Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Good-bye Mam-ma Polly... a Eulogy for 100+ Years

When I was about six or seven, my grandmother sat me down on the rock ledge of the well house in the chicken yard one day and handed me a beautiful white hen. The chicken sat on my lap, warbling softly as I stroked her feathers. Then without any warning, Mam-ma grabbed that hen by the neck and began swinging her around violently. Soon the neck snapped, and the body of the hen ran round and round the chicken yard, wings flapping. I really had no idea what was happening, but that hen became dinner!

Not long ago, I told this story in front of Mam-ma, and we asked her WHY she did this – why she sprung such a thing on an innocent small child. Her explanation was that she thought she needed to teach me a lesson. In her mind, I needed to know how to wring a chicken’s neck… and she never was one to sugar-coat things. Some might even say she had a mean streak… and I would have to agree. She saw this as an opportunity to toughen up a little “city girl.” And while she didn’t necessarily toughen me, she gave me an experience I never forgot!

In his book, All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, author Robert Fulghum presents a list of lessons learned in his first year of school. And as a former kindergarten teacher, I greatly appreciate these pearls of wisdom… things like take daily naps and eat cookies. But for all I learned in kindergarten, I learned even more from my grandmother
  • I learned how to cook and sew.
  • I learned how to catch fish – and how to fry them.
  • I learned how to grow a garden and can fruits and vegetables.
  • I learned how to paint a picture.
  • I learned how to feed others.
  • I learned how to cook teeth!
  • I learned how to be a “people person.”
  • I learned how to serve God.
Of course, there were a few lessons I didn’t learn so well. I kill more plants and flowers than I grow. I can NOT make peanut brittle… and I never did learn to wring a chicken’s neck.

Mam-ma Polly was known far and wide for her peanut brittle. Nearly a half inch thick, yet light and crispy, she had the touch for making candy that tasted like no other. And she NEVER pulled her candy. She let it spread on its own, unlike most other peanut brittle makers. She tried to teach me, my sister, Jasmine, and my cousin Natalie how to make peanut brittle one winter. She “instructed” while we did the work… we stirred the sugar syrup until it made the right “hair” on the end of our spoon, and then we added the peanuts and watched the candy cook them. We stirred the foamy scalding substance and added the baking soda. And just as the candy started to pour out of the pan onto a greased cookie sheet, I attempted to help it along. “NO! NO! NO! I’m gonna whip you! Don’t you dare do that!” Mam-ma screamed. Apparently it is complete sacrilege to touch the candy as it pours. What’s left in the pan is just left in the pan. And you do NOT help the candy spread on the cookie sheet. That part I did learn! I don’t know if any of the three of us can make peanut brittle, but we will all remember that day and the screams… and we’ll never help the candy out of the pan… ever again!

Mam-ma Polly and her County Extention
Service Home Economist - somewhere
around 1953 - in Mam-ma's root cellar
 Anyone who knew Mam-ma Polly knew that she was “a mess.” My mother wrote a book about her Aunt Zula, and my mother-in-law said, “I think you should write a book about Polly.” Greg said, “You could call it Golly Polly!” I laughed and said, “No, I think it would need to be called Polly, Patchwork, and Peanut Brittle.” But in retrospect, I think maybe it should be titled I Tell You What! If you have spent any time at all around Polly, you know that she prefaced nearly everything she said with “I tell you what…” or maybe you have heard “Why, my land a livin’” as she imparted some words of wisdom. Or maybe you know some other of her many tried and true sayings that she loved to pepper into her conversation.

There is a lawyer who has a little infomercial on television, and in his ad, he says, “I’m gonna tell you a few things you don’t know, and some things you need to know!” Well, I’m going to tell you some things about my grandmother that you may know – and a few that I’m betting you might not know.

My first recollections of my grandmother are of her nimbly sewing the tiniest of wedding dresses, wool suits, evening gowns, and even underwear for our Barbie dolls – almost all done by hand or on a treadle sewing machine. I also remember catching her fill our red net Christmas stockings with fruit and nuts and hang them on either side of her fireplace. When I asked about it, she said, “Well, Santa is so busy – I’m just helping him out a little.”

