Week 40: 52 Ancestor 52 Week Blog: Helen Rebecca McKinley Bryan

Helen McKinley Bryan Grad Pic

Week 40: October 6, 2014

My Mother – Helen Rebecca McKinley Bryan

What better week to write on my mother than week No. 40 – the week I spend with                         Mama in Georgia. And what I don’t know, I’ll know by weeks end –                               I’ll be drilling her daily…

My mother, Helen Rebecca Bryan, was born in the small rural town of Siloam, Georgia in 1930 to parents Edgar and Ola (Askew) McKinley. As she tells me, she was born on a straw mattress in a log cabin on Fuller Road and delivered by Lena Credille, Dr. Hill Lewis’s midwife.

I have written on both of her parents and brother – she is my only living ancestor that I have never written on.

In my early research, I never knew who my mother, Helen, was named after or for. The name of Helen is Greek and means light. Was it a new name in that time period of 1930, although in 1950 Helen became one of the most popular names – but that was twenty years later. So my question is – who could she have been named after? Through years of family research, I never found one Helen in the early years of my family lines. In order to try and figure out why, maybe I need to look at her mother and discover if she listened to music –who was her favorite singer – what was her favorite song? Did my grandmother enjoy reading – did she read “The Miracle” written by Helen Keller? My grandmother did read as Mama remembers her reading to them nightly. It was usually a real book – reading a chapter every night and often her father enjoyed sitting nearby to listen to those nightly stories; my grandfather didn’t read or write very well, but he loved listening to her read.

Maybe she was named after a movie actress, as there was no television at that time in the home. In searching the internet, I found Helen O’Connell, a singer with the Jimmy Dorsey bettyboopband – Helen Kane, an actress and vaudeville singer and also the inspiration for cartoon character Betty Boop – Helen Broderick. There was also the actress Helen Keller, author and teacher – and Helen Hayes, also an actress. So there were plenty of “Helen” names around that time period which may have influenced my grandmother in the choosing of her name – or it could even have been my grandfather who chose it. What I do know, is that my grandmother enjoyed reading and listening to the radio on Saturday nights.

My mother grew up in a time when everyone was struggling out of the depression, especially the hard-hit farming community of Greene County. This area of Georgia was struggling to survive from the Boll Weevil plight which destroyed their biggest crop – cotton!


Mama in center with cousins

Mama remembers growing up on the farm as the best years of her life, often now saying she wishes she could twitch her nose and be right back there – on the farm. I have heard her stories all my life – and heard so many times that I wrote them in a book I named “Down on the Farm.”

1930: My mother, Helen Rebecca McKinley, was born to parents Edgar and Ola (Askew) McKinley in the small town of Siloam, Greene County, Georgia. As she tells it, she was born on a straw mattress in a log cabin on Fuller Road and delivered by Lena Credille, Dr. Hill Lewis’s midwife and county nurse. They lived on land owned by Dr. Lewis; granddaddy farmed on his land and shared back part of what he farmed in return for living on the property. That was the way people lived in those times – they farmed on other people’s land and shared the profits in return for living quarters.

Mama remembered Lena Credille: “I crocheted and knitted square blocks when I was young after Lena Credille taught me how and gave me the yarn. I made the blocks for a community project that she involved me in. Someone else sewed them together and they were sent to the boys overseas. I remember learning to knit with string saved from things around the house; I probably had sticks I made into knitting needles. If I didn’t make them, then probably Daddy made them for me. He made everything we needed. I kept the long sewing needle he made from a piece of an umbrella – he sewed his cotton sacks with it. (Mama gave me that needle) I never could follow any directions in crochet or knitting – but if you showed me the finished item, I could figure it out my own; I can’t follow written directions. and my mother couldn’t either, but she could copy it by looking at it.”

starspangledbanner1931: Before my mother turned one-year old, the United States officially first named “The Star Spangled Banner” as their National Anthem (March 3, 1931). I never even knew we never had one before this discovery – did you?


