The Attic of Our Lives

The cover of my grandmother Jerushia’s photo album featuring photos from the 1920s through the 1950s.

I thought I had gotten away from that long-ago house. You would think marrying when you are 18 years old would be enough to snap the thread, but I guess it is not so.

A few months ago I visited my adolescent self as I helped my mother clean out the home she had lived in for 49 years–the home I lived in for only six. The house with Mama’s beloved full-sized basement and large yard increasingly became a burden in her 83rd year, especially after she had a stroke a few years ago. She navigated ruthless steps in the front and treacherous steps from the washer and dryer in the basement to the living area. The journeys up and down had become perilous, and she was finally ready to call it quits on the house she loved.

My family moved into this house in 1970 when I was in the 7th grade. It was a newly constructed home in a small subdivision built quickly by a man whose name Daddy would use in vain many times as one thing after another needed fixing. Luckily in the early years, my grandfather was there to make everything work.

My room was painted blue, and my sister’s room was pink and both of our bedrooms had an extension phone with a loooonnnnnggggg cord. Yes, to those of you unfamiliar with the world of landline phones, the cat’s meow of the 1970s was having your own phone in your room, even if it was just an extension of the family phone line. The long cord allowed us the freedom to move around our rooms while we talked with our friends late into the night.

I am sure my sister Lisa was on the phone more than me because she had a boy friend every year she was in junior and senior high school. My time on the phone increased during my junior year of high school when I had three boy friends in succession–three months for each guy. My senior year Lisa could talk freely without negotiation with the blue room since my long-distance boy friend lived in Kentucky. It was Blue Moon of Kentucky for me because under no circumstances could I call him long distance and incur all those expensive long distance charges–another distinct difference from the call-virtually-anywhere-anytime-on-your-cell-phone capabilities of today.

After I married and left the bedroom that had been mine, Mama decided to store a huge, century-old baby bed in the middle of the room, making it difficult to clean out and pack. Inside the baby bed Mama had stacked gifts we had given her and Daddy as well as random flotsam and jetsam that was not needed anywhere in the house on a daily, weekly, or yearly basis.

Mamaw in the center with her girl friends Ida and Hettie, around 1925.

Basically my former bedroom had become the memorabilia room. Inside the chest of drawers that was once mine–now with broken drawers–was my grandmother’s photo album covering the years of her childhood, her courtship with Papaw, and of her children growing up. There were also photos of Mamaw with her childhood girl friends, her mother, and her siblings.

Mamaw (center) with her brother Clarence (left) and my grandfather Thomas (right), early 1930s, at the South Knoxville marble quarry.

There were a slew of photos with Mamaw with her brother Clarence who went away to World War II and never came back home–not because he died in the war, but because he decided he wanted to live in Washington DC with friends. I never met Clarence and family lore on his existence is slim. Recently Mama hinted there was another woman involved, from what she said I surmised that Clarence decided it was less embarrassing to live far away from home than to admit he was unfaithful and divorced the wife who waited for him while he was away serving his country. But in the 1940 census, I noticed that Clarence was already divorced before the U.S. got into the war, so his absence from his family after the war is a source of mystery and one of heartbreak for his family, especially his mother Madge. Perhaps the war simply changed him in ways he could not deal with around his family.

Also in the broken chest of drawers I found my diaries in a handwriting I did not recognize, written in a voice I do not recall. Could any version of me possibly have been so sheltered, so naive, and so worried about what her life would become without a boy to love her? Apparently so.

Mamaw: Jerushia Flementine Cunningham, very much her own person, around 1930.

The best part of the homeplace clean up was discovering Mamaw’s active and adorable early life. The photos show Mamaw surrounded by friends and family. And Papaw! What a striking young man he was with his soulful eyes and matinee-idol looks. One close-up photo of Papaw’s face looks like the silent film star Rudolph Valentino who, as Wikipedia states, caused “mass hysteria” among his many film fans and was a cultural phenomenon. The photo shows Mamaw with a small hat on her head and a big fever blister on her lower lip, but she is smiling enigmatically and seems not to have a care in the world. Though his given name was James Thomas and his friends called him Tom, Mamaw called him Thomas and he called her Boots. I never heard how she got that nickname.

