Memories From My Mother
Originally published 2012
My Mom, Charity Isabel Wattles Kirby, would have been 100 this year. She lived through some of the most stressful yet some of the most interesting times in our country’s history. In 1981, a young friend asked to interview her about the Great Depression. Mom, born in 1912, would have been 17 on Black Tuesday, when the stock market crashed. My mother, who had spent much of her life behind a typewriter typing court documents for my father in his law practice, decided to type up her memories, and made sure her daughters got copies. What follows is that history, which is the best inheritance I could ever have received from her. It provides such a window into the era, and on the joy that my Mom felt in everything she did.
The opening page pictured to the right shows the Executive IBM type she used so much of her time working for Dad. Although she deals mainly with the Great Depression years, seeing this type takes me through so many years after that, when I’d see her late at night typing away in the bedroom.
The picture to the left shows Mom and an older sister, Hattie, in the back yard of our house in Florissant, Missouri, in 1976. (I deleted the address Mom had added, because the house has been sold.)
My mother used to dream about “skimming,” being able to float above the ground and look down on the earth. Sometimes she had a jetpack on her back, she used to tell me, and sometimes just “skimmed” around. I love the part about the Fourth of July when she had the thrill of flying for the first time.
I’ve done a little bit of editing, but for the most part this is Isabel Kirby, in her own voice. I’ve just added a few explanations in brackets and dropped in a few illustrations, although Mom's writing lets me see everything without them!
* * *
April 18, 1981
When my friend Cassandra contacted me with reference to an interview concerning the Great Depression and I agreed to the interview, how little I realized the “Pandora’s Box” of memories that would be flooding over me. I chose to write concerning these years rather than to record them since some sort of chronological order necessarily seems to need to be followed in answering some of these questions.
In order to analyze any “opinion” as to any given circumstance, a background of the person giving this opinion is of the utmost importance, and the opinion of the Wall Street broker hurling himself from the tallest building in New York on October 29, 1929, the bank president refusing to open the doors of his bank to a screaming and threatening mob, and a 16 year old girl growing up in rural Illinois would necessarily be far apart.
The Great Depression, or what was usually referred to at the time as the “Hoover depression,” is remembered as a 1929 depression because the emotional fluctuations in Wall Street were through October and one-half of November, including the one big-day Wall street panic on October 29. The period when employment went from 40 million down to 20 million or lower started later, probably 1931, and affected my life more after that year.
I was born on April 24, 1912, near Searcy, Arkansas, the twelfth of thirteen children. My parents had gone to Arkansas in a covered wagon after my father was promised a job by one of my uncles who lived there. The job did not materialize and my older brothers and sisters went to work every day picking cotton. and after that season was over to cutting wood and selling it to the townspeople.
When I was three years old, two brothers died of typhoid fever from drinking water from a contaminated spring, and the two coffins and the entire family were put aboard a quarantined car on a train and returned to Clay County, Illinois, where all of our relatives lived.
Of the family remaining, eight girls and three boys, we grew up in Clay City, Illinois, a town of less than 300 persons in central Illinois. Most of my older brothers and sisters left home as soon as they were old enough to go to work to support themselves. Clay County at this time, and all the time I lived in that part of the state, was very prejudiced against the black man. No black person would be allowed to stay overnight in the County — except for one black man, Uncle Sam, and his sister, who lived deep in the woods near the Little Muddy River. I remember Uncle Sam driving the horse and buggy to town once a week, and he would always stop and talk with my father. However, as long as I lived in Clay County, I never saw his sister.
I remember cousins in uniform visiting us and standing around the piano singing “Over There,” “Long Boy” and “How Are You Gonna Keep Them Down on the Farm.” And I remember the day a man on horseback came through the country, much like Paul Revere, yelling, “The war is over.” This was 1918.
