My mother passed away today. This is her story that I began compiling about four years ago.
Mazie Mitchum Coats and Ezekial Coats were blessed with a daughter Mary Lee on April 13, 1918. She was the fourth of five children spaced about two years apart. In order of age they were Cenetta, Ezekial Jr. (Zekie), Mae Barry, Mary Lee, and Geneva. Tragically Cenetta lost her life in an automobile accident at the age of 16 but all the others have enjoyed long lives.
Shortly after Geneva’s birth, their father Ezekial died of the flu. Their mother was also ill with an incurable disease causing paralysis. She was unable to care for her children and they eventually went to live with other family members when Mary Lee was about two years old. Mae Barry and Zekie went to live with their grandparents Cenetta Murray Mitchum and Charlie Watson Mitchum. Geneva went to live with their Uncle Sonny Mitchum and his wife Ruby. Mary Lee went to live with their Aunt Catherine Mitchum Martin and her husband Mackie Martin. Their mother Mazie’s disease progressed and she died when Mary Lee was about seven years old.
Mary Lee had no memory of living with Uncle Mackie and Aunt Catherine because she was so young and no more than a year passed before Aunt Catherine died in childbirth. She must have been about 3 years old, if that much, when Aunt Catherine died. She remembers being taken to her grandparents Charlie and Cenetta’s home by her brother Zekie, then hearing the older folks talking about who should take her. It was decided that she would go to live with her Aunt Olive Carolyn Ayers Way and her husband Jacob Way in Eutawville. Olive was a niece of her Grandmother Cenetta Murray Mitchum, so she was actually Mary Lee’s first cousin once removed. Mary Lee thought of the Ways as her true parents and called them Mama and Papa Jake. She was adopted into the family and given the surname Way which she always used thereafter anytime her maiden name was called for.
Mary Lee remembers her Mama (Olive Way) as being very kind and loving to her. She remembers Papa Jake as not being unkind to her but being rather distant. Perhaps he had his hands full with his business ventures and his own three rather wild older children Sadie, Buster, and Otto.
Papa Jake owned a lot of property. He owned a grocery store in Eutawville. He also sold coffins that he kept in another store in Eutawville. He farmed, growing sugar peas on some acreage he owned right behind their house. He grew cotton somewhere near the edge of town. They grew nuts and figs in the yard for their own consumption. He had at least one additional house that Mary Lee remembers as not being occupied. She remembers him going to the gin with his cotton and seeing cotton bales temporarily stored in the yard waiting to be trucked away by a buyer.
Sometimes Mama Olive would send Mary Lee to Papa Jake’s store for a ginger ale. That was a big treat that she and Mama Olive would share.
Otto and Buster were a rowdy pair of older step brothers. They were nice to Mary Lee, but they liked to tease her. Buster had a moustache and Mary Lee wondered how one could grow such a thing. He told her you had to keep rubbing a little chicken manure on your upper lip. Both the boys played baseball in high school. She remembers seeing them in their baseball uniforms.
Sister Sadie, years older than Mary Lee, had her distractions with social life as a young woman. However, she was at least nice to Mary Lee if not highly attentive. Sometimes Mary Lee would get frightened at night and want to get in bed with Sadie. Sadie would consent if Mary Lee would agree to scratch her head. Sadie loved to have someone else scratch her head.
Eventually Sadie married and became pregnant. It seems she birthed her baby in a bed in the living room. At the time, Mary Lee was sick in bed, which conveniently kept her away from the action. That suited everyone fine as nobody had told Mary Lee where babies came from, or even that Sadie was expecting one. After the baby was born, they brought it and showed it to Mary Lee without telling her where it came from. It was the custom of the time to keep children naive as long as possible. Since Mary Lee was a good girl and not prone to ask pushy questions, she was very slow in accumulating essential information on such matters.
Mary Lee remembers Papa Jake often arguing with Sadie and the boys presumably over their escapades. She was not privy to exactly what their escapades were but thought they had to do primarily with some disreputable company they kept, and in the case of Buster, alcohol. Otto, the youngest, had the most moderate temperament. He eventually married and lived a respectable life as a police officer in Savannah. Buster, however, evolved into an unrelenting alcoholic and became very familiar with the inside of a jailhouse. By most standards his life was a failure.