Bonnie & Clyde

1934: Mama turned four and out West the “Dust Bowl” were destroying crops on the Great Plains. The well known bank robbers, Bonnie and Clyde”, were killed by police in that year.

1935: Mama turns five and starts first grade in Siloam school. She met her best friend there, Willie Mae Sisson, and they have remained friends for over eighty years. They met on that very first day of school when they both looked at each other and said “I don’t think I”m going to like it here.” All through school they did everything together, shared clothes, fought over boys and clothes, and married men that were best friends – and both divorced those very men. The well known “Monopoly” board game was also first released that same year, but the biggest event in 1935 that would affect her life in years to come was the beginning of Social Security, which was signed on August 14, 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Two years later in 1937, the first Social Security cards were issued by post offices – over 20 million were issued in that first year.

Helen on Siloam School Steps

Helen McKinley sitting on steps of Siloam School

School Memories… “When I went to school in Siloam there was a small store not far from the school called Mr. Mooneyham’s. The owners lived next door to the store – it was a very tiny building, and sat just through the cotton field on the side of the school. We’d take turns crawling through the cotton field on our hands and knees to go and buy penny candy for everyone. It was a really small one-room store where he sold penny candy and a few odds and ends. While one person went, the others sat at the edge of the school yard to wait. The one day that it was my turn, I found our principal, Mr. Burke, waiting for me when I came back. He didn’t do anything to me, he just told us girls to not do that anymore. If it had been the boys caught, they probably would have gotten paddled. One time Kendrick Lewis put a book in his pants before he was paddled, but he got in even more trouble for doing it; he was the doctors son and we were good friends.”

“We never had “trick or treat” when I was young, but we always had a Halloween party at school. No one came in any type of costume though, they had no money for that and probably didn’t even know what a costume for Halloween was. I never remember dressing up, we just came in regular clothes. It was a party that included your family; I remember my parents attending with me. We bobbed for apples, had haunted houses to walk through and most of our father’s even bobbed for apples. I remember seeing my father bob for apples one time. Many mothers baked home-made cakes for the cakewalk, although my mother never made one to bring, it was usually just certain mothers who baked them. My Mama didn’t socialize with too many people, she was a loner. While the parents stayed inside, the kids played out in the schoolyard until way after dark. Then we hid and jumped out from behind the bushes trying to scare everyone and yelling boo.”

I entertained myself…“I liked to pile bricks around ant hills to make them a home; we had both black and red ants on the farm. I could lay for hours watching the ants work – they would drag flies back to their nest and I’d watch as they took them apart – piece by piece – and carry them down into their nest. And when I was bored, I’d put some red ants over in the black ants home and watch them fight.”

“If I was really bored, I’d climb up in the tree and hang by my feet – Daddy would be out in the field plowing – he never told me to get down. I guess, back then, they didn’t think about kids hurting themselves. I did some pretty dangerous things when I grew up and would never have allowed my daughter to do them.”

“I loved to to climb up on the roof of the barns and slide down to the ground. The roofs were made of tin – and if your pants were slippery, it was just like a slide; it was a long drop to the ground, and if the sun was out – that tin roof was HOT!”


Aunt Marie & Uncle Walter McKinley

“Back in the old days, people held dances in their homes. I remember dances at my Granddaddy McKinley’s house near Slip Rock. Uncle J.W. McKinley, Uncle Walter McKinley and his wife, Aunt Marie played musical instruments and she sang. They also played in other people’s homes. I remember seeing them when I was a little girl and watching as they moved all the furniture out of the dining room to make a dance floor – they had big rooms in those old homes. They sang and square danced all night.”

Remembering my mother….

“When I was a young girl on the farm I liked to dress up with my mother’s old clothes I found in her closet. She had a skinny flapper-style dress with a hat that you wore pulled down on one side. I loved those clothes! Whenever I watch one of my favorite movies “Oh Brother Where Art Thou – the clothes the women wore always reminds me of my mother’s dress-up clothes. I never saw her wear the dress or the hat, but it was always in the hallway closet. I loved playing dress-up and wearing the hat pulled down to the side – slicked down to my head just like she told me she wore it. She told me they were hers and she had to have had been from the 1920’s; I guess it was a flapper-style dress. Maybe it was the dress she courted or married in, but she never said.”

