This week’s “spin” is on role models. I could talk about several teachers who sort of mentored me in high school or I could talk about a family member who inspired me or a celebrity I always admired but then I settled on who I thought was a perfect “specimen”. I think I’ve even written briefly about her before.
When I was about 2 or so we moved into a house beside the Brown’s (I wrote a poem about him yesterday) and it happened to be about 2 or 3 houses down from the Hamner’s house aka “the Waltons”. Of course at the time we lived there, the “Waltons” had not become a household name and Mrs. Hamner had not yet been referred to as “Olivia Walton” rather than her real name of Doris Hamner.
You see, Mrs. Hamner’s son, Earl Hamner, Jr. was a writer and a great one at that. He wrote for Twilight Zone and he wrote Spencer’s Mountain which kind of morphed into “The Homecoming” which morphed into the long running television series “The Walton’s”. I’m sure everyone (if they are old enough) remembers “Good night, John Boy!” Well, John Boy IS Earl Hamner, Jr. But at the time we lived by them, John boy was still a dream (or at least he hadn’t morphed into a full-fledged television show yet).
Every day my brothers and sister and I would walk the half a mile or so to the elementary school that was at the end of our road and across the street. By the time I was old enough to be in elementary school (back then there was no kindergarten) my older siblings were in their finishing up stages of elementary school. My oldest sister was already in high school. Back then there was no middle school or even Junior High yet, just elementary and high school.
Every morning my mom would leave for work at the butt crack of dawn. Seriously, even in the high summer it was still dark out when she left for work. She worked “in town” which was Charlottesville and about an hour’s drive, minimum. She would fix our dad’s breakfast and leave it on the table and leave the older kids in charge of taking care and farming out us younger kids. My oldest sister was in charge of getting my little sister (who was barely more than an infant) ready and taking her to a neighbor’s house for day care and then she’d catch the bus for high school.
My two older brothers were busy trying to get themselves ready but would occasionally get me my breakfast but for the most part I was in charge of fixing my own bowl of cereal or whatever else I could think of to fix myself for breakfast. My younger of my two older sisters was too into getting herself ready and her chores done to worry about me. In an ideal world, my older siblings would have been responsible for getting me fed and ready for school and making sure I got there and home okay. Note, I said, IDEAL world. I did NOT live in an ideal world.
Most times I was left to fend for myself and I managed to tag along behind my siblings on the ½ mile or so walk to school but for the most part, for whatever reason, by the time the end of the day bell rang at school, by the time I got to the front of the school, my siblings were long gone. In their defense, their classes were at the front of the school and mine was the farthest from the front door and I’m sure I did tend to lollygag and I’m sure to 10, 11 and 12 year olds my dragging my feet to leave at the end of the day was a bit more than they could bear.
So, most days by the time I dragged myself to the front of the school all my siblings were gone and there wasn’t even a dust trail to be found to follow. Mind you, I was in the first grade and left to walk home alone. I will allow that in those days it was a much safer world that we lived in than nowadays. I did only have to walk about a half a mile and it wasn’t like I had all kinds of books or homework. In fact, I don’t think at that age we were even allowed to take books home from the school, unless it was a library book we were reading and then only on occasion and one book at a time.
Invariably I somehow found myself stopping by Mrs. Hamner’s house on my LONG, LONG ½ mile journey home. I don’t even remember how our little “routine” started. I do admit that now, looking back, I’m almost sure I suffered terribly from A D D but WAY back then, there was no such diagnosis or label. Instead you got stuck with the labels of being “antsy” or “bothersome” or “fidgety” or God forbid “lazy”.
I’m sure I probably got sidetracked that first time walking home by myself and was probably crouched (or sitting) in the dirt at the end of Mrs. Hamner’s yard while she was out tending her beautiful flowers or getting in wood for the wood stove or getting her mail or something. Being the loving woman that she was, I’m sure she realized that I was a bit neglected by my siblings and invited me in. Of course we were FORBIDDEN to go in someone else’s house without our parent’s knowledge but I’m pretty sure that little rule escaped my attention span.
