by Susan Taylor Block
See http://susantaylorblock.com/2010/08/23/the-mcgraths-of-wilmington/ for part one.
Genealogy is set from conception, romance forges bonds – or chasms, but something mysterious sometimes grafts people together who share no significant amount of DNA or physical passion for one another. The bond can last for generations, especially in the South where, in the past, families tended to “stay put.” Such was the case after my grandmother, Flossie Stone, met the McGrath family in 1920. I use the names McGrath and Baum to refer to them, but the family consisted of two parents, Mr. and Mrs. Samuel McGrath; their two daughters, Lydia Baum and Lillian Williams, and Lydia’s husband, Leo Baum.
In 1909, Nana left her family home in Mount Vernon Springs, NC, to work for Southern Telephone http://susantaylorblock.com/2010/08/17/family-photos-southern-telephone-1909-1921/ The entire industry was in its infancy and promising career opportunities awaited those who showed leadership qualities. As supervisor and troubleshooter for telephone operating pools, Nana organized switchboard operations, one by one, then moved on to the next “telephone exchange.” She told me stories about promoting the diligent, encouraging the timid, and firing the incorrigible. In 1920, she moved to Wilmington where she took a higher paying job clerking and managing freight department receipts for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad.
When she relocated to the port city, Nana handled housing and dining the same way she handled those things in every other city. She made inquiries, then established her home in the nicest rooming house available. She enjoyed the camaraderie of dining with interesting folks who kept up with national and local news, and the goings-on about town.
In Wilmington, Nana settled into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel McGrath at 109 North Third Street. She lived there, but didn’t take all her meals there. A well-known boarding house in the same block offered exceptional food and a different menu of diners. Mrs. C. M. Weathers, at 117 North Third Street, was the lady of the house – and the chef. There were few restaurants in downtown Wilmington at the time. Many of those who dined at “Mrs. Weathers’ Boarding House,” were people who worked downtown and were looking for interesting conversation “at table.” Some were neighbors, like Mr. Willie Sprunt, who ate lunch there regularly. Mrs. Weathers also was an artist and painted a fine portrait of Mr. Willie’s brother, James Sprunt.
Both the McGrath house and the Weathers residence vanished from Third Street during the 1920s. The McGrath house was razed and the Weathers’ home was moved to 1405 Airlie Road. Ironically, the buildings were removed to make way for a new company, MacMillan and Cameron – a much celebrated Friends-Become-Family situation.
Soon after Nana moved into the McGrath home, a powerful friendship began to build between her, Mrs. McGrath, and Mrs. McGrath’s two daughters. Nana mentioned Mrs. McGrath to me innumerable times and she always used a special tone of voice when she talked about her. The descriptions painted a picture of someone charming, witty, and incessantly hospitable – but the emotion spoke to me of some connection for which there is no exact name.
“Mrs. McGrath gave me this necklace,” she would say. She repeated the same thing the same way about many other objects. She was not bragging about the possessions, but reveling in the memory of the donor.
After the McGrath family moved to 508 (now 133) Northern Boulevard in Sunset Park, about 1924, Nana lived at the J. B. Dickinson House at 407 Chestnut Street briefly, then moved to the F. A. Thompson House at 109 North Fifth Street where she lived for several years. She and my grandfather, Grover William Hill, dated for seven years before marrying April 21, 1927. They lived at 12 South Sixth Street briefly before moving to their own home, on Northern Boulevard, a few months later. Their house was on the same block as the McGraths’, with just one house, Mrs. Sallie Smith Davis’, between them. It was almost like downtown all over again. They visited on each others’ porches for hours, shared camellias from one other’s gardens, and gave each other etched brandy breathers in which to show off those flowers. Nana and Aunt Lillian never seemed to tire of each other’s company. Years later, I was with them on many occasions, and they were quite comfortable and happy just being together. Conversation was a pleasure, but silence was just fine, too.
My mother was her parents’ only child. Betty Jane Hill was born, just right, on January 25, 1928. Nana was 37 and Granddaddy was 41. Though happily overwhelmed with parenthood, they strove to raise Mother with much discipline and a certain austerity – not a tough goal during the Depression.
However, other thoughts filled the minds of the McGraths, who requested they be called Aunt Lillian, Aunt Lydia, and Uncle Leo. No holiday was considered too trivial for them to give Mother nice gifts and a distinctive card. Granddaddy and Nana took Mother on drives in their sensible sedan, but Uncle Leo showed off his adopted niece to downtown friends while tooling her around in his big, fine Packard. Nana and Granddaddy taught Mother the old adage, “Children are to be seen and not heard.” However, when Mother, age 4, learned to mimic Uncle Leo’s mannerisms and his accent with its slight German flair, the McGraths dissolved in laughter.
