My Mother Would Have Been 100 Today

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 10, 2016

When I was a child, I felt my parents ruined my life. Looking back, I believe I ruined theirs.

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[Click on all photos for a larger view.]

My mother, born Virginia Dare Little in 1916, would have been one hundred today. She died back in 2007. A century is a very long time, especially to exist in our memories. There are people who live well beyond the 100-year mark, who cram a whole century in their mind. My soul shivers. I now have sixty years that haunt me, which seems too much. I can’t imagine carry around 36,525 days. My mother was 35 when she had me, so I have little knowledge of her life before forty. Using photographs, family lore, and discussions with my sister, I hope to give a quick overview of her ninety-one years.

Instead of driving down to visit her grave for her centennial celebration, I thought I’d spend a few days and create a memorial blog post. There are two books I often thought about when writing this essay: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, about a family tragedy that results from parents and children not communicating , and The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, a book that aims to teach writing, but really teaches us about the limits of memory. I highly recommend both to anyone who writes about families, or remembrances of things past.

Because I’m an atheist I don’t believe I’ll be reunited with my parents after I die. I should have asked them more questions when they were alive. I should have been a better son, but I wasn’t. I could say my mother and father should have been better parents, but they did the best they could. I was the best kid I could be under the circumstances. Our failure was not comprehending each other.

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In the years since my mother’s death I’ve often wished she was around to answer questions about her history. I inherited all her photographs, many of which aren’t dated or labeled. So I have those kinds of questions. I’ve often thought about my own life, wishing she was around to verify my memory. My mom stayed sharp till the end, but she didn’t like to hang onto the past, especially if it embarrassed her. But her memory in her eighties was no worse than mine in my sixties. I used to ask her lots of questions that neither of us could answer – like, what years did we live in South Carolina the first time. Now I want to ask questions like, what books did you love as a kid. I only know one – Little Women.

As I have said many times, I wish blogging at been invented in 4300 B.C.E. If everyone in the past we want to know began blogging when they learned to read and write, think how many mysteries of history would be solved. I know surprising little about my mother and father’s lives. I wish I had their blogs to read, or just old fashion diaries. I’m going to try and piece together 91 years of my mother’s history with damn little physical evidence. I’m going to tell family secrets that would have embarrassed her, but they are all clues of trying to remember who she really was. My nuclear family, George Delany Harris father, Virginia Little Harris mother, Becky Harris sister, myself son and brother, was probably very typical for the 1950s. We never knew one another because we always withheld information. It’s a kind of family tragedy. We were all good people who had good intentions, but hurt each other because we really understood each other.

For much of my life I didn’t like my mother, but I tried hard not to hate her. She made it very hard for people to like her. To survive my parents, who had problems of their own, including alcoholism, I had to build a barrier between myself and them. The way I survived was to focus on myself, and selfishly ignore everyone else, starting around the first grade. I did not know when I was young, that my mother suffered from depression, and was probably bipolar. Her method of survival was to demand that everyone do exactly as she said, because I can see now she believed she’d be happy if only everyone followed her wishes. No one ever did, which caused her no end of agitation. Before she was given anti-depressants in the 1970s, she would try to cope by drinking. My dad was a steady drinker, but my mother was a binge drinker. She never binged for long because she couldn’t handle booze, and it made her Baptist soul feel deeply guilty. I used to think she kept her drinking secret from her sisters, but my sister recently told me that wasn’t true. That’s why I feel it’s okay to write about it now.

Looking through the photographs, my mother seemed happiest before she had me and my sister. We came late in life, at 35 and 37, and added a intense stress to her life. Becky and I were wild and willful, and she wanted us to be quiet and obedient. We were good kids – we just didn’t like being told what to do. Unfortunately, my mother loved telling people how things should be done. One lucky benefit of this friction was Becky and I were given almost complete independence. Both my parents worked, and after I was nine, and Becky was seven, we never even had babysitters. We truly lived in a Charlie Brown world where adults were seldom seen. It was easier for my parents to let us go do our thing rather than hang around them.

From what I can recall and theorize, my dad didn’t have a clue about children, or how to talk to them. He tried. He seem to expect us to be like kids in the 1920s, which was respectful, adventurous and independent, adhering to old fashioned roles for boys and girls. He expected me to drink and smoke like a regular guy, and join the Air Force like him, but I smoked dope and wanted to dodge the draft. I had long hair and was liberal, he worried I might be gay and a communist. I was neither, but he never could make out what I was. He was a Joe Pine conservative. We didn’t talk much, and he was never around much. Which stressed out my mother, who constantly bitched at him. Looking back, I wonder if my dad worked two or three jobs just to avoid my mother and us kids. My mother had 99% of the burden of raising us. And she would use her razor sharp tongue to let him know. They have so many fights burned into my memory that I can’t remember them ever having any happy times together.

