Monday, September 14, 2009

My Hill Country Assurances: Part 3 -- LETHA DORIS HOLLINGSWORTH THORNTON

by Terry Thornton

Today continues the two-part use of the "pistols" approach to writing biography begun last week. After reading the book Pistols for Two, I decided to try the approach presented there to write about the two pistols in my life, my father and mother. Click here to read about my father, Garfus Sherman Thornton, and continue reading below to read about the dangerous pistol in my life, my mother. At the end of the article are nine pictures of Letha Doris Hollingsworth Thornton.

I say dangerous because her behavior was sometimes so erratic I never knew when she might come charging in on the scene blazing away with all barrels!

No guns, however, figure in this discussion of my mother. Although I'm sure she could handle a firearm if the need arose (she had fired my father's shotgun on one occasion and the recoil nearly knocked her down she said), her bullets were words --- and some of the words she "fired" were silver ones straight through the heart.

Here then is the second pistol in my life, my mother, the person who influenced me most during my first seventeen years.


She was born in Calhoun County, Mississippi, in 1904.

She celebrated her ninth birthday the year after I was born.

She was not eight calendar years old at my birth; she was in her early thirties. She had celebrated only a few birthdays because she was born on Leap Day, February 29.

She was the daughter of William Alfred Hollingsworth (1869 - 1951) and Ophelia Elizabeth Nix Hollingsworth (1871 - 1935). Letha was the eighth of their eleven children.

She was extraordinarily fond of her siblings (listed from oldest) --- Herbert Hollingsworth, Valeria Elizabeth H. Smith, Clara Mae H. Norman, Lela Pearl H. Spratlin, Fannie Lou H. Parker, Clifton Otis Hollingsworth, Thomas Lee Hollingsworth, William Aaron Hollingsworth, Mary Edna H. Holland, and Lorette Alice H. Martin Webb.

She looked after her father for about five weeks each year and then he went to stay with another of his children. I have few memories of my Grandfather Hollingsworth as he was in poor health by the time I knew him.

She talked frequently of her mother who died before either my brother or I were born. The only picture of my Grandmother Hollingsworth I have (below) shows her to be an attractive woman whose attractive features were passed on to her children. Letha was an attractive woman also.

She lost a premature set of twin boys early in her marriage --- and often acted as if my brother and I were twins frequently dressing us identically when we were toddlers.

She named me William after her father.

She spent her childhood in the family home in the Lloyd Community of Calhoun County and attended school at Lloyd.

She, according to her sister Clara who was ten years older, won some sort of prize as a student at Lloyd. Aunt Clara told me that it was an prize for the "best" or most outstanding student --- and that "Letha was never the same afterwards."

She did not graduate from high school --- for that matter I don't know if Lloyd School went through the twelfth grade but I think it did. Instead, after she completed her eleventh year of public school, she took the Mississippi state examination for a teacher's license and passed. Certified as an elementary school teacher, Letha left home as a teenager and started a teaching career that brought her to Monroe County where she had many relatives.

She did, however, attend some summer sessions for teachers at a Normal College in Pontotoc. [I think Pontotoc --- but I'm not 100% sure of the location. Letha had some photographs of the school at one time but I don't know what happened to those pictures.]

She taught at several schools --- from Gattman to Faulkner (at Parham) to Bartahatchie to Splunge and eventually to Oak Hill. She told me that during part of her teaching in the Depression years she was paid in vouchers and how difficult it was to get those vouchers converted into cash.

She was my first teacher and she was my first critic. I remember reading to her short attempts at creative writing as an elementary school pupil and how kind she was with her constructive criticism and how much she encouraged me to write more.

She was, in my earliest memories, a plump woman who detested the notion of being referred to as "stout." Her hair was black and naturally wavy --- and in her later years her hair was white.

She usually cut her own hair but I have a trace memory of my father, Garfus Thornton who was a trained barber, cutting her hair.

She had an electric churn she used to make butter. The house we lived in had been electrified about two years before I was born and one of her first electrical devices was a small motorized churning device. She still used the large heavy pottery churn in which she had always made butter; the electric device fit onto the churn and made the butter come without use of the old-fashioned dasher.

She processed the freshly churned butter squeezing out the excess water and salting it slightly. It was then pressed in a wooden butter mold and refrigerated.

Letha had a refrigerator in her kitchen and we rarely got to buy ice from the iceman who ran a route through Parham supplying ice to customers without electricity. The only time we bought ice for for ice-cream parties or when going on outings and needed to ice down a tub of drinks or a tub of fish.