I remember early mornings of John Chancellor on the Today Show… Huntley and Brinkley in the evenings, and gospel music on the big radio console that stood adjacent to a wall near the dining area. I remember stopping at Foust’s Department Store on the way home for staples like coffee, flour, sugar and Crisco. Everything else came out of the “deep freeze” or the cellar. My grandparents grew everything they could for our meals, and we feasted on canned and frozen garden vegetables and fruits – and black angus cattle raised in the pastures behind the house.

The "crew" at Young's Department Store
My grandmother worked in factories from Texas to Indiana. She worked at Young’s Department Store and the Glove Factory. She drove a school bus route for eleven years. She was a chairside dental assistant for eighteen years, and in her starched white “nurse’s uniform, white hose and shoes,” I thought she was as much a nurse as any RN at the hospital. She worked for Dr. Joe Robbins, and in those days, the dentist made his own dentures. I still can see the cabinet with the trays of molars and canines and the little table with a strong light and impressions set alongside the work-in-progress that would become someone’s dentures. Dr. Joe would “set” the teeth, and then Mam-ma would take them home in the afternoons to “cook” in a big pressure pot on her cookstove… sometimes alongside a pot of beans.

Mam-ma worked briefly for Dr. Leon Wilson – another dentist – as his receptionist, and she served as a “foster grandparent,” first at Heber Springs Elementary School, and then for several years at the Community School of Cleburne County.
I still recall the look on my grandmother’s face when she walked in the room to view my dad’s body after he died. Her knees buckled, and her companion, Deb Caviness, my cousin Eddie, and Greg scrambled to catch her so she wouldn’t sink to the floor. I still remember how blank and devastated she looked when I first saw her after the house she had inhabited since 1953 – and virtually all of her earthly possessions within it - burned to the ground on December 20, 1981.

I still hear the trepidation and sadness in her voice as she told me of losing her firstborn baby… being so sick and out of it from the drugs given during her delivery that she was not even able to attend his burial. She was a 20-year-old bride. She worried so when Jasmine was pregnant with Timmy, reminding me more than once that “you know, I lost my first baby.”

I still hear the bitterness in her voice as she spoke of her daddy, who abandoned his family when Mam-ma was about 12 to move to another state with another woman and start a new family. Mam-ma only saw him once ever again – when my daddy was about 10. She said Grandpa drove up in the yard and wanted to pretend nothing had ever happened. A few pictures were made of him and Daddy, but only one included my grandmother. As she would tell us in recent years, “We had a good life until Poppa left. Babe and I played with dolls and did all the things kids do. But when Poppa left, we had to go to the fields and go to work.” And work became her mantra for the rest of her life.

Mam-ma Polly loved nothing more than for people to sit and visit with her… and to make her the center of attention…and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that she never overcame her feelings of abandonment, even after almost 90 years. She had a way of cutting to the chase – telling you if you needed to lose a few pounds or “dry it up” – or offering marital advice. Once, she told a widow who had remarried, “Well, you already killed one husband, and now you’re workin’ on another!” And she told me often, in one way or another – and once outright – you don’t do enough for me… you could do more! She also told me that what was wrong with our churches is that we have gotten away from shaped notes, gospel singing and the King James version of the Bible.

Mam-ma Polly would be the first to tell you, “I’ve worked hard all my life” – and she did. But she would also be the first person on the scene if you needed her. I’ve seen her bake wedding cakes for brides who couldn’t afford to buy one – and then hand the bride a new nightgown from her own dresser on the way out the door with a quick, “Here, you’ll need this.” I’ve seen her bake countless cakes, pies, pans of hot rolls and more for those who were sick or grieving… or to celebrate even the most mundane of occasions. I’ve seen my grandmother ask month after month, year after year, “Did you send my tithe to the church?” In the years 2007-2009, she must have made close to 20 baby blankets and quilts for cousins, nieces, nephews, and her great-great-grandson, Timothy.

