Postscript: Who tells your story?

“Your children are going to love having these stories!” a friend wrote, not long after I started the series of posts last summer about my marriage. A different friend wrote much the same message this summer, not long after I started the current series about the house.

As teenagers, my children of course do not love these stories, not yet. Years from now, they might.

Some day they might write their own stories about me, as I have written about my mother. Those stories will be theirs, as mine are my own, including my stories about my mother.

Perhaps you’ve once or twice been curious, reading along here, how my mother would have told her own story. Whether or not this postscript will satisfy that curiosity entirely, I don’t know. What I do know is that it has been easy to write about my mother because she allowed herself to be known. She also left behind, for my sister and me, a long letter, a story to fill in blanks for us. It is her story, in her words, about her life, her marriage to our father, and us.

With my sister’s permission, I share that story today, edited only for length and privacy.

FAMILY HISTORY
by Betty Larkey, 2004

When you asked how Ken and I happened to marry, I began thinking of all the stories you may not have heard. I would like to tell just the funny stories, but you know most of those. There is, of course, lots of me before Ken comes along, and so it is. One of the things he talked about was my independence and how he had always had too little.

This is just my perspective. Meant well.

I first came to Memphis when I was about two weeks old to visit Mother’s friend Ada Fowler, whom we all called Ade. That began my attachment to Memphis.

I remember everything about Ade’s house: the smell of toast under the gas broiler, streetcars clanging in the night, the feel of the scratchy wool rug in the dining room, Lysol in bathrooms, furniture polish on dark wood, the Peter Rabbit book in the bottom drawer of the secretary in the living room, and “Mairsey Doats” music on the spinet piano.

Ade gave me a Madame Alexander “Jill” (5″, I think she was) for Christmas when I was six. Her daughter Roberta gave us the Alice in Wonderland that year and Ade gave us the Hans Christian Andersen the next year.

When I was born, Dad was farm manager on a large farm near Henning. That was when I learned about riding a horse and wishing for the moon. I remember sitting in a car by myself when the old manager’s house burned. Then I have clear memories of the new house.

During World War II, Dad worked as an airplane mechanic at Halls Air Base. I vaguely remember when we were headed for Grandmother’s in Dad’s brand new black Chevrolet (from near Fort Pillow) and the Pearl Harbor attack came on the radio. During the war, we lived in a ramshackle house on Granddaddy’s farm because there was no housing available.

Their house was a white clapboard with a porch on two sides, big rooms, lots of fireplaces, and whatever Grandmother thought was the newest thing. They were the only people around who had a dining room, the first to have a bathroom, telephone, electricity, and a big refrigerator with a freezer. Once Grandmother had all the ceilings lowered because she thought it was more modern. And she closed up the fireplaces except in the dining room and put in floor furnaces. I have been there when she had 12 people around the dining table, although the chair on one end almost touched the sideboard and on the other the floor model radio.

I liked to play in what Grandmother called “the big bedroom,” which had Mission-style furniture (a dresser, chifferobe, sofa , two double beds, a Victrola, several tables, and a very large but worn American Oriental rug. I also liked to play the piano or lie on my stomach in the big back hall and look at Granddaddy’s law books on the bookcase. Ken’s father, Papa, said Granddaddy was like lots of country lawyers who read law but had no degree. He sat on the county court, was a Justice of the Peace, and negotiated legal problems for people.

I always wanted to go to New York, because Grandmother and Granddaddy sounded like it was so great. Grandmother’s cousin Rora lived on Long Island and they loved visiting. They also visited Cousin Freddie who was Granddaddy’s relative and Mr. Armstrong, her husband, who lived in Florida during the winter.

We moved to the farm when I was turning 6 and left when I was 10. When I was 7 the teacher said I was a problem and wouldn’t pay attention in class. She did not want me promoted because I was already a year ahead. After lots of consultation with everyone, Granddaddy said, “Well, we’ll give her piano lessons. The church needs a new piano, so we’ll get one and give her the old one.”

