Mama’s Christmas Room

ChristmasCandlesAround 1955 my mother had a brainstorm about Christmas decorations. She loved them. And she wanted to make them. Lots of them! Lacking any other space, and seeing as how it wasn’t heated and wasn’t used in cold weather anyway, the living room became Mama’s workshop.

This was no small room, mind you, probably 12 by 20 feet front to back. The living room was so big and so cold with the door kept shut, it was easy to store greenery of all kinds in there.

Holly or pyracantha branches full of red berries were piled in a corner.




Long lengths of ivy stretched beside a wall. Pine boughs were bunched up beside the sofa, and leaves — magnolia, mainly — overflowed a large box off to the side.

And then there were the twigs of mistletoe ready to be thumb-tacked overhead in each doorway.

In the middle of the room was the work area, the floor protected with old newspaper. Jars contained buttons, gold beads, small ornaments, brass fasteners, and glitter. Rubber cement and glue, florist’s wire and cord — there was some of it somewhere.

There were wreath forms, small, medium and large. I recall a small square of chicken wire — but only the Lord knows what it became.

There were round bowls and square ones, clear glass, milk glass, goblets and pitchers. It’s a wonder we had any dishes to eat from by the time Mama got through.

Scissors and wire cutters, pliers, a hammer, large pins and little nails, plus a few thumbtacks, rounded out the work tables brought in from the back porch.

Brother Harold and I caught Mama’s enthusiasm somewhat. We wanted to make decorations too! Crumple newspaper into a ball. Circle the crumpled newspaper with glue, attach shiny ribbon, hang on tree. It’s not as easy as it looks on TV!

Then there were the do-it-yourself candles. Melt paraffin, beat with an egg beater until frothy, pour into an empty quart milk carton and let cool, peel paper off for a large, supposedly beautiful candle. Lopsided maybe, but beautiful? Hmmm.

String crepe paper circles for garlands. I soon got tired of my own, so I mostly helped Mama with her creations. Normal tree decorations were not necessarily put to normal use. Garlands of tinsel were transformed into “nests” for tiny presents, to anchor the mantel amid magnolia leaves and ivy.

Red holly and pyracantha berries peeked between green leaves and pine boughs, carefully glued and wired together to surround several center candles.(Much more beautiful than our milk carton kind!)

The front door wreath was created of fresh green pine boughs, plaid and plain ribbons, berries, beads and leaves intertwined to make the prettiest wreath I’d ever seen.

Indoor wreaths were fashioned too, using ivy, more berries, leaves and ribbons. Beside our seldom-used fireplace from ceiling to floor were white painted bookshelves. Most of the books came down, and Christmas went up.

Candles, bowls full of colored balls, holly leaves and berries, formed miniature Christmas scenes everywhere. Every doorway, every table top celebrated Christmas. The dining room and kitchen didn’t miss out.

All our couches and chairs had side tables with reading lamps. Lamps and tabletops had new life, circled or topped with something Christmasy, plaid bows, red bows and green bows topped with garlands of tiny brass balls. Big and little leaves with red berries glued on became candle holders for green and red tapers.

The big upright piano on the back living room wall was usually topped with stacks of stuff, music books and magazines. All were dumped in a closet and the manger scene was installed complete with camels, shepherds, angels, and baby Jesus adored by Mary and Joseph, resting on a bed of soft cotton. A landscape of ivy vines and pyracantha berries completed the scene.

Still, the main attraction was the Christmas tree, taking up the end of the living room overlooking the street, in front of tall, wide windows. If there had been artificial trees back then, we wouldn’t have had one. The smell of Christmas had to include a fresh tree! Whatever hadn’t been used in other ways went on that tree.

The lights took a long time. If one bulb was out, the whole string was out, and of course you didn’t know which one. It was time for Daddy to go to work. Take a bulb out of a good string, so you knew that bulb was good. Then, one by one, replace bulbs with that good one, until the culprit was found. I have no idea what happened if more than one bulb went bad — I guess you tossed out the whole string.