During their courtship, a photo booth photo of Mamaw (Boots) with a big fever blister on her lip and Papaw (Thomas) with his soulful, matinee-idol eyes, 1932.

Mamaw’s family was very poor, living in what Mama describes as the chicken house at one point. The 1920 census notes that Mamaw was 7 years old and her father John Cunningham was a machine hand at a manufacturing company. A decade later, the 1930 census states that Mamaw’s father was a janitor with the city schools and that Mamaw, at the age of 17, worked as a thread clipper in an overall factory. Perhaps the overall factory could have been Levi-Strauss since the company had a textiles factory on Cherry Street in Knoxville until the 1980s.

My mother Arzelia, her sister Rheta, and their brother Bud with their Aunt Helen (Mamaw’s younger sister), around 1940.

Ten years later, the 1940 census–when Mamaw and Papaw had three small children at home–shows no income or assets for the family of five at all. The only indication of how they made a living is that they lived on a farm.

Mamaw (center) with her daughter (my mother) Arzelia, and her mother Madge, around 1940 in South Knoxville.

The 1940 census–with an innovation not found in the 1930 census–included a question for how many years of education each person completed. The education completed figures shown for my maternal grandparents and their families are bleak: Mamaw – 9th grade, Papaw – 8th grade, Mamaw’s father – 3rd grade, Mamaw’s mother – 6th grade, Mamaw’s brothers: 9th grade, Mamaw’s 17-year-old younger sister: 11th grade (perhaps still in school in 1940?), Papaw’s mother – 6th grade, and Papaw’s younger siblings – 7th or 8th grade.

Papaw, young and virile, when he worked as a janitor at Perkins School, early 1930s. The handwritten comments on the photos were made by Mamaw.

My mother tells me that Papaw worked as a laborer in South Knoxville’s marble mill and many of the photos in my grandmother’s photo album were indeed taken at the marble quarry. Papaw worked as a janitor in an elementary school when my grandparents were courting, and he was the head janitor at my school when I was in junior high.

My grandfather could fix anything. When the school’s boiler was not working in the winter, and we all (students, teachers, and administrators alike) went around in our coats without heat, it was my grandfather who fixed the problem. At basketball games and football games Papaw sold the tickets. At halftime of basketball games, Papaw cleaned the gym flour of debris in preparation for the second half. I was only in school for a few years before Papaw retired from working for the city schools, and in the years after I mourned not seeing him in the halls. I was always so proud of him.

Daddy’s New York Yankees baseball cap.

The hardest moments of cleaning out my parents’ home were finding my deceased father’s favorite things: his beloved New York Yankees jacket, his Yankees baseball cap, his basketball signed by the University of Tennessee’s legendary Lady Vol Coach Pat Summitt, and a framed copy of Daddy on the front page of the Knoxville paper looking at Lady Vol T-shirts just before the team was due to win their 880th game in 2005.

Daddy was one of the Lady Vols most devoted fans. For years Daddy and Mama went to every home game with my son Justin in tow. They traveled with the Lady Vols to Europe, Alaska, and Hawaii, as well as to many of the regional and national tournament games.

The front page of the Knoxville News-Sentinel featuring Daddy checking out Lady Vol T-shirts just before the Lady Vols were expected to get their 880th win, March 28, 2005.

Season tickets, you bet, ba-bay. Daddy had four tickets behind the basketball goal–yes, you heard me right–behind the basketball goal. My husband Kurt and I sat with my parents beside the University of Tennessee pep band and had a riotous time jumping around, slapping each other’s hands, hugging, and watching the Lady Vols’ mascot Smokey ride his plastic sled down every step of the arena in a fan-hysteria-causing slalom.

Daddy’s dream was to have tickets on the side of the basketball arena where the donors were seated, so my husband Kurt and I made significant (for us) gifts to the university in order for Daddy to have four season tickets near mid court. Oh, the days of wine and roses–and glory when nearly every year we won a national championship. We gloriously celebrated each win (and amazing play) and lamented each loss right there with Daddy.

Mama, me, Daddy, and my son Justin around 2005.