The “family” became a lot bigger when any or all of Leo Baum’s five sisters visited him. Three of them came to Wilmington frequently and seemed to be in no hurry to return to Georgia. Mother found the sisters delightful, and I remember two of them - their bright smiles and easy laughter.
As they aged, all Uncle Leo’s sisters became deaf. They were excellent lip-readers though, and could engage in long conversations with each other by just mouthing the words. “Sometimes,” said Mother, “if they became emotional about something, they would suddenly start talking all at one time, in full voice. I learned to talk with them so they could understand me when I was very young. I stood right in front of whichever one I was talking to and pronounced each syllable slowly. They never had any trouble understanding me.”
Mother wrote to her grandfather, Joel Stone, in Mount Vernon Springs, NC, on Halloween, 1940:
“Uncle Leo’s sisters have been here. They came last July and left Sunday morning. We sure were sorry to see them go.” In turn, the Baums kept up with what was going on with Nana’s eight siblings and her father – all Baptists and Presbyterians.
And, so it went for a long time, until June 6, 1941, when my Grandfather, age 55, suddenly fell to the floor of my grandparents’ dining room, and died of a heart attack. Mother was 13 years old and she idolized him. The McGraths moved in quickly, doing what they could to ease the pain and provide diversion for the grieving widow and daughter. Though Nana would tear up about Granddaddy for the next 43 years, she was practical, too. She immediately sought ways to ease the loss of Granddaddy’s income. Like most people in Sunset Park who had any bit of extra space, she rented rooms to people who worked at the shipyard during World War II. She lucked up and got a great couple, Maxine and Laverne Dunsmoor, from Iowa. Rent wasn’t enough to pay her bills, though.
Too old to re-enter the downtown work force, she got herself a big Avon route and sold enough cosmetics to pay the bills and eventually put Mother through the business courses at The Women’s College in Greensboro (UNCG).
Mother loved college life, but did not enjoy some of her classes. She got homesick, too. She and my grandmother wrote each other almost daily, and could hardly wait for those rare moments when they talked “long distance.” The McGraths did what they could to combat the homesickness. Uncle Leo wrote to Mother frequently, encouraging her to do her best in school, to work on her shorthand, and to be sure and get enough rest. Aunt Lydia wrote, too – telling her some newsy things that Mother’s other correspondents omitted.
After college, Mother went to work at the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. She met my father in 1949 and they were married July 1, 1950. Daddy told me that he knew and knew well that he would have a Mother-in-law and McGraths-in-law. When he first met Uncle Leo, he felt some slight aversion. He wanted to like him, but wasn’t sure he could. As it turned out, Daddy was the son-in-law Uncle Leo never had, and Uncle Leo was a witty, aesthetically sensitive father-figure to Daddy. Uncle Leo spoke the language of music and flowers, and beauty in general. They grew exceptionally close over time. Daddy, handsome, buff, and not given to shows of emotion, was the teary-eyed person holding Uncle Leo’s hand when he died at Cape Fear Memorial Hospital, nine years after the two of them met.
I was born a little over a year after Mother and Daddy married. The World War II tenants were long gone and we lived in Nana’s house with her. Nana and I were simpatico by the time I was 18 months old, so I was already living in an unreal world. Then, there were the attentive neighbors. Aunt Lydia had just died, but her widower, Uncle Leo, and her sister, Aunt Lillian, continued to live together. They were joined by Miss Alice, Alice Nottingham Nelson, Aunt Lillian’s first cousin, from Onancock, VA. No one thought the living arrangement strange. It was what is was. They were very good to me. I happened to be the only little girl around, but the important thing was: I was the grandchild of beloved Flossie, and the child of beloved Betty.
Thanks to the McGraths and their music store, we always had the newest thing in radios, record players, and records. My brother, Jay, five years my junior, and I had every record from “32 Feet and Eight Little Tails of White,” (reindeer) to “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog.” It was fun having toys that were more than toys, and experiencing music in such an up-close way – but sometimes in-house politics created some friction.
Sometimes, the music brought unpredictable reults. On Christmas Day when I was four, the Baums gave me a pretty ivory-colored miniature piano, made by Schoenhut. I never had played a piano before, but I sat down and learned to play a song I had heard in a Popeye cartoon. The little song seemed quite innocent to me. The trouble was, as I learned later, someone, somewhere had corrupted it by writing new lyrics that began with the words, “There’s a place in France, where the women wear no ….” Bless my Mother’s heart, she was not too happy with my first song choice. My piano experiences were off to a rocky start.
When I was about six, the Baums gave me an LP record album that included the Nutcracker Suite and Clair de Lune. It was a “grown-ups’ ” gift and I was most appreciative. No matter how many times a day I played the Nutcracker Suite, I never tired of it – but one night my family certainly did.
