Summer memories: Second term at camp cut short

Camp Waldemar, Hunt, Texas
To continue with my story of Camp Waldemar: It was decided that I would return for the second year. My next door neighbor and good friend, Jane, was accepted, and we were two excited thirteen year-olds to be going away together. My grandparents had both been ill, and there was no plan that the family would accompany me.

My father rode the train from Hoxie with us to Little Rock, where we joined the other campers for the ride to San Antonio. This time the bus ride, the lunch at the St. Anthony Hotel, and the tour were enjoyable. However, the highlight was being welcomed with hugs by friends who remembered me – and yes, there were the squeals of joy! The feelings of acceptance that I had felt impossible for me were happening.

We were assigned to the same cabin, and I was comfortable with the girls and introducing them to Jane. We also met a girl from Forrest City, who became a friend of many years and later was a bridesmaid at my wedding. There was a lot of whispering and giggling during siesta.

I was working on another level in riflery, learning to canoe on the beautiful river, and still riding those horses.

Early one morning reveille was sounded early, and amidst the grumbling girls I heard my name called to come to the office. When I trudged down the hill, heart pounding, there were Cousin Jesse and Mr. Ragsdale. I was told that my grandmother was very ill, and they were there to accompany me home. She had had a stroke. I asked if she had died, and I was told my mother would talk to me when I arrived home. In my heart, I knew that my beloved “Mom” was dead, though the Ragsdales denied it.

We arrived in Memphis the next day. My cousin, Tandy Morris, met us at the station, and I told him I needed the truth. He verified that my grandmother had died, although my mother did not want me to know until she could tell me. I was not told that any arrangements for a service had been made, though it was to be held that very afternoon.

Upon turning into the long driveway for our home, I saw many cars. I walked into the house where I was greeted with tears, and then stood in the entrance to the living room. This room was thirty feet by forty feet and sported a fourteen foot ceiling. It was almost like standing on a stage as you entered, as there were five or six steps down into the room.

I was so unprepared for the sight. Mom’s casket was in front of the fireplace, and there were lines and lines of chairs all set for the funeral. I was later told that it was easier for my grandfather to have the service at the house where we all lived, but what a shock for a thirteen year old. He was practically bedridden with rheumatoid arthritis, although he dressed and attended the service and the burial.

It became time for the Ragsdales to return to their home in Texas, and I assumed I would accompany them and finish my term at camp. However, one night my mother told me she would rather I stay at home with the family. Of course, I agreed. The toughest letter was the one to my friend Jane, who accused me of deserting her. I am not sure she ever understood and forgave me!

That is the summer that I realized at thirteen how dependent my mother was upon me. Even for table setting – she would call me in and ask if the table looked all right, wondering if the forks appeared in the correct order, the cloth properly ironed, and the crystal sparkling. She sat at one end of the table, in Mom’s chair, and there was a buzzer at her feet which she would hit to summon Spot. He doubled as cook and server most of the time.

In looking back, my mother and grandmother were such a team. They each had their own phone number although living in the same house, and they often talked on the telephone to each other. I suppose it’s like texting room to room! It is easy to see why she wanted me at home, as Mom’s death was very traumatic for her.

The events of that summer ended my experience as a camper. I cherish the time spent at Waldemar and will be forever grateful to Cousin Jesse for her good heart and loving embrace.


Summer memories: Helicopters over Waldemar

Camp Waldemar | Mary Lee writes
When I was twelve, my grandfather’s cousin Jesse and her husband, who was always referred to as Mr. Ragsdale, made a wintertime visit to Jonesboro. They owned and operated a jewelry store in Smithville, Texas, and had become involved with Camp Waldemar in Hunt, Texas, by selling medals and mementos to the camp.

Camp Waldemar was founded in 1926 and is still in operation. Located in the Hill Country on the Guadalupe River, it is an amazing place. At the time I attended, it was owned and operated by a devoted woman named Doris Johnson, a legend in girls’ summer camps. The chefs were named U.S. and Lucille. They were an African-American couple, and so creative that their menu would be competitive with today’s most popular restaurants.

Cousin Jesse had visited often during my childhood and was the one person who seemed to keenly sense the loneliness and unhappiness that I felt. She dared to express her concern to my parents and suggested a summer term at Waldemar. At that time, the camp offered two six-week terms during the summer, and parents were only allowed one visit during the session – Field Day, which was scheduled half-way through the term.

I was “accepted” by a little nudging, as most of the girls from Arkansas were second-generation campers. Several of the parents knew each other socially and were from Little Rock.

