Beginning with Mary Belle

An Essay

The first step on my grandmother’s recipe for chicken pie was “catch chicken.” OK, maybe not literally, but what she cooked she cooked from scratch. What she did she did on her own. What she had she got on her own. My grandmother was a tough woman. She had to be. 

We called her Nannie, but her name was Mary Belle. Neither name suited her – especially the Mary Belle. For me the lilt of it conjures up delicate flowers, blue bells and yellow bells. Her maiden name was Parker and we may be of English descent, but Nannie seemed more like a strong German woman and Frau would have been a good title for her – perhaps Frau Hilde or something. I looked up Hilde. It means battle maiden, so that would work. 

Mary Belle Gaddy, daughters Johnsie and Aurettis around 1945.

Nannie was tall for our family, maybe close to 5’ 7”. Her posture was always erect, as if she was standing at attention. At least while I knew her, she had a big barrel for a middle and to me, it seemed to create distance, like a shield that kept me from getting too close. Casual clothing hadn’t been invented, so Nannie wore dresses, skirts and blouses and she used a lot of starch. I remember her expressions as serious and I never joked with Nannie. 

My mother was seven and my aunt three and a half when my grandfather was killed at work. He worked for Carolina Power and Light and was killed while trying to help a coworker who’d been electrocuted. Today widows and families are well compensated for work-related injury or death. It was 1940. Nannie got a sympathy card. 

When my grandfather was killed the country had just come through the Great Depression. And just like everyone else, Nannie had seen enough hardship for a lifetime, but perhaps those days prepared her for the tough years ahead. I like to think my grandfather knew she’d make it. Afterall, he didn’t marry a “weeping violet.” 

In 1937 my grandparents found themselves in Asheboro, NC. Steady work was hard to find and my grandparents moved a lot, following jobs. They rented a room in a family home and several other boarders occupied other rooms in the house. My grandmother, pregnant with my aunt, went to work in a tie factory as a seamstress and the family depended on her modest income for all their needs. 

The only back up they had was a 50-cent piece from the World’s Columbian Exposition, sometimes called the Chicago World’s Fair. The commemorative fair and coin were to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America. The coins were somewhat unusual, and my grandparents held onto theirs for a rainy day. Nannie came in one day and the coin was gone. 

A few Christmases ago my mother gave me my gift and stayed nearby while I opened it. Inside the package was my grandparents’ 50-cent piece. It is now in a pendant casing, roped in gold and dangling inside a small glass display dome. Taped to the bottom is a note written by my mother that reads: 

“This bit of information told to me by Mary Parker Gaddy, my mother. This half dollar Columbian Exposition coin was, at times, the only money she and my father had. They wouldn’t spend it, but when they lived in Asheboro, NC in a room, it was stolen and used at a nearby shop to buy cigarettes. They found the man (someone they knew) and where he had spent it. They went to the shop and were able to get the coin back. Mom also said she had wanted many times to buy peanuts with this money when she was pregnant with me. She never did, but perhaps that answers the reason that my favorite food is the peanut.” -Johnsie Gaddy Compton 

P.S. I had this coin put in the pendant casing in 1981. 

My grandmother’s coin.

My mother doesn’t know the details of how my grandparents got that coin back, but when she talks about the story or looks at the coin tears well up. 

Years later, after being overlooked for a raise, my grandmother went to her manager at the Mother and Daughter store in downtown Winston-Salem and demanded a raise. When the raise she got was only a quarter more per pay cycle my grandmother marched back to her manager and said, “Keep your money. If this is the best you can do then you need it more than I do.” 

Eventually things got a little easier, but my grandmother never remarried. She raised two daughters on her own and bought and paid for her home. Throughout her life Nannie worked for everything she had and many times she had to fight for what was hers. She lived in her home until her late 80s, walking to church every Sunday, dressed in her neatly pressed clothes. She cooked for us on Sundays and everything she made was from scratch. 

Nannie with granddaughter Anita and son-in-law Ken.

A couple of months ago my husband and I had chicken pie for dinner. I didn’t buy it from the frozen section of the grocery store, but I bought the chicken and pie crust frozen. Canned soup and packaged gravy finished off my recipe. It was good, but nothing like Nannie’s. 

My grandmother’s story isn’t just an American story. It’s an American woman’s story. And while some people would say Nannie’s story is sad, in the end, I think my grandmother had a good life. Her life was marked by hardship, but there’s a joy we all have when we rise to a challenge. She rose to every challenge and her hard-won survival brought its own brand of happiness and pride.   

These days people spend money on They watch shows like “Finding Your Roots,” on PBS. My grandmother’s people may have come from England and one of my father’s cousins has jotted down a few details about his ancestors too. Maybe I’ll look into the past one day too, but honestly I’ve never had an interest in it. I have always felt uniquely American.

Today I have my grandmother’s priceless 50-cent piece. I keep it as a reminder of my history. And it also reminds me that in this life our greatest happiness often comes from overcoming hardship. One day I’ll pass the 50-cent piece on to my niece Abigail and I hope it will give her the same pride it has me. Who knows, she may even do some family research one day. As for me, I’m satisfied for my history to begin with Mary Belle. 

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