Actions have consequences. More often than we may know, those consequences roll down like thunder across generations.
For most of us, our parents have the most significant influence upon us. For others, it may be an uncle, an aunt, a close friend, a sports coach or a Sunday School teacher. Looking back over my formative years I can see many people who God used to influence me for good. None more so than two faithful and determined women who made decisions in the early 20th century that would echo for generations to come.
Tale #1. My paternal grandmother was Anita Sims McElhannon. Her grandchildren affectionately referred to her as “Dado” (pronounced Day-doe). Born in 1897 in the small farm community of Winder, Georgia, she was the fourth of nine children. As she matured into a young lady, she was courted by a Barrow County teacher named Stewart McElhannon. One of only 53 graduates of the 1909 class of the University of Georgia, Stewart was considered well educated. They married in 1915 when she was 18, and he was 28. Within a year, she was pregnant with my Uncle Fayette, the first of what would ultimately be six children. My father, Stewart Jr., her fourth child, arrived in 1923.
Anita’s first years of marriage were not without surprises. She soon realized the man whom she married was not the same one who had courted her. Stewart, she quickly discovered, enjoyed drinking just a little too much. The first real crisis of their marriage came soon after Fayette’s birth. Stewart and his parents found it funny to treat baby Fayette to sips of alcohol. It would have been easy for her to be intimidated by her much older husband and her parents-in-law, but it was then she made a decision that would impact generations to come. Fearful her young son would develop a taste for liquor, this young teenage mother steadfastly refused to allow her firstborn to become tipsy for the amusement of her new family. Almost 80 years later, Anita would share in her memoirs how she realized she had few choices. Divorce, almost unheard of in 1917, was not an alternative. She wrote, “I just made up my mind that I would stay married and raise my children right.”
A vivid example of that commitment occurred in 1924. My Uncle Bill related the following story some 70 years later. They were living about a mile and a half from what was “downtown” Winder. Uncle Bill referred to it as “that part of town that was really town. It had paved roads, sidewalks, and brick buildings.” On a hot summer day, Anita decided to walk to town to buy a dress for her three-year-old daughter Hazel. With Bill, then age five, and his younger sister Hazel in tow, off they went to the local clothing store. Bill recalled that the store clerk showed his mother two dresses. Anita selected one of them, paid for it, and the clerk placed it in a bag. Arriving home, Anita discovered the clerk had mistakenly placed both dresses in the bag. Bill remembered thinking that such a mistake was “great — two for the price of one.” His mother thought differently. “We only paid for one. We need to return it today.” Bill balked at walking another three mile round trip to and from town in the sweltering summer heat. He asked if they could return it the next day. His mother explained in no uncertain terms, “It doesn’t belong to us and they may have the opportunity to sell it today if we take it back now. It’s the honest thing to do.” Even as a five-year-old, this event left a distinct impression on Bill. Again he remembered, “I thought if honesty is worth a three-mile walk in the hot summer sun after you are already tired, honesty must be a valuable thing to have.”
Anita’s early concern about alcohol proved justified. Alcohol was a lifelong problem for her husband who died in 1951. Anita, “Dado,” passed away in 2001. At the age of 103, she had lived to see 27 grandchildren, 63 great-grandchildren and, as of this writing, more great-great-grandchildren than I can count. When I reflect, gratefully, upon the kind of people my dad and his siblings were, I can look back 100 years to a moment in time when a young teenage mother stood her ground and made a decision “to raise my children right.”
Tale #2. A similar story is found on my mother’s side. Mom was born in 1926, just a few miles up the road from Winder in a small community called Hoschton. Her parents, Elbert and Lula Ethridge named her Ettie Faye. Sadly, tragedy soon struck the family when in November 1929, Elbert fell ill and died. Three-year-old Ettie Faye Ethridge and her mom moved in with her grandparents, James and Melissa Fagins in nearby Winder.
I have always been fascinated with how we Americans, especially Southerners, use nicknames to address our older relatives. Such tender monikers may reflect more than the intimacy of a blood relative; they often hint at stories untold. Growing up, I soon learned my mom always referred to her grandmother simply as “Maw.” That’s what I called her too. I would be well into adulthood before I found out why.
In the early 1930s, my grandmother Lula started hanging out with a man named Euel Finch. Unfortunately, Mr. Finch had a well-deserved reputation as a drunkard. When Lula decided to marry him, Lula’s mother, Melissa Fagins, refused to allow little Ettie Faye to leave. Melissa saw clearly what laid ahead and she was not going to let her granddaughter be under the influence of her daughter’s new husband. For whatever reason, Lula agreed and allowed her mother to keep and raise Ettie Faye. No papers were signed or official custody granted. Ettie Faye simply grew up living with her grandparents whom she came to call “Maw” and “Paw.”
In small towns like Winder, everyone tended to know everyone else, as well as everyone else’s business. My mom grew up a shy and introverted woman in part because it was never easy to answer questions about why she lived with her grandparents. Nevertheless, she was forever grateful to them for protecting her. She had nothing but love and respect for Maw and Paw. With a reverent tone, she often shared how despite the Depression, their needs were met. How Paw, being a farmer, always provided food to eat. Maw was an expert seamstress and handmade all their clothes. My mother tells the story of going out on a date with a local boy. On that occasion, Lula was at the house and was shocked that Paw would let Faye go out with a boy. Paw succinctly responded, “I trust her.” My mom was so proud of that statement, made in front of her mother, that she swore she would never disappoint her grandparents.
I genuinely believe that the greatest influence on my dad was his mother Anita (“Dado”). Likewise, the greatest influence on my mom was her grandmother Melissa (“Maw”). Here are two of my ancestors, my father’s mother and my mother’s grandmother, who made courageous decisions that influenced their family not just at the time of the decision, but for years to come.
The decisions these women made may not have seemed significant at the time, but their commitment to raise their children right and protect them still echoes across generations.
Even now, I hear the thunder.