Did Mama believe in ghosts…“I’ll never forget the night I spent at Aunt Annie and Uncle Lewis McKinley’s house and got really scared. As I lay there on the bed I saw a coat hanging up and the shadow it made on the wall looked just like my Daddy’s profile. It scared me so much that I started crying and wanted to go home. The pine walls at our farmhouse had shapes of faces and animal look-a-likes if you took a good look at them – especially at nighttime.” If you’d like to read more on ghostly happenings see story Week 14: Siloam Hauntings on the McKinley Farm


Edgar McKinley with Walker Fox Hunting Dogs

Remembering her father… “Daddy always wore overalls and his Stetson hat unless he had somewhere special to go. He didn’t like to wear dress-up clothes – and he didn’t look like Daddy unless he had his overalls on.”

“When I was a little girl I remember my father rolling his own cigarettes. He had a special cigarette roller – I don’t know what ever happened to it. He’d lay down a tobacco leaf, sprinkle tobacco over it and when he pulled or cranked the handle, it rolled up nice and tight and then he’d seal it at the end. I only remember him using it when I was really young; I liked when he let me roll them for him. Always, before going to town, he’d roll a few and put them in a pack so he wouldn’t have to roll any by hand while out. I don’t ever remember him buying cigarettes. He used Prince Albert tobacco in a tin and he also chewed Red Crow tobacco. When he was older and did buy cigarettes, I remember him saving all the empty packs; he’d bundle them up and tuck them away in the drawer. I don’t know why – he didn’t like to throw anything away. I sure wish I knew what happened to that roller of his.”


The Hindenburg

1937: There were three big events – Amelia Earhart vanished – the Golden Gate bridge opened – and the Hindenburg crashed in flames. How did these United States events affect a young seven year old girl in the small town of Siloam, Ga.? I don’t think they affected her at all as she didn’t remember them – there was no radio in their farmhouse – but she remembered her chores…

“One of my chores was to wash my daddy’s feet every night when he came in from the fields; I never minded doing that either. He’d sit on the back granite steps and I’d have the water all warm and ready. I’d take off his shoes and wash his feet. I also liked to brush his hair when I was small – he used to always say that he didn’t have much hair later on because I brushed it all off. He let you brush his hair once when you were small until you popped him in the head with the brush – that was the last time he let you brush his hair.”

“I also had to keep the buckets on the back porch full of water – that meant I had to use the water pump at the well. Even though the well was just outside the back porch, I hated to fill those buckets and lug them to the porch.”

1938: The year “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was released – the 1st full-length animated cartoon. Mama loved going to the movies, but didn’t remember this. The first movie she was ever was taken to – was a western – granddaddy loved westerns.

“Daddy plowed from early morning till dinnertime, he’d then come in and eat lunch – lay down for awhile – then go back and plow till dark. From the field you would hear, “gee, haw, you son of a bitch, turn around,” as he walked behind the horse or mule. My father usually wore two shirts and two pairs of overalls so the sweat kept him cool. Sometimes he even poured water on himself to keep cool during the hot afternoon. That meant I had to lug a bucket of water to the edge of the field.”

“I remember seeing an oily skim on the creek surface that ran through the field back behind the barns. It was a marshy area where the cows liked to gather, but Daddy never let his cows drink from that creek. There was also another stream, across from our house, on the other side of the road that Leroy and I often played in, and many times I’d find the water there too having an oily skim on top. Daddy knew the oil was there – he never let the animals drink from there either. I’ve always said, that one day, someone will find oil on Daddy’s land – but I hope not during my lifetime! I’d hate to know I sold the land, only to let someone else discover oil! Leroy found a white bullfrog there once in that small stream where we played. I liked to catch tadpoles and bring them home to put in a pot and watch them grow legs and become frogs.”

