I want to write about my mother, but over the years I have discovered that it is most difficult to write about someone you are very close to. I have written about my mother before, but the main thing I want to talk about today is how industrious and hard-working my mother was, despite her upbringing in a wealthy family, or her tiny size.
Wilma Butler was the 7th child of my grandparents, with about 5 younger siblings. About two of her siblings died as small children, I think. The Butler children were all born between 1888 and 1913. In those days children were usually born at home and illnesses children can easily avoid now – mumps, whooping cough, measles – often took the lives of small children. When my daughter Dee was born weighing only 5 lbs. 8 oz. my mother was very upset, because in her experience babies that small didn’t survive. Of course, Dee was put in the incubator and her lungs were fully functional, so I never thought she wouldn’t survive, but my mother had been traumatized by seeing two of her siblings die.
above, Mother and two of her sisters
Mother told folks she was about 5 feet tall [it was closer to 4’10] and that she had been born at the turn of the 20th century. It was actually about 1899. My dad smiled when he overheard her say that, but never said a word to refute it. She had auburn hair and her eyes were kind of green. She had a quick temper that could remove the hair of a mule but she got over it just as fast.
My grandparents Beulah Phillips Butler and Robert E. Butler were well to do, apparently lacking for very little. Grandaddy owned drug stores, car dealerships, and a marble works.
above, the Butler family, around 1921
However, with so many children to educate, Granddaddy turned a room in his house into a schoolroom and hired a teacher. They also had a governess who taught the girls manners, beautiful needlework etc. I never discussed this with my uncles so don’t know what she taught them. I think that some of the children were allowed to go to public schools, in later years.
Schools in rural Georgia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were nothing like schools today. A one room schoolhouse with one teacher, and all grades learning together was not unusual. Grandaddy Butler could afford to pay a tutor and give his children a better education than most, and most of his children (including the girls) went to college, which was highly unusual, in those days. Grandaddy was not overly fond of children, but he knew that education was important.
Despite being wealthy, even with all the servants, everyone had to pitch in with housework. Mother most often helped in the kitchen because there were just so many to feed, three times a day. We take for granted nowadays that even if one cannot cook, there are plenty of takeout options or frozen or canned foods. When my mother was growing up, that was not the case. For instance, if you wanted fried chicken, you had to kill the chicken, pluck its feathers, cut it up, and fry it – usually over a wood-burning stove.
Refrigerators didn’t become common until the 1920’s or 30’s and then they were “iceboxes.” (To the end of her life my mother always called the fridge the “icebox.”) Blocks of ice cooled the food, and they had to be hauled in and the melted ice hauled off.
Most families -- when Mother was growing up, and when I was growing up -- canned vegetables and fruits in the summer and fall, to use in the winter. Glass Mason jars had to be sterilized and then the food put in. Then the jars would be put in a water bath and cooked on the stove to a certain temperature, then the lids were eventually put on tightly, to keep out air from spoiling the food. I remember my mother working long hours to “put up” glass jars of tomatoes, green beans, butterbeans, chow chow (a relish with cabbage and onions), peaches, apples, etc. When Dad got home from work, if she was still canning, he would help. Everybody helped. I can remember as a little child peeling tomatoes.
My parents liked to can a mixture of corn, okra and tomatoes. Some people called it “soup mix.” My mother’s soup mix would have other things, like butterbeans. My dad’s sisters would make sausage balls and put them in jars – and they stayed delicious and edible because there was no air in the jars to spoil the meat.
Most women put up preserves, jams, and jellies, and we ate on that all year. Mother didn’t like to make jelly.
Canned foods were just not easily available before World War II. Mostly just tomatoes, beans, and corn were easily found.
Many families would dry fruit on big tables, outside in the sunshine, with screens on top of the fruit to protect it from birds and insects. Daddy remembered in his family (and he grew up on a big farm) when fruit was drying and a rain storm came up, everyone ran to get the fruit inside or covered, to protect it.
above, Mother and Daddy when they were "courting"
When Mother was a child and when I was a child, clothes and linens were ironed, and the irons (which were made of iron) had to be heated in the fire. Irons weren't electric. They were basically just hunks of metal; the pointed end was important because that's how you ironed small area of cloth. They were very heavy, and the handles usually had to have a towel or something wrapped around them in order not to burn one's hand.
