Ninety Years, Country Strong
The year 1923 was not short on exciting events. The first transcontinental airmail service had begun. Time magazine published its first issue. Firestone first put inflatable tires into production. The US Attorney General actually stated that it was legal for woman to wear trousers – anywhere (yes you read that right). Yankee Stadium first opened (although Fenway had it beat by eleven years). The first ever country music hit was recorded. Vice President Calvin Coolidge became president, after the death of President Harding. The first nonstop transcontinental US air flight was successfully completed. Lou Gehrig hit his first Major League home run. Disney Cartoon Studios was formed. Ethyl gasoline was first marketed to the public. The traffic light was invented. Radio waves were transmitted for the first time, which lead to the first presidential address made by radio. It was also the year that brought the world Bob Barker, Peter Lawford, Charlton Heston, Estelle Getty, Ann Miller, Ted Knight, Aaron Spelling, Allan Sheppard, Rocky Marciano, Roy Lichtenstein, Hank Williams, Jean Stapleton, Ed McMahon and Margaret Elizabeth McConnell Garrett.
Margaret, or “Mammaw”, is my husband’s grandmother, my children’s great-grandmother. She was born during prohibition and in her time on this earth has witnessed changes that few could have even imagined in 1923. The Great Depression. World Word II. The invention of television, computers and robots. Space travel. The rise and fall of the Soviet Union. Man walking on the moon. The Korean War. Kennedy’s assassination. Vietnam. Civil Rights. Feminism. Watergate. The Cold War. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The evolution of technology. 9-11. A black man overwhelmingly voted to the office of president.
She’s witnessed history from her home in the mountains, living on the same piece of land for almost seventy years. She was married for thirty-eight years, gave birth to and raised three children, and watched her family grow to include five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. She’s traveled to San Francisco, Boston, New York and Key West, but for Mamaw, there’s no place like the place she calls home – Rose Hill, Virginia.
Born at home, in Appalachia, Virginia, on April 4, 1923, Margaret was one of eight children. Her father was a bricklayer who helped build the town of Rose Hill, where he moved his family when Margaret was a young child. In many ways, Rose Hill doesn’t look a whole lot different now from the way it did back then. The passage of time is marked by the changing models of cars and houses that are slightly bigger than they were fifty years ago. Her dad owned and ran the town’s grocery store and restaurant. The McConnell children walked to school – snow, rain or shine – and attended church every Sunday.
Mammaw met Harvey Garrett, “Pappaw,” at church, where one day he asked if he could walk her home. Courting had begun. As was typical of the times, Mammaw quit school to get married. One day she and Harvey were walking in Middleborough (KY) and he suggested that they get married. She agreed. He took her over to JC Penny’s, where he bought her a blue dress, with a pleated skirt. He picked blue, so she’d “always be true.” From Penny’s, they went right to the courthouse and were married in front of witnesses they’d only met that day and would never see again. The marriage lasted almost forty years, cut short by Harvey’s death in 1979.
Pappaw was a tobacco farmer, worked in the mines, owned a grocery store and worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps. Due to a mining injury he was spared a tour of duty in WWII. Although tucked away in the geographic safety of southwest Virginia, with news coming slowly and sporadically, the area still experienced the difficulty of rationing. Mamaw remembers the shortage of coffee in particular, yet they also benefited by their ability to live off the land – they grew, raised and prepared their own food. They were green before it was cool.
Early in their marriage, Mammaw and Pappaw lived in a little house on his mother’s property. It was there that Margaret gave birth to her first child, at home. Her daughter Carol was so tiny, she had to be fed with an eye dropper. There were no NICUs back then and Mammaw took care of that baby, who thrived, by herself. Soon after, the family was blessed with a second daughter, Evelyn (who was born in a hospital). The young family built their own house, where seven years later, they were joined by a son, Stanley. The Garrett family was complete.
Life in Rose Hill was quiet, but filled with lots of family. Everyone knew who everyone was and no one locked their doors. The homes in Rose Hill didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing. I’ve heard tales of the kids having to traipse through the snow, in the dead of winter, during the middle of the night. In fact, electricity and plumbing didn’t reach them until the mid-1960’s. Kerosene was used for heating and light and the news was delivered via a battery operated radio. As Mamaw said, “News sometimes came slow.” I’m sure this was a blessing and a curse.
As was the way with Baby Boomers, the Garrett kids were eager to spread their wings. Although Rose Hill was unaffected by the turbulence of the 1960’s, Carol, Evelyn and Stan all felt the pull of the big city. The girls left Rose Hill right after high school graduation, making their way to the Baltimore – Washington DC area. Their departure crushed Margaret and Harvey, who were frightened for the kids being so far away from home and in an environment so different from what they were used to. Eventually, Stan joined his big sisters. Visiting their children was hard, because back in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the trip from southwestern Virginia to the nation’s capital was a very slow and long ten hour drive.
In 1965, Harvey and Margaret were in a horrible car accident. The brakes on a 7Up truck failed, and in order to avoid careening of the side of a mountain road, the truck’s driver swerved head on, right into them. All Mammaw remembers was Harvey saying “Lord, he’s going to kill us both.” Mammaw was critically injured and hospitalized for weeks. Sadly, due to her recuperation, Mammaw and Pappaw missed their daughter Evelyn’s wedding.