As a kid I use to wonder, “Was my dad a drunk because my mother was a bitch, or was my mother a bitch because my father was a drunk.” But then I’d see photographs, like some below, where my father and mother looked very happy together. All those photographs were taken before we were born. I was born on my parent’s sixth wedding anniversary. When we were little, they’d tell me and my sister of their days of living in Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico – and they seemed very fond of those memoires.

I don’t have any photos of my mother when she was a baby or small child. Here is one of the earliest photos I do have of her, the problem is I don’t know which kid she. She would have been 11-12 in this school photo. One of her classmates gave me this photo before he died. He pointed my mom out nine years ago, but I’ve since forgotten. Now that he’s gone, I have no way to know. Maybe my Aunt Louise knows. My mom was one of five sisters, and Aunt Louise is the only one still with us.

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My mother’s family centered around my grandmother, Lou Little, and she had five daughters. My father’s family centered around his mother, Helen Delany Harris, and she had three sons. I never knew either of my grandfathers. My mother’s family was from Mississippi, and my father’s family from Miami, Florida. Becky, my sister, and I traveled back and forth between these two worlds.

The five sisters, in order of age, were Arrah Belle (Aunt Belle), Flake Jerrine (Aunt Sissy), Teletta May (Aunt Let), Virginia Dare (Aunt Gen to my cousins), and Martha Louise (Aunt Louise) . They were born in 1908, 1909, 1911, 1916 and 1922. My mother, and maybe a couple aunts, and probably many relatives are in school photo above. I just don’t know who is who.

I’m guess this next photo, of three of the sisters, is the second oldest photo I have. I believe my mom is the one at the top, and the bottom are Aunt Sissy and Aunt Let. I’m guessing early to mid 1930s on this photo. I would be great if we could know our parents when they were young.

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This might be next. It’s dated 1938, so my mom would have been 22.

1938 Virginia L. Harris

The next photo I have has all five sisters looking fairly grown. My guess is this photo was taking in the early 1940s. From right to left they are, Aunt Let, my mom, Aunt Louise, Aunt Sissy, and Aunt Belle. It’s interesting the two brunettes were on the left, and the three redheads on the right.

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This photo below is dated 1944. My mother is on the right. On the back it was labeled Mrs. Embery, Dorothy Atkins, and Annie Laurie Tillman. I think my mother was working at the phone company then, and probably before she married my father. My mother was married once before my father. Over the years I’ve heard stories about how she had married a bootlegger. Mississippi was dry even after the repeal of prohibition. There’s also a story that the bootlegger brought my mother home to her parents and told them he didn’t want her any more because she was too mean. And my mother could be mean. Now, I know it was a manifestation of her depression, and probably bipolar nature.

1944-Su Mrs. Embery - Dorothy Atkins - Annie Laurie Tillman - Gin

My mother was the wild sister I imagine. She’s the one that married and left the south. I know nothing about her teenage years, her first marriage, her moving to Memphis to live on her own, her meeting my father, or their years of traveling around the country without children.

The next several photos are ones I think were taken after my parents married, but before I was born. But I’m not completely sure. Odd as it might seem, I don’t always recognize my own mother in these photographs. Nor am I very good at judging her age. I do know mom and dad lived in Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. before I was born. Several of these photos are from Puerto Rico.

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Here’s my mom and her mother. No idea of the date. My sister and I called this grandmother Nanny. My sister was always crazy about Nanny, and I liked her too, but never got close to her. She was very religious, and that was barrier to me. I realize now that because I kept my distance from so many people, I never really got to know them. My sister was far more aware of family dynamics than I was.

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Here’s a photo of my mother with my father’s mother, whom my sister and I called Ma. She took care of us for a good part of a year when I was seven because my mother was sent to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania to recover from TB, and my father was stationed in Canada. I really wish I had known her better. I always thought of her as the happy person in our family.

Ma-and-Mom

Along the way, I was born in 1951, in Ohio. I’m guessing this older woman was my father’s grandmother, but I’m not sure.

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I have no idea who this lady is with me and my mom, or why they wore loud plaid skirts.

