Tidying-up guru Marie Kondo would have had little sway over my mother and aunts. They considered many of their possessions too dear to part with.
These treasured possessions were packed away and left for others to sort through: Postcards from an Arkansas relative serving in World War I, letters from an aunt in New York, correspondence among the four Coleman sisters and a few telegrams.
Twenty years ago my sister, Betty, began the project. I recall her musing that the letters were full of family drama, yet it was only last week that I explored the stash.
Let me set the scene for you. Aunt Mary Bess, 45, is living with her recently widowed father, Yongue Coleman, in Feasterville 50 miles north of Columbia. She is writing to her nephew, Charles Shellhouse, 24, drafted into the Army in September 1942. She was very encouraging to this reluctant soldier. I particularly enjoyed her descriptions of life on the home front in the early years of World War II.
In a September 1942 letter she noted, “I see several buses of men pass down the road every day and I always think there goes another bunch to be soldiers…. There is an airplane flying over my head right now. So many of them fly over everyday — and some at night.”
In early November she wrote, “We didn’t make as much cotton as Papa thought we would. The boll weevil did so much more damage than he had thought it would.
“I believe I wrote you that Papa sold the cow and young calf. A man from Columbia came by and offered him $85. Of course Papa wouldn’t take that. Well, he kept stopping by and finally he gave $110 for them. I don’t care to be without plenty of milk and butter, but it is mighty nice not to have to fool with washing up after and taking care of a whole lot of milk and churning….
“News from the Solomons has been encouraging for the last few days. My little kitchen radio is out of order, and I sure do miss it about hearing news all thru the mornings.
“We had a little Hallowe’en Carnival at the B. Boarding — House Sat. night. The children had a good time biting apples on a string, getting their fortunes told, pinning the tail on the donkey and dancing and singing. Papa played the fiddle. He and Lula won the cake in the cakewalk.”
Later that month, “Papa bought 2 shoats at $6 apiece not long ago. He is threatening to sell both our killing hogs. I am holding out to keep one of them. What would winter be without some sausage?
“… I am ordering 2 boxes from Kate Smith made especially for mailing cakes. It will probably take them 2 weeks to get here — so don’t let your mouth water yet for that coconut cake I’m planning to send you.
“… Don’t let your mind dwell too much on your home. Just look at all those other men around you — they all had to leave their homes too.
“… Papa is thinking of buying another cow. It has also percolated thru his mind that he might sell his Ford.
December 1942: “We killed my hog the other day. You know Papa sold his because he didn’t eat much hog meat. But believe it or not I’m beginning to think he sold my hog and killed his. You see I am going by the way he is eating it.
“He has his car running again. Has offered it for sale at $150. He has driven it to Winnsboro, Carlisle, and Chester since getting it fixed.”
January 1943: “The weather changes so much that we have a time with our water works. When we cut the water off, the rust in the pipes seems to scale off the we have a time getting the water to run again before it is cold enough to have to cut it off again.
“Papa has already used his gas for this period — I have a few gal. left. With all the pleasure driving prohibited the highway seems almost deserted. About as many airplanes pass a day as cars do now.”
February 1943: “I reckon even in Miss. you could feel this cold wave. We have had two water pipes that broke off straight across — the threads were rusted out. Don’t know how much other damage may be done. Some people got their water to running Sun. and then drained the pipes but our never thawed up a bit Sun. We can get fresh water at the pump O.K.
“Papa and I seem to be our woodcutters for this cold spell. Mack cut enough to last half the day Sun. and we have sawed (with a cross-cut saw) the rest we have burned up to now and still have no hopes of Mack coming today.
“Kathleen (older sister, fifth-grade teacher in Pineville) came home Sat. P.M. and went back Sun. P.M. Those 2 trips to Chester and to Winnsboro yesterday sure did knock my gas units almost out of business.”
March 1943: “You ought to see me driving a 1930 A model Ford to Chester and Winnsboro. The other car had only three tires that are safe for using. Have had in an application for a tire about 6 weeks. May get on order to get one by the end of March.
“I bought 15 little chickens and put with a hen ... she had been trying to set for 8 weeks. She took the chickens fine. I reckon she thought perseverance won out at last.”
April 1943: “Papa has a little corn planted. He worked hard in the bottoms all morning. Is getting in a good nap now. Will probably want to set off up to Cousin Harry’s as soon as he wakes up. You know we have only 1½ gal. of gas a week now but he hasn’t let that soak into his realization yet.
“…Yesterday evening late I went to the lot and found a hen had fallen into the horse trough. It was half full of water and she was about to peg out. I dried her off good and wrapped her up and put bottles of warm water under her. This A.M. she seemed to be O.K.
“… I suppose your Mama (oldest sister, Isabel who lived in Aiken County) has written you about Nancy’s (youngest sister and my mother) baby boy — Named Coleman DeVane.”
I’ll never know how those letters Mary Bess wrote returned to her possession; however, I am glad they did. They will be passed on to Charles family.