The day before I was to leave for Texas, my parents drove to Little Rock where we spent the night. The next morning, we went to the train station where I boarded a train for the first time, beginning my Texas adventure. Talk about lonely – it felt as if everyone else had a best friend, with lots of hugging and squealing, and some tears from me.

We arrived in San Antonio the next morning, where we were met by a bus with other campers and driven on a tour around the city. Lunch was in a big dining room at the old St. Anthony Hotel. Then we boarded the bus once more to go to Hunt. The girls sang all the way, camp songs and other songs I’d never heard. Such excitement, and I just wished to be a little more part of it instead of an onlooker.

When we arrived at camp, we were assigned to our cabins, eight in each. The shower and toilets were located down the hill. Such lack of privacy for an only child who had never been away from home!

In about a week, I was making friends and adjusting to the schedules. I loved riflery and horseback riding. The counsellors were wonderful. I was finding a real talent for archery. Swimming in the river was new to me and challenging. I was beginning to feel free and happy with new experiences. Movie nights were great fun, and chapel by the river was inspirational. There were three tribes at camp to help the competitive spirit, and I was a Tejas. Once a week we climbed the hill to a campfire with only our “tribe,” singing our spirit songs and planning strategy. All good healthy fun.

And then, on a weekday afternoon, I was called to the office. When I arrived there from class (terrified, as you were only interrupted for an emergency) there stood my mother and father. I was dumbfounded. They had arrived there, disobeying the “no visitors” rule, and my mother told me that my father had come home from the Post Office with a letter from me and said he couldn’t stand it any longer, that they had to go to Texas.

To make it even more confusing, my grandparents, Mary Emma and Eugene Barton, had accompanied them. They had rooms about two miles from camp and told me they would be there until camp was over. That was another month.

They were the original helicopter parents and grandparents. They came uninvited to every happening at camp, they came to movie nights, they climbed Tejas hill, though Mother would get short of breath and have to sit on a stump part way up. In so many words, they took away my freedom and my independence. I do not know how they got by with this, and there is no telling what they told the director to be allowed to intrude in this way. I could not leave the boundaries of the camp, so I didn’t even see their lodging until camp was over.

I would be riding on a trail, loving the countryside from my horse, and one of the girls would ask the counselor, “Who is that man filming us?” It was creepy to them. When I think of horseback rides, I see a movie camera. I tried barrel racing – and there was the camera once more. Rifle range, there was the camera. I felt trapped in the middle of a wonderland.

We occasionally had barbecue served on long tables outside. My grandparents loved those meals, and there were hurt feelings if I indicated I would sit with my friends.

All of this attention and questions from the girls about my family made me feel different and that I could never be just one of the girls. I didn’t do my best at any of the sports I loved for fear of being criticized. My father always had a suggestion for improvement, and I longed to be applauded by him one time. I just existed as a camper.

The last day, we drove to the motel and then on to San Antonio for a few days. Neither of my grandparents were in good health, and I barely remember that part of the summer. My cocker spaniel, Rusty, was at home to greet me, and that was the happiest day for me. My father had left him running loose outside, and our cook, Spot, came each day for over a month to feed him. When I left for camp, there had been four adults promising to take care of him. Bless my Rusty’s heart, he was a survivor also.

Deep in the heart of Texas

Deep in the heart of Texas


Remembering a man called ‘Spot’

Remembering | Mary Lee Marcom
So many thoughts have pounded me since hearing about the horrific shooting in South Carolina. It is beyond the imagination that someone can hate a race and cause such terror and grief in a premeditated way. Are we partly responsible for a mindset because we hear about “those people”? It dwindles down to a remark made in a church gathering that it is “them” and “us” in referring to a choice of a church service. Some like a modern service with a band and contemporary songs, and others prefer the traditional liturgical service. Why is that a problem? We are all worshipping God in our way and celebrating the life of Jesus Christ.  That doesn’t divide “them” from “us,” does it? This is just an example of the way we sometimes make assumptions. There are good, well-intentioned people in all races who are living their lives as best they can. And there are those in all races who do harm without remorse.

A story I grew up hearing was that my grandmother was dining at the Jackson, Tennessee, Country Club and began talking with one of the cooks. She hired Leonard (Spot) Taylor and his wife, moved them to Jonesboro, and they lived in a log cabin on our home place. Yes, you read it correctly, a log cabin. In defense, it was close to the house and in pretty good condition. His wife became my nurse, and Spot became the cook for our family. My parents lived with my mother’s parents because my grandfather insisted, and it was not a happy home.