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This looks like a house in Florida. I was born in Ohio, moved to Miami, then to Memphis, back to Miami, but I’m never sure of when the photos were taking. My sister was born in Miami in 1953. The two of us lived in Memphis as small children for a short while before returning to Miami.

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This is me, and that’s my grandmother, my mother’s mother. She was born in 1881. I’m guessing I’m about two or three, which means my baby sister should be somewhere. I bet my outfit was made by my mother. She liked to make clothes of us. I protested when I started school, and she stopped making clothes for me.

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I am not the son my mother and father imagined. I was born on their sixth wedding anniversary. My Uncle Bob told me that my mother didn’t believe she was pregnant for months, because a doctor had told her years earlier she couldn’t have kids. My sister came along two years later. Having kids at 35 and 37, back in 1951 and 1953, was hard at that age. My sister and I were full of active energy, and my mom was in her forties, and way too nervous to handle us. I realized early on, that my father didn’t know how to communicate with kids at all, and my mother expected us to be respectful and obedient, and when we weren’t, would go nuts on us. My solution was to stand back, and detach myself from the family. However, my sister spent her childhood trying to please both my mother and father, and she was routinely hurt when she failed to make them happy.

I’m not sure when this photo was taken. I assume my father took the picture. He’s not in our childhood pictures. I’m not sure why I’m the only one to look happy in this picture. My mother was crazy about us when we were little. I think she loved having kids, and while we were little and manageable, she was happier. Because I have stories about my mother having problems throughout her life, I assume I just didn’t see her spells early on.

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It was around the time of this photograph that I actually remember choosing to back away from my mother. I remember two separate incidences when I was in the first grade, one with my mother, and one with my father. Each time I was trying to get close to them, trying to communicate, and each of them losing patience with me. My mother ended up spanking me in a store, and this freaked me out. But my father disappointed me quietly, because I realized he just wasn’t understanding what I was trying to tell him. That’s when I began thinking of my parents as robots – not literally of course, but figuratively. I realized they were all about discipline and telling me what to do, and they refused to consider my feelings, or even seem to be aware of them. So I stopped trying to explain myself. And that has shaped my whole life. I was too young to understand this then. I was too young to empathize with their problems. Growing up I thought adults were robots because they wanted to live by rigid rules.

Looking back, this is where I start my lists of regrets about my life. I don’t blame myself. I have no sense of guilt. But to survive I had to become very selfish. I am a happy person, and I’m totally nostalgic about my childhood, but that’s because I tuned out my alcoholic parents. Now that I’m older, I wish I had paid more attention to their lives. My mother and father were fascinating people, but they had problems that made them hard to like. In many ways, I realize how I am like both of them. My mother’s survival strategy was to demand that other people fulfill her wishes, and when they didn’t, she’d turn controlling. She could spend days, even weeks, worrying over slights. I called that “gnawing her bone.” And if you were the subject of that gnawing, it could get vicious.

The trouble is, my mother was a wonderful person when she was in her up moods. But because I feared her down moods, I was wary of enjoying being with my mother when she was in good spirits. After my mother retired, and moved back to Mississippi, and bought a little house she lived alone in for almost thirty years, she found more peace of mind. She had stopped drinking, and had anti-depressants. She still had her black moods, but she was by herself. She had many hobbies and craft, and she made some friends. She had her sisters. And she had a series of collie dogs. She read hundreds, probably thousands of books. She had her church. My sister provided her with two grandchildren, and she became a granny, and eventually a great grandmother.

I spent more time with my mother in her later years than my sister. Becky had moved away, and always had to come back for short visits. My father had died when my mother was 53. Until she died a couple weeks shy of her 91st birthday, she had a long life, mostly by herself, living with her dogs. I would visit fairly regularly, and talk to her on the phone every week. I avoided a lot of subjects. I would talk to her about old times, but carefully. Sometimes I would probe, but I learned she had rewritten her own history.

That’s the thing, we all live too distant from one another. That’s why I wished my parents had been bloggers since they were kids. I’ve love to know what they thought about their life. I never knew their ambitions, fantasies or dreams. I’m sure Becky and I were their dream when we were little, but I don’t think the kids they got were how they imagined kids beforehand. I probably heard my mother ask me a thousand times, “Are you ashamed? Aren’t you embarrassed?” I never was. My father was always quiet about what he expected of me, but I know I wasn’t the son of his imagination.

I’m going to cut this narrative short here. I don’t want to write a biography. I will finish things out with the photographs that show my mother getting older and older. They each have a long story, but I’m going to let the pictures tell them.