Clothes and napkins and dish towels all had to be washed in a big tub, and whites had to be boiled if you wanted to keep them white. Usually the laundry was sent out to be done by black women, but not everything was sent out. Underwear was usually done by Mother in the sink and hung on the line to dry.
When I was a kid, from time to time there would be a hole dug in the yard and a fire built, and a big black pot hung over it, with water, and the clothes would be boiled. Mother was so tiny, women were usually hired to come in and help with the laundry.
There were no paper napkins. Napkins were made of cloth and had to be washed and ironed. Every child had their own napkin holder so they didn’t get them mixed up. If you gave someone 8 napkin holders for a wedding present each one would be a bit different.
My mother was very germ conscious so she was strict about everyone using their own napkins.
above, the Butler girls, probably around 1918 - Mother is standing, far right, in a dark dress
Back then, women wore big aprons over their dresses to keep from ruining their clothes when they were cooking and cleaning. By the time I came along in 1933, that had changed. Mother wore small aprons. She would make beautiful aprons for her sisters. Women usually had everyday aprons and then nicer ones to wear when company was there.
Women always sewed back then. Clothes were sewed and mended at home. My grandmother hired a dressmaker to come a couple of times a year and just move in until she had made clothes for all the girls. I’m not sure about the boys – she might have made clothes for the boys too. For dress clothes, boys usually went to tailors.
There were no mixtures of fabrics back then. Everything wrinkled horribly.
My aunt Georgia Hasty sewed not just dresses but men’s pants and shirts. My daddy was so big he could never find ready-made clothes. Georgia made pants for my daddy for years because he was so big.
Cloth was scarce during World War II but Mother got bolts of cloth for free sometimes. The men who owned the fabric mills when we lived on the farm were tasked with making clothes for the soldiers. If there were bolts of cloth that were flawed – perhaps they had ruined a bolt’s color, for instance -- those bolts were just given away because the soldiers couldn’t use them. Bolts of that kind of cloth were sent to my mother during the war. Mostly khaki but sometimes navy blue. The fabric had to be carefully cut to cut out the flaws, but Mother could use it. Mother and Daddy sent some of it to my Aunt Georgia to make clothes for not only Daddy, but everyone. Dad wore his khaki pants for years.
Mother went to Marietta High School, at least the last years. After graduation, she worked for Grandaddy, in the bank, until her younger sister, Miriam, graduated. Then both girls went together to Bessie Tift Baptist College, in Forsyth, Ga. After extensive testing, Mom began college as a sophomore.
Even when Dee was small, we had to iron everything. Ironing little girl’s dresses was not easy. I had to get a friend’s maid to come to my house and teach me how to iron properly. My mother did not like to iron and she rarely ironed – but she was fanatic about cleanliness.
Children didn’t bathe every day when mother was growing up or when I was growing up. On Saturdays you bathed so you would be clean for church. During the week you washed what was dirty. Before supper, we would have to wash our face and hands, though.
My parents always bought soap. A lot of people, especially during the war, would make their own soap from ashes and animal fats. I never saw anyone make it. I think Mother may have tried to make it once but that was just an experiment. You could easily buy Octagon soap. After you had washed a load of clothes with Octagon soap your hands were dried out. It was harsh. Some people washed themselves with it. I was never washed with Octagon soap.
Mother worked outside jobs a lot when I was growing up. She worked as a proofreader for a newspaper. She worked in the money room of Davison’s – the money was put in a tube and sent down to a room in the basement and change was made and sent back through the tube. One year our school had no lunch program and she organized the mothers to go in and make lunch for all the kids, every day.
In the 1950’s she sold Stanley products and was one of their top saleswomen, and eventually an area manager.She made good money.
Mother grew up wealthy but she always worked very hard, as a child and as an adult. After the Depression of 1929, she had very little help and she worked hard at home, and at whatever jobs she could find.
Despite that, she had a tremendous faith in God, and she loved a good joke. She found time to talk to each one of her children, individually, on a regular basis. She was an amazing person and I miss her every day.