In 1919, my father borrowed $2,000, and with that amount and a “span of mules,” meaning two mules, Pete and Jack, bought a home for the family in “town.” This house was a brick house, built in 1875; it had 10 rooms, with a stairway from the front entrance to the second floor, then a hallway through the center of the house, rooms on both sides much like a hotel, and a stairway going down into the huge kitchen in the back.
My father made brooms for a living as well as farming and growing all the vegetables we could use. My younger sister and I would sell the brooms in Flora, eight mile away, door to door. We were really great salesmen. She would take one side of the street, I would be on the other side, my father would drive “Old Bess” and the buggy down the middle. We would go to the door, knock on it, the lady of the house opened it, we said, “Do you want to buy a broom?” If she hesitated one second, we were gone because our chief aim was to see who would get to the end of the street first, not who sold the most brooms. We had “ceiling brooms,” brooms with long handles, since all the ceilings were very high and these were used to get the cobwebs off the ceiling, as well as the regular broom for sweeping, children’s brooms and “whisk” brooms. After our day of selling was over, our big treat consisted of buying cheese and crackers and bananas to take home to share with the family.
I remember riding “Old Bess” to town, which was about a mile from home, and my instructions were to buy a bar of “family” (lye) soap so my mother could do the washing. I met some friends who wanted to ride my horse, so I spent an hour or so selling rides on “Old Bess” for a penny. This was my first business venture, but I do not remember how much I made. I do remember the scolding when I got home. My mother had the water boiling in the brass tub on the stove and I had not delivered the soap.
We did not have a lot of things that children today deem to be necessities, but of course we had no idea that a television or a flushing toilet would be a necessity of life. We had an outdoor “privy” with the Sears Roebuck catalog to read if we didn’t freeze in winter, or get stung by wasps in summer. In winter, we carried heated bricks to put in our beds before it was time to go upstairs. We stayed around the pot-bellied stove until it was time to go to bed, doing homework or whatever else there was to be done. When the radio was invented, we bought a crystal set from Sears Roebuck, with earphones, and took turns listening to the radio.
At that time you never heard of separation of church and state. The year I was to graduate from eighth grade, the W.C.T.U. (ask your teacher what this means) was quite active in our town. We had two churches in our vicinity, one being the “Northern Methodist” or the “big” church, the other being the “Southern Methodist” or the “little” church. My father’s name was John Wesley (after the founder of the Methodist Church) and my mother had been a “Harmon” (several Harmons were Circuit Rider Methodists), so there was no choice in religion. You were a “Big Church” Methodist or a “Little Church” Methodist. I was both. I attended Sunday School at the Big Church, and the “Protracted” meetings at the Little Church. We really heard fire and brimstone messages in these “protracted” meetings.
A prerequisite to graduation from eighth grade (which was always held in the “big” church) was that each person hoping to graduate write an essay on the subject “Wine as the Cause of Alcoholism.” I had never seen wine, had never seen an alcoholic, had no reason to know what the dire effects of wine might become. We had never had an alcoholic beverage in the house, had never been permitted to have playing cards in the home (with the exception of Rook). However, in order to graduate, the essay had to be written.
To my surprise, when the winner was named on graduation day, I was named recipient of the top prize, $5.00. This would not be so important except as it related to the next big event in my life. This was the Fourth of July picnic.
My sister who was just older than I was a tall person, and her feet were large. We could not buy shoes for her in our little town, so always ordered them from the Sears Roebuck catalog. Our big Fourth of July celebration was held at Sailor Springs, a park with mineral springs tasting of sulfur, about ten miles from Clay City. I don’t remember our ever missing these celebrations. We had ordered shoes for Julia from Sears Roebuck and our whole celebration depended upon whether or not the shoes arrived in time for us to go to Sailor Springs. I walked the mile to the post office early in the morning on the 4th, they were open for a while even on holidays, and the shoes were there.