During childhood, my mandatory bedtime hour arrived much earlier than sleep. I would spend the time listening to whatever
my parents were watching on television in the next room, or daydreaming. One night, I got the not very bright idea to play the Nutcracker Suite at the lowest volume the record player allowed. I was sure no one would hear it but me. Everyone in the house was already in bed asleep when I placed the needle oh-so-gently on the spinning record. Well, it turned out that the lowest increment of volume was quite audible. “Dah-dah-dah-DAH-DAH-DAH-dah-dah,” rang my record through the house, evoking a very negative spin from my Mother. We got through that, though. Still, I never hear the Nutcracker Suite or Claire de Lune that I don’t think of the Baums, and it creates a happy glow in my mind.
Soon after that episode, the Baums gave me a new form of gadget. It was a nice transistor radio with an earphone. During basketball season, I would pull the covers over my head at night, eat Kandy Korn, and listen to broadcasts of New Hanover High School games. At other times of the year, I would just listen to whatever was playing on the old station, WMFD.
When I was seven, I asked for a piano and Mother and Daddy bought one for our family. It was a spinet and Uncle Leo handpicked it. We went up and down on the old piano elevator at McGraths, and it was so much fun. The piano had a beautiful tone to it and I enjoyed it until I left home.
Despite being on their feel a lot while at work, the McGraths led a rather sedentary life. During the fifties, they had a full-time African-American house employee named Florence and she did all the housework and cooking. Also, they employed an African-American gardener who managed to do much work despite the fact that he had only one arm. “He fashioned a sling for himself and used it to carry garden materials and small tools,” said Mother. This left little for Aunt Lillian and Uncle Leo to do, and they viewed walking as an exercise they did from the front door to the car. If interesting, witty conversation was aerobic exercise, they would have been in great shape, though.
Ann Davis Upchurch grew up in her grandmother’s home, the Sallie Smith Davis house, a residence that sat in between the McGraths’ and Nana’s houses. Mrs. Davis was the daughter of Civil War Blockade Runner Thomas Smith, whose house still stands at 418 South Front Street. ”On days when they didn’t work at the store, there schedule was simple,” said Ann, six years my senior. “Tilly (Lillian), Lydia, and Mr. Baum ate a big breakfast, then sat on the porch for a while. Then, they ate a big dinner, and sat on the porch for a while, again. Then, they ate a big supper —then gathered on the porch. If it was raining or very cold outside, they sat in the living room. Sometimes they read or wrote letters. Mr. Baum sat at his desk.”
Ann accompanied Leo Baum downtown sometimes and took on the duty of walking “Prince,” their dog. The McGraths had many dogs over time. Each one was aptly named Prince, and the last few generations were all Spitzes. “Florence cooked beef stew for Prince every day,” said Ann. “She stored the beef stew in the refrigerator, in a beautiful cut glass dish. The dish and the matching top were of very fine glass and the spoon she used to dish it out was sterling and beautiful. Three times a day, she would place some of the stew in a pot and warm it on the stove for Prince. He had his own plate, some sort of special plate that was brown in color. I don’t think Prince ever ate anything his whole life except warm beef stew.”
I remember the cut glass fondly. After each meal, Florence reset the table with much sterling flatware, beautiful plates, finger bowls, and cut glass vases and prism knife rests. In the afternoon when the sun came through the west windows, the crystal sparkled and the prisms threw rainbows across the table. They kept a pretty little tray full of jams and jellies on the table, too, and the names and pretty little jars were unfamiliar to a child who knew only grocery store brands. The McGraths had many things of beauty and after their deaths, almost all of them were sold at auction to pay business debts they incurred by perennially offering too much credit in their store, and their catastrophic health bills. It was said to be one of the finest local auctions of the decade. I am guessing the antiques came from Mrs. Samuel McGrath’s ‘people,’ the Evans family, of Onancock, VA – and the grand silver and collection of fine cut glass came from Leo Baum’s mother’s family, the Philip Kohns, in New York.
The happiness of knowing Aunt Lillian and Uncle Leo ended much too soon. Uncle Leo died of cancer in 1958 after spending several painful weeks at Cape Fear Hospital. In those days, children could not visit hospital patients and Daddy would hold me up to the window to wave to him. I still remember the pain I felt when I walked by their house the first time after he died.
Aunt Lillian died of the same disease in 1962, and she also lingered in misery for weeks. Again, my parents visited her daily and took my brother and me many times to be held up at the window to speak or throw her a kiss. After Aunt Lillian died, I spent that first night with my grandmother – a very strong woman. I never saw her in such anguish – even when she herself was facing death in 1984. Such feelings they all had for one another.
My memories of the McGraths and Baums stay with me always and serve as a warm reminder that Love does Abide.