Wanted or Planned?

On December 1st, Mother turned 18 and on December 10, 1928, LaBaron Caraway Graham, Jr. (Lee) was born. Lee was the closest thing to nobility that had ever occurred to Price. She had a son who detested her and an egoistic daughter-in-law. Uncaring, she had no love for either of them. She quickly and easily replaced them once her noble grandson arrived. On April 2, 1933, Margaret Price was born. She was callously relegated to Cinderella chore maid to prevent Price’s grand plans for Lee from being interrupted. Being named after both her grandmothers held a slim-to-no advantage for my sister. Billy Ann was born on January 27, 1938. She was sent to the hinterland with Margaret.

In a span of a few short years, the family dealt with the Great Depression, a hurricane, losing their homestead and the death of Steede and Price. My parents left Pensacola and moved to Moss Point. Daddy got a job at the ship yards. It was probably the first time he ever actually toiled in a structured environment. He had pretty much bounced around as long as he had his parents there to provide for him and his family. He fancied himself the next Hank Williams. He tried his hand at being an amateur performer with no experience and limited talent. He formed a country swing band named “Kay Graham and the Night Herders.” Mother with her natural, but mediocre talent encouraged his musical ambitions. He also indulged his needs: drinking, drugs, carousing and whoring. Daddy was wild, unrestrained and had a hostile bent.

In Moss Point, my parents were encumbered with the full responsibility of being parents for the time. I suspect that I was the first baby that Daddy ever wanted. Wanted is quite misleading, planned is a better word. I have a hunch the three older kids were the result of intercourse. I can’t envision Dad, immature and selfish, having any joy in fatherhood other than to show his virility. Returning to Mississippi without his parents to provide for them, he needed to keep Mother in line. The rule of the day was to keep wives barefoot and pregnant.

Mother said when she found out she was pregnant with me, and she announced it to Daddy, he told her, “I know already, and the baby is due on March 12th.” She called him a “son of a bitch.”

Dad had to consistently show up to a despised job, take orders from a supervisor and perform menial tasks. For sure, he had never worked before with his hands. Having burned every bridge, he had to start making his own opportunities as he no longer had a free ride. Moss Point was too small to be notoriously erratic. Mother, in all likelihood, fared better than he had at this point. After living in Florida for years, she was near her sizable family. She had all of her sisters to visit and Margaret to babysit for me.

Being the first child born in the post, Price Graham era, I have always been glad this was the period of time in which I was born, probably for the strangest of reasons. When I was born, Albert Einstein was still alive. I have always felt that he was the one human who had the greatest impact on mankind and the growth of the last century. Historically, I was around during his lifetime.

The 1940s were the heyday for movies which were the primary form of entertainment away from the home. During a gangster movie, a character actor uttered, “Oh, yeah, so’s your ol’ man.” Lee kept using this expression until it caught on with the kids. Collectively, we all referred to Daddy as the Ol’ Man when speaking of him. In person, we still called him Daddy.

During World War II, all manufacturing enterprises, however small, had their production geared towards supplying the war effort. The civilian population were expected to make do with prewar goods or make the best they could with what was available. People routinely took their watches, shoes and clothes to be repaired. After the war, the average cost of a wrist watch was relatively high compared to an average salary. When I was slightly over one-year-old, Daddy announced he had a job as a watch maker in Dallas, Texas. He had started tinkering with watch repair. Dad decided he could make a living as a watchmaker.

Establishing a beachhead, Daddy and Lee went ahead to Dallas. Mother, Margaret, Billy and I moved to Dallas by train. Mother went to work in a drug store and then discovered she was pregnant. On February 21, 1946, a wonderfully innocent baby, Ronald Bowman Graham arrived. I was 23-months-old, and I had a new baby doll which I chose not to ignore as I had been.

Margaret was 13-years-old, and she kept us little ones when Mother went to her part-time job in the afternoon. Billy roamed the streets and spent every possible moment in the movies. Lee was 17-years-old and extremely upset with his folks for still having babies. He joined the Navy.

