I come as one, but I stand as 10,000. Maya Angelou
While plotting a plan during my jangling twenties, I happened upon a pair of oil paintings over a friend’s fireplace in Texas. Blinking I edged toward the familiar subject matter and claimed the signatures – C. C. Blanks, my fraternal Great Grandmother, Mema. An image of the artist with faded red hair and blue eyes bloomed before me.
The tonsillectomy was the remedy of the day which exiled me to the bed. With a flourish, my father deposited Mema in a lawn chair, bedside, to my prone body during the summer of 1960. When he came back around to escort her home, we were joyfully clicking parfait glasses of orange sherbet.
She and I had strict business with which to concern ourselves that morning with 75 years between us. She rolled out colored pastels and pencils and demonstrated a way to make small books by folding paper. ‘Decorate the cover and title it,’ she would have said. She pushed back when I hesitated – “Dahling, this is a story that only you can tell.” she whispered.
An extraordinary number of remnants from my Great Grandmother’s life have been in my constant field of vision…a roll top desk, a home study course in interior design from a New York firm, a silver monogrammed box and mirror from her brother, countless paintings of flowers, porcelain bric-a-brac, composition books filled with her poetry, a recipe for sponge cake, lists of favorite books, people’s names with whom she corresponded, essays on different countries and an accounting of purchases:
lace – 1.00, parasol – 1.50, slippers – 1.00, guitar – 6.50….
Carlene (Carlie) Cater Blanks was born to Eliza Ann Glass and George Whitfield Cater “out of” Selma, Alabama on July 23, 1880. She departed this world in 1969, the year of Woodstock; but, first I won a passing chance to know her.
Our family dropped early vignettes in an attempt to loop me into her rules of the road. For too long, I would dismiss her legacies like the oddly shaped mushrooms in my yard that I am compelled to kick over as soon as they sprout.
Much later I realized that Carlene had garnered quite the education and I’m not talking Ph.D. As in one of the great mysteries of life, she was bestowed a privileged childhood: luxury residence of the day, servants, an indulgent wardrobe, ever flowing art lessons, a beloved pony, Blossom, and devoted entrepreneurial parents who saw to it that she and her sisters – Inez, Alice and Minnie, were well educated as was their brother George.
Her father purchased the Selma mansion where she lived in as a child, one that had served as a hospital not long before in the Civil War. Some of the floors were stained with blood and she was wary that a large mound in the back yard was a communal grave. A nervous aura clung to her, first brought about by the servants’ talk of ghosts.
Once when the dinner bell rang, her older sister Bessie, chastised a servant for not first pulling the chairs to the table. The servant hissed, “I’ve put a curse on you little miss.” Shortly afterward typhoid fever swept Selma and ten-year old Bessie died. The death of baby brother Willie followed and Carlie’s mother took to bed for the rest of her life.
Too young to take the quinine cure by mouth, little Carlie was given injections in both arms, which caused abscesses and the threat of amputation. She had scars for life.
Though the threat of typhoid and yellow fever swirled around, the Caters lived in material security. Their home was half a block long bordered across the back with an thriving vegetable garden. The parlor was lit with an enormous crystal chandelier and the wallpaper shown with strips of red velveteen bordered in gold. A wall to wall carpet with a deep rose border set off the main gathering area where a walnut parlor set was framed by long Irish lace curtains which swept the floor.
She signed off with a degree from the Alabama Girls’ Industrial School in Montevallo, Alabama. Moonlight dances and Christmas dinners back home left an imprint of tables laden with turkey, roast pig, potatoes, rice and gravy, squash, biscuits, rolls, various pies and fourteen cakes all prepared and served by a post Civil War staff, no doubt, puzzled and scared.
Carlie would soon be unlucky in love, blindsided by a dapper man with a pedigree, Edwin Alfred Blanks, my Great Grandfather:
“The marriage of Mr. Ed Blanks and Miss Carline Cater was solemnized today at high noon at the residence of Mr. Erskine Broach (Inez) on Eighth Street, the ceremony performed by Reverend J.W. Lewis, of the Central Methodist Church, assisted by Dr. J.E. Jones of the Presbyterian Church. Mr. and Mrs. Blanks left after the ceremony for their beautiful country home in Why Not (Mississippi) where Mr. Blanks is in the mercantile business. She was 22 and he 28.
