Stories about Ethel Mae Bearden

Although she had the appearance of a sweet little old lady,and had had it since her early 50's, it was caused mainly by the hardships she had endured, and belied her ability to survive and endure. Her grandchildren thought of her as selfish and cold, in the main--she didn't hold them and croon silly songs to them as their other grandmother was wont to do. She didn't buy extravagant gifts for them, or intercede during parental discipline. She did what was needed to feed and clean up after her husband, and although she put meals on the table (strange though they were) she didn't coax the little ones to eat, or serve up the portions.

In her later years, probably her 70's and 80's, her granddaughters avoided her company when she visited. Dad, Oscar Loren Bearden, had died years before, and she lived alone except for her pilgrimages to sons Bob and Felix's homes for a week or so at a time. Since she was addicted to chocolate, the girls hid their candy at Easter and Christmas, even though they usually gave her gifts of it for her own consumption. She swiped the candy from their baskets, and from stockings, unless watched when it was visible. Felix and I laughed, but Angela and Kelly were confused and angry. Parents and grandparents weren't supposed to be like that.

The facts that they missed, and maybe that was our fault for not understanding and explaining sufficiently, were probably difficult for children of plenty, overabundance even, to understand. I know it was for us.

Felix was born in January of 1936, a "blue baby". That term is no longer used. It covered a multitude of health problems that made it almost a certainty that a baby would not survive. Although his parents lived in a log cabin, he was born in a hospital--and the doctor advised his parents that it would be useless to take him home, since he was not expected to survive. Ethel Mae and Loren (as she called him) paid no attention, but took the child home, to at least give him Christian care and the opportunity to die at home. She gave him the best care she could, with the help of his much older siblings, Ethelyn and Robert Henry, and when he made it through the first six weeks the doctor maintained his opinion that they were due for heartache if they became attached.

When she went back for a six month checkup, the doctor, surprised that he had lasted that long, said "You would still do well not to become too attached to this one. It is unlikely he will make it much longer." At age 6, the doctor refrained from predicting, as, I am sure, he was probably becoming less and less sure of his prophecies. The child, although his birth certificate read, "Loren Eugene Bearden", started to school as "Felix Eugene Bearden". Ethel Mae had managed to help feed her family by working in the school lunchroom, so "Felix" gave his own information to the school when he started--children were expected to be more responsible back then.

My children would not understand the determination, and love, yes, love, that had made it possible for Ethel Mae to keep their father alive during his tenuous childhood. When he stopped breathing, and passed out from the oxygen deficiency caused by his defective heart, she dragged him into open air, and did what later would be called "artificial respiration"--blowing air into his lungs, and pounding on his chest to make his heart resume beating. No one had schooled her in this--it was the mother's instinct to do whatever was necessary to keep one's child alive.

Meanwhile, Loren, Felix's dad, had his own problems to deal with--which ultimately affected the whole family, and put an enormous strain on Ethel Mae. He worked at the dairy, but during an outbreak of typhoid, for some unknown reason, he was mistakenly identified as a carrier, and even though this was later proved wrong and he was certified by a doctor not to be a carrier, he lost his job. There was, at that time, a new health department official, who felt that he must justify his position by dramatic action, so Loren, who had no knowledge of legal remedies, fell victim to the politics of the time.

We heard that Ethel Mae managed by bringing home leftovers from the school cafeteria, to pad out her no doubt skimpy pay. But that was not the end of misfortune for the family. Loren was a carpenter, and worked on many Birmingham homes. Although he worked long hours and was exhausted, as I am sure Ethel Mae was, he was grateful for work and fairly regular work.