As a two-and-half-year-old, I walked daily with Mother to take Billy to school. Late one morning, I announced to Mother, “I am going to school.” She abstractly replied, “All right.” Shortly, the cold realization hit her that I had actually left the house. Alone and unafraid, I crossed several streets as if I owned them. Spotting the family dog running along the wooded creek bank, the Dallas Fire Department found me. Playing in the creek bed, I was startled when a fireman picked me up. This was my first act of independence.

Shortly after Ron was born, we moved to Texarkana, Texas. Dad had finagled watch-making, in which he had no formal education, into a job as a trade school instructor. This may have been one of his rare circumstances in being at the right place at the right time. Daddy, Margaret, Ron and I rode a train to Texarkana, Texas.

We moved into a humble duplex with the other side occupied by the daughter of the owner. Our semi-invalid landlady was greatly doted on by her daughter, who called her Mother Dear. The house was a small, white clapboard, and we had to share the bathroom with the adjoining family. The rent probably wasn’t $75.00 dollars a month. Margaret set up housekeeping for Daddy, Ron and me. Mother remained in Dallas to work, until she and Bill moved six weeks later. I use to wonder why we always moved by train before I realized – we didn’t have a car.

While living in this modest duplex, I remember going with Billy to pick up Coke bottles. Pulling a rusty, red wagon filled with several stacks of comic books, she collected bottles. Going to a neighborhood store, she returned the Coke bottles for the two-cent deposit. Additionally, she had a going concern in buying and trading comic books. This is one of my few memories of her being normal.

My first recollection of Lee was in December 1947. I was still a three-year-old, and he had just turned nineteen. I was standing behind Mother’s gathered skirt on the front porch. Out of a taxi, popped a sailor with a duffel bag. Peeking around her legs, I saw Mother crying tears of joy. Lee was home from Guam, and his tour in the Navy. My next memory is of Lee taking Ron, Billy and me to the drug store at night. When we came home, Santa Claus had been to the house. It was Christmas Eve, 1947. I later realized, Lee had set us up. Maybe he had been too excited to wait. As I grew older, I knew it was because he didn’t want to get up at the crack of dawn with a three-year-old sister and a baby brother. Together again, our family settled into an almost, normal life.

Published in: on June 12, 2010 at 12:40 am  Comments (3)  
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Get Over Yourself — A Memoir

Growing up Southern

I slept late. When I arose, the house was already vacated. I was enjoying the cool morning breeze and luxuriating in the fact that I didn’t have to be “up and out.” The dusty screen door filtered the flickering sunlight falling across the doorway. Because of the glory of the day, I went outside. Balancing a steaming cup of tea, I eased down to the chipped, concrete steps. As I reflected on a day tinged with pleasure, a state of panic begin to surface. Catching me off guard, I steadily repeated a mantra, “You will be fine. All is well.” As the draining heat intensified from the high, white sun, the less I believed myself. Shaking it off, I decided to go inside. Reaching for the door knob, an overwhelming urge to cry bubbled up. I sat back down, shaken.

This was my high school graduation day. Overcome, I could only think that I had not learned enough. Why hadn’t I studied harder?  The moment I crossed the stage in my cap and gown my opportunities to learn were going to be gone. Devastated, I felt unprepared to face the future. I was unable to find the joy in my graduation day. How does one unconsciously arrive at this stage of life effectively unprepared and undefined? The realization I was no longer a child heightened my advancing sense of failure and discomfort. This new revelation reduced me to a sodden, crumpled heap.

Years later a quote by Chuck Palahniuk caught my attention. He said, “Your birth is a mistake you’ll spend your whole life trying to correct.” The beauty of satire is that it is devastatingly dead-on. At the time, it made me smile because I recognized a kindred soul.