Bathtime… “I only remember taking a tub bath once a week when I was young and that was usually on Saturday; during the week I took a daily “cat bath.” I often took my Saturday bath outside in a tin tub my mother used just for our baths. The sun warmed the water for me in the summer so I didn’t have to heat and carry it out from the kitchen.”

Animals on the farm… “I had a pet pig that I raised from a bottle – it had been the runt of a litter – I fed and raised it. At night I’d bring her into the house and she slept in a box under the kitchen stove; the stove stayed warm pretty much all night. I don’t remember having a name for her – she was just called “pig.” She grew up to be a big sow and even had a litter. One day my mother went into the pen with her and the piglets and when mama picked up one of her babies, the mama pig grunted loudly and charged toward Mama – who jumped over the fence to get away. I’d never seen my mother jump over anything- but that day she cleared the fence. Since “pig” had always been a pet we never thought she’d go after any of us, but she definitely went after Mama. It wasn’t long after that before Daddy sold her.”

“Daddy had a rooster on the farm that he called “limber neck.” He was called that because he couldn’t hold his neck straight up to eat; eventually he would die because of that. One day Daddy took “limber neck” behind the barn and threw him out in the woods before we went to town. After returning from Siloam, Mama took the bucket of chicken feed and threw it out in the yard to feed the chickens and…. She couldn’t believe her eyes when the first one to come running was “limber neck” – with his neck standing as straight as any other chicken there. The very one that Daddy had thrown in the woods, seemed to now be alive and well! Daddy couldn’t believe his eyes and whenever he told that story, no one believed him! We could only surmise that when Daddy threw him, he must have hit something and knocked his neck back in joint – who knows – but that rooster lived a long time!”

“My brother Leroy had a chicken called “necked.” The chicken had no feathers, why I never knew, unless the other chickens had pecked them off! Leroy felt sorry for him and that chicken followed him all around just like a pet. If Leroy came in the house, that chicken ran right behind him before the screen door slammed shut. One day the chicken didn’t make the door and the door caught his neck and…. “

The farm… “I can still vividly remember the day that I was almost bit by a mad dog. I was out in the field with Mama and Daddy and I wanted a drink of water. After whining awhile, Daddy yelled at me to go to the house and get my drink, but the problem was I didn’t want to go by myself. He eventually chased me away and told me I better go on. I finally began walking back to the house and when I got in the yard I saw a strange dog standing there – I began yelling “mad dog, “mad dog.” Daddy came running toward the house and yelled for me to jump up on the wood pile – he ran in the front door and came out the back with his shotgun and shot the dog. We were taught about mad dogs roaming around because many dogs did roam back then. After that, he always walked me to the house if no one was home.”


Helen Rebecca McKinley Bryan

“I often made my father mad when I wanted to sunbathe in his wheat field. I would stomp out a path to the middle of the field and then stomp down a place to lay – I’d take off  all my clothes and sunbathe in the nude. I can still hear Daddy yelling at me now – that I better put my clothes back on! We lived out in the middle of nowhere – who was going to see me?”

“Daddy only liked pork – so he raised pigs for our meat, very seldom did we ever have beef on the table. Every fall he spent a day killing a few pigs and with the help of his father and others, they prepared the meat by packing it in salt to preserve and cure. But the funny part was he kept it packed in salt, in big trays on top of the tin roof! I guess so the animals couldn’t get at it. I remember seeing him take the ladder every week and check it, adding more salt and turning it over?” All I know is, it was said that Daddy had the best cured hams around the county. When his sister Lena came from Atlanta to stay, she always wanted to bring ham home and often had orders from her friends. One time Daddy sold all his ham, without realizing it – boy was he mad!!!”


Leroy and Helen McKinley on left

Remembering her brother… “Leroy played baseball and was really good; he played in Siloam and was also on the Greensboro high school baseball team. Leroy’s friends often called him “corncob” and me “little corncob,” – it would make me so mad. I remember Leroy was also prom king once in high school.”

