Just before the turn of the twentieth century, there were three little girls born to William and Fannie Hulsey in addition to three older brothers. These little girls were born two years apart and my “Granny” was the girl in the middle. Her name was Willie Elizabeth- “Willie” for short.
She was an eternal optimist and saw good things during not so good times. In fact, she thought it was wonderful to be the middle girl because she could play with the older girl two years older than herself when she wanted to be older and then play with the younger sister who was two years younger when she wanted to be younger.
My Mother recorded hours of Granny’s “Beautiful Book of Memories” as she called her precious memories of childhood and beyond. Mother then typed them and placed them into notebook that I had the privilege of inheriting.
Granny loved Christmas and after reading some of her stories, I have learned she loved Christmas from childhood and never gave up that childlike love for the season even in her nineties. She would get excited about opening her gifts, waking up to hear Santa making noise in the other room as he delivered our gifts, decorating the tree and so much more.
Christmas in the early 1900s was a simple and wonderful time for a community. At the age of three, Granny moved with her family from Georgia to a small community named Avon near De Queen, Arkansas. The community of Avon soon constructed a building that served as a schoolhouse, church and community center. Families homesteaded the land that surrounded it. Everyone knew their neighbors and they all became part of a larger family unit consisting of all those living in the community.
Singings, church services and school programs were an exciting time for everyone. To catch a glimpse of the excitement of one such Christmas and the times Granny experienced, here is an excerpt of one of her stories in her own words. Listen as Granny tells one of her Christmas experiences at Avon in 1900.
“We had great, great joy out of our Christmas tree. I guess it was the highlight of all of our programs that we’d have during the years. No one in those days had Christmas trees at their homes. I don’t recall a single tree ever being in our home. The schoolhouse and the school program answered for everybody’s Christmas. Gifts were carried up there for the Mothers and Fathers and everybody had that as their Christmas all over the country.
If Christmas was on the weekend, we would go Thursday and Friday to the woods to gather all those beautiful vines that we have in the wintertime. We would gather holly and cedar. We usually, nearly always had a holly tree, which was safer about fire, because we always had real candles. We didn’t have electric lights. We had real candles and one night we were having a program with everything going nicely, when all of a sudden a light flashed. Some of the men always stood by the tree in case of fire. They were very careful about guarding the tree.
Will Taylor was a real pessimist who everybody laughed about him being so pessimistic. So when the light flashed, he said, “If there’s anything on that tree for me, that’s it!” Sure enough when the part that had caught on fire was pulled down, it was his gift. It was either socks or a celluloid collar. I don’t remember which, but everybody had a big laugh about Will.
I’ll have to add this about these programs that we had because we enjoyed it so much. There were four of us little girls the same size, Melba Jacks, Pearl Stell, Leona Thornhill and me. I believe in looking back that regardless of which teacher we had, we really got more than our share of wonderful parts.
They made pretty little crowns with stars up in the front out of foile paper. You know how those pretty things are fixed. It looked like a real crown and it was put on our heads to deliver the Christmas gifts. They’d call our names out for us to come up to the stage there and the teacher and some of the helpers would cut the gifts off and hand them to us and we would hand out the gifts.
Well, it wasn’t like it is in these times because you weren’t afraid of anything getting broken or lost. There was a boy one year who came from across the river to our neighborhood a lot and he was giving his girlfriend whom he later married a beautiful Elgin gold watch. But I carried that back and delivered it to her. Who these days would risk putting something like that on a Christmas tree to be handled publicly? But everybody carried everything that they gave to anybody at Christmastime to the Christmas tree. Well that was just a great joy. We four girls, we had fun!
We just had all kinds of experiences up in the hills and ours were the usual run of things. The reason I like to think about and talk about it was because it was a family affair. All of my experiences and all of my living and I still love to think of all of my folks and all of our ways of life as being a family affair.”
Willie Elizabeth Hulsey-Johnson-Ridings-Miller was 92 when she passed away. She had wanted to live to be 100 but died just shy of her goal. Family was the most important thing in her life. Her faith, her church, her family were wrapped tightly together and provided her with many memories for her book of memories. She always said that her Beautiful Book of Memories was large and the other book she had of not so fond memories was very small.
During this busy time of year, take time to reflect on those wonderful memories of family and be aware that you are also creating memories for and with your family. Will you be able to tell your stories to your children and grandchildren? Leave a record of your life for those precious loved ones who will one day remember you and the stories you have lived and shared. Don’t forget to share your faith in Jesus as well as traditions that drew you close. It’s about family!