In searching for my questionable and faltering foundation, I have to start with the history that had such a lasting impact on my family. I was born in the Jackson County Hospital on the Mississippi coast. The dogwood trees were already budding. Wisteria vines scaled high in the lofty pine trees with curling, pale-green leaves twining in anticipation of lilac-hued blooms. Despite the fact the calendar still reflected winter, spring had already arrived. On March 13, 1944, I arrived, too.

The Jackson County Hospital served Pascagoula, Ocean Springs and Moss Point, small towns scattered along the coastal region. I was the first of the children born in a hospital not at home. My three older siblings were born at home in Pensacola, Florida. Having three, fiercely insistent aunts in Mississippi who were working nurses, I was born in the hospital.

We lived in a small, frame house in Moss Point, which is barely north of Pascagoula, about 15 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. It was a rent house owned by Mother’s second grade teacher, Nancy, whom I was named after. Margaret and I went to see the house when I was in my early 50s. It wasn’t much of a house, but after 50 years, it was well cared for and had aged well. It looked like a good place to get a start. I frequently wonder how happy, boring or exhausting my life would have been had we never moved from that little house.

Always insistent I was born in Pascagoula, Mother felt it was more important than Moss Point. Pascagoula, the county seat, was larger and bustling as it had the shipyards. It was more prestigious than the sleepy, sultry village of Moss Point. It was pride on her part to keep me from being born on the wrong side of the tracks. The name of the town should not make any difference, but it did to me as an elementary student. Moving often, I attended several schools. Mother insisted that I fill out the enrollment forms. As a nine-year-old, it was daunting having to remember how to spell Pascagoula. Being a perpetual, new child in school, it was an issue with me.

The fourth of the five children, I was born into an endearing, sometimes volatile, Southern family. I have always considered being the fourth child – the luckiest of all the positions in this cast of characters. Lee had just turned 15, Margaret was two weeks shy of 11-years-old and Billy was 6-years-old. In 1944, my family was busy with the business of surviving and right behind me, Ron was born in 1946. Having lived through the Depression and World War II, survival was probably the linchpin of our existence.

The dynamics of being born “Southern” probably was the mainstay of my growth. Certain social behaviors, manners and traditions were taught and expected. This probably gave me a greater sense of security than anything else in our chaotic, home life. Survival is based on an adrenalin rush, and tradition is the antidote to that stress. I was able to carve out calm and needed space. Once my basic needs were addressed, I was ignored by the family. Being the fourth child, I had the advantage of being left alone. This was the best thing that could have happened to me. I was born old, one can assume self-sufficient, observant and ferociously independent.

According to family lore, Mother was a noticeably beautiful child and young woman. She banked on her beauty to get her off the farm. I don’t recall any of her siblings being considered beautiful, but they all seemed to dote on her and encouraged her vanity. In spite of Mother’s accepted beauty, we children inherited a strong, Graham gene from my father’s side.

Mother’s father was Walter W. Groves. According to his tombstone, he was born on Feb 18, 1868 and died on April 13, 1947. I was barely three-years-old, and he was the only grandparent alive when I was born. As a child, I felt I had been short-changed in not having doting grandparents.

Walter’s origins were never documented. The myth was that Walter was most likely an Italian, who immigrated through Galveston, Texas as a young man, perhaps a teenager. Living in Alabama, he worked as an overseer on a share cropping, cotton farm. Family  lore  relates that he brutally beat a Negro field hand to death over a small infraction of disrespect. His act of cruelty was condoned. Left to his unsupervised vices, he repeated this heinous act. He callously killed another man, one who toiled by muscle and sweat and was unfortunate to be a Black man. This time, the local sheriff demanded he depart the region or face prosecution.