“I was about thirteen when Leroy died, so sometimes it’s hard to really remember what he did when he was older. I’ll never forget when he got his high school senior ring though. Mama saved and saved by selling eggs and butter to pay for his ring – then he gave it to some girl he was seeing and she wouldn’t give it back later on.”


Helen and Leroy McKinley by Edgar McKinley’s old Model T – the one Leroy loved to dismantle.

“Leroy loved taking apart Daddy’s old Model T Ford that sat in the yard after buying the newer Model A. He’d take it apart and have all the parts laying out on a sheet – it would make Daddy so mad; but Leroy always put it back together. We would pull all the brass wire out of some of the parts to string across the road – to catch people walking. Once we caught the preachers horse and buggy in it and we both got a licking. I loved to squeeze the “ooga horn” on that car, sure wish I had kept that old horn. Daddy courted mama in the Model T that we loved to play in – I can close my eyes now and still see it sitting under the car shelter. It was sad the day Daddy sold it for “junk” for fifteen dollars.”

Medicinal Remedies… There’s a stream on the old White Plains back road from Siloam that Daddy often rode through with the wagon to wet the wheels – it kept the dust down as we drove along. Somewhere off this road was where the root doctor lived that Mama used to buy medicinal roots from. She’d boil them and make us drink the liquid when we were sick. I always hated that liquid – it tasted really bad, but I think it worked.”

“I remember Daddy mixing a medicinal drink with alcohol when we were sick; one day my brother made it for me while our parents were in the field. When they came back to the house, I was drunk! I’m sure my brother was taken out behind the barn that day!”

“My mother always put an egg shell in the coffee grounds whenever she made coffee. I never asked why, I just assumed it was how you made coffee. Maybe it was to add potassium or iron in your body – natural vitamins I guess.”

1939: The year of a family changing event – WWII began! The United States was at war – that was frightening to a young girl. Mama thought, at any moment, that the German’s would drop bombs on her in America. The first time she saw planes come over the farm she went running to the field where her father was plowing, yelling “the German’s are coming, the German’s are coming.” She had never saw a plane fly over before – remember she lived very isolated on a farm; there was no airport around.

It was also the year that the “Wizard of Oz” premiered. She didn’t remember it playing in the Greensboro theater but saw it many years later at the movies. But she did remember…“I remember a medicine man coming around a few times a year. He drove a big truck and sold medicine. At night, to encourage more people to come and listen to his speeches and buy medicine, he’d set up a big tent and show movies outside. I always enjoyed going to see the old movies. I often wished there was a big tent showing movies in our field so I could go there every night to see them.”

1940: Franklin D. Roosevelt remained in an unprecedented 3rd term as president because of the on-going war. There would be no new election at this time; the country had other issues that needed its attention. Her father was very involved, like most men, in politics. She remembers whenever there was an election, he’d listen to the results at Jarrard’s Gas Station in Siloam. All the men gathered there to listen on the radio – talking, yelling and lots of yelling back at the radio. Granddaddy was a true blue Democrat – but I wouldn’t hesitate to say he would not be one today!

School Shenanigans and Remembrances… “I was sent to the principal’s office one morning from an incident on the bus coming to school. The bus driver wouldn’t make the boys roll up the windows and the air was ruining my hair and the other’s girls on the bus – so I began singing this song, “John Jacob Jingle Hiemer Smith, his name is my name too. Whenever we go out, the people always shout, ‘There Goes John Jacob Jingle Hiemer Smith.” As you sing the verses, each verse is suppose to become louder than the last. I sang it all the way to school and drove the bus driver crazy that morning – he sent me directly to Principle C.C. Wills office. I went in and told him I was sent there, and after he asked my name and I told him I was Leroy McKinley’s sister – he looked at me and gave me ten cents and told me to go get myself a coke and sit down for awhile before going back to class.”

