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Pandemic

Pandemic

“Mommy,” I called out. “Mommy?” I heard her walking with deliberation toward the Master Bedroom where I was in the “big” bed. Coming to the side of the bed she asked, “Yes? Did you need something?” “Mommy, what did you do with my other half minute?” She answered without skipping a beat, “I used it to make up your bed, why?” she asked in her calm, reassuring, mommy voice. I rolled back over, facing away from her and said to my “friend.” “She used it to make my bed.”

Mommy and me in Buffalo 1957
My mother, Margaret Lee Williams and me in Buffalo. NY, 1957.

It was 1957. Frankly, I’m not sure what month. I think school was open, but I’m not sure if it was open, or was about to open. I just don’t remember that. I do remember that conversation as if it was yesterday.

It was supposed to be a fantastic day. I was getting a new bedroom suite. I was so excited. I was getting a full-size bed with bookcase headboard. There was also a dresser with three sets of drawers, two sets of moderate sized drawers flanking a set of smaller sized drawers. The dresser had its own full-size matching mirror. It should have been the best day. It wasn’t. Overnight I spiked a fever. It was very inconvenient timing.

I couldn’t stay in my old bed. It had to be dismantled and moved out, along with my other furniture. The new furniture was coming, that day. So, my parents moved me into the Master Bedroom. Now, it’s important to understand that for a house built in Dutch Colonial style in 1920, Master Bedroom meant nothing more than it was the largest bedroom. It was located on the front of the house. My room was the middle bedroom, both in location and size, the “back” bedroom, which overlooked the backyard, was once my nursery, now a guest bedroom when needed, but was primarily my mother’s sewing room. Next to the back bedroom was the bathroom. In other words, the Master Bedroom was all the way at the other end of the hallway from the bathroom. Not a great location for someone who was sick, including being nauseous. There was a solution, of course. My parents brought me a bucket of some sort. I believe it was a metal waste basket that could be easily cleaned.

Hallway to Bath view
View from Master Bedroom to Bathroom. Other bedrooms along hall to the right.

I was sick. Very sick. I believe my fever must have approached 102. My mother was constantly running in and out of the room checking the thermometer. I was vomiting. She was dutifully emptying and cleaning the pail, then returning it to my bedside for the next unsettling event. She would wash my head, arms, and hands with cool washcloths. She would encourage me to suck on ice chips to keep from getting dehydrated. She would tell me to try to rest while she went off to attend to getting my room ready for its new accoutrements. Periodically, I would call her to ask if the furniture had arrived. “No, not yet,” she would say.

Doctors made house calls in those days. My pediatrician came early in the day. I adored Dr. Rosen. He was the best person, the best doctor, and seemed like another family member. He came, making the half hour drive from his offices. He checked my temperature, he listened to my lungs, he announced that I had the Flu. I don’t remember my mother’s comment, but her face looked concerned. However, she was always cognizant of how her reactions could affect me. Dr. Rosen basically said to continue doing what she was doing: aspirin, cold compresses, liquids, call him if there was any change. With that my mother thanked him for coming and began to usher him out. She told me she’d be back.

As the day went on, I developed a new symptom. I started to become delirious. I didn’t think it was so bad. I had a “friend,” an imaginary friend. We had fun talking and laughing. At some point, she “asked” me what happened to my other half minute. I told her my mother probably had it. That’s when I called her to ask. Apparently, Mommy was not enjoying my question. Alarmed, she called a neighbor, “Aunt” Perlene Dedick. Aunt Perl and my mother were close as sisters. She came over to see how I was doing and calm my mother’s fears. She suggested witch hazel baths. She was certain if my mother did them a couple times an hour that it would bring my fever down. So, they began.

Aunt Perl and me 1957
Aunt Perlene Dedrick and me, 1957

Finally, mid-afternoon, the furniture had arrived. Mommy really was making up my bed and reassembling my things in my room. With the bed now made up and my fever beginning to break, I was finally feeling better. After my father got home and they had eaten dinner, they came to move me into my new bed. Sick or not, I was very happy.