I remember nothing about Spot’s wife, except her name, Shug, short for Sugar. She died when I was five, and I vaguely recall a hearse driving up and being told she was taken to a hospital. Sometime after that, Spot remarried, a woman named Polly. He moved to a house on Logan Street, where he lived until he died, surrounded by his wife’s children, who were so greedy that they tried to cash checks on his account even after his funeral. The only way it was caught was that my son, John, Jr., was a teller at the bank, his summer job, and was asked to cash a check signed with Leonard Taylor’s name.

Spot was an important part of my life, and I loved him dearly. I never saw a difference in skin color. Spot was an alcoholic, and my father would have a rage attack when he saw how he was hoarding papers, etc., in the basement. He would throw them out and fire Spot. Then Spot would get sober and beg to return to his job, a true alcoholic in promising he would never drink again.

Spot cooked seven days a week. On Fridays, he had the night off and would leave tuna salad and other snacks in the refrigerator so I could “prepare” our supper. We had dinner at noon and supper at night in our home. On Sunday, Spot prepared a dinner of fried chicken and put the leftovers in the oven from which I would set them out for supper. And no one ever thought about salmonella!

Spot’s favorite pastime was to listen to the Cardinals games on the radio. He had a kitchen stool with a back on it, radio beside him, and sometimes a bowl of egg whites that he was beating for an Angel food cake while listening. He and my grandfather, E.C. Barton, shared this fascination with the Cardinals. Paw Paw, as I called him, arranged a driver for Spot, sending him to St. Louis to realize his dream of seeing his team play.

You may wonder about his nickname – Spot was a tiny man with small bones. He probably weighed somewhere around one hundred pounds.

When something or someone didn’t seem right to Spot, he would comment about something hiding “in that woodpile.” This was particularly true about the woman who left out an ingredient on purpose when giving the recipe for her special pound cake.

My grandmother was raised in Jackson, so my mother had all the Southern roots in her make-up. One day I referred to a black woman as a lady, and I was corrected; I was told, “You never call a black woman a lady.” My father had told me never to question my mother, that she was always right, so I took everything she said as the gospel truth. The remark was probably made with sarcasm, but I didn’t have the maturity to understand their relationship for many years.

Spot was a wonderful cook, and my friends loved having a meal at our house. He was always extremely polite and called me Miss Mary Lee, my friends were Miss Jane, Miss Suzanne, etc.

I was so sheltered that, when racial strife blew up in the 50’s, I could not understand what was going on. I thought of Spot as a part of our family and had no experience with prejudice. I suppose I had my head in the sand, as I never even thought about the fact that there was a Booker T. Washington School for those other people.  It was the fall of 1954, and I was a college freshman who had never heard of civil rights. The phrase, “you’ve come a long way, baby,” keeps running through my mind as I write.

We also had a housekeeper, Mary Meadows, beloved and patient. My father would pick her up on Sunday mornings to make the beds. Unbelievable! This was still happening when I was in college. No wonder I knew nothing about cleaning or cooking when I married. I would grocery shop in a state of confusion and embarrassment. My mother always ordered groceries to be delivered to the house, so I had absolutely no experience in choosing a cut of meat and made many mistakes.

On our honeymoon, we had a kitchenette. The first morning, John commented that he sure would like a fried egg. I just looked at him! He had worked his way through LSU as a short-order cook, and I could rely on him for directions. In later years, he made a delicious gumbo, and even though he wrote out his recipe, I have never been able to duplicate it. One of John’s favorite stories was coming home to our apartment in West Memphis and finding me flouring chicken with a spoon.  That made me determined to learn to cut up a fryer, and I became pretty good at it – all to prove a point.

Spot taught me to make brownies and chocolate cake. I still make a good brownie and cake, the same recipes I used in my teens.

In the years we lived next door to my parents, Spot would come across the yard to see me. One day, he walked into the kitchen and asked me what I was cooking. I answered that I was making a stew. His response was, “you shouldn’t oughta have to do that” as he never thought his “Miss Mary Lee” should get her hands dirty.

Christmas mornings, he and Mary would come to the door of the living room and be given their presents, then they would be excused, and the family gift time would take place.

There was a half-bath in the basement which the “help” used. It pains me today to say that I never questioned that, though I was told not to use it, as it was “their” bathroom. I think you are beginning to see why I dislike using the words “them” and “us.”  I am not particularly ashamed, as I didn’t know better. Through my experience, I am proud to work for acceptance of God’s creatures. Often we have to recognize bias in order to work for change.