That day in Sailor Springs was one of the most important days of my life. There was a very little plane taking people for rides and for the $5.00 I had received for my essay, “Wine as the Cause of Alcoholism,” I went up in that plane. From that time on, I would never be content to stay in Clay City for the rest of my life. No one at that time or afterwards could ever describe the thrill of that experience.
For recreation, home parties were numerous. We had many Halloween parties at our home, debating teams would meet to work on debates, there was sledding and ice skating in winter and gathering in front of one of our three fireplaces afterwards. In summer, our parties consisted mostly of circle games, two-deep, run-sheep-run, black man, and best of all, when I was very young, walking on stilts. Some of my friends did learn the “Charleston” and the “Black Bottom,” but it was not an accepted thing to do.
The most important “fad” that I can remember was the “butterfly” skirt. This was identical with the pleated skirts that are worn today, but of course man-made fabrics were far off, so these were usually made of wool. We had voile, organdy and cotton prints, and for dress-up and Sunday School, the outstanding dress that I can remember was made of silk pongee trimmed with a green ribbon. My mother had a Singer treadle sewing machine and made most of our clothes.
Another “fad,” and I am relating only to girls, was the sateen bloomers. Most bloomers were made of gaudy sateen, some green, black, purple, and each had two rows of elastic at the bottoms, one row worn above the knee and one below the knee. They were very much in evidence.
I had never thought of the stock market as anything other than a way for wealthy people becoming more wealthy, or going broke. We had one newspaper, a weekly, Clay City Advocate, and I remember the day, October 29, 1929, when the Advocate graphically described people hurling themselves from high windows in New York and the angry mobs storming the banks. If you happened to have money on your person on this date. that was your entire wealth as far as money went. People lost their entire life’s savings in one sweep, and many, many people committed suicide. The news was talked about on every crossroad and front porch of our town of 300, and we did have a small bank that was affected. As far as affecting me personally, or my immediate family, it did not to a great degree.
Life was very simple for us. We grew our vegetables, canned them in Mason jars for the winter, butchered our pigs for meat, had eggs and chickens, and my father often caught fish in the Little Muddy River. We picked berries in season and canned fruit from our trees. We had little money, but I cannot remember being hungry. Everyone we knew lived the same way we did. “Trading” was common, for a dozen eggs you could buy sugar or flour at the local grocery store, and I can remember my father tying the feet of three or four live chickens together and carrying them to town to “trade” for necessities.
The Great Depression became a reality for me in 1931, when I was graduated from high school and wanted to go to college. Of course there was no money for tuition, room and board for the twelfth child in a family of thirteen. However, my mother’s family, the Harmons, were great educators, and an uncle, Dr. Cameron Harmon [left], had become president of McKendree College in Lebanon, Illinois. Thanks to this dear uncle, one of my older brothers and a sister had been graduated from McKendree and were school teachers, and he was ready to make a place for me. I became his personal secretary and put in enough hours working in the office, summer and winter, to pay for my tuition, room and board, for my college education. One of my classmates was General Andrew Goodpastor.
When I was graduated in 1935, the realities of the Great Depression were still in evidence. My highest offer for teaching English, history and mathematics in Karnak High School in Illinois was $50 a month. Out of that, I would have to pay room and board with a local family. I was offered other similar jobs, but finally accepted a job as director of the Goodwill Day Nursery at 13th and Tyler Streets, in north St. Louis. The pay was $12 per week, but I did get free room and my meals at the nursery.
By this time, “Hoovervilles” along the riverfront were common. I saw them many times, lean-tos made of cardboard, but the hopelessness was the tragedy. People would line up for blocks to get a free loaf of bread for their families. So I considered myself to be very lucky to have $12 a week. You could ride a bus for 10 cents or get tokens, three for a quarter. Transportation was better than at present. If you missed a bus, another would be along in ten minutes or less.
