Mama’s 100th Year

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Stellajoe English, high school graduation (1933)

The footlocker beckoned at bedtime. Of course I knew it was there—its surface is where “we” put plastic cleaner’s bags, flat-rate post office boxes, and bubble wrap—but I’d never paid it any mind.

I’d gone into the store room to return a canning jar to the shelf on my way to bed and it finally caught my attention. Is that the one that used to be in the outside storage shed where, years ago, I found the letters my father wrote to my mother during the war? The ones I am just now reading. Could I have missed a bundle of letters from her? I am crazy to find them, if they even still exist. It seemed unlikely—okay, not even possible—but I cleared the top, pulled it out from under the cabinet hanging on the wall—revealing a cricket and spider graveyard—and sat down on the cement floor. I flipped open the stiff latches and pushed up the heavy lid.

Tomorrow, June 11, is Mama’s last double digit birthday. She was born in 1916, in the middle of the first world war. She was a teenager during the Great Depression. She fell in love as America entered the second world war and married my father just in time to see him off to war. After his return three years later, her life became and remained pretty idyllic. My father died 20 years ago this month; and, in spite of ongoing grief, she reclaimed her moxie.

Her family—poor, though she says they never considered themselves as such—never had an automobile, a telephone, electricity (at least not connected), or indoor plumbing. They moved many times during her east Tennessee childhood, staying ahead of the creditors. As a young adult, she found her peace and happiness—and no doubt herself—on the trails of the Appalachians and the Great Smoky Mountains. Perhaps they saved her.

On top of the trunk, in a plastic bag, is the hearth rug my sister crocheted years ago, with a note taped to it, written in my sister’s hand many years ago: “Give this away.” There are lots of notes like that one in this house where my mother has lived for 55 years. I put the bag on the floor and glance through a pile of papers: clippings, copies of service bulletins and invitations to the celebration of my marriage that ended more than two decades ago, a sister’s baby book, a small head scarf in a plastic bag labeled: “First gift from George,” which he mentioned in a letter buying for her at a Southern Highlands shop in NYC that first Christmas in the Army Air Corps. I lift the tray and set it aside.

Photographs, both prints and slides, are stacked in the cavity: some in shoe boxes and some just in the envelopes and boxes they came in, some loose. Most of the containers are labeled: friends, family, house and yard, mountains. There is a sheet of wallet-size and two 3x5s of my worst ever school picture—ninth grade.

No letters.

The last box in the corner—a square faded blue-green gift box—is labeled “Photos of and by SJS before GRS.” I can’t breathe.

I lift it out and reload the trunk, push it back over the dead spiders, and put the stuff back on top. It’s past my bedtime, but I carry the box to my bed and lift the split cornered lid— once held together with cellophane tape, the remaining residue discoloring the cardboard. Some of the packets have notes on the envelopes, very few are labeled on the backs. Most of the envelopes in the bottom contain negatives. In the first envelope is image evidence of the boat my mother owned with friends, the one my father mentions several times in the letters he wrote to her when he was training to predict the weather for WWII bombardiers. I’m euphoric. Mama and her sister and girlfriends are picking great armloads of daisies. A note on the back of one indicates that the land is the family farm of her friends—co-owners of the little motor boat; which, though I can hardly fathom it, she appears to be piloting—and is being flooded by the Cherokee Dam. When I ask Mama about it later, she confirms it was a Tennessee Valley Authority project, for whom she worked and where my father would soon ask her out for the first time.

“You were on the water, in a boat, as the lake was rising?” I ask with some incredulity.
“Yes,” she says, “I guess so.” Some of the daisies are already underwater in the photos; they rescued what they could. “The next day we went back and drifted over the daisies swaying under the water over what had been rolling farm fields, and where we had walked the day before.”

There are photographs with her sister at the New York World’s Fair. (“Doris wasn’t there,” she insists.) Pictures at Myrtle Beach, where she has told me in past storytelling she drove with the sister of a friend (her friend had to work), borrowing her father’s car and broke the radio antennae. (She doesn’t think it had a radio, just the antennae.) There are two photos of her on the campus of Carson Newman College, which she attended for just one year before her older brother bilked her out of her savings for the second year. And many grainy, tiny pictures of the Appalachian mountains, some with her in them. There is a single photo of my father, with Mrs. McCurdy and her “boys,” the much-loved proprietor of the rooming house he lived in when he worked for TVA, of whom he speaks in his letters.

I am so happy to have already known some of the stories. And now the photos that go with them and a whole new set of stories to ask for. Though her memory is like Swiss cheese, and she is often a trial to live with—as I am for her—I am grateful she is still here to tell them to me.

Happy birthday, Mama.

(If you would like to send greetings to her, comment on this blog post. I will read them to her. Thank you to those of you who already have.)

Daisies at Cherokee Lake on the Holston River. (1942)

Daisies at Cherokee Lake on the Holston River. (1942)

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Another photo shows her sister in the same pose, same prop.

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Looking stylish at the New York World’s Fair, sister in back. (1939)

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Pin-up girl at Myrtle Beach.

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The hills are alive.

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20 thoughts on “Mama’s 100th Year

  1. This is so fun…now that I know the sister and the house and the Mama! Amazing photos…this is the silver lining in being one who will not throw anything away:-0

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  2. Happy birthday, Stellajoe! Wishing you all the best as you celebrate 99 years on the planet. What a legacy you have gifted the world with: your championing for daisies and other occasions when nature needed protecting, the beautiful daughters, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of your heart that have made the world a better place, and the fascinating history of 99 years of large and small moments that comprise your life. Love and best wishes to you on your special day.

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  3. Believe it or not, i have a photo of myself with Stella Joe and Valerie Mason and i keep it in my medicine cabinet and look at it every single day of my life. Inspiration and humility touch me every single day as i look at that photo…i remember standing with you Gretchen on the deck and still feeling like i was a little unworthy….always have always will….but such is the case of birth order and parentage. However!… there is no shame.. just fact of life’s landing. thank you and please give your mother my greatest gratitude and appreciation for a life well lived…

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  4. Happy Birthday, Mrs. Staebler! May you continue to enjoy the beauty of your home and family in your 100th year. I hope to meet you and enjoy the company of you and your wonderful daughter Gretchen sometime next year!

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  5. Happy birthday Mrs. Staebler. I guess my best memory of you is when I was at GS Day Camp on Seminary Hill and we walked the trail to your house. I believe you came out and gave us a lesson on plant identification of the wild flowers and plants in the area. I seem to remember maybe we participated in archery and made crafts in a building there too, but that was a long time ago and I’m not 100% sure of that. Margie Date Smith

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  6. Warmest birthday cheer Ms. StellaJoe! I look forward to meeting you! You have one fine clutch of girls and grand kids to boot, who love you much!! May the coming year be blessed with joy-filled connection with your family and an unfolding sense of peace for the life you have.

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  7. Loved reading this history of a woman I have come to know through your beautiful words, Gretchen. The pictures are a bonus. Loved the one of the girls picking daisies. Wishing you a lovely Birthday with lots of cake!

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  8. Wonderful, thoughtful, moving writing, Gretchen. I felt I was right there with you. Such beautiful, priceless photographs of your mom. I hope this blog becomes a book. It’s a great journey.

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  9. Thank you dear sister for your tenacity in unearthing these treasures (and battling the spiders and the swiss cheese to do so) and for so beautifully and lovingly writing the stories. I love the treasures themselves, your excitement in finding them, and the opportunity you have created to share them with mama. What an excellent way to begin the journey of her 100th year!

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