Papa Jake made and canned his own home brew (probably beer). Mary Lee remembers that her cousin Vaneaton from Holly Hill liked Papa Jake’s home brew. At the time Vaneaton drove a bread truck. Mary Lee thought he was a perfect young man and looked up to him.
Uncle Mackie remained in the picture. He was very sweet to Mary Lee. When she was little, he would visit her sometimes and bring her candy and take her for rides in his horse and buggy. Once he took her to an Easter egg hunt at a little wooden church. Later when she was living in Holly Hill, she would see him occasionally when he was there on business. He would always give her a dollar or two. Uncle Mackie had an interesting business, sort of a double life. In later years Mae Barry revealed that he was a big time bootlegger as well as a respectable community member. Mary Lee (always nearly a tee-totaler) qualified that he was a “gentleman bootlegger”. Mae Barry said he had a staff of armed guards and had paid off all the key people in the sheriff’s office.
All in all, Mary Lee found life with the Ways to be good, though she was not too fond of the bathroom. It was just an outdoor privy. She hated having to go out to it and always feared being surprised by a snake in the privy at an inopportune time. I don’t believe an outhouse snake surprise ever happened but the fear of it kept Mary Lee dreaming of a better life. She hoped that some day when she was grown up she could get a job as a maid for the rich Cross family that lived in the big white house down the street. They had a modern almost indoor bathroom at the end of their porch.
Once Mary Lee climbed up the old Chinaberry tree in the yard and couldn’t get down. Mama Olive let her remain there for a while as a lesson that she shouldn’t do such things. Eventually the cook came to fix supper and got her down. (Even people of modest means often had African-American cooks because their labor was so cheap.)
One of Mary Lee’s memories in the Way household was the time of the big flood. She doesn’t know why the big flood occurred. Perhaps a hurricane came through because the infamous Chinaberry tree blew down at the same time. The land was quite flat and a stream very near the house overtopped its bank. The water rose and came way up into the yard, which was a bit higher than the street. Mary Lee said there were little fish in the water. As a child I loved fishing about as much as swimming and her story caused me to imagine being able to fish from my own yard. I always hoped for a wonderful flood and I made her retell the story of the flood many times.
Mary Lee remembers getting a switching that she never thought she deserved. I fully agree. The incident began when she went with a girlfriend into Papa Jakes field behind the privy. There they found a cow that had just given birth to a calf. Excited, she ran to tell Mama Olive about the calf. Mama Olive responded by giving her a switching, claiming she had told her not to go back there. Mary Lee does not remember being told not to go there and always wondered why her Mama was so angry about it. She thinks it was probably because children were kept quite in the dark about where babies, human or animal, came from. She had actually arrived too late to see exactly where the calf had come from and nobody told her.
Life in the Way household came to an end when Mary Lee was 11 years old. Papa Jake died. Mama Olive took Mary Lee and moved seven miles away to live with Olive’s sister and brother-in-law, Ethel Ayers Price and Henry Price in their Price hotel in Holly Hill. Mary Lee called them Aunt Ethel and Uncle Henry, but like Mama Olive, Ethel was actually a first cousin once removed.
Life in the Price hotel was very different, in a positive way. Mary Lee ended up with a second step mother, a different step dad, and two new step brothers-Vaneaton (the admired bread truck driver) and Henry Jr. The permanent renters and the drummers (traveling salesmen) made for considerable excitement compared to life in little Eutawville. Some of the permanent residents were three Jewish families, each of whom owned stores in town. Another couple had a son Mary Lee’s age. He and Mary Lee were both too shy to talk to each other.
Mary Lee spent four years in the Price hotel. Then, when she was 15, Aunt Ethel moved to Columbia along with her sons, Olive, and Mary Lee. Aunt Ethel bought a boarding house on Pendleton Street across from the men’s dorms at the University of South Carolina.
Uncle Henry stayed in Holly Hill for a while doing his horse trading business but he came often to Columbia. When he came, he would bring good things like sausage and fresh produce. Soon he ended the horse business and permanently rejoined the family at the boarding house. He and Henry Jr. did all the buying of food for the meals served there. They would go down to the farmers market on Assembly Street, often at night, and buy food. Henry Jr. did the driving because Uncle Henry chose not to learn to drive.
