by Melanie K. Wooten
As a child, I was sent to live with my great aunts, Mamie and Margaret, in Manassas, Virginia, during World War II. While there, many things happened around me, and I remember them vividly. Times were simpler, and since we didn’t have television, we didn’t watch life – we lived it.
Aunt Mamie was a nurse; Aunt Margaret owned a dress store. Aunt Mamie was divorced (not spoken of, mind you) and my Aunt Margaret had never married because her beau had been killed in World War I (also not spoken of, but tsked quite a bit). I remember my surprise to see Aunt Margaret’s military tombstone in our family plot in the Confederate Cemetery in Manassas. She had served in the Army in World War I. Amazing at that time.
The woman who cared for me, Nellie, raised 14 children of her own and three generations of us “Berry girls.” When she died in 1964, I could not attend her funeral because I was in the middle of a very difficult pregnancy, but my twin aunts, Patsy and Peggy, were in the front pew of the church. It broke my heart to be unable to pay my final respects to a grand woman that was so much a part of my life as a child. (Nellie could not read, but we accorded her the respect owed her by writing to her about our lives until she died. Her daughters read the letters to her, but we never mentioned this, either in person or in our letters.)
World War II really focused on women. The men were gone, and in the South up to that time, men had taken care of the world while women took care of the home . . . and the men. I still find that a handy arrangement.
Many years later, I met a wonderful man in San Francisco with the surname of Lanier. I asked him if he were related to Sidney Lanier, the Georgia poet, and he practically melted at my feet in a puddle of adoration. Yes, he was, and would I please honor him with my presence at lunch? We went to lunch and I cannot tell you how wonderful it was again to have my elbow cupped as I stepped off the curb. (I related that incident to a friend and I will tell you what I told her: “You haven’t lived until you have had your elbow cupped!”)
And it is that same intensity of focus that makes Southern men so charming. When you are speaking with a Southern gentleman, YOU are the focus of his attention; YOU are the only person in the room while you and he are speaking. Those are the men you remember!
Saturday mornings were great times in that big old house. Beds were stripped, mattresses turned, all sorts of grownup chores were performed with a great flurry of activity watched by my sister and me. While my aunties were doing that, my hair received the weekly washing. I had long, strawberry blonde hair, and I remember standing at the kitchen sink while Nellie washed my hair and rinsed it in vinegar to bring out the shine. (If you were blonde, lemon juice was used; if you were a brunette, I remember something about walnut hulls.)
There was structure and ritual in our lives. Young ladies had their hair washed once a week, unless something drastic occurred. Every morning, I sat on a stool and my hair was braided. Before that was done, I got to pick out the ribbons for my hair so they would match my dress. (No pants for us. When I grew out of rompers, no more pants!) On special occasions, the braids were piled on my head in a crown, with ribbons braided into the hair itself. Of course, that meant I had to sit very, very still on the stool so the crown would be even. Sometimes Nellie folded the braids back under themselves and the ribbon at the end of the braid went around the thickest part of the braid. In the evenings, my braids were undone and my hair was brushed 100 times. There was much touching, stroking, hugging, kissing, and sometimes paddlings, throughout every day.
Our family was H-U-G-E, with lots of cousins. We had an unusual situation in my family because three of the Berry boys married three of the Barr girls over a span of twenty years in the mid-1800s. No matter where you were standing in the family, you were somebody’s cousin and, depending on the relative you were speaking with, that controlled your degree of kinship – at that time. This was confusing to a young child but always an adventure in social structure.
Always, always, we were expected to behave as young Southern ladies. I remember vividly when my Canadian cousins came to visit. I remember Uncle Victor, so tall and handsome in his Canadian Army uniform. I was in love, at the grand age of five, and I remember asking him to wait for me to grow up so he could marry me. It didn’t matter to me that he was already spoken for! Heaven only knows what someone would make of that now. I guess I would have to be counseled and he would be locked up for agreeing to marry a child, and a cousin to boot!
One rainy evening my Cousin Chukker stripped down to his shorts and danced in the rain on the front lawn. I thought that was a marvelous idea, so I did the same. Boy, was there a difference in how we were treated for that same behavior.
There were all sorts of sayings governing our behavior:
“Children should be seen and not heard.”
“Little Pitchers have Big Ears.”
Even when we were in everyday clothes, they were starched and ironed. We behaved differently then. Not that we didn’t play, but we were mindful of what was expected of us. I still say to others today, “Expectations, not recriminations!” – referring to our children. When I worked in the schools later in life, I noticed that the young people behaved quite differently in their “Sunday best” than they did in the slovenly attire that passes for fashion today.
Maybe our elders had the right idea, after all.
Melanie Wooten writes to us:
"I am entitled to be buried in the Confederate Cemetery at Manassas, Virginia. My family has always been buried there and we had four sons in the CSA.
"As for the old house, I took my son there and it is quite a treat at the age of 65 to see where I grew up become part of Old Town -- and it cannot be changed. I think it is very important for our children to see where we grew up. Gives them roots.
"I remember those old signs with 25, 50, 75, 100, and we'd turn up the one to tell the ice man how much we wanted. (We had a drain to below the kitchen, mind you, so I didn't have to dump the tray.) Anyway, I turned the sign up to 100 pounds, just to see what would happen. We ended up with a single, 100# block of ice on the back porch and I got a tanning, I can tell you . . ."
Read more stories by Melanie Wooten ~
My Southern Childhood
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