She made cottage cheese which was delicious. Other than remembering how much I enjoyed eating it, I don't recall much about the process except that the curds of cottage cheese were drained through cheesecloth. She hung the bags of draining cottage cheese from one of the kitchen cabinets and caught the dripping whey in bowls.

She and Garfus grew most of what we ate. During my early childhood, she canned constantly during the summer preserving the garden's bounty for eating during the winter months. She grew her own chickens and would chase down the hen she wanted for the pot and would wring off its head.

She laughed at me when one of the headless chickens ran erratically towards me and scared me silly when I was just a toddler, an event I remember vividly.

She played the piano "by ear" and was a fairly accomplished pianist. Once she heard a song she could usually repeat it without use of printed music. She could read "shaped" notes of printed music but more modern "round" notes were a complete befuddlement.

She bought, on the installment plan from earnings as a teacher prior to her marriage, an upright piano which was her pride and joy. It was on that piano that I learned to play and to read music when I was five years old. Her piano survives; it is in the home of my brother.

She enjoyed singing and I remember her solos at church on an occasion or two. The last solo she sang in public I remember was the song Some Times I Feel Like a Motherless Child. It was not well received but she gave it her best Mahalia Jackson-inspired attempt.

She attempted to donate the Thornton Farm tractor to the war effort during World War Two. She wrote to the war department offering to give Garfus' farm tractor to the military. She received a gracious letter back from them declining her offer. I have a copy of the reply she received but don't know the circumstances of her attempts to present the U.S.Government with a used farm tractor.

She was fond of going to all-day singings, family reunions, and Home-Comings/Memorial Day Services.

She was the first person I knew to have a family genealogy book --- the book by Paul B. Murff, The Descendants of Randolph S. Murff 1784 - 1955. She introduced me to Paul and several of my Murff "cousins" at Murff Family Reunions in Monroe County where some of the materials for the book was collected.

She was proud of her family connection to the Murff family and was delighted when her Hollingsworth family was listed within the pages of that book.

She did not drink other than to occasionally have some of Garfus' homemade wine. Her standard reply when asked if she would like some of the wine was, "Yes, please. But a small amount --- just enough for the Sacrament" or "just enough for the Sabbath." She would not accept a normal serving of wine --- and would only allow a glass with a very small amount to be set in front of her.

She sometimes celebrated four or five "Sabbaths" at one sitting.

She was a member of the Methodist Church.

She wrote to Barbara Walters when Miss Walters first started on the Today Show on NBC complaining that her lovely outfits were not fully appreciated because viewers never saw her standing. Miss Walters wrote back a gracious letter thanking her for her compliments explaining how during a television show there were few opportunities for her to stand and walk about. Letha was proud of that letter --- and I don't know what eventually happened to it.

She was never a careful driver but that didn't deter her from driving fast and far. Of all her driving exploits which scared me the most was the day she got caught up in her first clover interchange at the intersection of two major highways just south of Jackson Mississippi. I was seated in the back seat of the 1950 Packard she was driving along with assorted cousins and aunts (we were all headed to south Mississippi to visit relatives). Anyway, when Letha missed her turn on the third or fourth try of going around that cloverleaf, she slammed on the brakes, put it in reverse, and backwards we went around the cloverleaf until she found the correct turn.

She had only two driving accidents of which I am aware. Both were in the Packard. On the way to teach class one wet morning, she was late and lost control of the car. It left the roadway and she ended up in Jim Miller's cotton patch doing a figure eight. No damage to the car except all four wheels were warped and tires flat but much of Mr. Jim's cotton was "plowed up."

She lost control of that car another time and ran into a deep ditch at the intersection of Thornton Road and Hatley-Detroit Road and stated that the problem was that "all four wheels of her car started going in different directions."

She once stopped the car she was driving and left me and my brother inside and went running up to the nearest house to borrow a hoe. Returning with the hoe she killed a huge rattlesnake that didn't have the sense to get out of her way.

She was the loser in a law suit once about a car. When she and my father bought the store and house at Parham, the previous owner left an automobile parked, she claimed, right up against the side of the house and in the way. The owner of the vehicle said that he would return and get the car --- and some time passed and the car was still in her way. So she sold it. Yes, you can figure out where this is going. The owner sued her and won. Letha never talked about this --- but on occasion Garfus enjoyed ribbing her about being sued and losing.

She had a fur coat but rarely wore it. I remember when she and Garfus went to Birmingham during the early-1940s and returned with the coat, a dark fur street-length coat. It hung in her cedar lined wardrobe for the next several decades.