Four children followed: Ida Mae, Cater and identical twin girls, Alfreda and Edwina, who would only say of their father that he was completely concerned with his wardrobe and being a big deal. His role with the family was brief as he died from complications in an accident crossing a street in Jackson, Mississippi, canceling out the income of insurance agent.
Carlene was widowed in her prime with dependents all around at a time when women were literally left holding the bag, but instead of hand wringing, remarriage options or mooching off relatives, she started the business and later the church that she had always wanted to see.
Imagine then, all those years later, I could only see her as a tiny lady with a flowered dress, lace collar and pin, always a pin. She had taken to the settled part of life, a retirement that would evolve into thirteen years with my Great Aunt Freda.
I now see her in the light of perseverance. She had accumulated some money and had reconciled to the effects of glaucoma and tic-douloureux, a condition of the facial muscle which caused her to hold a lace handkerchief to her painful cheek.
For all the disappointments she endured, she knew better than most women I’ve known that we are the singular interpreters of our fate. I know no better truth to pass along to her shiny new heirs: to Mary Ann, Quinn and Louise, to Elodie, Dalton and Pepper, to Molly and to Margaret. Dwelling on past wrongs keeps one in the dark: look to the light and get on with the business of living, she would say.
Loss of all kinds prompted her style. She documented inspiration in a letter to the editor of her hometown newspaper from a tombstone etching in the Selma cemetery where she would eventually reside. She quoted, “As you are now, so once was I. As I am now, so you must be! Prepare for death and follow me.”
So in the face of defeat, she armed herself with the fading gifts of a fancy background and opened a shop on the mezzanine of The Emporium Department Store across from the Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson. Mrs. Blanks Art Studio. Her grandson and my father, Bobby McKnight, remembers watching The Studio bustle of his mother, aunt, grandmother and employees as they restored antique frames and art, repaired porcelains, and framed new pieces.
The fine points of the most unusual business was an inventory of lamps, gifts and art selected at the Atlanta market and a workroom lined with frames and moldings. The Studio also maintained a doll hospital where my grandmother restrung arms and legs and Mema repainted faces.
Bobby loved to sit in the window when the circus parade came to Capitol Street. While enjoying the big fun, she would remind him that the secret to a thriving business was accommodation.
Having never learned to drive, she rode the street car to work and back. At home she would paint porcelain figures that lined the windows and drew customers inside. On Sundays, she lived for Fondren Presbyterian, a Northeast Jackson church, which she supported with a founding check.
Eckhart Tolle has said, “Being challenged is a good thing.” As I approach Mema’s relatable years, I think with endearment of her timidity, her mincing, but rapid steps and the journals she left behind – long winded and inexplicably filled with Bible interpretations.
Stuff from another era reveal the romantic soul to which she clung even though she had one pioneering foot into what would be a female move to fortitude. In a newspaper interview she claimed to be “not a business woman, but a woman in business.” Even so her path showed up as a challenge to the status quo.
I perk up when I think about her Great – Great – Great Granddaughter Margaret McBee Kellum who has just learned to walk on the same Mississippi terra firma. There is gold in them there shoes.
We beholden to you, Mema.
As little girls, Carlie and Bessie Cater were devoted members of the The Selma Violets. I have the flowery minutes which express the club’s longing for Bessie after her passing.
The rest of her life Carlie would paint oils and watercolors of violet bouquets.
In many parts of the south, violets shine in full sun to part shade. They easily bloom both spring and summer and attract butterflies and birds.
Best of all the tender looking flowers are edible and can be candied for salads and summer desserts.
20 violet flowers with stems attached
1 egg white, beaten until frothy
2 tablespoons powdered or confectioner’s sugar
Beat the egg white until it is frothy all the way through, but not stiff.
Pick the violet up by the stem and dip it into the egg white, twirling it gently to coat the entire flower.
Shake off excess egg white.
Sift the powdered sugar over the flower.
Twirl the flower stem between the thumb and forefinger so the flower gets evenly coast with sugar.
Do not coat stem.
Place the violet on a paper towel, repeating the egg and sugar steps with the rest of the violets.
Transfer the sugared flowers, still on the paper towel, to a shelf in the refrigerator.
Be sure that none of the violets touch.
Leave them uncovered for 24 hours.
The next day, remove from the refrigerator and let them sit at room temperature for another 24 hours.
Snip off the stems and discard.
Transfer the candied violets into an airtight container and store at room temperature.
Use within 2 months.