When he got a job at the brakeshoe manufacturer, they felt that things would definitely improve. But during his time there, he was unfortunate enough to suffer an eye injury, and when the company doctor did not remove the metal filing that went into his eye, it became infected, and he lost his right eye. Workman's comp should have taken care of him, and of his family, but it didn't happen. The doctor, who, in hindsight, should have been sued for malpractice, not only did not treat the eye sufficiently, but put down that the left eye was injured in the records. When he applied for compensation, he was denied, because "that was not the eye that was injured". Now, even the most uneducated of us would know you could get a high powered lawyer and virtually put the company out of business for such a gross error, but at the time, wartime, and the era of personal responsibility, it probably never occurred to him to pursue it. All his life, he took his lumps and endured. Then shouldered on.

While he suffered needlessly so many trials, Ethel Mae worked, took care of children and house, and insisted they buy a house. She came up with the cash for a down payment, and purchased a small but sturdy bungalow on the north-side. She made sure the children attended church, and they were well schooled in Bible verses. Spankings were still given, but the dreaded lectures on morality were the most effective punishment for miscreants. The next family trial, although not treated as one, was the birth of her youngest son, Perry. She was probably in her forties, and due to the expense, must have had no prenatal care, which may, or may not have contributed to Perry's Down Syndrome. He thrived--as far as gaining weight, but was not, according to the doctors, likely to ever walk or talk. But Ethel Mae's determination won out, and Perry eventually walked. And though he never talked, as in conversation, he could imitate sounds. He liked the Popeye cartoons on TV, and used to make the noises and imitate Popeye's voice. The most amazing thing he did, however, was to sing, in a pitch perfect tenor voice, many of the hymns he heard at church. Ethel Mae got a job as teacher for special needs children during this time, so she could help him, while working and helping others.

This all changed when he grew tall, and, as in many cases of severe retardation, began to be scary to other children, and even some adults. They sold their little house, and with savings scraped together from years of living on little, they bought a house on thirty acres in the country, that would give him some space to play, and be a buffer from distrustful neighbors.

During all this, the depression had been followed by World War II.  Seemed as if anxiety was a way of life.  But the Beardens hardly had time to be anxious--they were hanging on by their fingernails.  Ethelyn married Stancil Machen, and he went off to war, refusing to speak of it when he came home.  Bob joined the military, and met Betty, then marrying her.  At times, the little bungalow on southside housed more than one family.  Felix got a paper route, and made a little money with that.  My children often wondered why their grandmother seemed so humorless, and didn't seem to know how to hug, or snuggle.  They sometimes were jealous of the affection she seemed to have for the cousins, aunts, and uncles who were not present, as they listened to her expound on their achievements.  They joked about her acting as though she had married beneath her, as she told us her father owned the company store--so enjoyed some status in a steel town.  Her parents were English and German, austere and stiff, and steeped in propriety.  I spent probably 20 of the most uncomfortable minutes trying to make conversation when she insisted we go meet them before we married.  She had said that "they really wanted to meet me", but I felt, as I stepped into their formal living room, as though I were intruding.

I found it impossible to feel any affection for them, even though she always had verbal messages to us sending love, when she visited us.  Somehow, I knew that she wanted them to like me, but that I might never measure up.  Occasionally she let me see the inner feelings she had for them.  She thought that they blamed her, when her little sister died of pneumonia, as she was charged to watch her.  It seemed like her whole childhood was spent taking on the care of additional children, as the Shaffields increased their family.  Felix also had the feeling that they spared little affection for the Bearden branch of the family.  His cousins, appeared, to him, to be favored in any dispute, and he came to avoid them as much as possible.

Having been brought up in a close and generous family, with great joy in giving to one another, I managed to make a habit of our observing Ethel Mae and Loren's respective birthdays, as well as Christmas and Mother and Father's Days.  We also occasionally sent a small check to encourage them to go out to eat, or buy something for fun.  Mostly, however, if they didn't have to have anything, they saved the money.  Later, when Felix went into business for himself, when he did have contract dry spell, they gave us fairly good sized chunks of money to pay bills.  Even though we never asked. We were told that since we needed our inheritance then, we would get it then.  Ethel Mae also told us that some of the money we had sent had gone to pay utility bills and for groceries, when no one else in the family had thought to ask if they needed anything.  Of course we, as the rest of the family, had had no inkling that they needed it  at that time because they did not ask for it.