Mary Lee enrolled in the 10th grade at Columbia High School as soon as they moved to Columbia. Life was exciting. It was a big city. There were always college men working and dining in the boarding house.
Another lady from Holly Hill also came to Columbia and ran a boarding house on the opposite corner from Aunt Ethel’s. Uncle Henry bought groceries for her too.
The perfect young man and now stepbrother, Vaneaton, eventually found a sweetheart in Lancaster. Her name was Thelma and Mary Lee thought she was exceptionally nice. She also really liked Thelma’s mother. By and by Vaneaton and Thelma eloped and lived happily and productively ever after.
The boarding house was a very large two-story structure. It had a full length front porch with a sleeping porch above it. A beautiful Wisteria vine twined around the porch. It was a street where the sidewalk ran close to the houses. There was a very wide parking strip (actually a front yard) that extended between the sidewalk and the street. All of humanity passed by on the sidewalk. There was a cozy parlor with a fireplace and a piano. Three meals per day were served family style. Aunt Ethel had a staff of black cooks and maids and Mary Lee. I remember Henry Jr. punching meal tickets for the diners. Some of the college boys also waited tables for their meals. Early the next year when she was in the 11th grade there appeared one very interesting college boy eating and waiting tables at the boarding house. He was Garland “Doug” Douglass.
Doug took an immediate interest in Mary Lee. She thought he was pretty nice too. She said maybe it was even love at first sight, but she was young and there was a lot of excitement, work, school, and other college boys. Mary Lee believed in proceeding with caution in all endeavors. To her credit she didn’t get too serious too fast.
The next year, Mary Lee graduated from high school just after her 16th birthday. Doug wanted to court her. Mama Olive didn’t forbid it but she gave her a lecture on how to behave. She and Doug would go to the drug store soda fountain for a Coca Cola and crackers.
Doug was persistent in his courting and knew she was the one, but she wanted to date some other boys as well as him. One time she dated a nice young man in a wheel chair, John Garner. He had said he and his mother thought she might like to go to a play. She agreed and when the time came he appeared without his mother and took her to the play. When they got home, Doug was standing on the boarding house porch waiting for her. He was quite peeved and said, “I’m a one girl man.” That line was good for chuckles for decades to come.
Doug was an intramural boxer at the University. One night he had a public match and Mary Lee showed up among the spectators…with another boy. Doug’s opponent took a sound pounding that was probably really meant for the rascal sitting with Mary Lee.
Olive had heart problems and died suddenly during Mary Lee’s last year of high school. One day in Aunt Ethel’s bedroom she said “Oh, I feel so bad. Uncle Henry gave her an aspirin. Almost immediately she fell backward onto the bed and died. Mama Olive’s death of course was sad for Mary Lee but not as devastating as it might have been under other circumstances. She had become very close to Aunt Ethel, whom she adored, and Uncle Henry. Aunt Ethel was a good humored and very smart lady who was not as strict on Mary Lee as her sister Olive had been. Also life in the boarding house was very busy and exciting with Doug and all those college boys.
The romance with Doug grew. He wanted Mary Lee to marry him and move to his home town in Chesterfield. The Chesterfield part didn’t sound too interesting to Mary Lee. She figured there wasn’t much there and she had a close family in Columbia, not only with the Prices but with her sister Mae Barry, brother Zekie, and two delightful cousins Tavie and Mattie.
Doug graduated and took a job teaching 7th grade in Chesterfield. He missed Mary Lee tremendously, and the little 7th grade brats drove him crazy. He left teaching after just one year and came back to Columbia. Soon after, he asked Aunt Ethel for Mary Lee’s hand in marriage. It was while Mary Lee was visiting friends at the beach near Charleston. When she related this, her memories of that trip were fuzzy. She didn’t remember how she got there but she had gone down to visit Aunt Carrie’s daughter and son-in-law. Somehow when she arrived, something had come up and it was no longer convenient for her to stay there. She knew her friend Rachel Nusbaum’s family also lived in Charleston and she was able to stay with them instead. After the visit, the Nusbaum’s took her back to Holly Hill to their mutual friends the Brownlees’ house. She stayed there until Henry Jr. and Sr. came to fetch her back home.