I loved spending the night at Grandmother Mandy’s house, with big rooms and feather beds. During the war, she rented out half the house to another widow but had plenty of space. You’ve heard that she was still weeding her flower garden in her early 90s.

We always had Christmas there until I was 10 and moved away. Granddaddy teased Grandmother that if she couldn’t find enough relatives to overflow the house she would just invite some other people. They would have 10-12 adults at the dining table, 6- 8 just younger at the breakfast table, and a separate place for little children. I visited them lots from age 15 until they died.

After the war, Dad owned a service station-garage in Halls. Then Colleen died and Dad said he was being punished for loving engines when he should be a preacher. So he moved us all to East Tennessee and went back to school. It was there that I got expelled. The teacher had told me repeatedly not to read library books during math class.

They moved back to West Tennessee for Dad to go to Union University when I was 14, and I went to boarding school until I graduated at 15 1/2. I lived with them again from early summer when I was 15 until late summer when I was 16. Dad pastored a small church north of Tiptonville. I think it was a turning point for him. He became increasingly disillusioned with the ministry while much more adamant about religion.

I learned to drive the summer I was 16. Dad was worried that something would scratch up the nice green LeSabre, so a guy taught me to drive his stick shift pickup truck. I could no more drive than a goose – had only been behind a wheel a very few times – but could parallel park. I made it around the town square, parked, and got a license.

I had really wanted to go to Eastman Conservatory but didn’t know how to get myself there. I went to UT-Knoxville for fall quarter when I was 16 but didn’t have money to return after Christmas. Dad arranged with someone he knew in Dyersburg that I could get a scholarship to Asbury College somewhere in Kentucky and was really furious with me when I said I just couldn’t do it because the stipulation was that you had to go into church music.

I rode the bus to Memphis a few days before I turned 17 and got a job in the accounting department at GE. Ade’s younger sister, Aunt Beulah, also widowed, had bought a small but nice house in the Summer/Graham area and that’s where I lived most of those years until after I graduated from college. She was Personal Shopper at The John Gerber Company, where everyone had lunch on Saturdays before shopping or a movie. She had lots of books I enjoyed and still have a few that she gave me, as well as wedding presents. She died after Ken and I married.

During ‘54-55 I met many people in Memphis, one of whom told me about the C. M. Gooch Foundation and introduced me to the incoming president of Howard Payne. The story is that Mr. Gooch, a successful lumberman, asked his wife what she would like for Christmas one late-1920s year. She said children. That since they had none, would he let her set up a scholarship to send people to college.

I was one of Mrs. Gooch’s girls, although I didn’t know she was a real person until after I graduated. (Later, she was pleased that I did flowers at Idlewild and let me come cut in her beautiful garden on East Parkway, including her prized camellias from her greenhouses.)

I got a scholarship at Howard Payne and started there in September 1955. My first work study job was secretary to the athletic director, where I met most of the people I dated for the three years I was there.

Back in Memphis after graduation, an ad agency that no longer exists hired me to do secretarial work and learn copywriting and media buying. During that time I met several people who I later learned were also Ken’ s friends.

I married Don, my first husband, in August 1958. I had a beautiful satin dress from Gerber’s (that I gave to the Thrift Shop) and we went to Jackson, MS for a honeymoon. Don was very funny and we really did have fun together. We had the upstairs of a house on Cowden.

Don had been in Korea and was back at MSU finishing his degree. That was a big problem, because I was not very understanding when I would come home from work to a bunch of frat guys playing cards and drinking beer in a messy apartment.

After a couple of years Don wanted me to file for divorce. We both wanted a home, but he didn’t want to be married and in truth, I wasn’t too happy with our situation.  

I was working, then, as a copywriter for WMC. The National Cotton Council offered me a much better job as sales promotion writer. I had a syndicated column (sewing) in farm publications, had a tv filler on decorating with cotton fabrics translated into 7 languages and used by Cotton Council International, wrote a few film scripts – one in Miami that you’ve heard about – and had pieces in House & Garden, House Beautiful, and Better Homes & Gardens Christmas Ideas. I went to New York to meetings, saw some theatre. I lived in a new apartment building near Idlewild, where I sang in the choir.