On her 95th birthday in 2007, I asked about 100 people who knew and loved Mam-ma Polly to write down their memories and send them to be added to a special “memory box.” To Mam-ma’s credit, dozens responded, and she treasured her memories for years afterward. I would like to read a few of them that capture the essence of who Mam-ma Polly was.

From Evelyn Robbins Irwin… “You have always been a part of our family. I’m glad you were always at Daddy’s office to hold my hand.”

From Nevin Robbins…”I want to share two memories with you. The first is about peanut brittle, of course. You probably taught every person in Cleburne County to judge the quality of peanut brittle against what you make. It is so good! I remember the first time I ever saw you make it. My father took me out to your farm. I was delighted to see your place. You explained to me that the trick to making good peanut brittle was having the right combination of ingredients, cooking time, and temperature… and WEATHER! If it all fit together just right, the candy would be great. Somehow you were able to fix it just right, and we have enjoyed the benefits for years.”

The second memory is really a collection of memories back at the old dental office. I learned very quickly who was really in charge. You were always able to keep the office and people in it on the right track. Sometimes it was your smile or laugh that eased the situation. Sometimes it was your saying, “Now, Dr. Joe…” It was always your joy in life that touched us all. For all these things, I love you and thank you. I am so glad you are a part of my life.

Polly and Deb, her companion for
7 years after my grandfather died.
He was like a second grandfather to us.
From Donald Payton… The first time Charlene and I visited the Chandlers in Heber Springs, we were planning a Saturday night activity and told Polly she was welcome to go with us, “but it probably won’t be over before 10:00.” She replied, “Nope, me and Deb are goin’ dancin’… and we’ll hardly be started by then.”

Many years ago, long before we knew Polly, I wrote a song, recorded by Porter Wagoner, which was entitled “Plantin’ Beans and Turnip Greens and Thinkin’ Dear of You.” Now, whenever I recall that song, I think of Polly. Invariably, when I speak with her over the phone, I ask if she’s had any beans and turnip greens lately, and she’ll say, “I had a mess of ‘em yesterday. Picked ‘em myself right out of the garden, and fixed ‘em with cornbread. They sure were good. I just wish you and Charlene were here to eat ‘em with me.”

From Charlene Payton…Nobody in this world makes peanut brittle that tastes half as good as Polly’s. One day we asked her how she breaks it into “eatable” pieces. Polly replied, “I put it in a sack, carry the sack to the back porch, and keep throwing it on the floor till it breaks into pieces!”

One day, several of us women, including Polly, were in a Branson theater awaiting the start of a show. Just as the houselights dimmed and the crowd hushed, Polly said, “Charlene, if something happens to Donald, you should start dating as soon as possible.”

From Rufo Martin… Polly was working at Young’s Department Store and helping a young lady that was trying on blue jeans. It seems the young lady left, and Polly went into the dressing room to pick up the 2 new pair of jeans she had tried on. There were no jeans in sight, so I confronted the young lady outside the store, and Polly went with her to the dressing room to have her remove the 2 new pair of blue jeans she had on under her old jeans.

From Natalie Fall Norton… My favorite baby gift was the quilt you made for Olivia. It is beautiful. I love knowing that it was made by someone who loved Olivia before she even made her grand entrance. At first, it hung on the wall, because I didn’t want her to get anything on it. Now, I cover her up with it when she takes a nap. Not one time have I covered her up that I didn’t thank God for you and what you have given our family. I’m not talking about gifts. I’m talking about love and a sense of what true family is all about.

From Carla Lou Huson… My grandmother, Nonnie, was not as good of a cook as Aunt Polly (and that is being kind). Nonnie was, however, competitive with Aunt Polly. Aunt Polly would come into town and bring us cookies, and Aunt Polly’s cookies were out-of-this-world delicious. The minute Nonnie saw the cookies from Aunt Polly, she would start baking. Nonnies cookies were barely edible. Regardless, Mother would make all of us choke them down so Nonnie wouldn’t get her feelings hurt. I got to where I actually dreaded seeing Aunt Polly coming with those heavenly cookies because I knew that Nonnie’s contribution was close at hand!