She had boxes full of hats back when women were expected to wear hats whenever they went anywhere. Some of my earliest memories of her were of in hats trimmed in multicolored feathers. I never figured out what hat veils were all about --- but many of her hats had veils.

She had numerous pairs of dress gloves to wear with her hats --- fabric gloves for summer and leather ones for winter.

She believed that thick ankles were somehow related to social standing and breeding --- and was forever disappointed that hers were thick rather than thin.

She believed that hair could be cut in such a way as to make it appear curly --- and one of my embarrassments was the day she dropped me and my brother off at a barber shop in Amory and announced loudly from the door (ladies didn't go into barber shops back then according to her), "Cut their hair so it looks curly" to the disbelieving barbers. The barbers began to bet with each other as to who could cut our hair so we would look curly-headed. I begged to let Garfus continue to cut my hair from that point on rather than be subjected to her impossible requests to barbers.

She did not have a copy of Dr. Spock and all his advice about child-rearing. I have no doubt that she could have given him pointers as she considered herself to be the authority on the nurturing a child after all the practice she had with my older brother. Fortunately by the time I came along she had about gotten being a "perfect" mother out of her system.

She cooked on a wood-burning stove until about 1950 when the house was equipped with a butane gas system and a new gas stove was installed in the kitchen. The large wood-burning stove was a Home Comfort brand (I think) range. It had a large water tank beside the firebox. On the top back part of the stove was a warming safe --- and the foods there were wonderful to eat. Left over biscuits, fried chicken, and baked sweet potatoes were my favorites.

She refused to let me have butter-sugar biscuits in my lunch pail for first grade. All my friends got to eat sugar biscuits and I had to eat something called "healthy" stuff. I sometimes traded my "healthy" stuff for a sugar biscuit.

She was not a good cook. And the older she became, she forgot what little cooking skills she once had. That is, she forgot how to cook except just a few items --- her fried chicken was perfect and her buttermilk biscuits were outstanding.

She did, however, enjoy the reputation for being a creative cook. When one is faced with problems such as bad jello making skills, one must be creative. She learned to use already prepared items and do just enough "fiddling" with them to make it appear that she was really a chef. Her cakes were made of bakery-baked layers --- and she enjoyed trying foods she read about in the many magazines to which she subscribed. Letha made many trips to Kroger in Amory (back when it was on main street across from the bank) to buy special ingredients to fuse together into foods never before seen or served in Parham.

She, at one point, decided that the secret to good and creative cooking was to switch to the use of sea salt and make sure to include rose hips in all her dishes.

She enjoyed serving unexpected friends of mine a quick lunch of soup (prepared from a can), bologna sliced thick and blackened in a skillet, and pork-and-beans (heated straight from the can), slices of bread, and ice cream (hand dipped from Thornton Store) and cookies (straight out of the container and onto a serving platter). Bologna, according to Letha, was a food only suitable to eat if cooked almost to the char --- blackened bologna is what I called it.

She was disappointed and stated her disappointment frequently to Garfus that they didn't go to Alaska in the 1930s when families were recruited to move there. Some of their friends moved and she wished they had gone also.

She was also disappointed that Garfus would not move from Parham several years prior to their retirement. According to her, he promised when they could leave Parham with a certain amount of money they would go. She reminded him constantly when their accounts exceeded that amount. Letha's disappointment in living in Parham was obvious to the members of her household.

She once wrote to a real estate agency specializing in rural business properties for the sale of Thornton Store and the property in Parham. An agent showed up surprising Garfus who wasn't aware her attempt to sell the property.

She was fond of selecting books for presents for me during my childhood. She obviously made her selections based upon the title than upon any other consideration which makes me wonder if she judged people by the cover rather than by what was inside.

She enjoy taking long walks. Her walks on Thornton Farm often let her combine another major interest --- edible wild plants. When the family was walking together, she would often lag behind as she darted here and there gathering edibles and pressing us to try them. Garfus always laughed and said, "Ok, Letha, you just keep grazing. We'll keep walking."

She continued to enjoy going for long solitary walks even after she lost her ability to remember who she was. She was proud of the medical alert necklace I gave to her which had her name, address, and telephone number on it. She wore it constantly and would look at it most frequently.

She publicly humiliated me so thoroughly during the last semester of my senior year in high school that I vowed she would never get under my skin again --- and she didn't.

