Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Miz Bammie

Lately I’ve been thinking a great deal about my grandmother – known as Mommie to her grandchildren. (She was Florence Alabama Howell, called Bama by friends, and which eventually became “Bammie.”

Maybe I've been thinking about her because it’s summer, her favorite time of the year. And perhaps it's because we've experienced an unusually cool July, allowing open windows that bring inside breezes laden with the sights and sounds of the season.
A family portrait of the Howell family, circa early 1930s.
Her always open windows and the way it felt and smelled come over me. The fragrance of the Abelia bushes wafting inside. 

She resisted getting an air conditioning unit in her later years, saying it wasn’t “natural.” When it got too hot, she simply went and sat on the porch to rest and cool off with the aid of a paper fan with a picture of Jesus on one side and a funeral home advertisement on the back.

Memories of my grandmother are strong. We lived near her and during the summer days of my childhood I saw her most every day. I would walk or bicycle over to her house in the cool of the afternoon, where I’d find her sitting in the front yard reading the Florence Herald and “watching passing.”

This photo was made in the 1950s at a family reunion.

During those days, there wasn’t much vehicle traffic – usually just the “work hands” returning home from their day jobs. Funny now, when I think about how we recognized each vehicle and waved as they passed by. They waved back and sometimes honked their horns in recognition.

I don’t know as much about her early life as I’d like to. What I do know about her before my time I've learned by asking my mother
I wish I’d asked Mommie questions about herself back when I had the opportunity – to learn more of what her youth and early life was like. She was born in 1882, her father died tragically when she was a baby (read about it here), and her mother raised three sons and two daughters on her own. 

She attended school in a one-room schoolhouse (called Hammond School and still standing to this day; used as a hay storage shed by a farmer who owns the land) and she walked miles to get there each day.

She picked huckleberries each summer in an area known as The Ponds, a low-lying swampy area northwest of Anderson. Those berries were eaten fresh and canned for pies during the winter months.

Mommie in her apron and sunbonnet.
She married my grandfather, S.V. Howell, a blacksmith and who for a time previous to their marriage rented part of the farm to plant a crop. They built a home where she lived until her death; gave birth to nine and raised eight children (one died during infancy); and brought her widowed mother to live with the family.

Times were hard, family fortunes mostly dependent on how well the crops did each year. They struggled against the boll weevil that destroyed the cotton crops; droughts; the Great Depression. An extremely industrious woman, she inventively found ways to supplement the family income, or simply just make do. She earned extra money by sewing dresses for others; selling eggs; trading handmade quilts for goods needed; picking cotton.

During summer, there was always a bouquet of fresh flowers on the dining room table. It might be roses, roadside day lilies or Queen Anne’s Lace from the field. But there was always something fresh in a vase on the table.

She cooked on a wood stove well into the 1950s, resisting at first an electric model which she thought she might not adapt to. I shudder now as I think of all those meals she prepared and cooked on that wood stove. And how hot the fire in the stove must have felt in warm weather.

Mother told me that around 1941 or 1942, Mommie and her youngest daughter -- the only child still at home -- picked cotton to earn enough money to wire the house for electricity. Up until that time, they cooled milk in a fresh-water spring or lowered it into the water well.

A funny story they told when I was growing up was one day Mommie needed the vegetable garden tilled. All the men and animals were otherwise unavailable (working in the fields no doubt). Not to be outdone and ever inventive, Mommie hitched up my mother and her younger sister to the garden plow and that's how the garden was tilled!

Most of the food for the table was grown in the summer vegetable garden, eaten fresh during the growing season and canned for the winter. She preserved beans, corn, apples and the like. Hogs were butchered in the fall and chickens were raised for eggs and meat. 

I recall seeing my grandmother kill a chicken once, something I never cared to see repeated. My mother recalled that, when there was company in the house, Mommie would catch and kill a chicken, clean and cut it up, fry it and have it on the table with hot biscuits by the time everyone gathered around the breakfast table.

Apples were peeled and dried in the sun for future pies. One of my older cousins told me years ago that one of her abiding memories of Grandma Caroline (Mommie’s mother) was her sitting on the porch peeling a pan full of apples for drying.