One of the advantages of starting her family so young, is that Mammaw became a grandmother when she was only 41 years old. Both Carol and Evelyn gave birth to sons, two years apart. For many years, it was just Gregg and Rich, who would spend the summer with their grandparents in Rose Hill. She relished this time with her grandsons and thankfully had the energy to deal with the crazy things they did. I’d call it torture, but not Mamaw. Not much rattles her.
Being the mother of four, who freely admits to desperately relying on the distractions that technology offers my children, I was curious to know how she raised three kids in a house that was 800 square feet with no TV, electricity, video games, internet and no bathroom to hide in? “Well, just a little patience – and I’d play dolls with them.” I am not worthy Mammaw.
At 57, Mammaw went to work – for the first time! She got a job sewing at a local DeRoyal factory (they manufacture all sorts of medical supplies) and worked for over twenty years, often winning Employee of the Month. Mammaw loved her job and misses it.
The past ninety years have been filled with historical events. Mammaw cites Pearl Harbor (she was a new bride) and Kennedy’s assignation (her daughters were living in the DC area at the time) as two of the scariest times for her. I asked her how she thinks things are today and she’s sad about the state of our world. She doesn’t think many things are better than the old days, except maybe the weather. Global warming doesn’t seem to bother her, as she welcomes the warmer temperatures!
Mammaw was an excellent gardener who grew her own fruits and vegetables. She was also exceptionally skilled with a needle and thread and made all of the family’s clothes. An expert cook at the culinary treats of the region, she’s regaled for her fried chicken, biscuits and gravy and chocolate pie. Lord, the chocolate pie. I’ve seen fights break out over the last piece.
Ninety means being resilient. Somewhat frail these days, with a back that doesn’t always feel good, Mamaw doesn’t even bat an eye when her oldest great-grandson, who has autism and at 85 pounds is no longer a baby, heads right for her lap when he sees her.
At ninety, Mammaw loves the chaos that comes with family visits. My four alone in her tiny home, which is filled with toys Mammaw has collected over the years (loud toys), sends me running for the wine bottle. Not her. Or perhaps she’s just polite… Not much seems to scare her these days. When I asked her what does, expecting her to say failing health or death, she simply replied, “Lightening.”
Mammaw loves country music. Her 1923 birthday buddy, Hank Williams, was one of her favorites. These days, the Nashville hunks on CMT keep her entertained – she loves her Kenny Chesney. She also watches a lot of news, because she “wants to know what’s going on.” In addition to keeping abreast of global affairs, she keeps watch on everything around her, from her living room window. Not much gets past Mammaw.
Mammaw loves the Florida Gators, ever since her grandson attended school there. She was notorious at DeRoyal (where everyone bled the orange of Tennessee) for igniting heated debates with her declarations of “I can’t stand that ole Payton Manning.” Her allegiance is loyal to this day. Go Gators.
Mammaw loves to collect. As previously mentioned there are a lot of toys – beany babies, dolls and stuffed animals. She also has an extensive coffee mug collection, but her favorites are her frogs. Mamaw loves frogs! I have never, ever seen so many frogs in one place: statues of frogs, pictures of frogs, stuffed frogs, dancing frogs, singing frogs, and even two live ones (in an aquarium). This has been an adjustment for me, as I am terrified of frogs!
Not many make it to ninety without some speed bumps. Mamaw lost both her parents to heart attacks, and her husband to cancer. She only has one surviving sibling. She’s seen her children suffer through divorces and prayed for premature great-grandchildren. Although never much of a drinker, Mamaw smoked for most of her life – only quitting at 77! This is not an endorsement! Mamaw has suffered two heart attacks, has a pacemaker and wears a medic alert necklace.
Ninety means being set in your own ways. Mammaw says technology, “Is beyond her.” She doesn’t use a cell phone – and I can attest that I couldn’t get a cell signal in Rose Hill till about 2009. She doesn’t own a computer and has never been on the internet. She goes to bed early, sometimes as early as 6 p.m., but rises before dawn. Pajamas, a bathrobe and slippers are pretty much her uniform these days, although she’s usually “made up” when we see her. She doesn’t leave the house much and this is by choice. “Just to see the doctor,” she says. But if there’s a family reunion, she can usually be swayed, but plan on an early departure.
I guess she’s earned the right to leave the party when she’s ready – and party we will, to celebrate ninety years of a uniquely wonderful woman who gave birth to the woman, who gave birth the man, who gave me my babies. I for one will be grateful until I am ninety and beyond. She has lived a good life and her family adores her. Mamaw is not alone, as she enters her 10th decade on this earth. Her son and his family live on the same property and her daughter and son-in-law live just over the hill. She is surrounded by grandchildren and great-grandbabies and those of us who don’t live close, stay in contact and visit as often as we can. We are always greeted with a smile, a Ralph Lauren Safari-scented hug and the question, “You hungry?”
I asked Mamaw what her secret was. How does a person get to be ninety, still live at home by herself and be as sharp as any teenager I’ve ever met? She simply replied, “Well, the good Lord has been good to me and I’ve been blessed. That, and my pacemaker.”
Amen. Happy Birthday Mammaw.
****I wrote this post in April. It was supposed to go live after Mother’s Day, but due to family tragedy (unrelated to Mammaw), things at LKM were pretty much put on hold until the fall. I thought it would be a perfect Thanksgiving Day post, because we are very thankful for Mammaw.
Isn’t Mammaw cool? Can you believe how many things she’s seen in he life? Do you know any 90 year-olds? Do you aspire to reach the 90 mark? I know I do!