Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Tale of a Southern Belle

I never met my great-great grandmother Rebecca, but my mother did. This may not seem remarkable but it is. You see, my grandma Rebecca was born before The War of Northern Aggression (that’s the Civil War to all you Yankee folk) and she was a bonafide southern belle. Like everyone else in that time and place, Rebecca’s family had strong southern sympathies.
Petersburg, WV, circa 1900.

Grandma Rebecca told of how when she was born in 1853, it was customary for a father to give a slave girl to each of his children to care for them and to be their mammy. My grandma Rebecca said that the slave girl done everything for them, she'd dress them, wash them, feed them and even cleaned them after using the chamber pot. When the War came, life forever changed for my grandma Rebecca, her family lost its money but they did retain the land. A few years after the War, Rebecca’s father, Aaron, was killed in a farming accident and the family was forced to sell the ancestral farm and move to town. Through it all, Rebecca said the most difficult thing about life after the War was learning to lace up and tie her own shoes, she said neither her nor her sisters knew the first thing about common everyday tasks.

After moving to town, Rebecca met and married my great-great grandfather, Jacob. While his family name was respected, he certainly didn’t come from a poor genteel family like Rebecca’s. For all of you who aren’t aware of the class difference, poor genteel is used in reference to people who were wealthy and came from good families before the War but lost their money in the War, and it was used to differentiate them from the common poor. The poor genteel were welcome in all society circles, regardless of their economic woes. After the marriage, my grandfather Jacob worked a small farm in Hardy County until the rails and the mills opened up the Potomac Highlands, and they moved to the then growing town of Petersburg, WV. Jacob then worked as a brakeman for the railroad and they lived in a row house for a few years until Jacob could afford a house on Virginia Avenue, which they lived in for the rest of their lives and where they raised their 7 children. Jacob died in the early 1900’s, and Rebecca was left a widow for the nearly 50 remaining years of her life.

Above: Building the Railroad Bridge below Petersburg, September 1910.
Above: Petersburg Railyard where Jacob worked, about 1920.

Later in her life, Rebecca shrunk up so until she was a tiny slip of a woman, and she slept in baby bed. When my mother visited her as a child, she said that Grandma Rebecca’s skin was so thin that it was almost clear and that you could see the blood right in her veins but she was very clear minded. One of the most memorable things that my mother recalls is how Rebecca took up chewing tobacco and could spit several feet and hit an old coffee can that she used as spittoon. Rebecca had a little ole housedog that was nearly as ancient as she was and she called him “Old Blue”. Her and Old Blue had some exploits, which may appear in a future post.
Virginia Avenue in Petersburg, circa 1940.

Many remnants of the teachings of my Grandma Rebecca still live on in my family. For example, you have to have clean shoes, only “trashy” people wear dirty shoes. Rebecca said that it doesn’t cost hardly anything to keep your shoes clean and clean shoes say a lot about the person wearing them. Even today, when I meet someone for the first time, one of the first things I look at is their shoes. You can really size up a person that way. Another teaching from Rebecca was anything that you write, you have to write it in black ink, you can’t use blue ink or a pencil, it shows good breeding to use black ink, I think this probably has roots in both her antebellum upbringing as well as her devout Presbyterianism. Yet another thing passed down from grandma Rebecca is the rule that you have to eat everything with a fork or spoon. There is no such thing as finger foods. You always have to have a utensil no matter what the food, and whether you use them or not. “It’s a matter of culture”, Rebecca said. I drive Shirley crazy with my quirky always-having-to-have-a-fork, I just smile and tell her, “Thank my grandmother for that.”

Petersburg, WV circa 1910

My grandma Rebecca died in 1966 at the age of 113, she died peacefully in her sleep and was the pillar of her family and community. It makes my head spin to think of all she saw and the knowledge that she must have had from living through several decades of American life.

1 comment:

Tipper said...

Amazing post about a drastically changed way of life. Grandmother Rebecca sounds like she was really something!