By John Clise
Aunt Rene had a lot of stories to tell as I was growing up and when I was an adult. I think I appreciate her stories more as an adult than I did as a kid. I think as a kid I was just more intent on getting outside to play with my cousins than sitting still listening to stories.
She was born March 17, 1906, in the time between one age to the next, and just before the world exploded. Oh, St. Patrick’s Day was her favorite holiday for obvious reasons.
She talked about the usual things a person of that generation would who lived in an agrarian environment.
Chickens, cows, pigs, sheep, gardens and all of that. She picked up eggs mostly as a youngster. It was a working farm so older people took on the heavier work.
She remembered the outbreak of WWI. As six-year-old, or so, she helped roll bandages being sent to the war effort by the American Red Cross. She also remembered radio stations were seized by the government for the war effort.
Aunt Rene talked of how exciting it was to see the men leaving by train to join the war. She said it stayed exciting and romantic until “boys started coming home in letters.” During the Great War letters were sent to homes, or the local sheriff to deliver the news, or a commanding officer would visit the family. Telegrams weren’t used until the second World War to inform a family of a soldier’s death.
When World War II came along, she was married with a toddler. She knew what was coming. Her brothers went to the war save one who was past draft age. WWII wasn’t nearly as exciting. All returned unharmed.
After graduating from high school, at 17, Aunt Rene attended Glenville State Normal School, now Glenville State College, in the mid 1920s. She became a teacher as did most of the people in my family did for at least part of their lives.
As a college student, she rode a donkey from Flatwoods to Burnsville (a distance of about 15 miles on a dirt road) on Sunday afternoon, after church, and then boarded a flatboat at Burnsville, on the Little Kanawha River, I believe, which she rode to Glenville (about 20 miles. Maybe a little bit longer).
A farmer in Burnsville would take care of the donkey during the week. On Friday she would take the flatboat back to Burnsville, pick up the donkey and ride it back home.
She made this trek for two years in all seasons. A few times she had to take a wagon from Burnsville to Glenville because the waterway was frozen over or too dangerous to pass on flatboat.
There were a few times it was too rough to travel home for the weekend and she would have to find accommodations in Glenville. In those cases, she was able to send a letter Friday morning and it would arrive to Flatwoods Friday afternoon.
When Aunt Rene was a kid, she said if you got a letter out to Gassaway (about 8 miles or so away) in the morning mail she said you could get a letter back in the afternoon if the respondent got to the post office and made reply while the mail carrier was having lunch. There would have been no phones in the area at that time. Letters were often the quickest and easiest way to communicate.
At that time, mail carriers still used horses to make their deliveries, so said Aunt Rene.
After graduating teacher’s college, she taught at the school she’d gone too, and knew some of the students from when she was a student.
She told me about one fellow that was in his 20s still trying to finish high school. She said it wasn’t uncommon for a student to take a semester off to work and then come back.
She told me about two brothers that only had one good set of clothes. One brother would come in the morning. The other would come in the afternoon trading the good clothes.
I thought it was intriguing and amazing all of the history Aunt Rene saw in her life. All the changes in society she saw and lived through had to be amazing. I told her that once. She took it all in stride.
She saw two World Wars, countless other ones, space travel, airline travel, dirt roads paved, married, had a child, had a business, saw the advent of penicillin, silent movies and talkies, radio, space travel, the Internet, the age of the automobile, and so much more.
She wasn’t short on opinions or shy to share them. She branded Desert Storm another war with no purpose. She’d already lived through two World Wars, and the Korean and the Vietnam wars. I think her tolerance was very low for those sorts of things.
In the middle 1980s the granddaughter of a friend brought home her girlfriend for everyone to meet. The friend was shocked something like that could happen. Aunt Rene just shrugged her shoulders and said they seemed happy to her. Sexual orientation wasn’t a thing she dwelled on or was against one way or the other.
She took to spending the afternoons with the “Captain” that last few years of her life. Captain Morgan and his rum to be clear. Sometimes she would get completely hammered as we said back in the old days. She’d get about half in the bag and just laugh and laugh. I think it annoyed her son a bit as he was a tad of a teetotaler. It amused me greatly.
On September 22, 2000, one day after my 35th birthday, Aunt Rene passed from this world to the next being reunited with her husband who had gone on to the next life nine years earlier.
I still think of her, and the “Captain” and it always makes me laugh. I get amazed at all she saw in her life. She seemed to take it all in stride as it no big deal. She was cool like that.