When I was in elementary school, I would ride the school bus with Timmy to Aunt Polly’s house. We would run amok on the farm, and Aunt Polly would cook all of our favorite foods. We would do whatever we wanted to do, and then our parents would come and get us before bedtime. Going out to the farm seemed so exotic… and riding the bus was a huge thrill, too. Of course, the best part was hanging out with Aunt Polly!

My number one memory of Aunt Polly is DUMPLINGS! She makes the best ones EVER! No one even comes close. Her cooking is the best part of me coming home to visit.

From Elwanda Bailey… I recall when you worked in the dental office and how neat you were in those white uniforms… makes me think also of my mom and how she starched and ironed her uniforms and wore the white shoes with white hose… neither of you would have ever thought of wearing the scrubs professional people wear today.

From Rick Whisnant… Remember when me and Jim Huson got caught smoking grapevines behind your house?

From Jasmine Linn Gary… Mom picked a flower on your lamp post. You thought it was me. You told me you would beat my “@$$” if I didn’t stop picking your flowers.

I showed you a bonnet on “Little House on the Prairie.” You made me one just like it, but mine was prettier because it was pink, orange and yellow.

From Mike Linn…You sewed the motorcycle on my stocking so I would feel like part of the family.

From Suzanne Chandler Linn… One year we had Thanksgiving dinner at the farm. That afternoon, you and us kids went for a walk in the woods. We picked rabbit tobacco, and when we got back to the house, we rolled it up in strips of a brown paper sack and smoked it!

I remember watching you make mince meat. You clamped the meat grinder to the kitchen counter, and I couldn’t believe all the stuff you ground up to put in it. It was a while after that before I would eat mince meat pie again! Now I love it!

Right after Pap-pa died, you and I were walking through the field to pick the peas, and you told me, “Honey, I learned a long time ago that you’ve got to walk through lots of piles of manure before you ever get to smell the roses.” (except she didn’t say manure!)

From Greg… I don’t think we’ve ever really acknowledged it out loud, but we both know that I adopted you as my substitute grandmother many years ago. The first time I had supper at your house (now over 40 years ago), I immediately became envious of Debbie, Suzanne, and Timmy. As you know, my family had moved hundreds of miles away from my grandparents when I was very young. The distance made it impossible for my grandparents to maintain the sort of relationship that you had with your grandchildren.

I realized just how much I missed being close to my grandparents the minute I stepped into your warm, cozy farm house one cold night for supper. And when I say warm, I mean WARM! Besides the wood stove, Trup had a fire in the fireplace and you were cooking up a storm in the kitchen, which generated even more heat.

I was just getting to know your family, so I was a little nervous. Trup was hard to read, but you made it clear that you’d be nice to any scoundrel that Debbie might drag to your table. Over time, I came to know that Trup had a sweet heart, too.

I could see immediately how important you were to Debbie, and so I wanted to make a good impression. When we all crammed in around the supper table, you made me feel right at home, and you introduced me to the best dessert ever invented… sweet potato pie!

Up to that time, I’d never cared much for sweet potatoes, so you might as well have been offering me a turnip pie! I probably appeared a little reluctant, but I was not about to insult Debbie’s grandmother, so I agreed to try it. I was even more apprehensive when you presented my pie in a bowl and with some sort of white gravy on top. When I took my first bite, I felt like everyone’s eyes were on me, so I was fully prepared to grin and bear it. Well, I was hooked… not just on sweet potato pie, but also on my new grandmother-to-be.

Besides being a great cook, you are a great teacher. I learned a lot of things at your table over the years… here are a few of my favorites…
  • Green beans and black-eyed peas are good when they’re cooked right.
  • Even turnip greens are good… when they’re cooked right!
  • Eating and laughing go together.
  • Some people put sugar on sweet corn.
  • Some people put tea in their sugar.
  • Some people say “I love you” with sugar cookies.
  • Life’s short and sugar’s cheap.
  • Hard work is its own reward… so long as your family appreciates it!
  • Love and faith will get you by.
  • God is good.
I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done for me, but I’ll try...
  • Thank you for throwing me off the bus when I was 12. I deserved it.
  • Thank you for being nice to me, even when I didn’t deserve it.
  • Thank you for accepting me into your family.
  • Thank you for your example of hard work and perseverance.
  • Thank you for praying for me.
  • Thank you for loving me.
I love you too.