“There was mud everywhere when it rained hard, so muddy that our bus often became stuck in that Georgia red mud. Sometimes when the bus driver got to syrup mill crossing, he’d stop the bus and let us off to get a drink of sorghum syrup – that was a nice treat. My father hauled his cane there to make syrup – he’d carry jugs to bring it home in. Often the owner would give us a small sip in a tin can and sometimes he’d even sit us up on top of the horse or mule that walked ‘round and ‘round as the cane crushed into syrup. My father grew two types of cane – one was called ribbon cane – it was what was used for the syrup; a very thick cane stalk. The other was grown to feed the animals.”

Mama was very thick headed!… “We had a horse apple tree in the field that had the best apples – they were so good! Leroy and I hid them when they were green and waited for them to mellow – turning golden. He loved to try and find my hidden apples and eat them, which made me so mad. I don’t ever remember eating an apple that tasted as good as Daddy’s horse apples. One day I found the most perfect mellow apple on the tree, but it was all the way at the top – that didn’t stop me because I wanted that apple really bad. Daddy had told me not to climb the tree, but I never listened. He was plowing in the field as I was trying to get that apple. I climbed all the way up, got the apple, but then the limb broke and down I came – I straddled across the barb wire fence. Daddy didn’t say anything, but I ran crying all the way back to the house where I sat on the back steps crying – but eating my apple!”

“I remember a girl in Siloam bringing pomegranates to school and we’d eat them. I always brought my lunch to school in a brown paper bag – and I had to save it to reuse again or Mama wouldn’t pack me a lunch. Inside my bag was usually one of mama’s biscuits with a piece of ham, a piece of fruit and a slice of pie or Mama’s home made cake. But I really wanted a lunch brought in a tin pail like some of the other girls had; they brought a sandwich with store bought sliced white bread. When I think back now, that was probably why my lunch sack was often stolen. At that time I never understood why it was always my lunch bag stolen, but as much as I wished to have a sandwich, they wanted my biscuit and ham and the piece of home-made pie or cake. My mother did make the best pies and cakes I’ve ever eaten.”

When Mama was in the 5th or 6th grade in Siloam, she remembers Coca-Cola costing 3-cents a bottle and candy was only bought by the pound. In Mr. Johnny’s general store in Siloam, candy was scooped out of barrels and weighed – then put in a sack. She also remembers that ice cream cones and comic books were a whopping 5-cents.

1941: Attack on Pearl Harbor of our Navy ships and sailors. She had no direct memory of the attack but remembers her father talking about war coming and it scared her.

1943: Mama’s brother, Edgar Leroy McKinley, was drafted in WWII – a very dramatic event in her life and her family. He was her only brother and sibling – and the only son to carry the family McKinley name; she was only twelve years old when he left.

1945: The Army arrived at the farm to deliver the news of her brother Leroy’s death. He had been killed by a sniper in Metz, Germany; only being there for a short time. Mama was in Greensboro with her father when someone told him that the Army had stopped to ask where his farm was. Granddaddy told them to call over to Siloam at Jarrard’s gas station and hold them in town so he could get home. They rushed back to the farm only to find the Army arriving ahead of him – mama found her mother standing in the yard saying “I knew Leroy was dead when my package I mailed him was returned.” My grandmother mailed Leroy cakes in the mail every month; his favorite was Jam Cake and when that last package was returned, she knew in her heart that her son was gone. My mother was now an only child – her playmate would never return as she believed when he left – her mother was never the same person – life would never be the same.

Mama’s Sayings and more… One of her many sayings – “lately I’ve been as ill as a hornet and mean as a junkyard dog.” Sounds like people better keep out of her way! For more sayings see…19: McKinley and Bryan – Southern Family sayings…

Who taught you to sew?…“I first sewed on my mother’s pedal sewing machine and after I married, your father bought me a Singer sewing machine – still with a foot pedal; later we put a motor on it to make it electric. I made all my dresses on that first pedal machine and yours too. I wish I had kept that sewing machine today and feel sad that I eventually let it go, thinking a newer one would be better – it wasn’t! My old Singer was much more reliable.”