Mommy-Daddy-Me 1956
My parents (Margaret Lee Williams & Herbert Randell Williams) and me, Summer 1956

My mother (and my father) continued to be attentive as they cared for me over the next few days. My fever finally returned to normal. I stopped vomiting. I was no longer delirious. Life returned to normal. I still have my furniture.

Bookcase Headboard (3)
My bed and bookcase headboard

Years later I was talking with my mother when I had an “ah ha!” moment. I realized that the reason she was so distraught, though composed, was because she was having flashbacks, to 1918. In 1918, her mother had died in the “Spanish Flu” Pandemic. Seeing me delirious sent her right back to her four-year old self, watching her mother sick with the Flu and delirious, insisting that her own mother, my great grandmother, bring her her nine-month old baby, my aunt. Not long after that she was dead. My mother and her baby sister were orphaned. That event would color her entire life and even impact mine.

Louse Smitherman Phillips and Elinora Phillips Lee circa 1915 (2)
My grandmother (standing), Elinora Phillips Lee and my great grandmother, Mary Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram, ca 1916

My mother was gripped by the fear that she would die before I was grown. Flu season brought additional fear and anxiety and flu shots became a part of my life. On the other hand, I was not afraid that I would not live to see my daughter grown, but I did make her aware (when she was old enough to understand) that there was always the possibility that something could happen to me. I worked hard to help her learn how to be self-reliant, but always know and remember that I loved her. She was taught relatively early, especially as the child of older parents, that death was a part of every life. Unfortunately, she saw a lot of it as she grew up.

Margo & Turquoise Williams 2009 (2)
My daughter, Turquoise and me, 2009

My grandmother died on 11 November 1918, Armistice Day. For the rest of her life, that date, 11 November, would bring back those memories for my mother, causing her great sadness. Even as I moved away to college and later left New York, where my family lived, moving to the Washington, D. C. area, we always talked on 11 November. She would always relive those last moments.

Margaret & Verna Lee circa 1920 (2)
My mother, Margaret (L) and her baby sister, Verna, circa 1920

“I don’t know why she insisted on doing it, but she got out of her sick bed to do some laundry and proceeded to hang it on the line outside. The next day she was clearly worse. She was delirious, but I think she knew she was dying because, suddenly, she got up and dressed in a new, all white suit she had recently made and then got back in bed. I crawled in the bed next to her. She asked for the baby to be given to her. A short while later she was dead.”

Doc 19-Elinora Phillips Lee Death Cert
Death Certificate of my grandmother, Elinora L Phillips Lee, 11 November 1918
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#52Ancestors-Favorite Discovery: Mommy’s End Table

I think all my discoveries have been favorites in one way or another. However, thinking about Valentine’s Day, which occurred this past week and thinking about my parents and their close relationship, I remembered there was a discovery during my childhood that does make me smile. I was about ten years old. This discovery involved my parents’ love story. It was made when I went in my mother’s drawers in her bedroom. No, I wasn’t sneaking. I was looking for something or other that I can’t remember and stumbled on my discovery. No, I was not in any way forbidden to be in her drawers. Nevertheless, somehow, when she learned what I had found, she seemed surprised that it was there.

Mommy & me on Ditmars-Spring 1948-b
My mother, Margaret Lee Williams, holding me in front of our house in New York, 1948

As I said, the discovery was when I was about ten years old. As the title states, my discovery was in my mother’s end table. As I said, I have no recollection what I was really looking for, possibly some photos, because she kept lots of family pictures in her end table. That day, I noticed a blue box tied together by gold, gift-wrapping ribbon. I probably opened the box thinking it held more pictures. It did not. I took the box to my room to further examine the contents. Yes, now I was sneaking, because the box held love letters, love letters from my father to my mother.