Once the strings were all shining brightly, they had to be very particularly placed. Not too many red bulbs together, not too many blue. The most beautiful lights of all were the bubble lamps. When they warmed up, you could see and hear the colored fluid gently, softly circulate up and down the tall, slender cylinders of light.

First, up and down a little bit Mama and Daddy carefully wound the strings around the tree, to create a scalloped effect. All us critics had to approve the final light show before any other ornaments touched that tree. Then came the glass balls, large ones on the bottom, medium ones half-way up, and small ones on top. Balance!

Then the tinsel, then the icicles, and the finishing touches, the angel hair and at the tip top, the Christmas angel! Or was it a star? No matter. That was the most gorgeous tree we ever had, and nobody else’s tree could possibly come close that year.

I don’t remember my presents. I don’t remember the food. I don’t even remember going to my grandmother Mimi’s house — but I do remember that Christmas tree, and the living room, and Mama making enough decorations to fill up the house with Christmas.

Well, soon after the holidays, the dining room and kitchen returned to normal. The living room was a different story. Mama would go in there once in a while, look at everything and smile, stay a few minutes and come out again.

Oh yes, the living room was a very different story. Because, you see, it took a long time to get that room and that tree just right, and Mama wasn’t tired of it yet by New Year’s. Or by the middle of January, or by the middle of February. After all, the living room was cold, the greenery wasn’t fading very fast, the needles couldn’t fall very far with all that angel hair holding them in place —

And so it was Easter before the tree came down.

Daddy mentioned the tree now and then. I recall his patience wearing a little thin. And his puzzlement at Mama’s attitude. Eventually he gave up mentioning the tree, and eventually Mama felt it was time, and the tree came down at Easter.

I don’t have many other clear memories of that year, the weather, the politics, the family situations, but I have a distinctly clear memory of Christmas, and Mama, and it’s the best memory of my childhood.

(This was first written for a Junior High English Class, circa. 1956 or 1957. My grade on that paper was an A. My teacher read it to the class, then she begged to keep it. I was quite proud of that but declined. It was a gift for my very precious, much loved Mama.)

Disclaimer: The photos are not original to me or our house from those days; they were borrowed from various sites online. But they are very close to my memories!

T’was the Night Before Christmas

Wash day

SC Family Memories

Sitting at my computer I can hear my automatic washer working away down the hall. Now and then I go move clothes from washer to dryer or dryer to laundry basket, and later on I’ll fold tee shirts and towels while watching television. Laundry is an annoying interruption in my week day, but if I save it all till Saturday I can’t do something else I’d rather do outside the house.

My grandmother Mimi did laundry outside the house, come to think of it… her wringer washer was housed in a shed attached to the smokehouse, a long extension cord running from the back porch to supply power.

I liked to help her with the wash, especially sheets. First she’d pump enough water to fill the round tub using the hand pump in the middle of the back yard. Having the washer on wheels helped; Mimi could roll it to…

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The Day the Martians landed

Summer in Florence, brings back good memories for me.

SC Family Memories

Kudzu Vines, Chinaberry Trees, and the Day the Martians Landed

kudzu1Kudzu has taken over the swamp on West Palmetto Street. This is an annual ritual, of course. Warm sunny days, a little rain, and lots of kudzu vines.

The broad, delicate leaves drive some folks crazy, pulling, burning, cussing – but to a kid in the 1950’s, the kudzu forest in the center of our block was a wonderful thing.

A few trees stretched upwards between the bushes, and under that shady canopy were many caves, tunnels and other hideouts. Cowboys and Indians? Of course. Cops and robbers? Them too. And Martians!

Whenever I pass the kudzu-covered swamp, I want to park the car and dive right in, become a kid again, burrow beneath the leafy branches and find arrowheads, bottle caps, bits of pull chain and bolts, maybe even pennies or nickels! Oh, for the good old days of…

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Short-cut home from Turkey / Six Day War

SC Family Memories

By Harold W. Motte, Florence, SC

During the hostilities leading to the Six Day War in 1967, I was a Navy radioman on the ammunition ship Mazama in the Mediterranean Sea. When our ship hit port in Turkey, I got word that my mother was very sick and I had to come home.

