Tag Archives: family history

The Stories

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And why they matter…

I have asserted countless times, in my everyday life and this blog, that I am a collector, of objects and of memories.  My home is filled with little items that might have no value to “normal” people, but they are priceless to me because of the memories attached to them…because of their stories.  My hope is that, piece by piece, I can photograph these objects and share their stories, if for no other reason than to make someone pause to think about their own similar little treasures.  Those little treasures can often open the floodgates to deeper levels of history.

For as long as I can remember, a small, round, ornately decorated trinket box sat on Granny’s dresser…then it became Mama’s dresser and trinket box after Granny died. After the move from the Ford Street house, Mama and Dad picked new bedroom furniture, and that little box found its home on a different dresser.  After Mama died, the little box came to live with me.

I don’t know if it was a gift to Granny from one of her children, or a friend, or maybe even from Granddad before he died.  I never thought to ask about its story prior to my own awareness of it.  It was just pretty and shiny, and it played music.  Now I wish I had learned more about it.

That is how I feel about so many things now…I wish I had asked a million questions while Mama, The Aunts, Granny and Mamaw, were still here to answer them.  Recently a first cousin on Dad’s side, whom I have never met, found me on social media and connected with me, hoping to learn more about our family history.  And once again, I find myself feeling sad that I never bothered to learn more from those who knew the stories best.

I can’t change the past and ask the dead all the things I want to know, but I can pick Dad’s brain while he is still here.  I can do research online.  I can share what I know and hope that, moving forward, it can benefit the younger family members who might someday want to know about their past.

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The Massengill Side

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Mamaw and Papaw and why I’m glad I knew them…

Mamaw and Papaw were Dad’s parents, and the only members of his family who stayed in Knoxville.  All Dad’s brothers and sisters lived out of state, following job opportunities, or husbands’ job opportunities, to places like California, Florida and Massachusetts.  Aunt Alberta was the closest of Dad’s siblings geographically, living near Atlanta.  She was also the furthest from him chronologically, being the oldest, with Dad the baby of the family.

Frank Britton Massengill married Mattie Gertrude Dunn in 1918 and they spent their lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, raising their 6 children.  They lived to see their 70th wedding anniversary a few months before Papaw was diagnosed with liver cancer and died at age 89.  As I remember them, and as anyone who knew them would attest, Mamaw was a tough little birdlike woman who could shoot the crack of a gnat’s ass (sorry for the language!) at 100 paces and work circles around women half her age well into her senior years.  When Reed and I were kids, Dad would generally go and visit with them on Sunday nights and have supper.  Sometimes Mama and Reed and I all went with him, sometimes just us kids, and sometimes only one of us would go.  Without fail, after supper was eaten and the grownups had retired to the living room for coffee and conversation, Mamaw would get down “the dishes” from the hook above the sink for me to play with, a small yellow funnel, a tea ball and some measuring spoons that provided me endless entertainment while the grownups sat and talked.  When Mamaw made biscuits, there was usually a little remnant of dough left over. Since that little dab of dough was too small to make another biscuit, but too big to waste, she would make it into a little snake and sprinkle cinnamon on it.  The cinnamon snake was the best treat in the world for a little kid like me.  She played piano and organ, so some of the musical genes come from her, as well as my prominent chin, dark hair (she was part Cherokee) and sharp tongue.  She once described herself as having a tongue like a circular saw, and I definitely inherited than tendency from her.  She could be blunt and opinionated, but I never thought she was mean.  There was a mischievous sparkle in her eyes and smile that I hope I inherited along with that chin of hers.  She and Papaw always had a garden, mostly vegetables to enjoy in season and to can and freeze for winter provisions.  They didn’t have a lot of indulgences, but Mamaw did enjoy growing flowers in the backyard.  She had a thumb so green she could have grown roses out of rocks.  A beautiful pink rosebush of hers now lives in Dad’s yard, transplanted from Mamaw and Papaw’s house.

Papaw was always…eccentric.  Mama said that as long as she knew him he was different.  Physically, he was as strong as an ox and, like Mamaw, he could work circles around men half his age.  He did lots of different kinds of work; he worked on Knoxville’s streetcars and spent years as a house painter.  Emotionally, though, he was…fragile.  I remember hearing about him leaving a desperately needed job because something didn’t go to suit him or someone said something he didn’t like.  Raising 6 kids during The Depression and The War, walking away from a job was just not done, unless you were my Papaw.  Dad talks about how poor they were, and it might not have been so bad if Papaw had held his tongue and stayed with the job.  And I remember times when he took to his bed because he “didn’t feel well”.  I realize now that he was probably bi-polar, although back in those days they didn’t have a name for it.  And even if there had been a name for it, Papaw was not the sort who would have sought treatment had it been available and/or affordable.  The Papaw I knew was, I suspect, a very different man from the father my Dad and his siblings knew.  The Papaw I knew was not perfect, but I always knew he loved me.  I never remember him calling me by my name; he always called me “Sister”.  His sense of humor was dry and pithy.  It was Papaw who convinced Reed and me that there was a right sock and a left sock.  To this day, if my socks have discernible feet prints on them, I put them on the corresponding feet.  (And yes, since I walk around in stocking feet a lot of the time, my socks do get feet prints.  Don’t judge me.)  It was Papaw who said if you painted your toenails red your feet wouldn’t stink.  (And yes, I actually recall seeing him once with red toenails when I was very little.)  One of my favorite Papaw memories is of the time when Jeff and I were dating and Papaw asked Jeff, “Boy, do you read the Bible right smart?”  Jeff blushed and squirmed, mumbling, “No sir, I’m afraid I don’t.”  Papaw responded “That’s all right, I don’t neither.”  Yet, it was Papaw who explained to me the principle of tithing, adding that when he and Mamaw gave the Lord His tithe, He always made the rest go further and they never missed that money.