Daddy on Ditmars-Spring 1948-c
My father, Herbert Randell Williams, in front of our house, 1948

I don’t know how many letters there were, at least thirty, but I no longer have access to the box, so I cannot check. I’ll get to that in a moment. I began reading the letters. The letters were all from my father to my mother. There were no letters from her to him. I was interested to learn that he called her “Peggy.” Her name was Margaret. I knew that some Margarets were called Peggy. She did have one friend (not a childhood friend), Ethel Valentine, who called her “Peg” occasionally. However, I had never in my whole life heard my father call her “Peggy.” Never, ever, ever.

Mommy-Aunt Ethel & Me on Ditmars Stpring 1948-a
L-R: Me (Margo Willimas), “Auntie” Ethel Rose Valentine, & my mother, Margaret Lee Williams, 1948

It seemed all the letters were written while my father was at work. Writing them in the evening before leaving for the day or at lunch. It made sense because he worked at the US Customs House in lower Manhattan where there was a post office in the building. My father was declaring his undying love as well as expressing how much he felt she showed him love. Apparently, they had taken a vacation together in Atlantic City. I was surprised. My parents had talked often about their vacations to Atlantic City. They usually spent two weeks. My mother packed a steamer trunk that I had seen in the basement. She used it for out of season clothes storage. She told me how hot the sand was, that it could be painful walking from one’s towel to the water’s edge on a truly hot day. She said unlike the sand on the beaches on Long Island that we frequented in my childhood, the sand in Atlantic City was not white, but dark. She described it as black. Having since visited black sand beaches in Hawaii as well as the beach in Atlantic City, I would say dark. I recognize that my mother did not have that frame of reference. As I said, those trips were made after they married. I was reading about their trip before they married. Yes, I was quite surprised, but that wasn’t my only surprise in the letters.

It seemed my father was in competition for my mother’s affections. It’s not that I thought she had never been interested in another man, I just didn’t realize she was dating someone else at the same time she was dating my father. In his letters, my father was begging and pleading for her to drop her other suitor—Willard. Willard? Who was that? No one had ever told me about a Willard. He was not one of our current family friends. On the other hand, I don’t think I had met many friends of either of my parents from their youth. There was a family we visited frequently who lived in Summit, New Jersey (we lived in New York City), named Marrow. I was also acquainted with a family who lived near us in New York, named Dietz. I did know that my mother lived with them before she married my father. She worked for the wife who had her own dressmaking business. The Dietzes were more than employers, however. My mother and their daughter, Dorothy, were close in age. They were friends, good friends. In fact, they called each other “sister.” I called the parents “Grandma” and “Grandpa” Dietz. They treated me like one of their grandchildren. That was it. Those were the few friends from before my parents’ marriage that I knew. Never, ever, had I heard of Willard. I was quite intrigued by the idea that my mother was dating someone else besides my father, someone he seemed to think was a threat. Here my dad was, begging her to marry him, not the mysterious Willard.

I went to a small private school growing up. There was a total of thirteen students in my class most years, five girls and eight boys. We were a close group. Those four other girls were my best friends. Oh, we had our squabbles, but we were like sisters. So, what did I do? I took the box of letters to school to show my “sisters!” Everyone was fascinated. They all read them. We all wondered about the mysterious Willard. We giggled over the fact that my father called my mother his little “Peggy.”

5 girls from Foxwood
L-R: Marel d’Orbessan, Maxine Wilchfort, Corlee Abbott, Me, & Betty Grigalauskas, ca 1958

I don’t remember exactly where I had hidden the box once back home from school. I had not returned it to its resting place in the end table. It might have been in one of the compartments of my bookcase headboard or maybe it was in my schoolbag, because she did realize I had it at school. Needless to say, my mother was not pleased. It’s funny because I don’t remember being punished. I do remember feeling bad that she was so upset. She put the box high on a shelf in a closet and admonished me to never touch it. It was her private business she told me and not to be shared with my friends. That was the end of that.

