I was born in Gainesville, Georgia on May 19, 1950. My parents lived in nearby Buford at the time. My father’s oldest brother, Ray, had started a heating and air conditioning company in Texas, and my father had come to Georgia to see if it were possible to expand the business to the area where the Georgia Dodds still lived. The business prospects did not pan out, and my parents only lived there for a matter of months. During that time, I was born. I was born in a small clinic, and the building later housed a small church. I used to joke that I had been born in church; but my cousin Debbie had been born in a small hospital in Tyler, Texas that later became a funeral home. Claiming to have been born in a funeral home is a much better story.
In October 1950 my mother and I flew back to Texas, joined soon by my father. For a while we lived in an uncle’s camping trailer on my mother’s parents’ lot in Whitehouse. That was where I had my first Christmas. There was a tiny tree, I am told, with tinier plastic ornaments. One of those ornaments survived over the years and was on every Christmas tree my parents had while my brother and I were growing up. Even as adults, my brother and I would make a big show of finding that ornament tucked into the tree. It became more and more difficult as time went by and all the shiny gilt wore off. Eventually it looked more like a ripe olive than anything.
My parents built their own house on Willingham Road in Whitehouse, and that is where we lived until I was about three. When my parents moved back to Whitehouse in the late 1990s, the house was still standing and they thought about buying it. For whatever reasons, they did not.
I remember just a few things about the house. It had a chandelier in the dining room, and I thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world. My father planted a sycamore sapling in the front yard, and I pulled it out of the ground. When he discovered it, he spanked me with the sapling. So for years I claimed to have been whipped with a tree. Apparently neither the tree nor I was the worse for the trouble. Daddy put the tree back in the ground and it grew to a majestic size. I think the tree is still there, too.
My mother had an electric washing machine, but instead of a spin cycle, it had a wringer on top that she ran the clothes through to get rid of excess water before hanging things on the clothesline. I liked to help her with laundry, but on more than one occasion I got my hand tangled in the clothes and caught in the wringer. There was no damage done but I screamed like a banshee when this happened.
Whitehouse was a small, small town. We had a telephone, but there was no dial. You picked up the phone and got an operator who connected you to the person you wanted. When I was very small, I would pick up the phone and say, “Mammaw.” The operator knew who my Mammaw was – my mother’s mother – and would connect us. Eventually I learned to give her number – 63M – which came out something like “Thix tree em.” It may have been easier for the operator to deal with “Mammaw.”
My father taught at Tyler Junior College and supplemented his income by selling The American People’s Encyclopedia. One benefit of this was that I grew up with a set of encyclopedias in the house, and I loved to page through them from a young age. My father had some of his college textbooks, too, but his degree was in agriculture. So those books only had black and white pictures of Rhode Island reds and such things. The encyclopedia had some color photos, and best of all, those wonderful semi-transparent overlays that showed you the human body with skeleton, organs, circulatory and nervous systems. Great stuff!
The encyclopedia sales did make a difference. When my brother Ted Byron was born in 1952, my father sold a set of encyclopedias that day. The money paid the hospital bill. It is not that encyclopedias were that expensive back then. Medical care was reasonably priced.
When my mother was pregnant with Ted, they told me that I was going to get a little sister. This was before ultrasound and such, but there were old wives’ tales about how you carried the baby that were supposed to be an indication of the gender. When I wound up with a brother, I was very disappointed. We went to pick up my mother and brother to bring them home, and I stopped a nurse to ask her if they were all out of little girls. It took a while for me to adjust to the other little boy in the household.
About the time Ted was born, my mother went back to work. She worked at the Co Op, which is what everyone called the Tyler Cooperative Rose Growers. I have a memory (perhaps false) of her talking to me about going back to work and asking me if it was okay. Whether or not she actually did that, I am sure she had no choice financially. In my memory, I tell her it is okay because I know she has to do it.
Again, that may be a revised memory. More likely she told me she had to go to work and I said okay. I would have been in my terrible twos at the time, and I am pretty sure I did not want her going back to work. But Bobbie, Mama’s younger sister, was going to take care of us and I adored Bobbie. I still do. That was probably the deal maker right there.