Few things were actually bought at the store. Just coffee, tea, flour and a few other staples. 

Mommie always wore an apron, except on Sunday. A clean one was as much a part of her daily wardrobe as was a clean dress. Apron pockets were handy, after all, for gathering eggs, picking apples and any number of other farm chores.

But while she looked like a typical farm lady six days, come Sunday it was a different matter altogether. She had beautiful “Sunday clothes,” always black, and she dressed for church with care. She was famous for her broad-brimmed black hats and wore them with aplomb. She snapped on her beads, powdered her face, shook on a few drops of White Shoulders and was ready to go.
She never learned to drive, so a family member or church member drove her to Sunday church services.

She ALWAYS cooked a large Sunday lunch, regardless of whether she expected guests or not. She assumed someone would show up to eat, and she was most always right – whether someone from church offered an impromptu invitation or family members stopping by.

My favorite dishes she prepared were chicken and dressing, peach cobbler pie, fried country ham and hot biscuits. Those were the best biscuits ever. I have no idea how she manipulated the flour and shortening to achieve that taste, but I’ve never experienced anything similar to them.

She valued her independence and was determined to successfully live alone during her widowhood (her husband died in 1940; she lived on until 1973). 

While my mother was mostly her transportation to shopping in Florence, she often took the bus to town on her own. Ever independent and determined not to tell family members of her every coming and going, we would sometimes go by and find a note on the dresser that read, “Gone to town on dinner bus.” (That would be Joiner's Bus Line.) Back in those days, nobody locked their doors.

She loved babies, flowers, big hats, baby chicks. Her favorite television program was Bonanza and she relished those solo trips to town where she loved to eat lunch at the Walgreen's lunch counter and shop in the "five and ten cent stores."

I remember she used to order baby chicks through the mail (from one of the mail order catalogs: Sears or Montgomery Ward, perhaps). The boxes got special handling by the postal service and I recall the mailman bringing the box to her door and how she unpacked them with giddy anticipation. Can still remember how those boxes smelled!

We grandchildren loved spending time there in summer, where we built playhouses and allowed our imaginations to run wild. We picked apples, peaches and grapes from her orchard. We played hopscotch, Red Rover and tag, drank the Kool Aid and lemonade she made for us and sat with her on the porch when she was snapping beans or peeling peaches.

She had this wonderful laugh that caused her entire upper body to shake. It was an infectious expression of glee that affected all who were around her. 

She could be gruff when we misbehaved, especially when several of us were visiting and the inevitable arguments broke out among us. But she was patient with our misbehavior, such as when cousin Tommy killed her rooster with a slingshot, us eating all her grapes or tromping down her flowers.

Mommie's grandchildren, the older ones with their spouses. That's me holding the "Toni" doll.
I could go on a long time about my grandmother, but just one final story before I end. And that was Christmas at her house. Everyone went on Christmas Day: Eight children and spouses; 24 grandchildren, the older ones married and with spouses; and in later years, great grandchildren too numerous to count. And then there was always an assortment of neighbors or friends who didn’t have anyplace else to go and knew they were welcome at “Miz Bammie’s.”

How her small house held all those people is a mystery still. Every room full; women bustling around in the kitchen; children darting everywhere. Dolls Santa Claus had brought lined the bed in the front room; young boys dressed in Roy Rogers cowboy outfits shooting off cap guns; older boys supervised by the men exploding firecrackers in the yard.

Around the table! A typical scene at Mommie's at Christmas or any other Sunday when the family gathered at her home for a large meal. At left is Diane holding baby Terry Hale, Uncle Elvis with bread slices, Uncle Dewey helping his plate and Daddy's back.
The table groaned from the weight of the food, everyone bringing covered dishes to supplement what my grandmother prepared. The men got to help their plates first, then the children and finally the women (such an unjust system!) You hoped a pulley-bone or breast was left on the fried chicken platter by the time it was your turn, but you were lucky if you got a wing! And always the dish of spiced, or pickled peaches in the footed compote bowl, a bowl of red jello, which we children called “nervous pudding.”