Changing his last name, Walter surfaced not far from the Alabama border in a small, farming community – Vancleave, Mississippi. Mother’s impression of him was vague. He was quite along in years with an excessively long beard. He sat on the front porch while reading his worn Bible. By the time of my grandfather’s death, he converted to being a Mormon. Possibly a need for religion to override his crimes in Alabama surfaced. He had a strong, muscular build, but was short in stature – maybe 5′ 6”. Whereas, my grandmother was rather tall, maybe 5′ 10” – a big-boned Irish woman. Mother said her father would not allow colored folks, nor suitors to come up to the porch to talk to her.

Mother thought he lived to be 92-years-old. According to his tombstone, he was 79-years-old when he passed away. Margaret insists he lived to be 92, but in 1947 any man at 79 probably looked 92-years-old. I can’t imagine Aunt Swint, who was his last caretaker, not having asked him this information. If nothing else, but for the sake of his tombstone. It is feasible he didn’t know what year he was born, and they selected the same year as my grandmother’s birth. This would give credence to the 92-years-old hearsay.

He married Margaret Asaline Roberts – known as Dolly. She was a Roberts. When mother spoke of being a Roberts, it was always said with such reverence. As a child, I surmised one of the Roberts had walked on water and was holy. After the Civil War, the South was decimated of eligible, young men. In Jackson County, Mississippi the three primary, remaining families were the Roberts, Wares and Carters. For over a 150 years, these three families have intermarried. It is impossible for me to keep up with the lineage of an armada of cousins.

Dolly was born on October 31, 1868 and died on July 4, 1934 from gangrene after stepping on a rusty nail. Mother left almost no impression of her mother with me, nor did she ever mention that her Mother had been born and died on holidays. In 1868, October 31st was not the present day holiday, Halloween.

One of my rare heirlooms is a very delicate, bone China, covered-serving dish which belonged to my grandmother. After researching the marks on the china, I discovered that it was made in France by the Haviland-Limoges factory between 1881 and 1891. The story of how Dolly came by this elegant dish intrigues me. Was it a wedding gift, part of a set, how much did it cost and how did it get to Vancleave, Mississippi?

She was the mother of eleven, living children with the last being my mother who was born on December 1, 1910. That would have made Dolly 42-years-old. Possibly she was aiming for another strapping son to work on the hardscrabble, dusty farm as she had only three boys of the eleven children. Joe, Swint’s twin, died of pneumonia at the age of nineteen. They were left with eight girls to marry off and the two remaining sons to work the home place. Mother’s parents are buried in the cemetery of a small, Methodist church in Vancleave. Several of my aunts, uncles and cousins currently reside in that cemetery.

Near swamps and backwater, Vancleave is scarcely inland from the Mississippi coast. In the late 1800s, the surrounding area and the forests flourished with abundant  timber, primarily pine. Mother seldom spoke of the farm where she was born. She never talked about what they grew, the amount of acreage, if they milled turpentine or exactly where the farm was located. Growing up on a farm, and being the baby of eleven children probably made her class conscious. In all fairness, her class consciousness more than likely was developed by her future mother-in-law.

According to Mother, she was able to play the piano by ear from the time she was three or four. Being musical was her only other personal interest as far as I can remember She read a lot, but I am sure that was her escape; it wasn’t for knowledge. I still have her original copy of Gone With the Wind. Mother devoted full-time to being a Southern belle for 84 years.

The Groves children were Gaston, Pearl, Lena, Alice, Lonnie, Clara, Choyce (Swint), her twin, Morris (Joe), Claude, Clyde (female) and my mother, Ernestine. She was always called Sophie by her family. My aunts, Lonnie, Swint and Clara were nurses. Gaston died when I was about nine-years-old. I only recall seeing Pearl and Lena once and of being extremely uncomfortable in their homes which in my young mind were dirty.

