Tag Archives: Mamaw. Papaw

The Massengill Side


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.



Ghosts of Christmas Past


Nostalgia has me going in circles…

I was invited, and very much looking forward to, a wedding this evening. However, my body had other plans. After a week and a half of not feeling well I finally dragged myself in to the doctor’s office today and left with a prescription for some strong antibiotics, as well as a medium-sized dose of self-pity. It’s very cold outside, and that cold seems to have seeped into my very bones tonight. Oh well, I thought, if I can’t be at the wedding of my two friends, at least ‘The Grinch” is coming on and I can enjoy that. Imagine my disappointment when, instead of the animated 1960’s television classic, the opening credits to the modern-day theatrical release blared from my TV screen. Not that there’s anything wrong with the movie, I guess. It just is not what I was expecting, and not what I wanted.

Hence this blog post. This time of year finds me revisiting Christmases of my childhood, youth, early marriage…ghosts of Christmas past, I suppose, the circle of years. I remember kid-Christmases with Reed and our cousins at our house on Ford Street and their house on Arnold Street, when dolls and teddy bears and toy trucks were the things our fondest little dreams were made of.


I still have my last Christmas present from Granny before she died, a little black and white panda bear. It has a music box inside it that used to play “Frere Jacques”, but the winding key was lost decades ago. Later Christmases on Ford Street, and then on Denwood after the bridge took the Ford Street house, included a big supper with lots of family coming and going on Christmas Eve, which was always when we opened presents and had our gathering. Mamaw and Papaw would be there, after Dad or Reed would go and pick them up. Mamaw and Papaw were homebodies and often huffed and puffed about coming over, but they always had a wonderful time once they were there. One year I remember we all got watches for Christmas, Mamaw and Papaw included.

Often Aunt Ruby and Aunt Martha spent the evening with us as well, contributing something to the dinner table and providing lots of love and laughs. A highlight for me was always after supper and presents, when we’d gather around the piano and sing. Mama always played beautifully and sang alto, and the rest of us harmonized on familiar Christmas carols and old-timey songs out the hymnbooks that are in my collection now. Aunt Martha singing “Ivory Palaces” echoes in my soul to this day, her sweet soprano drifting through the recesses of my memory.


For a large part of my life, I was unaware that my Mamaw played both piano and organ.  Once she asked Mama if she could play the piano, and Mama said, “Why, sure, Mamaw, play it all you want!”  And she did, like a house afire!  This side of Mamaw was a revelation to me, and what a kick we all got from seeing and hearing her play with such vigor and pleasure.


Papaw enjoyed our musical holiday tradition as well, often adding his voice to the female chorus.  Dad would usually sit reading quietly, and Reed generally took the pictures, including, I believe, the second and third ones posted here.  He was a photographer from a very young age.

Some of my Christmas gifts have been memorable, like the “watch” Christmas, and the year Granny gave me the musical panda bear.   One year Mama and Dad gave me my “hope chest”, a lovely cedar box with its natural striated red and golden grain left showing, a gift which made me weep with joy.  The year Jeff proposed and gave me my ring and the first place setting of our good china was a milestone Christmas, as was our first married Christmas when all I asked for was a good winter coat (which I still own and can once again fit into!).

Some years the gifts were quickly outgrown or forgotten.  Some gifts, I am ashamed to admit, were disappointing to me.  Looking at all the decades of Christmases, I realize that the true gifts did not come stowed under the tree wrapped in shiny paper.  The true gifts came as we made circles.  Circles around the supper table sharing food, laughter and well-worn family stories.  Circles around the piano, blending voices in harmony as we sang other well-worn stories from out of the hymnbooks.  Circles now incomplete down here because Mama, Mamaw and Papaw and The Aunts have gone to celebrate their Christmases in Heaven.  I look forward to the day when in Paradise every day will be like Christmas…when once again our circle will be complete.