The Turkish Air Force got me from the ship to the dock and took me to the end of a commercial air base where I boarded a military plane. I flew from there to the big naval base at Rota, Spain, where you took off to come to Virginia or New Jersey.

So I’m just sitting there waiting on my flight and about 3:00 that afternoon, a Navy petty officer comes and wants to know if anybody there has any kind of secret clearance. He said they needed a guard to go with the courier, an Air Force colonel, on…

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Mother’s Day is coming up

There’s so much to notice in this photograph, taken by my photographer father on some special occasion – perhaps even Mother’s Day. Click on it to enlarge. I remember that apartment on West Palmetto Street, upstairs in a large two-story house just a few doors down from the intersection with Coit Street. Only commercial buildings are located in that block now.

Mother’s Day brings back so many memories…

Mama died in 1970. Mama’s mother, my grandmother Mimi, died in 1973. Daddy’s mother died when I was only two and I have no memories of her at all, but I wish they were all still here to celebrate Mother’s Day with me. Here’s a slightly re-arranged post from several years ago.

When I was small I loved to make Mother’s Day cards for mama. Even if I had purchased something I still made the cards for her. Usually they were multi-layer creations: when you opened the first page, there was a smaller page glued inside, and another inside that. Each page featured a hand-drawn, crayon-colored picture, maybe a flower or a heart, and each page said “I Love You, Mama.” I might spend several hours with scissors, rubber cement and crayolas, sometimes starting over several times until I got my masterpiece just right.

After she died in 1970 I came across an old pasteboard box with the flaps folded into each other. Prying it open I discovered my birth certificate, baby clothes, baby book, old report cards, piano recital programs, and handfuls of those home-made cards I’d given her. It looked like she had saved every one I’d ever made. I sat there a long time, fingering those little pages and re-reading each one. I think about that a lot these days when Mother’s Day rolls around.

Here’s another great photo of mama taken by daddy, not sure where. It may have been taken in Florence, but could have been anywhere from Newport News, Virginia to Albuquerque, New Mexico, places where they were stationed during WWII.

A while back I wrote that everything I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten. That’s not completely true. I also learned a great many things from my mother and grandmother, my aunts, from Sunday School teachers, public school teachers, the mothers of friends, and a lot of other women.

The main one, though, was mama. Mama always worked outside the home. Before I was born she did clerical work on the military bases where Daddy was stationed. After I was born she worked in an office downtown. Bad parenting? No, economics. My brother and I didn’t consider it being “deprived;” it was just the way things were.

But when mama was home in the evenings and on weekends, we were learning things. Like chores. Chores were divvied up like pieces of a pie. Our house, no matter where we lived, had white woodwork. Today a lot of houses lack woodwork around doors and windows. Saves on housework, that’s for sure. Our semi-gloss woodwork collected stray fingerprints and smudges like a magnet. Amongst laundry-folding, furniture-dusting and trash-emptying, removing “not white” marks from door jambs and windowsills was a weekly responsibility.

Washing dishes was my daily duty after school. There weren’t many plates and forks to wash but oh those pots and pans! Steel wool time. Every afternoon I dillied and dallied until it was nearly time for mama’s car to drive up before I ran the dishwater. Seldom did I get an early start and have the kitchen spick and span before her arrival home.

Soon it was time to peel something like onions or potatoes, slice something like cucumbers or tomatoes, or grate something, like cheese. Cheese for cheese biscuits, cheese for macaroni and cheese, cheese for cheese grits, any of which was a favorite on the supper menu; or cabbage for cole slaw, which wasn’t.