When John Jr. was leaving for college, he and Mary Kathryn went by Spot’s house to tell him goodbye. Mary Kathryn told me how shocked she was that he didn’t have better living conditions. Spot was propped up in his bed and asked Johnny why he was going to college, that he had always played with trucks and cars and Spot thought he wanted to be a truck driver. Johnny very gently explained that a truck driver needs an education. That seemed to satisfy our dear Spot. Tears welled up in his eyes when he realized they had come just to see him, because they cared about him.

And we had laughs about Spot. One Christmas, my mother insisted on having dinner at her house. I asked her how she could do that, because she never cooked, and Spot was no longer working. I went over that afternoon to check on her and found Spot sitting on the kitchen stool, showing her how to make dressing. My mother sent him a monthly check for years after he quit working, and once he wrote telling her he needed a raise. I am certain he got his wish.

Having experienced being coddled and spoiled, I became determined not to ask anyone to do anything for me that I was unwilling to do for myself. I felt very guilty in asking for help and, even today, it frustrates me to be unable to do projects that require standing up. I feel accountable for the years of taking service for granted – and in these waning years I think daily of John Wesley’s quote: “Do all the good you can, By all the means you can, In all the ways you can, In all the places you can, At all the times you can, To all the people you can, As long as ever you can.”


Embracing the New

Embrace the new | Mary Lee writes
When the businesses first started using computers, my husband, John, purchased one. He insisted that I learn, but it really was not something I was interested in at all. I compared it to choosing a beef roast as a bride who had never cooked!  Of course, it was the day of the floppy disk, called floppy because of its flexibility. I took the challenge very seriously – using the computer as a play tool for entertainment, purchasing a game of pilot for John.

A little later, John bought a computer for our house through Jim Martin, and that’s when I began my fascination with the technical direction in which our lives were headed. I never read directions to anything, and my kids always shook their heads in despair. However, this part of my make-up made the allure of the computer appeal to me. Finally, I had something fascinating me and challenging me to figure it out by myself. It seems so trite now, but that first year I played and re-played the Christmas tree with blinking lights. And Jim gave me an important piece of advice, telling me that I didn’t need to be scared of trying new things, that I wasn’t going to “hurt” it. He made many trips to straighten out my messes!

I feel sad for my friends who have not embraced technology. Why do they say with pride, “I don’t own a cell phone”?  One refuses to text, “too impersonal.”  One doesn’t do email. They are missing channels of communication. Their children will be patient with their voicemails, but the grandchildren? Not so!

Last week, I was looking up a town in another state on the iPad and was on the phone with a friend who said she would get her Atlas. An Atlas, really? Did we have those?

John’s cousin is critically ill. His ten year-old granddaughter has been with me a good part of the time in the last two weeks. She lives in D.C., and when Stasi and her mother arrived, we made our first connection through my iPad and new games I had downloaded. It passed a lot of down time for her.

With all the bad things that can happen via the Internet, I think with careful monitoring it can be a tool for learning about others. I was sitting with an eight year old African-American girl one day whose mother was in hospice care, and she was visibly upset that Little Bo Peep in our iPad variation was a black girl. She stopped the video, telling me it was wrong, that the character is white with blonde hair. She asked, “Why did they do that to her?”

The computer has been a great way to keep in touch with friends. My college roommate and I are closer than ever with our almost daily emails.

And my children? They must be relieved that a quick text keeps us in touch, and they can choose their time for a long telephone conversation.

I am grateful that John could see forward, and that he encouraged me to keep up with the progression of tech in the 21st century. I play bridge, read, listen to books, FaceTime, Facebook, check the weather, plan a trip, find my location, chat with friends, email friends, and quickly contact friends with texting. Encourage someone to “join my club,” because if you are reading this – you are already a member.


Thoughts on a TV Series

Grace and Frankie
I watched the Netflix TV series, Grace and Frankie, over the weekend. While billed as a comedy, I found it so true to real life that it is disturbing. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are authentic in their parts, with Jane Fonda enviable with her figure and looks, and Lily Tomlin a little too “over the top” in her performance. The laughs mostly come from their characters, as they try to re-enter life as newly divorced women in their 70’s. What a chore that would be!

The story is about two guys who have been married to their respective wives for over forty years. They have been having an affair with one another for twenty of those years, with the spouses having no idea. As law partners, the duplicitous lives of the husbands were easy to conceal. Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston are cast as the husbands, and Sam Waterston gives a very believable performance in being torn between the man with whom he wishes to spend the rest of his life, and the woman who is loved in a familiar, supportive, and comforting way. Martin Sheen has very few moments as a relaxed and impressive character, and, except for a few tender moments, his ego shines through.

Divorce is calamitous in any situation, and these are especially complicated. The children have to acknowledge that the person whom they thought a heterosexual man, faithful to their mother, has been having an affair with his business partner. It would be particularly burdensome in realizing that their mother is suffering as much as if their father were having an adulterous relationship with another woman.