I met Ken through friends of friends. I thought he was handsome and a sophisticated older man (everyone else was near my age). He asked me to dinner at the old Luau (across from East High), and later for a weekend at Hardy with his parents. Ken had a boyishness that was very likeable, while I was always more serious.

One day my boss at the Cotton Council called me in to say he wanted me to leave my writing job to be Tour Manager for the Maid of Cotton. I arranged that I could just have a leave of absence from the writing job and almost immediately started traveling to colleges all over the southeast to speak in assemblies or groups, have newspaper, radio, and tv interviews, and basically recruit.

The day after Christmas 1962 I moved into the Peabody Hotel, leaving furniture from my apartment in storage. I went to Dallas for the Cotton Bowl and parties, then to New York for a month at the St. Moritz while we gathered a wardrobe for the Maid in designer showrooms and all got done up for the 6-months tour. It was 50,000 miles, Canada, US, and Europe. Travel twice a week. Remember everyone’ s name for those three days. Fashion shows in the best stores, lots of media coverage. Rest stop at the Beverly Hills Hotel for a few days, Easter at the Broadmoor. The Peabody for Cotton Carnival then New York and Europe.

The day before Christmas 1962 I had dinner with Ken and his parents at Charlie and Libby Dudley’s. (As you know, Charlie was a partner in Larkey, Dudley, Blanchard & McRae law firm.) As we were leaving, Charlie said, “I hear you’re getting dropped tonight.” I had never heard that expression and was so shocked I popped a contact lens that we all had to crawl around to find. At Ken’s parents’ house he brought out a gift-wrapped whiskey box and told me to open it. I pulled out a plastic bag of ashes and switches and everyone laughed.

Myrt said to see what else was in the box and it was an engagement ring. Ken said he had not known how to buy a ring so had taken his mother to do it. It was a fine-grade stone just over a carat set in a Tiffany mounting. Myrt said she could have bought a bigger stone for the same price but wanted to get the best quality. There’s a newspaper clipping of us a couple of days later at the U Club looking very happy.

Ken came to Houston for a weekend while we were there in March, then we did not see each other again until Cotton Carnival in May.

During the tour, I went to Montreal, Toronto, 50 US cities, Paris, Rome (the week the pope died, so only got to see part of Sistine Chapel), Milan, Portofino on the Italian Riviera, Como, Genoa, Lugano (Switzerland), Madrid, Toledo, Barcelona, and 5-6 small towns along the Costa Brava of Spain, then a week in London before returning to New York and home. I went to the theatre with a young French count who had real Fragonards on his apartment walls, bought an old map on the Left Bank, saw Notre Dame from the Seine by moonlight, had tea with the president and first lady of Italy with the American ambassador, lunched with a few haute couture designers, made a fashion film at an old Roman fort in the Pyrenees, and went to the theatre in London. Saw great art and beautiful scenery, stayed at the George V in Paris.

We married at ldlewild in July 1963, just one week after I returned from tour, which was a bit too soon. I had not realized how tired I would be. I had an expensive dress of tucked Swiss cotton made just for me.

Ken was so accustomed to living with his parents, sharing a room with Papa, and I felt like his mother wasn’t really letting him move on. Not long after we married I came home from work one day to find that Myrt had moved around stuff in our living room. Ken had given her a key, which was truly fine, but I had not thought she would come in for no reason when we were not there and change around things that were not hers.

From the beginning, what we argued about most was Myrt. I thought she deprived Ken of taking charge and I disliked her trying to keep him from being his own person, as she had all his life.

World War II was in progress when Ken graduated from Webb, and he wanted to go to pilot training. He signed up for the V-5 program and was sent to Sewanee for a semester. Myrt had a big fit about the flight training so he didn’t go. She took to bed saying he was giving her a heart attack. (Our last time together at Hardy, Papa told me his biggest regret was that “I let my boy down. I should have stood up to his mother for him when he wanted to learn to fly.”)

