MARY HENRIETTA BETHARD MCGEE
Mary Henrietta Bethard McGee, just Nanny to all her kids, grandkids, other assorted relatives and close friends, was born on September 14, 1874 at the small community of Jena, set in the pine hills of North Louisiana. Her parents ran a resort hotel about twelve miles West at a community known as White Sulphur Springs.
Legend has it that White Sulfur Springs came into existence about 1833 when a fellow named Joseph P. Ward came either from West Virginia or Georgia in his wagon and smelled the sulphur boiling out of the natural springs. He tasted the water and soon spread the word that drinking and bathing in the magic water would cure all ills that beset mankind. He named the place White Sulphur Springs in honor of the White Sulphur Springs of either West Virginia or Georgia.
Anyway, White Sulphur Springs, located in the western edge of the Catahoula Prairie District which would soon become LaSalle Parish of Louisiana, became known far and wide as the place to wash and drink away your ills. Clever promoters convinced newsreporters to write that wagonloads of crutches had to be carried away from the resort hotels that now surrounded the magical springs. Nanny’s father built the Bethard Hotel and the whole family, including Nanny, hove-to to run the place.
One can only imagine what effort that took on a young girl’s part in the late 1800s. It created that “can do attitude no matter what” that Nanny in later life attempted to install in her offspring or any other other relatives that came for refuge at her home.
After Nanny married J. D. McGee, they built a big house on the banks of the Ouachita River at West Monroe, Louisiana. J.D. was a mean old cuss but a hard working business man, which left Nanny the responsibility of raising their eight children and a daughter of J.D.’s from a previous marriage.
But these nine children were not the only residents of the “Big House” that Nanny came to care for. Two recently divorced children each brought there two daughters with them. My mother and father brought us two boys with them. Another aunt and uncle lived with their two children upstairs. Yes, the “Big House” gave us shelter, although it had but one bathroom. Nanny worked out tight schedules for all of us, but when nature called outside your scheduled bathroom time, there was alway the outdoors.
We had only one telephone. The old kind that sat on a small table at the end of a hall near the kitchen. Its receiver hung in a cradle along side its black upright speaker apparatus. If I could rest the phone from cousins for a few precious minutes to call a friend, I knew that half of West Monroe would listening in on our party line.
The old 1936 brown Chevrolet with smelly, dingy fabric seats that Aunt Katie owned was the sole source of transportation to deliver us the three miles to downtown Trenton Street in West Monroe where the Strand and Rialto movie theaters and Simmy’s Cafe were. Most of the time we just walked on the earthen levy and concrete seawall to enjoy the delights of downtown West Monroe.
The kitchen and dinning room has special status in the Big House. They had to because they had many hungry mouths to feed. An Ice Box, no not a refrigerator, sat in the dining room next to the door that went to the kitchen. Twenty-five pounds of ice, delivered every other day by Uncle Harry, kept food reasonably cool. The long mahogany dinning room table sat about twenty of us at meal time. Nanny sat at the head of the table next to the kitchen door so she could retrieve forgotten items.
The reciting of grace was a solemn activity. All were required to bow our heads and some adult would give thanks for the great providence with sincere words, not just the short version we heathen Catholics were taught. Much later in life, I had to part my way with the Catholic Church, because priests kept trying to tell me that only Catholics would go to heaven. They kept trying to exclude from heaven Nanny, a devout Presbyterian and the best woman I had ever known.
We children well knew the rule at dinner. We were to be seen but not heard, except to ask that some food to be passed. Even outside meal times, if we children got into a talking mood, Nanny would admonish, “Don’t be talking just to hear your head rattle.”
Just before World War II and as the Great Depression was still in full bloom, four families sought refuge and the wise counsel that Nanny provided in “The Big House.” Nanny’s rule for getting room and board at “The Big House” was simple. “Those who don’t work, don’t eat.” This went for adults and younguns alike.