I object to the way the few gay friends of the new “out of the closet” couple are portrayed. They look ridiculous, supposedly because this adds laughs for the TV audience. I wonder why they have to be stereotyped, why not show them as they are, a part of the community. There are both kinds of people, but the absurd entertains. Let’s get real.

I expected a comedy and instead watched a show that amused me but stirred up thoughts of how awful this world must be for those who feel they would not be accepted for being who they are and showing their true selves to the world. There are many gay and lesbian people who took (and take) shelter in marriage. Both partners would be cheated in such a relationship. When one learns the marriage was artificial, how heartbreaking that would be.

See the series, you will be entertained. Look beyond the meaning of the clever lines, isn’t laughter often next to tears? I look forward to the next chapter.


Captivated by the books of Greg Iles

Books by Greg Iles
Just having finished The Bone Tree by Greg Iles, the sequel to Natchez Burning, I will be counting the days until the third volume of this series is published.

Greg Iles’ novels were recommended to me by a friend who lived in Mississippi, and I was instantly captivated. They are an unvarnished look at the South as it was in the 50’s, and the stories of abuse and torture are chilling. These horrors are being discovered by a very appealing lawyer who lost his wife to cancer and is the father to a little girl. He found a new love in Natchez Burning, and she struggles to uncover truths long hidden, stimulated by her career as a journalist.

Mr. Iles has the talent to make his characters real, and I was moved to tears in one portion of The Bone Tree. I am not giving a review of the book. My goal is to recommend it as a fantastic read and suggest that you check out Natchez Burning to understand the back story. I care about racism and violence, and abhor discrimination against anyone whom we deem “different.” I believe every being is a creation of God, and God is the only judge. The horrors depicted in these books jarred me to the depths of my soul.

Remember the Sunday School song, “Red and Yellow, Black and White?”  Could we practice that message in our daily lives and add anti-discrimination against our LGBT community? We have friends and loved ones who do not believe as we do in our spiritual lives – and we accept and love them. Why not accept and love everyone as our neighbor the way our Saviour taught? Once we reach that goal, how glorious the peace that will fill our being.


Remembering a Recital

A little girl had performed “Clair de Lune” at her piano recital, which was held at First Baptist Church in Jonesboro. She thought she played well. After the recital was over the students were standing near the piano and being hugged and congratulated by their parents. This child’s dad came up and very cuttingly commented to his daughter, “If you can’t do any better than that, I don’t want you to ever perform again.”

Because of trauma, she remembered little of her childhood. Years later, as an adult, some memories came back to her and she asked her teacher if this were true, as she didn’t believe that a parent would respond in this way. The teacher replied yes, that she had been shocked. She remembered saying to him, “why, L—-, she did so well.” The teacher told the woman that she never played again in front of anyone, though she continued taking lessons as she loved music. The teacher reminded her that she even taught her on the church pipe organ to try to encourage her talent and love of music.

One day, the little girl walked in after school to find an electronic organ with three keyboards. Her father told her he had purchased it for her, that he loved organ music and wanted her to play for him. She much preferred the piano and never had dreamed of wanting to continue playing the organ, certainly not to own one. She enjoyed the wonder of the sounds of the pipe organ on which she had been taught, but she did not wish to learn to play this instrument, preferring to concentrate on the piano.

When this young girl went away to college, her dad demanded that she take organ lessons. She had never studied theory and was totally lost. At semester, she was assigned “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” by Bach for her performance grade and hoped her parents wouldn’t be there in time to hear her. They arrived, and she stumbled through the piece, dropping organ immediately. She now remembers how terrified she was to perform once more, and especially in front of her dad.

She was never able to accompany a Sunday School class as they sang hymns or even enjoy a “sing-a-long.” The standards of perfection set for her were not possible to achieve.

Today she seeks out beautiful music, mainly classical, wherever she can. These performances bring a sense of comfort and wellness.

Parental bullying is terrifying to a child. The victims sometimes look good to outsiders but they are always trying to please, wondering what others think of them, denying their own wants and needs. The other side of the spectrum is a child who acts out because of desperation and fear, having been denied the love and affirmation so important in building self esteem.

Parents, please remember this story. You may have guessed – I was that child. And I can tell you firsthand that an experience like this is more than an embarrassment, it is degrading and humiliating. I would doubt this memory if it hadn’t been experienced and confirmed by the teacher I adored. Would this be called bullying in this world today? Verbal abuse? Or just taken as criticism of a daughter’s ability and/or practice accountability?