In between chores, mama taught us the three R’s, particularly reading, from the time we could hold one of those thick-paged baby books. While my grandmother Mimi subscribed to every magazine she could think of, mama loved books. There were library books, new and used paperbacks and hardback books on many different subjects.

How-to books on electricity, plumbing and math, informational books on Southern Snakes or Southern Skies, science fiction books by Isaac Asimov et al and Christian books by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale — everywhere you looked there was a book or two on an end table. Reading for themselves and reading to us was as natural to my parents as preparing meals or paying bills. You just did it.

Mama also loved piddling around the house, piddling around the yard, and piddling around the sky. That’s how she put it. She encouraged us to piddle too. “I’m just piddling,” she’d say as she stitched something up, like old draperies to make sofa cushions, or old skirts to make aprons.

“I’m just piddling,” she’d say as she planted marigolds and zinnias, chrysanthemums and asters in neat graduated rows against the front yard fence. She’d explain about ladybugs and garden snails, and why some weeds were fine and some were not. She’d never just pull up a dandelion, she’d solemnly explain if you blow the thing to smithereens and scatter all those fluffy seeds, which yes indeed did look like fun, there would be zillions of them next year stealing all the good nutrients from the pretty zinnias, see?

“I’m just piddling,” mama would say as she lugged out the telescope to watch sputnik go over on a clear night. (I wonder how many households owned a telescope in those days.) “Come look, the stars are so pretty tonight. And would you make me a milkshake and bring it when you come?” I’d carefully measure out a spoonful of vanilla flavoring, stir two spoonfuls of sugar into a tall glass of milk, drop in several ice cubes and join mama’s sputnik-watching, or Big-Dipper watching, or man-in-the-moon watching.

When I needed spending money over and above my weekly allowance, mama taught me how to do office work. She’d bring home box-fulls of envelopes and letters, show me the proper way to fold a page in thirds and stuff it in an envelope, then the easy way to seal a batch of stuffed envelopes. Fan the flaps out so only the gummed part of each one is showing, then run a damp sponge across all the flaps at once and quickly flip each flap into place. Nothing to it.

She’d pronounce my work acceptable and pay me a dollar or so. We’d discuss many things while we worked, school, friends, hair styles, grades, books, newspaper articles, homework assignments — come to think of it, school got into our conversation a lot in those days.

Mama was a classroom volunteer and for some reason I don’t remember what exactly she did. Maybe she brought cookies or something, who knows. One thing I do remember, though. She was voted the prettiest mother in the 8th grade at Poynor. I was dumbfounded to learn my classmates adored my mother. I knew I adored my mama, but I had no idea anybody else’s kids did too. I was impressed!

There are lots more memories but for now, here’s wishing a Happy Mother’s Day to mothers of all ages, to those who still have their mothers or grandmothers with them, and to those who, like me, wish they did.

Childhood Melodies

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak but He is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me, Yes, Jesus loves me, Yes, Jesus loves me, for the Bible tells me so.”

Patty cake. Three blind mice. Row, row, row your boat. Twinkle, twinkle, little star!

Daddy sang bass, Mama sang tenor — no, actually they didn’t, Daddy sang something in a barbershop quartet but I have no idea what range voice he had.

Mama didn’t sing much. She loved to hear him sing, though, and when I was little and taking piano lessons, Mama taught herself the basics of playing the piano.

Music was always playing in our house, whether on radio or hi-fi (record player with fancy turntable, loadable with multiple vinyl records). Folk music, classics by symphony orchestras, musical movie soundtracks, blues and jazz from New Orleans, boogie woogie, Hits of the 50’s and 60’s, Big Band love songs and war songs — Mama and Daddy had a huge collection of long-play 33’s to choose from.

Or somebody in the house might be singing (who knows who), or playing banjo (daddy), or playing piano (me), or playing violin (brother Bud, aka Harold).

During the summer months when Bud and I spent a lot of time at our grandparents’ farm, Mimi usually had a radio on in the house tuned to a country music station somewhere.