During this time at the day nursery I had personal experiences with the N.Y.A. [National Youth Administration] program. The purpose of this program was to place youth in jobs, at government expense, where they could be trained to eventually fit into a self-sustaining job. However, this was seldom the case. In my own situation, I had more than fifty children brought to the nursery at 7:00 a.m. whose parents were both employed. They were ages two to twelve, they received breakfast and clean clothes; school children were sent off to school and returned for lunch and after school until parents came at 5 p.m. or later.
The young ones, in addition to meals and cod liver oil, had a nap period and supervised playground. I was the only full-time worker, with the exception of a cook-cleaning lady and a part-time assistant who came from 11:00 a.m. and left at 2:00 p.m. So, I was very appreciative of my N.Y.A. girls, and although most of them were uneducated, they were very helpful in washing little hands, helping them change clothes, and various other duties. However, as far as training was concerned, I had no time to train them to fit into a better job.
The C.C.C. [Civilian Conservation Corps], in my opinion, was a terrific idea which I think would be effective in 1981. These were young men who could not get work elsewhere, and they did conservation projects wherever needed. One project that I vividly remember was their replacement of trees on a mountain in Colorado where a forest fire had swept over the mountainside. If you were to visit the “old-timers” today in Colorado, they would point out to you the trees that had been set out by the C.C.C. They usually lived in tents and moved from one project to another.
As to Eleanor Roosevelt, I had the greatest admiration for this lady. But you must remember this was long before the E.R.A. [Equal Rights Amendment] days, and there were many who thought she was very brazen and should have stayed home minding the family and the house. But I believe that most people thought she had a keener insight into the happenings of the times than did her husband, the President. I think history has proved her to be a great lady.
Of course I remember all the New Deal agencies, W.P.A., P.W.A., and of course the F.D.I.C., which probably was the foundation for the banks becoming useful again. After the October 29, 1929 date, and the failing of the banks, in order for people to have trust and faith in a bank, some sort of guarantee had to be made, and this was the government’s answers. You will see the letters on every savings and loan establishment and bank today, guaranteeing that should the institution fail, the government will insure your deposits up to a given amount.
Cassandra, please understand that my life during the “Great Depression” was not at all similar to one growing up in a large city, whose parents could not find work, stood in bread lines for hours. For them it was a time of great tragedy. However, you asked me, Isabel Kirby, for my recollections and opinions. To me, I only remember the love and close relationships with brothers, sisters and parents. Religion played a great part in our lives. Looking back as I have in this biography, I find I really did not suffer too many bad times during this period. In fact, I was probably forced to become a stronger, self-efficient person because of the Great Depression.
Copyright © 1981 by Isabel Kirby
Charity Isabel Wattles Kirby, April 24, 1912-July 12, 2009
Originally published July 2009
The most beautiful woman in the world, both inside and out. A wonderful wife to William R. Kirby and a mother without peer to Kathleen, Susan and Rebecca Kirby.
I will write about Mom in the days and weeks to come, but for now here are some photographs of her that I find especially appealing. If you have photos you'd like posted, send them to email@example.com.
The photo on the left was at one of her birthday parties in Florissant. She loved the parties that celebrated her life, because she got to see all the ladies she loved. She had an unending reservoir of love and an unsurpassed capacity to hug.
On the right is a photograph of Mom with her older sister Hattie, in about 1976. The family resemblance is remarkable. Mom was the 12th of 13 children. This is a link I found on a genealogy Web site about the descendants of John Jacob Kepp. It gives all the children of John Wesley Wattles and Maria Isabelle Harmon, Mom's father and mother. Aunt Hattie apparently provided some of the information.
The photo below, of Mom and me, was taken the same day as the one with Aunt Hattie. The family resemblance is almost scary!
Mom's creativity was endless. She sang, she sewed, she helped on all school projects. But one of the most gorgeous of her creations was her rose garden. Below you can see Mom in her garden, probably searching out the aphids. She waged war on the bugs, and usually won. This shot was taken in June 1988.