I think this photo is from 1968. My mother is leaving with my Aunt Let. It was at my Aunt’s house, which I always loved.

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I think this is also from 1968. That’s Nanny on the right, Becky, and my Uncle Barnwell and Aunt Louise. My mother looks very young here now, but at a time I thought she was getting old. I’m now older than she was then.

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JWH

The Burden and Responsibilities of Family Photos

When people die their children usually go through the deceased possessions and divvy up the family mementos which usually include photographs the dying person has collected in their lifetime.  My wife and I have the photographs from her family and my family.  And when people in your family know you have the family photos they tend to send you the odd photo in their collection that would mean something to you from their family.  Awhile back my cousin Alana sent me some pictures she had inherited from my grandmother when she died.  I had not heard from my father’s side of the family in decades, so we had a lot of catching up to do.

One of the photographs is four grown sons and their father and mother.  One of the sons is my father’s father, or my paternal grandfather that I never knew.  I never knew my maternal grandfather either.  All I ever knew about family history was was from my two grandmothers.  So this photograph introduced me to my grandfather, and great grandfather and grandmother, as well as three great uncles I never remembered even mentioned by anyone.  I wonder about their families.  Is there anyone like me with a copy of this photo wondering about the other three brothers?

1920s - Dad's father on right - with parents and brothers - cropped

My grandfather was named George Wallis Harris.  I’m James Wallace Harris, so somehow the spelling got changed, or the spelling from the genealogy was wrong about my grandfather.  He married Helen Imogene Delaney, and my dad was called George Delaney Harris.  I almost was James Delaney Harris.  My father’s father was the man on the right.  His brothers were from the left, Jan, Charlie and Carl.  My grandfather was born in 1897 and my grandmother in 1898.

The older couple in front of the sons are my great grandparents George General Harris, born 1872, and Minnie Maude Maynard, born 1871.  All I know about these people is they lived in Nebraska.  My father was born in Nebraska in 1920, but moved to Miami as a small child.  I can remember him telling me stories about visiting Nebraska, and how the farmers would get together to kill jack rabbits by walking side by side down the fields to flush them out.

I think my great grandparents worked a farm, but I don’t know. Only two of them bothered to dress up for the photo. I can’t tell if my great grandmother’s dress was dirty or is the smudges part of the photo or the copy of the photo.

I found one other photo among my mother’s photos that I think is of my great grandfather and my father and his younger brother Jack.  I don’t have any photos of their younger brother Bob at all.

1929q Jack Grandfather Dad - I guess

When I say owning the families photos are a burden or responsibility it’s because I have pieces of history, and maybe the only known copies that are evidence to people’s lives in the past.  I uploaded this photo to the web so my cousins could have it, and maybe convince my nephews to take interest.  Since Susan and I have no children I’m not sure where our photo collection will go when we die.  I assume we’ll give everything to our nephews and nieces.  We should give them copies now before something happens.

If our photos were to be burned up in a fire or destroyed in a flood, all these unique views of the past would be gone.  So I’m thinking I should put in the extra effort to preserve them.  It’s a shame there isn’t some kind of national historical photo registry.  There might be people alive today that could tell me more stories about these people.

All I know is my grandfather and grandmother, who is from Indiana, moved from Nebraska to Miami in the 1920s, but I don’t know how early.  I do know they were there by 1928 because I have this photo labeled “George Jr. and Jack Harris 1928, Coronado Apts. N.E. 17th Terrace.”  I had heard stories of them talking about the great Miami hurricane of 1926, but I don’t know if they there then or not.  My sister says my grandfather was referred to as a barefoot mailman, but that was something that started in the 1890s and I don’t think they were there that early.  Uncle Jack was born in Nebraska in 1924, so I assume they came to Miami between 1924 and 1928.

1928 Jack and Dad Coronado Apts

My father died when I was 19.  He always worked two and three jobs and was never home except to sleep, so I don’t remember talking to him much.  He was in the Air Force and we moved around a lot.  But we mostly lived around Miami, and when we were there I’d see my grandmother Helen Delaney Harris, whom I called Ma.  She mostly talked about growing up in Indiana.  I only have a few photos of her, the earliest of which is a newspaper clipping.  She’s third from the left on the top row wearing some god awful bow or flower on her head.