Bookcase Headboard (2)
My Bookcase Headboard in the house where I grew up in New York City

I was in my teens, maybe even college age before I brought it up one day at the kitchen table with my father present. My mother was not thrilled, but grudgingly joined the conversation. My father loved the idea that he got to tease her about Willard. According to him, he caught her one evening after taking her home, going back out to ostensibly meet with Willard. She swore that was not what happened. It was interesting watching them each try to advance their version of the past rivalry.

Years after that, I asked my mother to retrieve the box. I said it would be nice to read the letters together, assuring her that they represented a beautiful time when she did, in fact, choose my father. She went to the closet to retrieve the box, but there was no box. She swore she didn’t know what happened to the box. She seemed to look in several other places, but the box was nowhere to be found. We never did find the box. I think she threw it away. I used to think she put it where she couldn’t remember, but over the years, I have looked everywhere I could, especially after she died, and I was dismantling the house to sell it. The box never made an appearance again. I’m sad because I think it would have made a nice book to give my daughter about her grandparents, my parents, especially since my father died before she was born.

Although I no longer have the letters, what I do have is the memory of my parents’ marriage. Indeed, my father did win my mother’s heart, vanquishing the mysterious Willard. My parents had a long, loving, and sometimes boisterous, marriage, that lasted from 1935 to 1982, totaling 47 years and one day when my father died, leaving my mother brokenhearted.

me, Mommy & Daddy at Aunt Mellie's-1
L-R: Me, my mother (Margaret Lee Williams) & my father (Herbert Randell Williams), , ca 1950
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#52Ancestors – (21) Military: Percy Walter Phillips, World War I Veteran

In honor of Memorial Day and the 100th anniversary of the US involvement in World War I, I am writing about my great uncle, Percy Walter Phillips who fought in World War I, in what was called, “the War to end all wars.” Although his headstone lists him as having served from North Carolina, in fact, he served not with a North Carolina unit, the state of his birth, but with a unit from New Jersey where he was then living.

Percy Phillips Headstone 2
Private Percy Walter Phillips’ headstone, McAllister-Oddfellows Cemetery, Asheboro, North Carolina

Percy Walter Phillips was my mother’s favorite uncle, my grand uncle. He was born 4 Nov 1895, in Asheboro, Randolph County, North Carolina, the son of Samuel D. Phillips and Mary Louise Smitherman, and he was a Miles Lassiter descendant.  Percy registered for the draft on 5 June 1917 in Elizabeth, Union, New Jersey, where he lived with his wife, Florence (Bright), and daughter, Mary Louise, employed by Singer Manufacturing.[1] He enlisted on 28 January 1918.[2]

Percy served with the Battery F, 92nd Division. The 92nd became known as the Buffalo Soldiers, fighting in France. The 92nd was part of the “Negro Combat Division.” The 350th Field Artillery along with the 317th Trench Mortar Battery, were headquartered at Fort Dix in Wrightstown, New Jersey. The Field Artillery units left in June 1918.[3] The passenger list for the USS President Grant showed that he sailed for France from Hoboken, New Jersey on 30 June 1918. He listed his mother, “Mrs. Louisa Floyd” (Mary Louisa Smitherman Phillips Floyd), living in Greensboro, North Carolina, as his emergency contact.[4]

USS President Grant Passenger list Fold3_Page_661 (2)
Percy Walter Phillips departure for France, on USS President Grant, 30 June 1918

Upon arrival in France the 92nd began another training period. Their training in earnest began in July in Montmorrillon, in the Department of Vienne. In August, the 92nd would end its training and move to the town of St. Die not far from the Rhine and close to the foothills of the Alps. St. Die’s originated with the explorer, Americus Vespucci who had been a monk there and for whom the term “America” had been coined referring to the western continents. St. Die was across from Alsace, then in German possession.[5]