She was, by the time I graduated from college, displaying many symptoms of mental disease. Eventually she sank into Alzheimer's Disease and I had the sad task of watching her lose most traces of her personality and forget almost all of her history.

She asked me a few months before she died, "Where was I when you were growing up?"

She sold Luzier products when I was a child. She would make arrangements to give a customer a complete facial and complete makeup with hope that the customer would buy some of the products. They often did --- and she traveled over the county selling cosmetics.

She worked for a time helping the electric cooperative sign up customers along the new power lines as all of the side-roads in the hill country of Monroe County received electricity.

She worked during the war selling War Bonds. At the conclusion of that effort she received a silver plaque of appreciation for her work --- a small token of which she was very proud.

She was, for many years, the local newspaper columnist for news from Parham for the Amory Advertiser (now the Monroe Journal). During those years, local news reporters were paid by the column inch and she often wrote and wrote and wrote about our family's doings to our constant embarrassment.

She married my father while seated in the front of his automobile in the yard of a justice of peace at Bartahatchie on November 28, 1928. For some reason this fact has always created a great deal of mirth on my part remembering all of Letha's attempts to put on airs and to always be "socially correct."

She lost her wedding band. It was replaced and several years later when she and Garfus were working in the garden, the ring was found. That wedding band was still in her possession when she died but the replacement band and the original diamond engagement ring was lost. The white gold set was engraved with their initials and date.

She lost lots of items as she sank deeper into Alzheimer's Disease. Besides robbing her of her memories, the disease also robbed her of her ability to make proper judgments and destroyed her ability to make wise decisions or to form associations that were in her best interests.

She was a planner rather than a doer in my childhood. Letha often would announce great and grand plans for some future event but planning was as far as she got with many of her efforts. Some of her plans, however, were put into action with mixed results. Letha planned some "progressive dinners" for a group of teenagers in an age, place, and time when progressive dinners were not of the slightest interest to those who were invited. Letha, with help from some of the other ladies of the community, planned a community-wide Halloween party in Parham in the late 1940s which was a success. Dozens of kids, many I didn't know, came to the Halloween party.

She was not fond of my wife nor of my children. Her mis-treatment of them was one of the saddest chapters in my life.

She was a sad lonely elderly lady when I removed her from the May House in Amory and transferred her to a sheltered apartment complex which was part of a nursing home in the town in Alabama where my family and I lived. She managed only a few months living independently in a sheltered situation. She was then managed by round-the-clock sitters in her apartment and was eventually placed in a nursing home where she died on March 11, 1983.

She, at the time of her death, owned no property, had no outstanding debts other than final medical bills, had no will as all of her assets had been transferred to others.

She is buried at New Hope Cemetery, Parham, Monroe County, besides Garfus Thornton.

She was my mother.

I close this brief biography of my time with Letha Doris Hollingsworth Thornton with the words of Crescent Dragonwagon who wrote in 2008 in Nothing Is Wasted On the Writer an article, Me & My Semi-Famous Aging Mother: Navigating Love With Fierce Persistence ---

No matter what else she was or is, your mother was the imperfect portal through which you entered your own imperfect life, and took temporary residence on this imperfect earth.

Below are nine pictures of Letha Hollingsworth Thornton. Images may be clicked for a larger view.

The earliest photograph I have of Letha Hollingsworth is in this family group. Made at Lloyd, Calhoun County, Mississippi at the home of her father, William Alfred Hollingsworth, the group shows several of her family members. Letha is circled. She was about ten years old.

Letha Hollingsworth, about 1924. She was about 20 years old.

Letha and Garfus Thornton and one of the Red Irish Setters, Parham, Monroe County, Mississippi, late 1940s. Letha would have been about 45 years old.

Letha Hollingsworth Thornton, in the 1950s. She was in her late forties.

Letha Hollingsworth Thornton, late 1960s.

Letha Hollingsworth Thornton, late1970s.

Letha Hollingsworth Thornton, 1970s.

Letha Hollingsworth Thornton, Christmas 1977.

And finally, my favorite picture of Garfus and Letha Thornton and me. The photo was made in the early 1950s at Panama City Florida on the city pier at Captain Anderson's as we prepared to board the Queen Mary for a day of deep-sea fishing. I was almost 12 years old, Garfus was about 49 and Letha was about 47. Note her fishing costume --- a sun-dress of white and green polka-dots with a matching cape-like shoulder covering that attached to the straps of the sun-dress, a matching white and green cap, and white open-toed shoes. Note the ever-present King Edward cigar in Garfus' mouth. I was, however, just perfect in my long-billed cap and little else.

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