Daddy was born on August 2, 1906 in Long Beach, Mississippi. He was the only child of Steede Graham and Price Townley Bowman. Snobbish, Price felt she had a strong connection to English aristocracy through the Townley lineage. When I researched the family genealogy, the Roberts were descended from Scottish royalty. Much to my surprise, I found I was the 26th great granddaughter of Robert Bruce, the first King of Scotland and born into the legitimate side.  Robert Bruce had many children with a concubine which he later married to legitimate those children.  Dad was born in a boarding house on Railroad Street in Long Beach, Mississippi. The house was still standing the last time I was in Mississippi, but I don’t know if it rode out Hurricane Katrina. Update: I recently went to Google Earth and found nothing but green grass on that side of the railroad.

Steede was the son of John McDonald Graham of Scottish decent and Missouri Roberts Graham. Missouri Graham, Daddy’s grandmother was the aunt of Dolly Roberts, Mother’s mother.  Mother and Daddy were second  cousins on the Roberts side. John Graham amassed 2600 acres of virgin timber land. Both John and Missouri are buried in a private family cemetery on the Graham property. Lee and I went to Vancleave to visit our cousin, Louise who lives on the remaining Graham property. She asked if I would like to “go down” to the cemetery.

We walked toward the river down a roughly cut path through the cool, high-reaching pine trees for about ten minutes and came to a small, fenced clearing. We walked around looking at the few tombstones while Louise explained to me who each person had been. In the center of the plot was a small, collapsing shed with a rusty, tin roof. It was less than two feet high, and I realized it was too shallow for even a lawn mower to be stored. I couldn’t image what it was used for. I questioned the purpose of this peculiar structure. Louise explained that the shed covered the graves of John and Missouri Graham. Not wanting to be rained on, he left instructions that the graves be covered. He was too Scottish to spring for a mausoleum. I took a photo of the resting place of my great-grandparents, no one would ever believe that for decades this strange request had been honored. In 2005, we took Lee’s ashes to bury at the Graham family cemetery. Louise had replaced the disintegrating shed with a set of matching tombstones. The odds of future generations maintaining this odd request is nil.

Having a grandfather who was a man of means probably set my father on a path of self-destruction which was greatly fueled by his mother, Price. Pride, greed and avarice are usually the prime motivators in any story no matter where it started. I know it certainly colored my childhood, but it didn’t impact me in the way it did the others in my family.

Price Graham named my father LaBaron Caraway Graham. As a child I believed this was her way of keeping her “English aristocracy” touch and used his name to mean the Baron of Caraway. As an adult, he always used his initials, L.C. He was actually named after the two doctors who delivered him after Price had a hard delivery, Drs. LaBaron and Caraway. Price was petite and much was made of her small feet and hands.  She actually had a difficult delivery with Daddy and two Drs. Caraway and LaBaron were called in to save her and the baby. She name him after the doctors to show her appreciation. After all was said and done, when researching our genealogy I found that the royal bloodline she was so snobbish about was actually from the Roberts side of the family. Dad’s grandmother was Missouri Robert Graham.

She was considered cruel and malicious by everyone I ever heard speak of her. Lee would say that when told she had died, in his ten-year-old way, he stated, “Good, I hate that old bitch.”

Lee, Margaret and even Mother thought Steede was the finest man who ever existed. Granddaddy worked for the railroad, and they lived in Pensacola, Florida. Price anticipated and assumed they would benefit from being an heir to John Graham. Having the correct background, a la Townley, and the potential of wealth, Daddy was raised by Price to be a ne’er-do-well. He was most likely extremely spoiled, petulant and unbearably like his mother.

On the Graham property, there was a fishing camp on the Pascagoula River which the family frequented when they could get over from Pensacola. On one of these trips, Daddy saw Mother and after a brief courtship, if any, they were married on July 27, 1927. Mother was 16 ½-years-old and Daddy was six days shy of 20-years-old. Price took it upon herself to mold her naive and vain, country daughter-in-law into something adequate for her aristocratic, only son. She began to tutor Mother on proper manners, carriage and the niceties of life. I suspect Mother found it fit in with her ambition to be a Southern belle. Initially, it met both their needs. Living with his parents, school was in session at all times.