Monday, April 26, 2010

Chapter Three: In which Wallace takes a bride

My Mother, nee Irene Harkins, was born January 31, 1916 in Fannin County, Georgia, but not in the Cohutta Wilderness. She went regularly to real schools. She rode in automobiles.
Her father was one of three Mississippi brothers who in the 1920's prospered in the timber brokage business. Her mother, Lura, a corpulent, sedentary woman who daily occupied a platform rocker in our house, and who in her seventies bore an uncanny resemblance to Benjamin Franklin right down to the wire rimmed glasses, even then would assure her eight-year-old grandson that her ancestors were the Tennessee Halls,presumably to differentiate them from any lowlife Georgia halls of my acquaintance.
When the stock market crashed,the Harkins brothers lost everything. My grandfather, whose death precedes my memory, went to Charles Kiker, the timber baron of Fannin County, and asked him for a job. Mr. Kiker, who forty years later would donate a large farm to my father's church, reportedly told my grandfather that there was no business anymore in which he could employ Mr. Harkins, and the best thing Mr. Harkins could do would be to move his family to some land Mr. Harkins owned on Upper Jacks River, live off the land as best they could and try to wait this thing (which was not yet called The Great Depression) out.

At any rate that is what the Harkins did, but for that first year they sent thirteen-year-old Irene to live with Mississippi relatives so she could go to school. I suppose she came back to Georgia because she missed her family or maybe it was a matter of finances, but when the school year ended so did her formal schooling at the tenth grade.
It must have been a strong dose of culture shock for my mother, a child of relative affluence, to find herself living on Upper jack's River without plumbing,automobiles or domestic help in a land where, to hear her bitterly recount it to her young son thirty years later, the women did all the work while the men went around barefoot drinking corn liquor, smoking homegrown tobacco and trading tales. Adding insult to injury was the fact that my mother, who to her dying day considered Yankees to be culturally inferior and who was certain that General Sherman and Abraham Lincoln were incarnations of Satan, was asked to live among people who voted Republican and whose forbearers had not only remained loyal to the Union, but some,like my Great-Great Grandaddy Stepp, had fought on the blue side.(There's a reason the county next to Fanin is named Union.)

The next summer she would at the age of fifteen marry Wallace Millsaps, a young man in his early twenties already respected at church for his preaching. He, like many men of his time and place, was missing part of a finger from sawmill work, but he was witty, tall and handsome, he didn't drink and he wore shoes.

Next Week: Chapter Four, in which Wallace and Irene bear young

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