Something about seeing Daddy’s things without Daddy in them broke something inside me that I have not quite been able to fix ever since. That, and reading my diaries written in a handwriting I do not recognize, feeling ever so sorry for the young naive girl I was who had hopes of marrying just one time, having children, rearing them together with her husband, and living happily ever after.

My life has not been that simple. I left two unhappy marriages before I found the third time was charm, as people say where I come from. Although I have struggled to find my way in the wake of Daddy’s absence–let’s face it, it was my Daddy who gave me full license to be me and encouraged me to run with it–I live by the values he taught me. When I am troubled, I pray to him and my Mamaw Jerushia and my grandmother Darcus to help me find my way.

I draw strength from Mamaw and her joyous, jolly, nurturing spirit. My grandmother Darcus died when Daddy was only 4 months old so none of our family ever met her. Only recently, through our genealogical research, my husband and I were able to find some of her cousins in Utah. These beautiful women were kind enough to share with me a few photos of my grandmother and an abundance of stories about her that were handed down from their parents and grandparents.

I learned that through my grandmother Darcus Montgomery’s line of strong women, I have my independent spirit, my love of reading, and my sense of style. Last year one of my dear Montgomery cousins gave me the greatest treasure: an original photo of my father’s parents, probably on their wedding day, shown below. Now finally I have one item that was once my paternal grandmother’s.

My beloved grandmother Darcus Nickaline Montgomery, probably on her wedding day to Daddy’s father Hodge, 1934.

And of course, Daddy, Darcus’s only child, is my touchstone. He loved the hit Little Things Mean A Lot, by Kitty Kallen, that reached number one on the Billboard chart in 1954. Throughout our childhood, my sister and I (loudly) sang to Daddy’s 45 rpm recording of it–and of course, we knew, and still know, every word by heart.

Little Things Mean A Lot

Blow me a kiss from across the room
Say I look nice when I’m not
Touch my hair as you pass my chair
Little things mean a lot

Give me your arm as we cross the street
Call me at six on the dot
A line a day when you’re far away
Little things mean a lot

Don’t have to buy me diamonds and pearls
Champagne, sables or such
I never cared much for diamonds and pearls
‘Cause honestly honey, they just cost money

Give me your hand when I’ve lost the way
Give me your shoulder to cry on
Whether the day is bright or gray 
Give me your heart to rely on

Send me the warmth of a secret smile 
To show me you haven’t forgot
For always and ever, now and forever
Little things mean a lot

Writers: CARL STUTZ (music), EDITH LINDEMAN CALISCH (lyrics)
Copyright: Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC 

Here’s to you my dear ones: Daddy, Darcus, and Mamaw. May I continue to live honestly and proudly in the company of your strength and spirit.

~ Anna – 9/30/2019

About aamontgomery

Seeing new possibilities in everyday things
This entry was posted in Autobiographical, Childhood, Courage, Family, Home, Knoxville, Love, Music, Screen, Women, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Attic of Our Lives

  1. Dorothy says:

    Anna, oh from the overstuffed basement (mana’s was an attic) to rooms crammed with memories, this beautifully written piece is hauntingly familiar. Every word expresses lives lived well if sometimes with hard challenges. Thank you for this morning meditation for me. I cried as I read “Little Things Mean a Lot.” They do. Dorothy

    • aamontgomery says:

      I just saw your response to my October post. I wish I had seen it sooner! Thank you sooooo much for letting me know you enjoyed the post. This year has gotten more complicated than when I wrote in October. My sister Lisa was diagnosed with Stage 4 bone cancer later that month and is now in the last month of her chemotherapy treatments. This Christmas is bittersweet: we are so lucky to have her with us, but it is so tough to see her positivity come up against the degree of pain she is experiencing. And the chemo is so difficult. It is so true that little things mean a lot, as our Daddy taught us. And this Christmas we are pitching our tent in the many things to be grateful for: time with sister, the smiles of my two grandchildren, the gorgeous music of the season, and good friends who have been wonderful to let us know they care. I am thinking of you this holiday season and hoping you will find many abundant moments of joy, peace, and love. Anna

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