Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me.Helena Bonham Carter, “Our Grandparents’ War” PBS Series, Episode One
‘Be still’ they say,
Watch and listen–
You are the result of the love of thousands.
Today, I honor my grandparents whose love made my life possible.
At left are my maternal grandparents Jerushia Flemingtine Cunningham Henderlight (who was called “Boots” by my grandfather) and James Thomas “Tom” Henderlight (who was called “Thomas” by my grandmother) on their wedding day in 1932. We, their grandchildren, knew them simply as Mamaw and Papaw.
At right are my paternal grandparents Darcus Nickaline Montgomery Allen (originally from Carroll County, Virginia) and Roy Hodge Allen who was known by Hodge. This photo was taken on their wedding day in February 1934.
Both sets of my grandparents lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, and both overcame great hardships during their lives.
When Mamaw and Papaw had their first child, James “Bud” Thomas Henderlight Jr., he had multiple handicaps and the physician who delivered him (at their home) advised Mamaw to give up on him. One of his legs was considerably shorter than the other, his lip was deformed, and it was possible that he also had brain damage due to his difficult birth. Mamaw refused to abandon her firstborn and dedicated her life to caring for him.
Many couples might have decided that having more children would be unwise since their first child had multiple disabilities and would take a good deal of time and energy to care for. But my grandparents were undaunted at the prospect of increasing their family and had two more children: my mother Arzelia and my aunt Rheta. If Mamaw and Papaw had allowed their fear and misgivings to overcome them, my sister and I and my cousins Robin, Bobby, and Ricky would never have been born.
As for Daddy’s mother Darcus, she was born and lived her early years on her family’s farm in Carroll County, Virginia. Her father John Martin Montgomery had a difficult time making ends meet, and eventually had to sell their 34-acre farm and move his large family to the nearby town of Fries, Virginia. Teenaged Darcus and her younger sister Eutaw Regina worked as cotton spinners in the new cotton mill that had been built in Grayson County. A few years later their father died of cancer, so their mother Cordelia moved her children to Kingsport, Tennessee, to be near family who lived there.
Darcus’s mother Cordelia had been cautioned by their family doctor in Virginia that her oldest surviving daughter Darcus was too sensitive and physically fragile for the rigors of marriage. However, several factors combined to change her thinking about whether Darcus should marry: after Darcus’s father died of cancer, Cordelia remarried and having a grown daughter living with them was less than ideal; their doctor in Tennessee advised that Darcus should marry and have a child right away; and Darcus met Hodge Allen from Knoxville. She saw in him a gentle soul that she could make a home with, and they were smitten with each other.
In February 1934, Darcus Montgomery and Hodge Allen were married. By summer Darcus was pregnant, and in April 1935 my father Roy Rotha Allen was born. In August my grandmother Darcus died, according to her death certificate, of insanity from pellagra psychosis, a severe nutritional disease that afflicted many Southerners who lived in poverty during the first half of the 20th Century. What was pellagra and how did she get it?
The first question is easy enough to answer. According to a paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2017 and 2018, “The by-product of insufficient niacin consumption, pellagra reached epidemic proportions in the American South, killing roughly 7,000 Southerners annually at its peak in 1928.” According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in October 1999, “The near elimination of pellagra by the end of the 1940s has been attributed to improved diet and health associated with economic recovery during the 1940s and to the enrichment of flour with niacin.
The second question: how did Darcus get pellagra? Probably from being pregnant, just as her original family doctor had warned. And of course, Hodge’s family–the young couple lived with Hodge’s mother and brother–were poor.
In any event the improvements in the Southern diet and economy in the 1940s came too late for my grandmother Darcus who we never had the privilege to know. And perhaps she would have died in any event due to her fragile health and sensitive nature. What is true without a doubt, however, is if Darcus had not taken the chance, followed her heart, and married Hodge, my father Roy Rotha Allen would never have been born, and neither would my sister Lisa or me.
So today, I honor both my grandparents–who did not go to war in quite the same way as Helena Bonham Carter’s British grandparents did as they lived with bombs raining down near their home in London–sometimes on a daily basis. But my grandparents made their own sacrifices to dream, to hope, and to love–giving future generations the gift of life.
~ Anna – 4/30/2021