To mark Mam-ma’s 100th birthday, my mother posted a tribute to her on one of her blogs. It said in part…

Despite long working hours, Polly made time for church activities, membership in the County Home Demonstration Club, and the Business and Professional Women’s Club. She regularly hosted suppers for her family and many friends. Every Wednesday, her three grandchildren rode the school bus home with her and stayed for supper. Polly’s green thumb and her love for digging her hands into the soil turned out deep colored flowers and bountiful vegetables in her large garden. She spent summer nights canning and freezing her harvested food. Yet, she still made time to sew tailor-made garments for herself and her granddaughters. Her favorite pastime? Picking up a fishing pole and heading for a pond with her husband and two favorite friends.
To me, she is Polly—the mother who raised my first husband and cherished our three children. To my children, grandchild, and great-grandchildren, she is Mam-ma Polly—the matriarch of our family. She has lived and loved for a century; she's endured hardships and observed changes that boggle the imagination compared to her childhood. We celebrate her 100 years of living, her numerous accomplishments, and the impact she continues to have on so many lives.

Over the weekend, my good friend John Birdsong posted this tribute to Mam-ma Polly on Facebook… I want to share this on my own page because the life of this dear saint of God was so intertwined with mine. When I was very small we lived next door to her in my grandmother's house and later in Polly's rent house. She was sweet and kind and also very proper -- one of the most dignified and elegant ladies I knew as a child, though she might not have seen herself that way! I enjoyed knowing her son and her son's future wife Arline Chandler when they were dating and newly married, and Arline later became my piano teacher. Polly's grandchildren became some of the closest friends that I and my sisters had growing up.

In 1958 when I started first grade, Polly was bus driver for the small group of kids who lived east of the river. There were so few of us that at first she took us to school in her own car (a brand-new gold-colored 1959 Chevy with enormous fins) then later in a van until our route eventually qualified for a "real" school bus. It always amazed me to watch her grapple with the stick-shift and the big steering wheel on that bus, and it looked to me like it would have been a hard job for a strong man. She could back up that bus and turn it around as well as any bus driver in the district!

Though we moved across the field into our own house later on, we still considered Polly our neighbor. When telephone service came to our community it was on an eight-party line, and Polly sometimes gently reminded us kids that we needed to be respectful of the other folks on the line. I'm sure we sometimes drove her crazy making and receiving call after call in the afternoons and evenings, (our "ring" was an annoying "long and a short") but she was always kind when she reminded us that other people needed to use the line too.

She and my grandmother were good friends, though Grandma was about 18 years her senior, and I will always remember Polly coming to my side at the cemetery when we laid Grandma to rest. I was standing next to the grave as they lowered the casket into the ground, in some degree of distress, and Polly calmy and quietly, in that genteel Southern voice reminded me that Grandma was in a better place now and that everything would be all right.

So now Polly has gone to that better place. Her granddaughter, my good friend Debbie, has kept us apprised of Polly's condition over the past few years as she continued to enjoy life as best she could while her body became more frail. She will be missed by those who cared for her and stayed close to her. I had not seen her in a couple of years, but always enjoyed hearing about her on birthdays and special occasions as her family posted on Facebook. What a wonderful life she lived, and what a better world it is because of this sweet lady's life.

Yes, Mam-ma Polly was a mess… but she was our mess, and in large part, we are who we are today because of her influence. I may not be able to make peanut brittle, and my quilting stitches may not be as small and neat as hers, but I make a mean pan of hot rolls… and I like to imagine that I think of others more than myself most of the time. I know I love serving God – and serving others, in no small part because of her example. And I’ve even started saying “I tell you what” as I get older!

There will never be another Mam-ma Polly. I’m not sure the world – or heaven – is big enough to hold but one. But I know when I get to heaven, she will be there waiting for me. I just hope she isn’t holding a chicken!