Helen Delaney Harris - school girl

I only remember a few stories about Ma even though I used to stay with her.  She managed apartments when I was growing up and sometimes my parents would leave me with her.  The apartments were always ones where old people lived and I’d hear a lot of stories about the old days, including meeting an old lady who had been on the Titanic.  I wished cheap video cameras had existed back in the 1950s and 1960s so I could have recorded these memories.  That’s the thing, all we have now are the photographs.  The stories pretty much went in one ear and out the other.  I wished I could have saved them.  Here’s the best photo I have of Ma.

1957-04 Dad's Mom Helen Delaney Harris

I do remember stories about her teaching in a one room school house, and that during the war she drove trucks and chauffeured officers as a staff driver.  She had lots of old friends and loved to collect figurines of dogs.  That’s not a lot to remember is it?  That’s why these photos are so important.  They are my only real evidence of the past.  I’m like that guy in that movie Memento trying to figure out life with only short term memories.  I have another photo of Ma.  When my mother got tuberculosis and went to stay in a sanatorium up north at Valley Forge, and my father was stationed in Canada, Ma took care of my sister Becky and I for several months.  This photo is from that time.

1959 - Jim Helen Becky

She looks so old there, but was just 61.  I’m turning 60 this year.  This photo was taking in Hollywood, Florida around 1958-59.  The house there is one of my favorites of childhood but I have no photographs of what it looked like on the inside.  I’d give anything if my parents had taken more photos.  I’m not sure who took the photo here, but I think it was taken to send to my mother in the hospital.  Those were our Easter outfits that year, and my snappy white hat blew out of the car window coming back from church.  Would I remember that without this photo?

I really don’t remember much about my father.  I don’t have many photos of him either.  Here’s one I like taken when he graduated high school.

1939-05 - Dad at Homestead FL

He’s a little younger in this photo than I was when he died in 1970.  I was 19.  I know very little about his teenage years, but I do know he hated my teenage years.  I had long hair, did drugs and was against the Vietnam war.  His dream for me was to go to the Air Force Academy.  I don’t know what his dreams for himself were.  Years ago I found a clipping from the Miami Herald that mentioned he and some of his classmates working on a project for the paper.  He told me he delivered telegrams for Western Union to make money in high school.  In 1942 he joined the Army and ended up a drill sergeant out in Arizona.  Somehow he started in the Army but ended in the Air Force.  I don’t know if he was ever in the Army Air Corps.  Maybe these uniforms can reveal that.  For all I know he could have been in the Army during the war and got out and then joined the Air Force.

1945-01 Dad in Arizona

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1945 Dad

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The last photo with me and my mom from 1952.  The one before that was with my mom, before I was born, when they lived in Puerto Rico, probably round 1949.  I think that was the happiest time of their marriage.  For the first six years of their marriage they were told they couldn’t have children.  I do know Becky and I were a handful.

I can only find one later photo of my dad, an accidental photo, taken in 1969.  He’s profiled by the light, shining on his bald head.

1969 - Last photo of Dad

I have a few more photos from when he in high school and in the service, but these few here are pretty much all the evidence I have of my dad’s existence. When my sister and I die, and these photos are given to my nephews, this is all they will know about their maternal grandfather.  Maybe I can convince them to read this blog.  (Nick and Mack, if you want want copies of all the photographs just let me know.)

That’s the thing, what kind of past would we have without photos to remind us?  I have a responsibility to preserve the evidence that I have, but I don’t know how long people will care.   We believe people continue to exist as long as other people remember them.  That’s an interesting obligation.

If you keep the family photos you become the family historian, and a detective.  I really wasn’t prepared for this job.  Instead of inheriting all the pictures when the last member of the previous generation dies, children should each be given a copy of the family photos when they are little and encouraged to talk to the people in the photos when they are still living.  Probably good families do this, but we were wild active kids who couldn’t sit still.  We were hyperactive before they invented the word.

Like I said, Susan and I never had kids, so who will remember us?  And I probably don’t have many more photos of myself than I do of my dad.  I wished we were a family that liked to take pictures.  I wished we had taken one good photo of every family member each year.  I wished we had taken photos of all our pets.  I wished we had taken photos of all my friends and classmates.  I wished we had taken photos of all my houses, schools and neighborhoods.  I even wished we had photos of all our cars.

Hell, I didn’t know I’d get old some day and be tested on this stuff.  And I certainly didn’t know it would be my own desires that would be doing the testing.  I wish I had been forewarned that I would someday be the family historian and keeper of memories.

For my next project I’m going to research how to properly find, repair, store, and maintain old photographs.

JWH – 3/6/11