Also below are some pictures of Mom's roses. Dad loved to photograph the roses, both in the garden and in vases in the house. He used up rolls and rolls and rolls of film, and really got some beautiful shots. I took these photographs, and they at least hint at how gorgeous Mom's flowers were. The hours she spent in the garden were important to her, and in the last years of her life she loved looking at the garden and watching the birds in Germantown.
Mom loved to travel. When Dad was alive we took trips to Marshall, Missouri, to Clay City, Illinois (where Mom grew up), and to Colorado to see Dad's sister. We also took trips to Lake of the Ozarks, and Mom came to see my senior show at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. Mom and Dad and I went to Kathy's graduation, and a picture below is of Mom and Dad outside the hall.
Mom and Dad went to Florida a few times and really liked it on the gulf coast side. A photo below is of Mom in Fort Lauderdale, around 1979. I joined them on a couple of the trips. I remember one time we went out on a fishing boat and I was photographing dead fish. Mom wasn't too impressed by that, so I have not included those shots.
After Dad died, Mom roamed farther away, going as far as Australia with Becky. I was fortunate enough to take a number of trips with her, including a cruise to the Caribbean and three cruises to Bermuda.
The next photographs are from a trip Mom, Becky and I took to Disney World and Epcot Center in March 1991. The photo of Mom and me is at Disney World, and of Mom at Epcot Center. We did enjoy seeing Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse.
There were wonderful trips to Copenhagen and Italy that Becky, Mom and I took together. Mom especially had fun in Venice, watching guys carrying their girlfriends piggyback in the flooded piazza.
Below you can see many more photographs my mother. I keep looking for more pictures of her. There is one of her as the May Queen, which shows how beautiful was. I hope to get a copy some day to post.
Mom and I went to Israel and Egypt, a trip that was so very special. You'll find a picture of her in the Dead Sea (getting in was easy; getting out took a bit more effort and was not documented). There are also photos of her at different ruins, and with a "donkey driver."
We got a great shot of Mom and me on a camel in Cairo at the pyramids. When I find it, I'll post it.
In February 1983, we took some family pictures in the basement. You'll see a photograph of Dad and Mom in front of the fireplace. The dog is Missy, very photogenic from all angles! There's also a picture of Mom and her great friend Marty Sutter that same day, with the same dog!
Aquasize was such an important part of Mom's life after Dad died. She made so many friends there and I believe she lived so much longer because of these classes. On her trips abroad, she'd buy little gifts for all the other "students" in her class. When she came to New York, she bought them "Big Apple" ornaments. In Italy, she got them Pinocchio ornaments. When I traveled, I tried to make sure I got 30 "presents" she could give to her friends to include them in my trips. It became a fun part of my trips to find gifts for her ladies.
These photographs are from some of her parties. The guests looked forward so much to whatever adventure might be in store for them.
Mom was an amazing woman, and the love her friends and family had for her attest to what a unique and special woman she was.
This was the last photograph I took of Mom, as I left her on July 1. I was able to sing for her during that visit, which I think she liked (she beat her hand and foot to the rhythm).
When we sat outside after my "concert," she said, "I ... sang."
And I reminded her that indeed she had sung beautifully, and sang a bit of "Whispering Hope," one of her favorites.
The photograph is haunting, but very special.
How beautiful upon the mountain, Mom. I'll keep singing for you. I know you'll hear me.
Mom graduated from McKendree College in 1935. She was able to attend college during the Depression because of one of her uncles, Dr. Cameron Harmon, who was president of McKendree from 1923-1935. Mom established a scholarship fund a number of years back to honor her uncle, and it has grown to more than $100,000, a sum Mom was so proud of. She loved hearing from the students who benefited from the scholarships. According to the school, the scholarship is "Given to a student who exhibits a keen desire to obtain an education." That's a great requirement!
Donations to the fund can be made to the Cameron Harmon Scholarship Fund, c/o McKendree University, 701 College Road, Lebanon, IL 62254-1299.