Sunday, January 15, 2012

Mother's Stories

Frances Virginia Hogan Howton's Childhood

When I proved to my adoring uncle that I could really read I was four and so I was sent to a kindergarten. It proved somewhat less than educational since I could already write my numbers to 100 and really read. I cannot count it a loss because Miss Rubel, my adored teacher, was French and introduced me early to 'Bon jour', 'Au 'evior' (in the south the “r's” were elided as in French) and 'pomme d' terre' – and a love of the French tongue I would not be able to pursue for another 35 years.

She was not lovely, just winsome, I think. Her sister, father and she had left France just after WWI, for whatever reasons, and the older sister, Rose, had married a Birmingham man named Loeb – so Rose Loeb and my mother were friends. You can't think how odd that was. There was no WASP thing then, but still, now that I'm older I wonder that they each were so lonely that for those few years they joined forces.

Loeb was a devoted husband to this beauty he had the fortune to be chosen by, and their daughter, Alice, was as beautiful as her mother. He was enchanted by them both, and had his greatest misfortune to be a traveller in some sort of merchandise. Related to a prominent family, he had found a good job, but to be away from his women was a curse – Perhaps he realized that his life span was not to be so very long; he resented his absences even more -

As I have said, Alice was a beautiful child. I think I must have been eight when the courts decided I should spend the summer with my father. He was seldom around, but the summers at first were fun.

I was free in the early evenings to gallop down the long garden steps to tell tall tales gleaned from Mort d'Arthur and gothic romances to Alice and Mary Bess, who lived one house away. The stories with floors that opened unexpectedly underfoot or the rooms with hidden entrances – all the bit – made a great impression.

And so Mary Bess entered our lives. Until this time Alice and I had been little sister-big sister, but all children are welcome at story-telling time on the curb under the street light, expecting every minute to be called to bed. Sometimes a huge luna moth would come, too, still, I must say Mary Bess was excitable. Perhaps an hysteric.

Her mother, married and a mother very young, had divorced MB's father and remarried. MB's grandmother was in charge of the house and called my aunt, who was in charge of me, about the horror stories I was telling. She called them ghost stories. So I was asked not to. I honestly did not, but changed to fairy tales drawing liberally on Grimm and Anderson. Evidently these upset M. Bess, too. Stories ceased.

The long summer evenings, too, ceased and I spent a lot of time on our front porch steps trying to hear where the cricket was calling from. I was, and am now, very good at that game.

Now that I am writing this, was my family doing me in with Alice? I loved going with her when her father took us over the hills of Birmingham for a ride and showed us how you revved up the hills so as to coast down. He couldn't have been the French-Rose-Rubel's-Knight-in-Armor, but he was a sweet, sweet man.

In any case, Mary Bess's grandmother and my aunt, who was anyone's patsy, got together and Alice was left aside. Her mother was hurt and she couldn't play with what had become US -

My aunt complained that every time M. Bess stepped on a twig and screamed, her heart missed a beat. I was not sorry for her at all.

The last time I saw Alice – or the time I remember most – whatever – she asked, said, “ Why is it that Mary Bess says my people killed Jesus?”

I had wondered, too, and asked around quite a lot, being older. So I said, as I had been told, “ Christ was a Jew who wanted to purify his religion, but a lot of people had a good thing going – they were Jews, too, but they arranged to have him crucified. They got rid of him”

Was that too simple? Was it even right? I don't know.

FHH: Stone Family

My grandmother Ellen Burkett of Barboursville, KY, married twice. Her first husband was known to us later as Mr. Grant. He was possibly kin to the seldom mentioned Ulysses, but he died (of yellow fever?) very soon. Bama came as a beautiful young widow to teach school in Birmingham and was a sensation -or at least when I was in my twenties an old lady told me so.

Young Mrs Grant was a good teacher, too, for while my father's family were notably not fond of my mother, my Aunt Lanie remembered Bama as her first teacher lovingly, and, although Aunt Lanie was considered 'lacking' by the family she read newspapers and ladies magazines daily. This material was known as 'that trash' by my uncles.

And so Bama's catch was a husband who had opened Birmingham's first soda fountain and was doing exceedingly well with it. I know only that Mims Baker Stone was from a reputedly large family from Talladega, or near there. His grandfather must have been well off since I have a large ladle left of the silver melted down for the confederacy. He was a chaplain. The family story is that the first Stone came from Pepperel Co. VA in 1819, fell ill and was taken in and nursed by an old indian who took a mule with empty saddlebags, returned with them full of silver so that Henry Clay(?) Stone could finance a homestead whereon the indian established his home. So many indians were moved West unless they had a sponsor who could protect them. So, goes the tale, Henry went back to Pepperel and married Virginia Lee (her brothers must have come; two of xxx did) and it is true that around Talladega, AL, there are a great many Stone and Lee families. I think Henry ran true to Stone form for he journeyed to New Orleans to the slave market to purchase help, and may have been reduced in fortune by time or misadventures in NO, for the slave he brought back was little, wiry , very black and had filed teeth. He was the father of my mother's beloved nanny who taught her to cook like an angel. (She let no one into the kitchen, but you could watch from the door.) Her father, with his filed teeth, probably did anything that was done on the farm, for the smell of the putative gentleman who was slave to his slave, persists – and it is true that my mother's family preferred almost anything to real work – she herself excluded. How much else is true?

My grandmother having married the nice Mims Stone proceeded to have six children. Her elegant mode of life put a severe stain on Daddy-Papa and when my mother graduated from high school he was bankrupt – both in his business and his marriage. I never knew of a divorce but he left to live with his sister in North Carolina; my grandmother, Bama, took a job (!) traveling for a two year college on the strength of the students she raked up in Birmingham. Virginia and Helen, the older girls, married rather soon after this, Mims, the older son, ran away, and so did Warren, the very handsome younger boy, who joined the Navy at fourteen. Dedi (Whose real name was Bertha and she hated it, so rechristened herself Suzanne and kept her nickname) ran away to be a pony girl in a dance troupe – one of the small end girls who balance the line. The youngest, Martha, was only 12, and stayed with her mother – or rather was in high school at the two year college. All of the girls were very beautiful. Helen the most, my mother close, Dedi was pocked with acne though still very pretty and Martha, the baby of the family, was really lovely, also spoiled and self willed. Mims was the quiet, self effacing one, alone in that. Warren was not tall, but even as an old man, handsome, and the glint in his eye that intrigued so many women was still there. I used to put myself to sleep by counting and naming his six wives; nearly as effective a soporific an the binomial theorem of Apostles Creed.

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