From August to September 1918, the 92nd attacked German front lines, while coming under attack themselves, with one of the worst attacks being on 31 August from German artillery, including mustard gas and “flame projectors.”[6] The Germans were eventually pushed back, leaving the 92nd primarily monitoring and repairing trenches. Nevertheless, there would be other attacks including aerial attacks.[7] Percy would suffer from the effects of these battles the rest of his life, suffering from “shell shock,” according to my mother, Margaret Lee Williams, his niece.  Today “shell shock” is recognized as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).[8] Percy would die from lung cancer in 1949 in the VA Hospital in Columbia, South Carolina.[9] Lung cancer was an associated health risk of exposure to mustard gas.[10]

USS Maui Passenger List Fold3_Page_566 (2)
Percy Walter Phillips departure for Hoboken, NJ, from France, on the USS Maui, 31 March 1919

Percy returned home to New Jersey, arriving on the USS Maui.[11] He was honorably discharged on 19 March 1919.[12] Things would change from before the war. By 1920, his wife and daughter had returned to Greensboro, Guilford County, North Carolina to live with her family.[13] Percy was living in Elizabeth, New Jersey with a woman named “Mary,” said to be his wife, although I have never found any official document for that relationship.[14] Eventually, he moved with his mother, “Louisa,” in Elizabeth, New Jersey.[15] He would live with her until she died in 1936.[16]

In the summer of 1920, Percy’s grandmother, Ellen Dunson Smitherman Mayo, Louisa’s mother, had a stroke.  Percy accompanied Louisa and his nieces, Margaret and Verna, daughters of his deceased sister, Elinora,[17] to Asheboro, North Carolina, to help care for Ellen. Ellen died in August, but the family decided to stay in Asheboro.[18] Percy and his first wife, Florence had a brief reconciliation resulting in the birth of their son, James Edward Phillips, in 1921.[19] However, by 1925, Louisa, the girls, Margaret and Verna, and Percy returned to Elizabeth, New Jersey,[20] while Florence and her children, Mary Louise “Louise” and James Edward, moved to Stanly County, south of Asheboro.[21]

In 1926, Percy was living with his mother in New Jersey, but he also married Pearl Timberlake in New York.[22] However, the relationship had to be brief since his niece, my mother, Margaret never mentioned her, even though Percy continued to live in the same house with her and his mother.[23] In 1936, his mother, Louisa, died.[24] About this time he returned to Greensboro, North Carolina, eventually marrying Agnes Kepler Hunter,[25] a widow who also had family roots in Asheboro.[26]

Percy Phillips Headstone application
Percy Walter Phillips Headstone Application, by his wife, Agnes Kepler Hunter Phillips, 29 December 1949

By 1949, Percy’s exposure to Mustard Gas had caught up with him. He had lung cancer. Percy entered the VA hospital in Columbia, South Carolina. Percy died there on 7 December 1949.[27] According to the request for a headstone from the VA made by his widow, Agnes, he was being buried in Asheboro City Cemetery.[28] However, he was actually interred in the Oddfellow-McAllister Cemetery, in Asheboro (Barnes, 2014).[29]

Endnotes

[1] U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918 [Database on-line]. Percy Walter Phillips. Registration State: New Jersey; Registration County: Union; Roll: 1712099; Draft Board: 3. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[2] U.S., Headstone Applications for Military Veterans, 1925-1963 [Database on-line]. Percy Walter Phillips, Enlistment 28 January 1918, Elizabeth, New Jersey. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[3] Scott, E. J. (1919). The Negro Combat Division. The American Negro in World War I (Chapter XI).  Retrieved (April 12, 2017) from: BYU.edu

[4] US Army WWI Transport Service, Passenger Lists 1918 Jun 30 – 1918 Sep 23 [Database on-line]. Percy Walter Phillips, USS President Grant, 30 June 1918. Fold3. Retrieved from: Fold3.com

[5] Scott, E. J. (1919). The Negro Combat Division. The American Negro in World War I (Chapter XI).  Retrieved (April 12, 2017) from: BYU.edu