After she got home she considered Doug’s proposal and accepted. A big selling point was that Doug promised her she would never have to make another biscuit. Biscuit making was one of her biggest jobs at the boarding house and one she had become quite weary of.
Doug and Mary Lee married on September 3, 1938 when Mary Lee was 20. The honeymoon was a big event. They took the bus to Aiken. A friend of Doug’s in Aiken leant them a car and they went out to supper and a movie. Truly two of the kindest people on the planet had found each other. Years later, Mary Lee would credit the hand of God for leading them to each other.
By the time they married, Mary Lee had a job working for the Unemployment Compensation Commission which eventually became the SC State Welfare Department. Within three years they were settled into their permanent lifetime home on South Woodrow St. I was born in 1944. In three more years my little brain was formed well enough to start storing long term memories. My earliest memories are of feeling very much adored. My parents seemed to feel I was truly a gift. Aunt Ethel was like a real grandmother to me. She became Ma-ma (pronounced with two short a’s) to me, just as she was for Vaneaton and Thelma’s children Van and Jane. Uncle Henry was "Papa" to us and Henry Jr. became "Uncle Henry" to us little children. That created lots of confusion for me since Mary Lee still called Henry Sr., “Uncle Henry”.
The world surrounding Ma-ma’s boarding house, as I remember it, seems like a stereotypical setting for a southern novel. We visited there a lot. Henry Jr. remained a bachelor and a permanent fixture. He was quite obese, 440 pounds I once heard. His 1940’s vintage Studebaker had modifications so he could slide the seat back far enough to sit in it and still reach the pedals. He would call me, “Sugar”, and let me sit on his lap. He would let me punch him in his amazingly enormous stomach which seemed very well adapted to absorbing impacts from my tiny fist.
In the parlance of the day, Ma-ma “wore the pants in the family”. She managed the boarding house as she had managed the Holly Hill hotel, and she took the lead role in making decisions about properties to buy and places to live. A testament to her role in the family was that Doug asked her, not Henry Sr., for Mary Lee’s hand in marriage. Her role as head of the household did not seem to be secured by any hardnosed or domineering manner. She was a gentle lady beloved by all. As far as I know, Henry Sr. recognized her talents and strength of character and appreciated the strong role she took in the family and their livelihood. I don’t recall anyone ever commenting or acting as if this was unusual or inappropriate. Before he became elderly and ill, Henry Sr. worked as a horse trader (literally as well as figuratively) and bought all the food for the boarding house.
In the early years of their marriage, Mary Lee and Doug worked hard to establish a home. Doug went to work selling tires and eventually became a bookkeeper. Mary Lee continued her job with the Welfare Department. The only culture shock in her marriage was that she missed the boarding house. She didn't miss the hard work, but things seemed strangely quiet after the bustle and excitement of all those relatives and guests. All her life she had been surrounded by lots of people.
Things didn't stay quiet very long. Mary Lee and Doug joined the Rose Hill Presbyterian Church and began making lifetime friends. They bought a little house with a large yard on South Woodrow Street in about 1942 that was to be their permanent home. They became best friends with Bruce and Buck Kingman and had many adventures together. Doug's mother joined the household and helped with chores especially tending to me after my arrival. By 1950, Doug had joined Southeastern Freight Lines as bookkeeper (where he remained until he retired as Treasurer in his late 60's.) Doug's mother passed away in 1953. Three years later, Mary Garland was born and we were again a household foursome. Mary Garland and I grew up, went to college, and became productive law-abiding citizens. We always found joy in returning to visit our parents in the little house on South Woodrow St.
All of us were greatly saddened in 1988 by Doug's death. His passing left a vast empty spot in our family. With the support of faith, family, and friends, Mary Lee endured the grief of his passing and continued to be the loving and giving person that so many people relied upon.
As a child, many memories were made for me in the little house with a large yard on South Woodrow Street. I had no doubt that it was the finest spot on earth. Mary Garland found it the same.
In early 2006, Mary Lee moved out of the little house on South Woodrow Street and joined the embrace of new friends at the Presbyterian Home in Summerville, SC. That put her back again amidst the cheering bustle and excitement of wonderful interesting people…and she didn't have to make biscuits! More years passed and inevitably Mary Lee eventually became frailer and physically dependent. Up until her last utterance she always had a kind word and loving touch for all who crossed her path.