Although she had announced at one lunchtime around our table, that she had no sense of humor, she did some very funny things, whether she knew it or not.  At the time she said this, my children had been laughing at my propensity for starting to tell a joke for which I couldn't remember the punch line, hoping that God would have mercy on me, and illuminate me before I reached the end of the story.  Unfortunately for me, God thought it was funnier if he didn't, so I was left standing with my mouth open, more often than not.                          

They were laughing hilariously at the memory of me trying to tell a ridiculously simple one and not finishing it, and she patted my hand sympathetically.  "You think THAT'S bad, she said--I don't even know when it IS a joke!"  Since the girls had often noticed her strange habit of laughing in the wrong places--we called it a "social laugh", they REALLY found that funny!  She would start off with a story, "Mr. Smith had to have his appendix removed, but it didn't do any good, because he died of complications!  So you just might as well save your money as go to the doctor!  Hee Hee!"  or "I can beat any of the old men down at the Senior Center at dominoes.  They sure don't like that! Hee Hee!  They accuse me of cheating!"

She started driving before licensing was required, and continued until she was about 93 or so.  She had a straight shift that she stopped on a hill at a stop light one day.  The car rolled back as she released the brake to go, and bumped a car that had pulled up fairly close behind her.  The man, irate, jumped out of his car, and said, "Lady, who has your insurance?  You're going to have to pay for the damage to my car!"

"Your car!"  she responded,  "why would I do that?"

"Because you rolled into me!"

"No, you ran into my car while I was still sitting at the light!"

"Either you pay for the damage, or I am calling the cops!!"

"Go right ahead!  Who are they going to believe?  A good Christian lady, or a man yelling and screaming at her?"

Needless to say, the man finally gave up.  Who is going to argue with a sweet little old Christian lady?

Then there was the time she was pulled up about five cars back from a stop sign at a busy cross street that had no stop the other way.  During rush hour, (she was on her way to teach)  the traffic had few breaks for her side to get across, but she finally had made it up to number 2.  When the traffic cleared for the car in front of her, she sped through to the other side.  Of course, there was a patrol car lurking unnoticed that immediately stopped her.  "Why didn't you stop for that stop sign?"  he questioned her.

"I did."  She said.

"No you didn't.  I was sitting right over here watching.  The car in front of you stopped, then you started up when he did."

"I am sorry, but I did stop.  The law doesn't say how far back I can stop. I was stopped."

She didn't get the ticket.

Ethel Mae was an avowed tea-totaler.  No alcohol was to ever pass her lips.

I don't know of any old-south families that have suffered the scratches, the heat, and the chiggers to pick blackberries to make pies, jelly, and jam for the year. Felix remembers, when they didn't have a car, one of Loren's brothers taking them out to pick blackberries that grew along the highways. Ethel Mae's responsibilty, of course, was to make the pies, jam, and jelly or can the blackberries for future use.  She always had jars of blackberries stored in our basement for future use, mainly for pies.

After Felix and I were married, and had been away from home for a number of years, Ethel Mae told us of an incident where she was in the basement to get some blackberries and noticed a couple of the jars bubbling.  Concerned that the jars were going bad, she pulled them and opened them.  They didn't smell bad, so she poured the juice off and made three pies.  She drank the juice, and reported that my dad, who was retired, ate one, yes the whole thing, of the pies.  She also reported that she had the best nights sleep she had had in years, and my dad slept most of the next day. 

Then, of course, when she was about 90, State Farm wanted to deny her auto insurance because she was too old to drive.  She indignantly asked, "Young man, have you ever had an accident?"

"Well, yes," was his reply.

"Well, I haven't.  Why don't you give up your license?"

She got her insurance.