The war ended, Ken graduated with a business degree from UVA, where he was on the swim team, came home to his parents, and tried several jobs. I think he had been in business for himself 5-6 years when we married, then doing custom houses. He also had an old Navy training plane, an SN-J, that he flew when Myrt was out of town. Once we went to Hardy in it before we married. I sat on my suitcase, no intercom, not luxury. He loved it.

We bought the house on Carr in the spring before Jennifer was born. Contracting was not going well a few months later, and Ken talked about how much he wished he could be in the airplane industry. I said why not go to St. Louis and get the aeronautical engineering degree he wished for and I would work while he did. But he said his parents wouldn’t let him.

We bought the house on Agnes Place for $11,000. It had an old iron sink on legs as kitchen equipment. We spent a few thousand on central heating/air, redecorating walls and floors, and new kitchen equipment. For some reason, Myrt had never liked the house on Carr but did like that one and paid for the many yards of sheer linen for living and dining room curtains. I had a little money of my own and bought the Queen Anne chest and other things.

In February 1970 Myrt had what seemed to be a minor heart attack and was admitted to the hospital that night. She was better in a few days, then had a stroke. I ended up staying with her round-the-clock at the hospital for a month.

Ken and Papa talked about adding a bedroom and bath on the east end of their house, for us to move there and take care of Myrt. When I said I was almost three months pregnant that idea was scratched. Ken said thank God Jennifer would not be an only child.

(That’s when Jennifer would say daily, “And God, you know we love sisters and God, you know we really want a sister.”)

Myrt went home with round-the-clock attendants.

The ’70s were rocky. It seemed that the worse Myrt got, the less Ken could manage. Sometimes it seemed as if we had two separate families – him with his parents and me with you two. I stayed frustrated and worried, as I know he was also.

I went to counseling at the church, and the counselor sent me to an attorney, who told me to get a job. I started Apron Strings (on a borrowed shoestring) to be just adjunct tuition money.

After Myrt and Papa died, I wasn’t sympathetic enough for Ken to take me into his confidence about what he was going to do. On October 2, 1979 Ken came into the playroom while I was at home before carpool and said he couldn’t take contracting any longer or life was not worth living. He said the money was all gone and he was in debt. He wanted me to sign to put a second mortgage on the house to bail out of contracting. I said I couldn’t really think about it that fast and would meet him for lunch the following day to discuss. But I realized that we weren’t likely to be able to pay a second mortgage note when the first wasn’t that easy.

So I said if we sold the house we could bail him out and let him get going in something else. I had been finding letters/notes (not to anyone usually) on the den sofa and kitchen counter about his wanting to fly. And letters on the typewriter in my office applying for jobs flying the oil pipeline in Alaska or Australia (some of them written a year or so previously). I said I would take part of the equity money and support you two for six months while he got re-situated.

It was a tough time, and Apron Strings wasn’t making enough to support us. I stayed worried and tired all that time, as you can see in photos. I look so tired and tight-lipped those years. Sorry I couldn’t have been better about things lots of times. I did always stay at home on Sat. night, though, since you were both usually out. Once Jennifer called from New York to say her purse had been stolen while she was at dinner. One night Margaret’s date got picked up by the police as he and Margaret were coming home. Glad I was there.

You two are the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Despite all the chaos and upheaval, you’ve both done wonderfully and I’m so proud of you. Not that I can take all the credit. There are lots of interesting genes in the mix and some of them are pretty damned good, fun, smart, flexible.

When I think about the three of us together being flexible or enterprising, I think of so many trip stories. But, of course, you know those already.

Betty, Dover, Massachusetts, 1988 (Jennifer Larkey Balink)

This post is part of a series about our renovation of a house built in 1905 that we bought in 2003 from the woman who lived in it for 91 years. The first post in this series is “Jackie’s House.”

  1. Jennifer, your mother’s story is wonderful, just wonderful. She writes with such insight. Thank you for sharing it with us readers. The aunt I mentioned on another post lived on Cowden. And I had a chuckle over the honeymoon in Jackson (my hometown). Small world indeed. –Susan (Michelle’s friend)

    Like

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