[6] Scott, E. J. (1919). The Negro Combat Division. The American Negro in World War I (Chapter XI).  Retrieved (April 12, 2017) from: BYU.edu

[7] Scott, E. J. (1919). The Negro Combat Division. The American Negro in World War I (Chapter XI).  Retrieved (April 12, 2017) from: BYU.edu

[8] National Center for PTSD (NCPTSD). (n.d.). What is PTSD? PTSD: National Center for PTSD. Retrieved (April 12, 2017) from: National Center for PTSD

[9] South Carolina, Death Records, 1821-1960 [Database on-line]. Percy W Phillips, 7 Dec 1949. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[10] Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA). (2013, October 22). Exposure to Mustard Gas or Lewisite. US Department of Veterans Affairs. Retrieved (April 12, 2017) from: US Department of Veterans Affairs

[11] US Army WWI Transport Service, Passenger Lists [Database on-line]. Percy W Phillips, USS Maui, 18 March 1919. Fold3. Retrieved from: Fold3.com

[12] U.S., Headstone Applications for Military Veterans, 1925-1963 [Database on-line]. Percy Walter Phillips, Enlistment 28 January 1918, Elizabeth, New Jersey. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[13] 1920 US Federal Census, Greensboro Ward 6, Guilford, North Carolina. Robert Bright, head; Florence Phillips, granddaughter. NARA Roll: T625-1302; Page: 3A; Enumeration District: 141; Image: 930. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[14] 1920 US Federal Census, Elizabeth City Ward 8, Union, New Jersey. Percy Phillips, head. NARA Roll: T625-1070; Page: 10A; Enumeration District: 88; Image: 609. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[15] 1930 US Federal Census, Elizabeth, Union, New Jersey. Louise Ingram, head; Persie Ingram, son. NARA Roll: 1387; Page: 6B; Enumeration District: 0073; Image: 289.0; FHL microfilm: 2341122. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[16] U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1700s-Current [Database on-line]. Louise Ingram, Apr 1936. Retrieved from: Findagrave.com

[17] North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1909-1975 [Database on-line]. Elnora Lee, 11 Nov 1918. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[18] North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1909-1975 [Database on-line]. Ellen Mayo, 12 Jun 1920. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[19] U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 [Database on-line]. James Edward Phillips, 23 Mar 1921. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[20] U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989 [Database on-line]. Mrs. Louise Ingram, 1925, 1079 William St., Elizabeth, NJ. P. 291. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

And U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989 [Database on-line]. Percival [sic] Phillips, 1925, 1079 William St., Elizabeth, NJ. p. 415. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[21] 1930 US Federal Census, Harris, Stanly County, North Carolina. Florence Phillips, head; Louise Phillips, daughter; James Phillips, son. NARA Roll: 1721; Page: 10A; Enumeration District: 0014; Image: 683.0; FHL microfilm: 2341455. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[22] New York City Municipal Archives; New York, New York; Borough: Manhattan. [Database on-line]. Percy Phillips and Pearl Timberlake, 1 Feb 1926. Indexed Number: M-26. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[23] Personal Contact, Margaret Lee Williams to the author.

[24] U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1700s-Current [Database on-line]. Louise Ingram, Apr 1936. Retrieved from: Findagrave.com

[25] North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [Database on-line]. Percy Phillips and Agnes Hunter, 3 Nov 1943. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[26] North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [Database on-line]. Percy Phillips and Agnes Hunter, 3 Nov 1943. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[27] South Carolina, Death Records, 1821-1960 [Database on-line]. Percy W Phillips, 7 Dec 1949. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[28] U.S., Headstone Applications for Military Veterans, 1925-1963 [Database on-line]. Percy Walter Phillips, Enlistment 28 January 1918, Elizabeth, New Jersey. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[29] Barnes, T. (2014, Dec 3). Percy W. Phillips. Find A Grave. Retrieved (April 12, 2017) from: Findagrave.com