“I remember one time, while Mama was working in the field, I found some brand new material in a closet. While they worked in the field, I made curtains for my room and even a skirt for my make-up table. When Mama came back to the house and saw that I had sewed all her material – she cried! Daddy told her not to cry, he’d buy her more cloth. Back then, material was hard to come by and she often reused cloth over again, along with the sacks that the flour and fertilizer came in; which was often printed cloth. She even saved every muslin bag the Prince Albert tobacco came in – they were sewed together to make a sheet to back a quilt; nothing was thrown out! Having brand new material was precious and that’s why she was so upset when she saw that I used it.”

“I didn’t use patterns when I first began sewing – and didn’t even know how to use one at that time. When I lived in Perry, and finally knew how to really sew, I sewed with patterns. I remember at night I’d lay in bed thinking about what I wanted to sew, then the next morning I’d get up and make it. I could sit up all night with a cup of coffee and a cigarette and sew. You would get up in the morning and I’d have a new dress all made and ready for you – and you didn’t even want it! That made me so mad…”

What was Christmas like?… “I remember that Daddy hid our box of goodies in the barn he bought for Xmas Eve; inside that box would be apples, oranges, bananas, nuts and candy. Those items were a treat, as we only had them on special occasions. Sometimes he’d tease us that he didn’t get any, but before we knew it, he’d be back with that box! Leroy and I usually sat there and ate ourselves silly.”

Everyone always has a few favorite aunts and… “Aunt Liza Askew McKinley was one of my favorites – my mother’s sister. I can still remember how stern she was. If she saw her boys coming home drunk, she’d lock them out of the house, sometimes even throwing rocks at them – and then they had to sleep in the cornfield. They even took their dog, Bo-weevil, with them when they went drinking – and the dog would come home drunk too! Later when they went to the bars to drink, they’d still take Bo-weevil with them.”

“Often my father’s sister, Aunt Lena came and stayed two weeks with us in the summer. She and daddy didn’t get along well, or at least it seemed that way. She pretty much raised him from a baby as his mother died when he was about three. They fussed all the time and she’d call him a “corn-bred lawyer” and he would tell her that she was so mean that she’d still be killing piss ants up and down the road long after they had all died.”

“We had no camera at our house but Aunt Lena had a camera – she and Aunt Emma  were the only ones in our family who did. She would bring it when she came down to our farm in the summer; she came on the train. Daddy and I would pick her up in Greensboro. I never wanted her to take my picture though, I thought that camera would bite me! I still remember standing there twisting my dress not wanting my picture taken. I sure wish I could go back and walk around and see myself as I grew up.”

Daddy’s cars...“I probably never even saw a car until I was about thirteen years old (1943). We went everywhere in Daddy’s wagon until he bought his first car, which was a Model T Ford. I feel I grew up ignorant living on the farm because I only went to school and came home; I wasn’t allowed to stay after school and participate in sports or other activities – that would have meant Daddy had to come and get me – he wasn’t going to do that, he had work to do.”

1947: My mother met her future husband – Clayton Bryan from Union Point while he was home on leave from the Navy. They must have hit it off, as after many letters, and weekend leaves, he asked her to marry him. And on one of those weekend leaves, they married on a Friday night with their best friends as witnesses. There was no honeymoon as it was only a weekend leave.

Helen Mckinley Grad Pic

1948 Greensboro High School Class

1948: Two big events this year – Mama graduated from Greensboro High School and she was married on May 29, 1948. Did they plan a wedding date or did it just happen on that weekend; she didn’t really remember it being planned. There was no family in attendance at their wedding, just their two best friends, who happened to also marry each other. Daddy had to return back to Memphis, Tenn. to the Navy base and he left Mama to live with his parents so she could work in the local Mill. She didn’t like working in the mill and soon went back to live on the farm with her parents until enough money was saved and a place found for them to live near the base. While living in Memphis she swears she saw Elvis Presley standing in front of the Army-Navy store playing his guitar. She says she can still close her eyes and see him as that young good-looking guy with his foot propped up on the lamp post playing a guitar. I’m sure at that time she never thought she’d later see him in 1956 and watch him gyrate his hips on the Ed Sullivan show – telling everyone – “I saw him on the street”!