I was blessed to have Mamaw and Papaw until I was a married adult, and I’m grateful that I had the chance to know them as well as I did.  A lot of who I am came from them, after all, both genetically and in the memories I have of times spent in their company.  I wish everyone could have the chance to know them like I knew them, because they brought so much color, humor and love into my life.  Knowing I’ll see them again someday in Heaven brings me a lot of comfort.  I can imagine Papaw up there painting one of Heaven’s many mansions, and Mamaw tending to roses in God’s garden.

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The Change

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Changes, changes, everywhere…

A couple of years ago I took a ministry class that required me to put together a genogram.  A genogram is basically an expanded family tree of sorts, with the standard names, birth and death dates, but also including other relevant family information such as marriages, divorces, patterns of disease and addiction and other such family skeletons.  It is a tool to help figure out why our family relationships and dynamics are the way they are, and in turn, why we are the way we are.  In putting my own genogram together it dawned on me how little I know about my family history beyond my grandparents.

And as I realized how little of this information I knew, I began to miss my departed loved ones in a whole new way.  Now that I am in the throes of menopause, I can’t help thinking what I’d give to have 15 minutes to talk to Mama and my grandmothers and ask every question I could blurt out in that quick amount of time, to find out more of our “female” history.  I know it’s a natural part of life, but it sure would be nice to get some answers from my female forbears about how their experiences might be influencing my own.  As it is, I have to rely on my memory of the stories that circulated around the women in my family going through The Change.

Granny’s last period nearly killed her, apparently.  Aunt Ruby was living in the little house on Wynn Street, just down the road and around the corner from Granny’s place on Arnold.  Granny was in the habit of walking down to visit with Aunt Ruby every afternoon, but one day she didn’t show up.  Aunt Ruby told me that Uncle Otto got ahold of her and said, “You should probably get to Mama’s house, she’s up there bleedin’ like a stuck hog.”  Before it was all over, the doctor had to come and pack her to get the bleeding to subside, and that was the very last of it.  In those days such things were not discussed, other than to say in hushed tones that someone was suffering from “female trouble”.  Which could mean anything from having her period to cancer.

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Mama’s menopause did not come on gradually, either.  I remember being at home with her when she started saying that she felt funny and sick, hot and weak.  She paced the floor and eventually laid down on the living room floor and put her feet up on the couch.  I got cold compresses for her and prayed hard.  I thought she was having a stroke or worse, and it scared me to death.  It scared her too.  She said she had never had such an awful feeling in her life before.  When she went to the doctor, he did some blood tests and something startling showed up.  She was producing no estrogen at all.  Like, yesterday she had some and today she had none.  NONE.  He said that would definitely explain her strange symptoms, and they went about formulating a treatment plan to get her feeling better.  For a while she went in for monthly hormone injections.  ”I go in on Tuesday for my Hot Shot,” she would joke.  Her traumatic entry into The Change was brought on, in part, by emotional stress due to some drastic economic changes.  She and Dad had 2 kids in college when Dad’s company demoted him and several other senior managers (Dad suspected possibly due to age), resulting in a severe drop in income.  Dad said he got demoted while Mama was having a period and she never bled another streak again.

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Aunt Mary and Aunt Martha both seemed to have some trouble during The Change as well, from what I can remember.  I was a kid and Aunt Mary was always hot, and Aunt Martha was always nervous.  Aunt Martha’s recollections of her experience with The Change could be funny.  ”They Lord, I felt like my nipples was on fire, so I stuck ice cubes down my brassiere!”   She also suffered from headaches later in life and would rub Icy Hot arthritis gel on her forehead.  I have never tried this and I don’t intend to…but I also never say never.

Aunt Ruby and Aunt Elaine both had hysterectomies, so their Changes weren’t typical.  I exchanged messages recently with “Aunt” Helen, who is actually my first cousin, and with Debbie, another first cousin, to pry into their experiences.  Both of them were very sweet in sharing what they could with me, and offered encouragement and love as I navigate the waters of my own Change.

Not having to worry about periods and birth control anymore will be a wonderful relief.  But the night sweats are disrupting my sleep enough now that I think I am losing IQ points.  I’ve joked that every time I wake up sweating, I can hear brain cells screaming as they die.  My Change may also be more challenging because I’ve never borne a child.  I just hope and pray that my transition through this stage of my life will be…wait for it… A Change for the Better!

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