We usually helped Mommie decorate her Christmas tree – a cedar cut from the woods -- a couple of weeks prior to Christmas. Bright bubbling light sets, tinsel rope and silver icicles; wreaths fashioned from cellophane were hung in the windows; a roaring fire glowed in the pot-bellied stove where we popped corn and parched peanuts.

She started shopping for the gifts in late summer. A pretty dish for the daughters and daughters-in-law; a handkerchief or socks for sons and sons-in-law; handkerchiefs for the girl grandchildren and socks for the boys. Small tokens, but an important ritual for her and special to us because she remembered.

She’s been gone for many years, but we remember her affectionately for what she taught us by the way she lived her life. She was loved and respected by many people. Not the least of which is me.

Feel free to share your thoughts -- about days gone by, your memories of grandmothers or any older person you admired.


  1. What an incredible life story....I love these old family photos and the stories that go with them...I admire those people who lived well within their circumstances..happily....thank you for sharing. I understand how summer would bring back her memories. Wishing you a lovely Tuesday!

    1. My grandmother's is a pretty incredible life story, and she was indeed an incredible person. Miss her still.

  2. Hello Sanda,
    Every home needs a Bammie. Did they throw away the mold when women like this left our world? I have so much respect for Bammie, my Aunts, mother and all the matriarchs who hold family and home together and who use their gifts and somehow manage to just get on with it when adversities are presented. When I grow up I want to be like her.

    Thanks for this beautiful memory

    Helen xx

    1. So true that people like this largely do not exist anymore. People change with the times and times, after all, have changed so much! It's hard to imagine that any of us in this modern age would be able to adapt as these people of old did.

  3. I just love this story Sister! Remember all of it so well as it was such an important part of growing up. One more story...there were no telephones for communicating..so..as we lived across the field which her house was visible from our
    house, Mommie would hang a white sheet out in the peach tree as a sign she was "fixing dinner" for us that week day. Mother would go out to check "the signal" and if was there, off we would go that summer day...walking there! Thanks for the memories.

    1. Yes, another good memory! There are so many others, too numerous to list. If I remember correctly, Mommie did have one of those wall telephones but we did not because Grady Clark wouldn't agree to run the telephone lines out onto our road/street. The telephone lines weren't installed until the Bell system came with its table-model telephones, complete with 8-party lines.

  4. Truly wonderful memories. Thanks for sharing the stories with us. My Great Grandmother lived with us much of my life. I smiled about the ever present apron, always an apron with big pockets.


    1. Those ubiquitous aprons that all the older women wore. Now I heard that aprons are making a comeback! That would be a great topic for one of your artist challenges.

  5. A really lovely post, Sanda, and you have a wonderful recall of details. Thank you for a look at the world of your Bammie, a woman similar to my own grandmothers. Similarly, they rarely store bought, and made/raised/grew everything at home. This post brought up many memories for me, of Christmas at my surviving grandfather's house, the smell of cypress from the nearby sawmill, the delicious cream brought fresh from the butter factory where he worked, and so on. I smiled at the fan - perhaps a giveaway at a funeral?

    1. I AM blessed with a good memory, it seems. It's good, I think, to recall these times for the fond memories they stir. Also as a reminder of how lucky we are today -- in some ways at least

  6. What a wonderful warm loving family you have had over the generations,the old b/w photos show this,and with your detailed description of your 'Bammie' the sort of stocial woman we are sadly unlikely to see again.

    1. It's true, Judith. And as the old ones have mostly gone on, the family has drifted apart and each unit established its own groups. Nothing like b&w photos; love them!

  7. Sanda, you have a great memory and a wonderful way of expressing yourself.
    You must save / collect all these tales of the olden times together and have them made into a book for the following generations.
    I have a lot of old pictures too, but there are no stories for those photos.
    A picture with a story is so valuable.
    As I´ve probably written before, you must have had a lovely childhood, as you remember everything to the detail.

  8. Sanda, please post more about Mommie Howell and the rest of her family. I love these stories. I was almost 4 years old when she died. I have a couple of memories of being at her house. I am sure it was some holiday, Easter maybe, that I remember being outside. She had a big tree with lots of ivy.

  9. Also, I order my baby chicks through the mail. I love opening that box, too. So sweet. I guess some things do stay the same.

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