The (not so) Orphaned Images Project: Grandma Hester’s family

15 03 2011

My cousin Larry shared this photo with my father recently, asking him if the subjects were of the Dyer family. Larry’s mother Lorene, who passed away in 2005 at the age of 83, was my father’s last remaining sibling. I remember Aunt Lorene had unusually beautiful eyes—bluish-green with specs of golden brown—sort of like a blue jay’s egg. She was quite striking—my father shared a photo of his sister alongside a letter he wrote to her in 1994 on his blog here.

Before I even read my father’s note to Larry, I picked out which child was possibly my Grandmother Hester (my father’s mother)—the little girl in the lower right corner. I’m confident with his identification. In fact, now that I see Hester’s father, I can see the similarity with my father’s features! Thank you so much, Larry, for sharing this photo with us. I hope I might be able to share more images on this blog in the future.

My father wrote back to Larry:

I believe this is the Pennington family. Hester’s mother (Miss Odie) and father and six of the eight children they produced, including Willie (the oldest, lived well into his nineties), Early, Dalton, Vera, Ellie, Dessie, Hester and Brackston, the youngest. I believe the little girl at lower left is Aunt Dessie and I believe the one at lower right is Hester.

I could be wrong, but I believe the two missing are Vera and Dalton. Vera was long gone before I made the scene. She died young in childbirth, unmarried and unforgiven for having a child out of wedlock. Her son, Marion, was raised by Miss Odie, the matriarch of the family seated at right—my grandmother. That’s probably Brackston in her lap.

Dalton died in the Tuscaloosa hospital for the insane from injuries sustained when another patient wielded a bedpan as a weapon with deadly results. You can read all about it, and get a lesson on rigor mortis, on my blog here.

My Grandma Hester was born April 3, 1897. She and my Grandpa Willis N. Dyer were married 17 years and had seven children: Hattie May (who lived just one day), Jessie May, Eulene (killed by a drunk driver when she was just 12), Larry, Lorene, Dot and Hershel Mike (my father).

In her later years Grandma Hester lived in a cute little Airstream trailer on her son Larry’s 88-acre farm in Vernon, AL. We visited her every summer until I was in my late teens. When my mom, sisters and Aunt Charlie (Larry’s wife) would go into town shopping, I would stay behind with Grandma Hester to keep her company. She tried to teach me how to make lace doilies (tatting—a tedious skill most certainly lost on me ten minutes later) and play the electronic organ (her favorite song to play and sing was Beautiful Dreamer (and I remember the words to that song to this day—Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me, starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee. Sounds of the rude world, heard in the day, lull’d by the moonlight have all pass’d away…). After that lullaby, she would rev things up with a rousing rendition of “That Daring Young Man on Flying Trapeze.” (Yes, I know those lyrics by heart too). I never heard her play anything but these two songs. It’s a good thing she didn’t quit her day job!

She would whisper to me, “Don’t tell the others, but I love you best!” She always made me feel special. Later, during an argument with my younger sister, I blurted out, “Well, Grandma Hester says she loves me best.” To which she replied, “she told me the same thing.” Then my older sister Debbie piped in with the same refrain. I remember turning to my father and asking why Grandma Hester would do such a thing. He said something like, “That’s just what grandmothers are supposed to say.” So much for feeling special.

When I was about 15, I remember overhearing Hester asking my younger sister, “Is it spoonin’ anyone yet?” “It” was a reference to me. “Spoonin'” is a southern term for cuddling or embracing. In a roundabout way, she was asking if I had a boyfriend. I don’t think my sister knew what the term meant anyway (come to think of it, I most likely didn’t know either. I’m sure we had to ask our father what that meant). And for the record, no, I was not spoonin’ anyone. I didn’t have a boyfriend until I was in college, in fact. Sorry to disappoint ya, Grandma Hester!

Hester and Willis divorced right before she gave birth to my father. As a result, my father didn’t really know him well and only saw him four times when he was growing up. Early in his life, Willis worked as a trapper to support this family. Later, he sold popcorn and peanuts from a concession stand at a theater in Vernon, Alabama.

My father says, “The first time I saw my dad was at the theater. My uncle took me to a movie and introduced me to my father. I was about eight years old and I remember that sometime during the movie my father came in to see me and I sat in his lap for a bit. I even remember something about the movies we saw—it was a double feature—a b&w western movie with Don (Red) Berry and a detective story starring Chester Morris as “Boston Blackie.” The newsreel included highlights from the (staged) heavyweight world championship fight between Joe Louis, “The Brown Bomber,” and Billy Conn, a light heavyweight. Despite the discrepancy in weight, Conn fought a good fight. Not long after that meeting, my father stopped by our house in Columbus, Missippi to take a rag bath in the kitchen and change his clothes in preparation for an appointment nearby. The next time I saw him was in Sulligent, Alabama. He had an old school bus up on blocks, converted with a stove, bed, shelves and cabinets (one of the first recreation vehicles in the country!). He was a traveling preacher and would set up tents and host revivals. The Bank of Sulligent allowed him to park the bus on their property. He sold popcorn, peanuts and candy. In the spring of 1949 I went to Vernon, Alabama to try to get a false birth certificate from the doctor who delivered me. I was only 16 and wanted to go into the military. I had two friends with me and we were hitchhiking down the highway. I saw my father during that trip. It was the last time I saw him alive—three years later, I saw him in his casket.”

Willis N. Dyer died September 2, 1952 at age 65. I recently discovered that he was buried in the Springhill Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery in Fayette County, Alabama.

In 1941 Hester married John Weathers, whom my father called Papa John. He was a carpenter and cabinetmaker. Papa John was the only grandfather I had ever known (my mother’s father, John McLean, passed away years before I was born). I can only remember three things about Papa John—-he loved to have the house really, really cold (so cold that we kids actually preferred playing in the hot Mississippi heat instead), only wore khaki and offered us soft chunky peppermint sticks whenever we came to visit. There was always a bowl full of the treats next to his recliner. He was part of my father’s life for 28 years and was a tough man to live with, frequently sending him and his sister Dot away whenever he grew tired of them. All the other siblings had long since grown up, moved away and started families of their own. During one summer vacation, my father drove us around and pointed out all the locations where he had lived—a cousin’s house here, an aunt’s house there (some long since demolished and replaced with a gas station or such). He had a simply amazing recall (and still does!) for when, how long, and for what reason he and Dot were banished to a particular place. Eventually, Hester would tell John that she missed her babies and he would let her bring them back home again. I can’t imagine what that would do to a kid! Knowing my father, he probably came to view it as an adventure. My father got his quick wit and gift for telling jokes and stories from his mother.

My father introduced John Weathers to the world in his blog posting, Meet Papa John (not the pizza man), here. John Weathers passed away in 1970 at the age of 77. My grandmother, Hester Pennington Weathers, passed away in November 1980 at the age of 83 in Vernon, Alabama.