Nanny and her King James Bible were never far apart. Although, not prone to preach to her brood, Nanny could quote scripture with the best Christians. She attended her Presbyterian church every Sunday, but she did not have time for frivolous social functions held at the church. Of course attending funerals was obligatory. The family of the deceased would be greatly offended, and it would be a serious violation of social protocol, if friends did not attend the rituals for the dead.
In the late evening, after all the daily chores were completed, Nanny would rock to and fro reading the blessed book in her ancient wicker bottomed rocking chair in the room that she and her spinster daughter Sadie shared. But, since Nanny had to always be accomplishing some task, she would darn socks or work on a patchwork quilt while she read the Good Book. She adhered to the sage advice she regularly gave us children, “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.”
During WWII all commodities were in short supply. Nanny carried the need to save everything she had to learn in childhood into her later years. The WWII mandate to save anything allowed Nanny to practice with passion the lessons of conservation she learned as a child growing up in the piney woods of North Louisiana.
“Waste not, want not,” Nanny would tell both adults and children under her roof as she rolled the tinfoil from chewing gum wrappers into a ball of metal that eventually become part of the war effort.
String was not to be wasted. No telling when you may need a piece of string long enough to tie around a package of food going to a needy friend. Wrapping paper from gifts at Christmas, birthdays, department stores and any other source, got stowed away to wrap some future present. No casually throwing these valuable assets in the trash. Since Uncle Big Buddy grew and bailed alfalfa hay on the seventy acres surrounding “The Big House” there was always a sufficient supply of bailing wire to fix most everything that needed fixing. If clothes became worn out, and they must truly be worn out, the usable parts of their cloth went into a large wicker basket to create colorful, comfortable quilts. All of the droppings of the horses, mules, chickens and goats became fertilizer for the victory garden in which every imaginable vegetable grew.
Nanny had to be resident doctor for her large clan. At any given time, one of us kids had some sot of kid ailment. Measles, scarlet fever, strep throat, ear infections, bee and wasp stings, bruises from falling out of trees, mumps, sunburns. Most of these maladies could be cured with Nanny’s home remedies. For example bee and even wasp stings could be treated with a poultice of chewing tobacco or baking soda and water. Calamine lotion that hardened like concrete would at least distract you from the pain of your sunburn. Horse and mule liniment took care of bruises.
If my ears became too infected, my Mother had to take me to old Doctor Joe Brown way over in Monroe, whose unusual bedside manner would compel him to tell mother, “Damn it Jinks, you let the little bastard go swimming in the mill pond again,” before treating my painful ailment.
If one of us under Nanny’s supervision sought to excuse ourselves for not doing something we were tasked to do by saying we really meant to get the job done, Nanny’s response was predicable. “You know the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I believe this is the only time Nanny use a cuss word.
Nanny’s stepdaughter Mattie decided that it would increase the family’s social status if they became Daughters of the American Revolution. In order to join this august society, one had to document their heritage back to the Revolution. Nanny cautioned against this endeavor. “You better be careful examining this family tree. No telling who you might find hanging from it.”
No food that fell from trees or grew on the land at “The Big House” escaped Nanny’s pantry. We kids harvested and prepared for canning every pecan, fig, pear or peach that fell from our trees. We stripped the garden of its fresh vegetables and readied them for canning. Nanny traded some commodities with Mrs. Elliot next door for wild honey on the comb which Mrs. Elliott harvested from her bees.
At canning time, Nanny pressed us kids into service shucking peas, picking pecans and washing greens, tomatoes and whatever else the garden produced. Nanny got some help from a neighbor lady and took charge of her kitchen, where they spent an entire day and well into the night filling hundreds of one quart Ball jars brim full of food that would be deposited in Nanny’s six by eight foot pantry to be consumed by our large family all winter. Fish from the Ouachita caught by us kids on a simple cane pole would supply additional protein to our diet. I did not care much for the bonny little brim fish, but Nanny would cheerfully remind us, “Waste not. Want not.”
Nanny lived to be ninety-three and never ceased dispensing loving wisdom. Some people just have more influence on the rest of us than others.