Grand Ole Opry on WSM radio, direct from Nashville! I learned to love the sound of fiddle music, acoustic and slide steel guitar, the thump, thump of a big old bass guitar, the twang twang of ukuleles and mandolins, and lots of hillbilly tunes. Bluegrass. Mountain music. Honky-tonk!

When Mimi and Da bought a black and white television set, they discovered the Louisiana Hayride and Grand Ole Opry were broadcast there, too! Now I could see what my favorite country western music-makers looked like!

Saturday nights brought the memorable Kitty Wells’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” or Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” right into our living room.

I still can’t hear the name Hank Williams without hearing him singing “I Saw the Light.”

In between the vocalists might be the comedy skits of Minnie Pearl, or the amazing strings and pickin’ music of Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys.

Here’s a clip titled Earl’s Breakdown — It was wonderful then, still wonderful now!

Why did we love music so much?

One practical, earthly reason may have been Daddy’s oldest sister, Aunt Myrtle. She played piano for silent movies! And she sponsored my piano lessons. Myrtle could play like Liberace and she loved for all of us to listen.

There’s another, more spiritual reason, though. Music was Father God’s invention. The Lord sings! The sons of God (angels) sing! Heavens, earth, trees and mountains, even the stars sing!

So when it came to creating human beings, it’s only logical that He’d include a music gene in there somewhere. At least in my own family, I’m sure he did!

“The LORD thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing.” (Zeph. 3:17)

“When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:7)

“Then shall the trees of the wood sing out at the presence of the LORD, because he cometh to judge the earth.” (I Chron. 16:33)

“Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; and break forth into singing, O mountains: for the LORD hath comforted his people, and will have mercy upon his afflicted.” (Isaiah 49:13)


Childhood Prayers

Esther's Petition

Bette, age 5

My earliest childhood prayer went like this:

“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. God bless Mama and Daddy, God bless Bud, God bless Mimi and Da, God bless Uncle Ponk and Aunt Vera, God bless Uncle Dub and Aunt Pearl, and God bless Uncle Mike.”

I asked God to bless every relative of Mama and Daddy’s that I could remember, their brothers and his sisters, their spouses and all their children. I added names as time went on, when Mike married Frances, and babies were born to one or another family. No doubt I missed a few cousins now and then.

Once in a while I would tag on somebody not a relative, like my school teacher or Sunday School teacher, or friend…

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The Dairi-O, the Kudzu Forest, and the Kuker House

SC Family Memories

Kuker House In the early 1950s my family lived in an apartment house in the 300 block of South Irby Street, right behind the Dairi-O.

On the corners of Irby and West Palmetto were First Baptist Church, a gas station, St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, and the Kuker House. The Dairi-O was next door to the Kuker House.

The Dairi-O served the creamiest ice cream, piled high and swirled to a peak atop a pointed cone. Folks from all around the county would stop on their way to and from shopping in Florence to park, purchase and enjoy vanilla and chocolate cones.

The little building was surrounded by a crushed stone parking lot, tough on a kid’s bare feet, but when mother dressed my brother Harold and me in look-alike yellow sunsuits and little white sandals, the ice cream people thought we were adorable. Free cones and dishes of sherbert were easy to…

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Lions and Tigers and Elephants — Oh my!

The Circus is in Town!

The word had been out a while around McKenzie school the fall I turned eight, but I didn’t know what to expect. The annual agricultural fair was familiar with its Ferris Wheels and Merry Go Round, but the circus?

And not just any circus, Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey!

Posters were up on shop windows and big ads appeared in the newspaper, promising excitement like Florence had never seen before. On October 26, 1951, the biggest of the Big Tops came to Florence.

The Circus Train came to a slow stop, blocking Coit Street between West Evans and Darlington Street. It didn’t take long for the news to spread and townspeople turned out in droves. People came on foot and in cars and pretty soon they were everywhere, onlookers, helpers, greeting the circus crew and animal wranglers as they descended from the train.