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Day Trip to the Falls...

Just outside our little town lie two hidden gems... one managed by our city, another on adjacent private property.  I'm speaking of Bridal Veil Falls and Cornelius Falls.  Ever since I was a little girl, we have visited Bridal Veil Falls, a waterfall with an elevation of 584 feet above sea level.  After a good rain, the "Falls" are running pretty heftily, spilling into a wide, shallow pool at the base that flows outward into a small creek.  When I was young, we would drive up the "mountain" and park at the home of friends, then trek through their back yard on the eastern side.  We would carefully wind our way down to the pool at the bottom of the falls.  The rock formation has a concave area that the brave-at-heart can traverse to stand behind the waterfall.  I've never done that, but I would love to try it someday... maybe a "bucket list" item!

Later, our friends' house was destroyed in a fire, and a Baptist church was subsequently constructed on the property.  When Greg and I were dating, we parked there with friends and hiked down to the creek below.  When I was in fourth or fifth grade, my girl scout leaders, Dot Duncan and Jean Newman, led us on a hike that started at the First United Methodist Church on 5th and Spring Streets and wound over to 8th street in front of my grandparents' house.  We followed 8th Street until it turned into woods, found the creek, and hiked along it all the way to Bridal Veil Falls, where we ate a picnic lunch before returning.

As an adult, my husband and I visited the Falls... as recently as March 2008, I think... spending a few hours hiking in from the western side... something I'd never done before.   It's very steep and trecherous, but we managed to wind our way back and forth from the top to the bottom.

In studying books about the history of our area, I read about Cornelius Falls, which was supposed to be located near Bridal Veil Falls.  I asked my mom about it, and she told me she thought it was located west of Bridal Veil Falls... but she wasn't exactly sure where.  Then a few weeks ago, my friend John Sykes, Jr., posted a photo of his son... standing at the base of Cornelius Falls! 

John's family has owned property adjacent to Bridal Veil Falls as long as I can remember.  So I asked him where Cornelius Falls was located, and he told me to follow the creek along a fork and go west of Bridal Veil Falls.  He also told me that the city had constructed a new overlook for Bridal Veil Falls that was really nice.  I knew that the city now maintains Bridal Veil Falls and has added signage and a couple of picnic tables at a parking area on the western side.  John told me that Cornelius Falls are on private property - his - but he extended an invitation for us to visit whenever we got around to it. Hey, what are friends for?!

We have been talking about visiting the Falls again, so when we saw that the forecast for today included sun and not-too-chilly temps, we decided to pay a visit.  When we arrived at the parking lot, we inadvertently took a path too far to the left and ended up overlooking what we determined to be Cornelius Falls.  So we backtracked and found the familiar pathway to Bridal Veil Falls - and the overlook.  Kudos to whomever was brave enough to hang out over that bluff and construct the overlook, because you truly do feel like you are suspended right above the falls... and it seems steeper and taller than I ever remembered from this vantage point!

Since I have had such a fascination with Cornelius Falls, we opted to go back and visit this area again.  We didn't arrive at the Falls until late morning, and by then, the falls themselves were in the shade, and it was still pretty chilly.  So we decided to return another day and hike down to the creek.  For today, we enjoyed the sounds of Cornelius Falls from above and snapped a few pictures.  It is still hard for me to fathom that something so pure and untarnished is located just a few blocks from the heart of our little city... that is, until the weekly blowing of the tornado sirens at noon!  If you are ever at Bridal Veil Falls when a tornado is coming, you will definitely hear the warning sirens!

Enjoy the photos!  And click on any photo to get a larger view!

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Growing Like Weeds!

Our little Timothy, Zola and Nathan are growing like weeds!  Timothy will be 4 on May 13th and just started HIPPY, a program for preschoolers.  Zola will celebrate her 2nd birthday on May 31st, and Nathan just past the seven-month mark!  We honestly can't remember life before babies!  These three delight and amaze us at every turn, and we are looking forward to spring and summer, playing outside, swimming, and having tons of fun!