i never met thomas franklin caldwell. he died on the sidewalk in front of the peoples' bank in jonesboro the year i was born, 1946. but nora--ne nora alice davidson-- would be a powerful force in my young life. they were, truth be told, carpetbaggers. frank had moved to jonesboro soon after the btirth of my grandfather, cedric franklin caldwell, to manage the railroad station. for many years i romantically thought his family were welsh, part of the cadwalldr clad who became caldwells at ellis island. his and nora's children had welshy names, and every summer their daughters nell and blanche--unclaimed treasures--would journey to flint, michigan, to visit cousins with names like cleffa and owen and gwen. recently i discovered that frank's family can be traced back to south carolina before the revolution. only nora was welsh. she looked like almost any member of a welsh men's choir in drag.
they were a proper clan, with wild cards. nora, blanche (named for frank's mother), and nell lived together in a little bungalow they rented from nell's employer. she was the book-keeper for the local chevrolet dealership. before frank died, they had owned a big two-story four-square house near the railroad station. the little bungalow on mcclure was much quieter. there was an eisenhower plate hanging on the wall in the corner of the living room, which had three chairs and a couch. each of the occupying women had her own rather personal space around her chair. blanche crocheted, and her blue leatherette hassock had removable top to reveal the thread storage inside. it was surrounded by hanging white twisted fringes, which my half-uncle frank--one of the wild cards, and son of my wild card grandfather--enjoyed braiding to annoy blanche. nell's space was fairly austere, with a glass-based lamp with a plain conical shade, and probably a history of some sort on the table. nora--we all called her big momma--had a rocker with her bible and an odd assortment of religious tracts on her table. she was a fan of garner ted armstrong, as well as a staunch member of the first baptist church.
nora was very proper, with white gloves and hats with veils and a pot roast every sunday. she also had arthritis, almost certainly made much worse by the pot roast. she had many skills, including cooking and sewing and keeping house while confined to a wheelchair. but the one that amazed me and my half-uncle frank the most was her ability to change clothes while seated and never being nude. one moment she was all dark dress with fancy buttons, hair in a bun, little black shoes with perfectly tied laces, and then she would be in a flannel night gown with hair down to her waist and silk slippers. never was there even a wrinkle in between.
frank i knew mostly from a few stories centering around his propriety. dark suits, starched shirts. ties with little patterns. prompt. everyone knew him so when he had a coronary in front of the bank, no one doubted his identity--and his book and record collection. there was a wonderfully large and shiny mahogany philco radio and record player in the living room, and it was full of tubes and rca red seals. toscanini lived there, with rubenstein. the dining room was separated from the living room by french doors, and his books were in a case on one side of the doors, the girls' in a case on the other. he had a collection of naval history which seemed immense to me. i particularly enjoyed his i-think-it-was collier's naval battles of the great war, published when it still was the great war.
frank and nora had four daughters and one son. three we have met. georgia, named for nora's roman catholic sister who would come each summer to re-fight the twenty years' war--was said to have been the most beautiful, but she had died of rheumatic fever during the thirties. nora, nell and blanche may have been very proper, but cedric and ruth, my grandfather and my aunt buck, were a bit wilder. (although i was told after her death that nell was indeed a lesbian, and entertained visitors in the bedroom she shared with blanche, and that sometimes they enjoyed menages a trois. so much is withheld from children.)
cedric had grown up around the railroad station, and would be assistant station master to his father, but he excelled in junk. he bought it, and sold it. perhaps the planes that bombed pearl harbor were made from scrap my grandfather was able to ship with a friendly rate on the frisco railroad. the stories of how he met my grandmother were murky, but the details of their divorce--practically unspeakable in jonesboro in the thirties--were often rehearsed. my father grew up in a family of which disfunctional would be a euphemism, except for the calming affects of big momma. during world war ii a young dutch-american from iowa would move to jonesboro to replace the (male) telegraph operator had been drafted, and my grandfather would marry her. rena vanroekle seemed as calm and sane as my grandmother seemed otherwise, and she and cedric would have two children, my half-uncle thomas frank and half-aunt jan, both younger than i. she would live to be 91. a strikingly beautiful woman to the end.
cedric was, as his sister ruth said, a corker. he retired young from the railroad and the scrapyard to buy some farmland and a general store a few miles east of jonesboro. he sometimes like to drink, so he had a chauffeur. but his chauffeur's livery was overalls and his limo was a red chevy pickup. his nickname was bozo. one of his hobbies was exotic chickens. he drank busch bavarian and smoked camels and listened to the cardinals. the first 'record' i remember was on his ancient wire recorder.
ruth helen was the youngest daughter, and not proper. she liked fishing. she was want to cuss, with words like 'phooey' and phrases like 'ain't that the darndest thing?' she married the pepsi truck driver who delivered to her brother's store. she made the best lemon meringue pie possible. they had one son, fred, who was a pre-med student and kept his cat cadaverin big momma's refrigerator before becoming a second lieutenant in the korean conflict. during the war he sent weekly slides back, so that we saw the war in ruth and cecil's house in needham. after the war he became a chemist for dupont and moved to north carolina. he reverted to proper.