1949: Mama’s first daughter was born, Monica Yvonne Bryan; she was born with Spina Bifida and wasn’t expected to live. This was a very traumatic event in her life and she struggled with much depression as she took care of Monica with her parents support. Her father even built a special bed to support Monica’s back and her mother helped with all the washing of diapers and baby bottles. I can’t even imagine caring for your child, your very first, knowing that there was no chance of them living more than a few months. Monica lived for eight months and after her death my mother had a nervous breakdown.

1952: I’m born! No matter what the doctors told her – that I was a perfect baby girl with ten fingers and ten toes -my mother did not want to get close to me. She couldn’t believe that I would live and that I really had no health issues, no matter what the doctors told her. My Aunt Chris, who was my grandmothers sister and lived next door to us at that time, took over much of my care as a baby for several months. It took time for my mother to overcome her fear and believe that I was really going to live before she could come to love me and take over my everyday care. Eventually she believed I was healthy and began the mother – daughter bond.

“Mama and Daddy never had an icebox or refrigerator until after you were born (1952). Anything that needed to be kept cold was put under the sawdust pile with a block of ice. Daddy kept the milk and cream in the well – you had to pull up the bucket to get the milk or cream bottle when needed.”



Mama as a storyteller... “I worked at the Holiday Inn as a bartender after my divorce and loved telling this story, especially to the men who tried to ask me out. I told them about my pet alligator named Clyde who lived in the pond on the farm – and how Clyde loved when men came to visit. There were many who really believed this tall tale! Whenever someone tried to ask me out and wanted to come to the farm, I’d say, “sure come on down, we’ll walk out to the pond and I’ll show you Clyde – then when you put your arms around me you’ll hear a big thump, and I’ll walk away singing, “another man gone!” That story of what Clyde did to my dates, who dared come to the farm, was what I always told. Often in conversation, as I served drinks, the regulars would ask, “how’s Clyde doing?” They loved to ask when “newbies” were sitting at the bar! Those were good times when I bar-tendered at Holiday Inn. I had a great time working there; in fact, I had such a good time that it mostly didn’t even seem like work. It was my social life, and I had many friends that were there almost every night just to talk to me and hear about Clyde.” A story on Clyde and more whimsical stories can be found here at: http://jinsalaco2013.wordpress.com/2014/02/25/mamas-whimsical-stories/

Mama and father

Mama with her father Edgar McKinley and “Flizzy”…

Mama drove home late at night back to the farm and on one night….“When I worked at Nathaniel Restaurant in Greensboro, there was a cop who used to come in and always say he’d get me one day for speeding as I drove home at night. He’d say, “I’ll get you Missy, just wait.” I always knew where he parked as I drove home, so I’d slow up and wave to him as I rode by. It would make him so mad. One day he came after me, but I cut through a side street and lost him.” He never forgot to remind me that one day he would get me, but he never did. I drove Daddy’s old Ford I called “Old Flizzy” – and she could fly!”

Mama’s life always fascinated me… I certainly don’t have the stories or lived through what she lived through in those life events. My mother was born in 1930, during depression-era times, growing up poor on a Southern farm in rural Georgia. World War II began when she was a teenager; her brother, Leroy, was drafted and died shortly after landing in Germany. She was then left an only child – and with a mother grieving for her son. Times were tough during the war years, people barely scraped by, but from her stories, her father kept the family well fed and clothed; food was always on the table.

Many of these stories and remembrances are from “Conversations with Mama” – written from our nightly phone chats. Often, as she chatted, and she can be long-winded, I scribbled and asked questions. Sometimes I even initiated the conversation to draw more information out of her – and once in awhile she’d ask, what are you doing, writing down everything I say!

Her stories will never be forgotten – it’s all written down in “Conversations with Mama.”

But I still haven’t learned why she was named Helen!!!”


© 2019, copyright Jeanne Bryan Insalaco; all rights reserved


About Jeanne Bryan Insalaco

My blog is at: https://everyonehasafamilystorytotell.wordpress.com/
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