicles. She never let us decorate the tree because we had a tendency to throw the icicles on the tree in globs. She placed each one where it would hang separately. The gas light post was made to look like a candy cane as she wrapped it in red and white ribbons. Somewhere she found a bush with thorns and painted it white and then stuck gum drops on the thorns. It was a beautiful decoration. Later we got to eat the gum drops. She decorated the organ cabinet with greenery and candles. Her decorations were simple and very inexpensive, but our house was beautiful to me. In later years, she put her tree on the front porch which was a different idea to most other homes in town, just an example of the flair that she had--to do something different.
The “drop ins” were friends and relatives who showed up unannounced. Mother made people feel welcome, and this was the reason that they felt comfortable coming without a specific invitation date. I have seen any number of times a group of maybe six or eight people pop in around mid to late morning, and without blinking an eye, my mother would sit them down to a fabulous lunch at noontime. She could do this without any notice- just go in the kitchen and whip up a meal. I used to tell her, “Mother, you are like God, you can make something out of nothing.” You see, I would think there was nothing there to prepare, but she would miraculously put together a meal of distinction. Very few days ever passed that someone didn’t drop in just to visit for a while. I loved that atmosphere. I miss that. Now days, people hardly ever come without calling or having a special or specific invitation. I liked having people drop in. I liked knowing that people felt that welcome and comfortable in our home.
My mother spent much of her time doing things for other people. It was nothing for her to get up before daylight in any summer month and hurry to the peach orchard in order to be there at first light of Dawn to pick a bushel or two of peaches (tree ripe) and hurry home either to make a cobbler to take to someone or perhaps just take the fresh peaches to them. She loved to take people on little trips our out to eat. She was the one who looked after sick relatives (and offered our home to their kin if they needed a place to stay while someone was in the hospital). Aunt Sally Rowland and Aunt Sade come to mind. Aunt Sally was not blood related to us. She was married to my father’s uncle. It amazed me that my mother cared so much and so freely for a great aunt who was only an aunt by marriage. I think this was just typical of my mother. She was a caring person who loved people. She was also very generous. She never had any money (only enough to get by), but she did not let that keep her from enjoying life and doing things for other people. She found a way.
Mother had an abiding faith in God. She had no other recourse in life, and at an early age realized her need for help from a source greater than herself. With this reality she brought us up in church giving us an example in herself that trust in the Lord was the way to go. Being widowed at age 32 and left with three small children, she knew she had to depend on God. We went to church twice on Sunday and on Wednesday night whether we wanted to or not. We went to revivals in the summer and to singing schools and vacation Bible school. It was a full time commitment. When I think of the times that she wrangled around with us (though she never let us argue with her- what she said was the “law and the gospel”) making sure that we did indeed go to church, I again am amazed at her strength and will, her determination. She won out if there were any question at all. She did not let us rule her or talk her out of what she knew was the right thing to do. It made for a secure growing up time for me. If she said, “yes” we could do something, she didn’t back out on what she said, but if she said, “no” there was no need to beg her to change her mind. I always knew where I stood with her. I did not live in an uncomfortable, insecure or uncertain state of wondering how she would react on any occasion. I knew. I now realize that it was because of this unwavering discipline on her part that I was able to make many of my own decisions at an early age. I could decide what to do because if I knew she would say no to something I might want to do, I just didn’t ask, because I knew before asking that she would not allow it. I am very grateful to her for giving me a foundation that included a knowledge of spiritual things and a trust and belief in God. Though I am no longer a member of the church denomination that I was raised in, I continue to be active in my church as an adult, and I cherish the teachings that I had in the church of my youth. Though I often hated having to get up on Sunday morning to go to church and then again on Sunday night, I am glad that my mother persevered and required that of me. It has given me that security that comes from having a faith, in knowing the value of a faith and something to believe in.
I know my mother was not perfect. I know she had faults and shortcomings. She was harsh of tongue at times, and she made mistakes in some things, but to me her virtues overrode her shortcomings. She was the most dynamic personality I have ever known, and I am so thankful that she was my mother. If I had a wish I would wish to have her with me--healthy and robust and full of the life that she displayed for seventy years.
I hope you will find it significant someday to have this little bit of knowledge of your grandmother. I am thankful everyday of my life for my mother. She gave me life, she was my greatest role model and remains my greatest higher power. I owe her my life many time over.
Without her I would be nothing.
Brenda, so glad to find this. I remember your beautiful Mother and those sweet people at our church in Nashville. I've just finished doing a scrapbook of my Daddy's life, and it brought back so many good memories. Thanks for sharing your gift of writing.