I know my brother Monte used to chop wood for them and carry wood in for her so maybe I even followed him over there. Like I said, I don’t remember how it started but somehow I know one day I ended up sitting at her white enamel covered kitchen table with the black border and a plate of steaming hot home-made biscuits was set before me with real butter and home-made jam and I was in heaven! Maybe that was where my love affair with bread started… I’m not really sure, I just remember the wonderful smell of those biscuits made with shortening and that wonderful jam and she had made a friend for life. She couldn’t have beat me off with a stick at that point.
Somehow it turned into me stopping by once a week or so to me stopping by every day. I remember sitting at that kitchen table and watching her make biscuits every day for her husband, Earl, Sr.’s dinner every day. He worked down at the plant (the soapstone plant) where MY daddy worked and he got off every day I think at 4. She always liked to have his “supper” waiting, steaming hot and delicious smelling, right off of the stove when he walked in the door around 4:15.
It didn’t take me long to learn the routine that if I left school at 3:00 every day and it took me 5 minutes at the MOST to walk across the road to Mrs. ‘ then I’d have her all to myself for about an hour before Mr. Hamner would come home and then I’d finish my journey home and still get there way before my mom got home from work.
Eventually she started teaching me things like baking, sewing, knitting and crocheting, things she thought were essential for all well-bred young women to know how to do and she knew I didn’t get that kind of attention at home and since my mom worked outside the home, she didn’t have the time to teach me “the basics”. I never heard her say an unkind word about anyone. Even when people might have been unkind to her, she never reciprocated and she always had a loving smile on her face and lots of love in her heart and she was always ready with a big hug. My own grandmother never was very affectionate with me so she kind of became a stand in grandmother figure for me.
As the years passed and we moved a little farther away, I didn’t stop by and see her as much, which was really a shame. It wasn’t like we’d moved a hundred miles away. We actually only moved about a mile father away but that one mile didn’t take me down the dirt road by her house so somehow I quit going by there. I still regret that.
By the time I started visiting her again, I was in high school and her son Earl, Jr. had become somewhat famous. Everybody knew who The Walton’s were and when I was a senior in high school I was inducted into the “Earl Hamner Chapter” of our high school’s Quill and Scroll Society for the literary arts. I graduated in 1976 and since it was our country’s “Bicentennial” we had decided to do something “special” with that year’s induction ceremony. I suggested that we invite Mrs. Hamner to the ceremony since it was named after her son and then I volunteered my best friend, Sylvia and I to go and pick her up.
It was one of the only things other than my graduation that I can remember my mom attending and sadly, I was more excited about Mrs. Hamner being there. She was there for her son and for the school but I selfishly thought of her as MY guest. She was MY mentor and MY friend and I was the one who had been her neighbor! It was a very special ceremony for me.
I tried to make it a point to try and go back and see her during my occasional visits home. I didn’t make it every visit but I made it at least once or twice a year. I remember bringing my daughter to see her while she was still a baby and how thrilled Mrs. Hamner was to hold a little one again. She dearly loved babies. I don’t think she ever met a stranger and she was one of the most generous and gracious people I ever met.
I remember her telling me once during a visit home how grateful she was for “the Walton’s” having made it so big. She told me that after all of her children had left home how she was so very lonely. She told me that she prayed for something to relieve her loneliness and then shortly after that Earl Jr.’s series took off and she was so thankful because she said as annoying as some of the people who visited were, she knew she would never be lonely again. And she was always gracious and would talk to people who came to see “the Walton’s” even when she didn’t feel like it because she felt it was an answer to her prayers. She did learn that after she had someone steal one of her drinking glasses as a “souvenir” that it was best to sit on her front porch and visit rather than invite all those strangers into her house.
In her later years it broke my heart that sometimes when I went by she didn’t know who I was. I’m sure she had Alzheimer’s. We would sit there and talk and then suddenly she’d say “Do I know you?” or “Aren’t you Pete and Florence’s kid?” after she had already called me by name just a few moments earlier. The last time I saw her I’m sure she never had a flash of recognition the whole time I was there and even though she couldn’t for the life of her remember who I was, she was as gracious and loving as ever and when I left she said “Now you come back and see me next time you are home, you hear?” Sadly, she passed away before I could visit her again but I will always have the memories of sitting at her kitchen table learning life lessons that would last ME a lifetime. Mrs. Hamner, you were truly one of a kind and I will always remember you. I loved you then and I still love you now.