“Stay close to me,” Daddy warned, “or you’ll have to get back in the car.” I didn’t want to get stuck back in the car — I wanted to see the elephants!

The smells were like a cross between Mimi and Da’s mule pen and hot tar. The animal smell wasn’t unfamiliar or unpleasant to a mostly agricultural community like Florence. But the incredible sounds! Deep rumbles and high pitched squeals identified several jungle animals with a few low growls mixed in, presumably from lions and tigers.

Then the elephants chimed in! I would recognize the trumpeting of elephants anywhere. Chills went up my arms and I tugged hard on Daddy’s hand, urging him forward.

“The elephants, Daddy! I want to see the elephants!” But we had to stay back, there were too many people ahead of us.

Suddenly I couldn’t wait to get to the circus. “Can we go now?” I asked Daddy, “Can we go to the circus now?” As he led the way back to the car and we headed home, I clamored to know why we couldn’t go right now and see the lions, and tigers, and especially the elephants.

But the tents weren’t up yet and the equipment still had to be unloaded, like the high wires, trapezes, the human cannonball’s cannon, not to mention the sawdust and bleachers. Daddy explained that the animals had to be unloaded too, not just lions and tigers and elephants, but trained horses and dogs and their trainers. We’d have to be patient.

The elephants were paraded down the street to a site behind the National Guard Armory on West Evans. We missed that but when opening time arrived, Mama and Daddy, Harold and I were in line.

We entered the Big Top by way of a path lined with huge painted cages. I imaged myself looking like an appetizer to the big cats peering through the metal bars and tried to wedge myself between Mama and Daddy.

Hawkers in striped costumes were selling souvenirs and hot dogs. Little booths on wheels sold snowballs and cotton candy. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the fairgrounds, except for clowns on stilts and women in shiny spangles welcoming us into the tent.

Three sections had been created (it was a for-real three-ring circus, the largest ring in the center, of course). The bleachers looked a bit wobbly to me and I didn’t want to go very far up. “You can see more up there,” Daddy explained, pointing up a few more rows. No! No! The fear of heights even then was getting a grip on me. So Harold and I sat just a few rows up from the ground, Mama and Daddy right behind us. Sort of in-between two of the rings, we could see most of the center ring and all of one more.

The performers and animals were introduced by the Ringmaster as they circled the tent before separating to spots on the ground and in the air. The circus had begun!

Big striped tigers in a metal cage performed their routine with a whip-wielding handler. They seemed unhappy as they performed, human and cats alike. A cat lover, I was both thrilled and sympathetic. If a tiger took a nip out of that handler, I might not have minded too much.

The circus wonderland kept me mesmerized the entire afternoon. Acrobats and jugglers, the lady and man on the trapeze flying back and forth through the air, I hardly knew where to look. “Look, look!” Mama would point as something new started in a different ring.

The clowns with their big noses and floppy feet crammed themselves into a little car and a little house — how did so many squeeze into such a small space?!

The Ringmaster directed our attention to the far side of the tent. “Pow” went the cannon, and a flash of red went by as the human cannonball flew through the air into a safety net. Not too impressive, I thought, mainly because I missed most of his flight. But there was so much movement, so much sound, so much to see.

I loved the elephants, those wonderful gray creatures with big eyes and long eyelashes. As they lumbered into the ring, a dainty girl posed across each neck like a shiny pom-pom. Then up the elephants rose, front legs resting on the rump of his fellow in front.

Up again, until each one was sitting on his hind legs with trunk raised, the girls gracefully slipping to the ground. I watched the trapeze artists and the horses and the dogs and the clowns and tried my best not to miss anything important. I probably ate a hot dog, maybe some peanuts. But what I remember most from that day is the elephants.

We’ve had other circuses in Florence over the years. Ringling traded in their trains for trucks in the middle 1950’s, our local Big Top site was changed to the airport, finally indoors at the Civic Center in recent years.

But nothing will ever be as good to me as that day in 1951 when Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey brought the circus train and the lovely elephants to Florence.