This is a pictorial-life tribute to our mother, Bessie Irene McDaniel, who passed away July 30, 2011. There is more than one picture in this tribute, but they make up one master portrait of love.
Mama was the third of 13 children born to Franklin Benjamin Duncan and Katie Lou Frances Harper, a sharecropper family during some really hardscrabble years in the Deep South. It was Easter Sunday, April 12, 1925, in Littleton, Etowah County, Alabama, and she was a breach birth. Her hard beginning continued as she and her two older siblings, Shelly and Josephine, started taking on more and more responsibilities as more and more brothers and sisters were born.
All worked the fields as soon as they were old enough to hold a hoe or pick cotton. For the girls there was also food to cook, house to clean, clothes to wash (on a scrub board in boiling water) and children to look after. There was always more than enough work to go around for both father and mother and children. And still hunger and want plagued the family, as it did many who worked the land.
Old sharecropper’s farm-house where the young Duncan family lived in 1925. Granny Kate is holding Mama. In the middle is their first-born, their son Shelly, born 1923. Papa Duncan is holding Josephine, born 1924. The unfocused figure in long dress and apron behind the screen door is Kate’s mother, Annie Gillihan, my great-grandmother, a taciturn woman whom I never really got to know, though she died on my 20th birthday.
Mama was four years old on Black Tuesday when the stock market crashed October 29, 1929. It fell hard on rich and poor alike. Though a highly intelligent family, the Duncans, (they played Dominoes so fast I can still hear the blocks clicking, such was the speed in which they could tally numbers in their heads) an eked-out existence leaves little room for education.
Minding P’s, Q’s, and little boys
Mama started school around 1931. As soon as she walked in the door of Miss Clara Durham’s one-room school, all the little boys were smitten. Mama’s thick dark hair, measuring down to her hips, was plaited every morning by her mother Kate. She was beautiful (all the Duncans were good-looking), and though no childhood pictures still exist, the stories of her beauty remain. A set of twin boys were her best friends, but Mom could never recall their names after so many years. Mama attended school until the fourth grade. Her only teacher for all four years was Miss Clara Durham.
The Duncan Family
Mom (Bessie Irene Duncan/McDaniel – standing) was the third of 13 children. The picture includes her father (Franklin Benjamin “Frank” (Papa) Duncan – kneeling), about half of her younger brothers and sisters – the tow-headed boy is Dennis with brother Andrew beside him; sisters (l-r) Frances, Joyce, and Fay (the 13th and youngest child); the background brothers are James, with R.V. on the stump and one niece, Loretta, sitting in Papa’s lap. (Picture dates about 1947). Note: Brother James, whose full name was Frank James Duncan, married a quiet, sweet young lady who was a distant third cousin of the Dalton Gang of Missouri. Truth is definitely stranger than fiction.
Mirror, Mirror on the — Hey! Where’d it go?
When Vanity struck the household in the form of the first daughters to grow into teenagers (Josephine, Mama and Artria – b. 1924, 1925, and 1926) their mother Kate was so put out she began hanging a quilt over the mirror to keep them from primping so much. Mama was incensed over that and never forgot it. “We never primped that much,” was her indignant comment.
Josephine “Jo” Duncan/Smith (1924-2009)
(L) Mama age 19 with unidentified friend. (R) Beautiful, blonde, and sassy Artria, one year younger than Mama, is still with us. The blondes got the Swiss/German DNA from our SHORE family line (Papa’s grandmother).
When Mama was 13, the Duncan family moved to Sand Valley in Etowah County, AL. It was near their home in Sand Valley that the water ran off the mountain into a beautiful, clear, cold, crystal spring. Mama said it was the best water she ever drank.
Runaway cow injures Kate
Mama was 17 when they moved to Crawford’s Cove in Springville, St. Clair County, Al. But just before they moved from Sand Valley to Crawford’s Cove, Granny Kate was walking down the road leading a cow to water when the cow bolted and ran away. The rope caught around Granny’s ankle, burning it almost to the bone before the rope came loose. When the family moved soon after that, Papa had to carry her to the truck.
It was in Crawford’s Cove when Mama was 21 that she ran into my dad, James Clifton McDaniel, who had returned home from World War II. Actually, she literally ran into him. She was in a hurry.
The McDaniel family was also living in Crawford’s Cove at the time, and, for me and four other living souls, that was a fortuitous accident, the timing courtesy of a Higher Power. They were married in 1947 and I was born in 1948.
This is Mom holding me, and this is the house we lived in when Dad rocked off the porch with me AND the rocking chair. He was rocking and singing with such oblivious dedication that he didn’t notice how the rocking chair had “crawled” to the edge. But he twisted in such a way that he landed with me safely off the ground.
The Late Tooth Fairy
Mama had her first tooth pulled in 1948 a few months after I was born. Dad drove Papa McDaniel’s A-Model to Attalla. Papa Duncan went with them and paid to have the tooth pulled. Apparently, I rode in the A-Model, too, because they had my first professional baby picture taken that same day in Attalla.
Also, apparently, I’ve always had that slightly befuddled look, like I’m not quite sure what’s going on in the world, and even less sure that I would like it if I did.
My sister Gaynell is soon to have a birthday. She looks fine here, but she only weighed 3 lbs. 4 oz. when she was born on that hot August day at home. Granny McDaniel stayed with Mom while Dad borrowed Ben Rogers’ pickup truck to bring Dr. Watson (I don’t know anyone of that earlier era in our neck of the woods who wasn’t delivered by that busy male stork).
Dad and Evelyn Rogers took Gaynell to the Children’s Hospital in Birmingham where she stayed nearly a month and lost down below even her small birth weight. It was touch and go for a while, but she’s still kicking today and works in the same company as sister Katie (Amerex).
Oh, and by the way, if there is any such thing as luck, this baby’s got it all. If there’s a drawing with a name in a hat, hers pops up a winner nine times out of ten. And she doesn’t even cheat!
Here is Mama when she was expecting my youngest sister Katie Irene, named after Granny Kate and Mama’s middle name. Katie was a springtime baby.
But when Katie was two years old she ran a high fever and her skin broke out in a rash. Mom and Dad drove her to the Children’s Hospital in Birmingham where they kept her several days. “If they ever knew what was wrong, they never told us,” said Dad.
Katie works in the shipping department at Amerex Corporation in Trussville, AL, a fire extinguisher company where she has been for over 30 years.
But, sad to say, Gaynell and I used to give her grief when she was little. We were teenagers at the time and would lock her out of our room while she pounded on the door and threatened to tell.
My brother Paul came along in 1956. He was one plump, big-eyed, dark-haired, gorgeous baby, and I carried him on my hip till long after he was entirely big enough to walk by himself.
He was healthy as a horse, and there were many professional pictures taken of him. Unfortunately, all of them were lost after being mailed years later. (By me, not the U.S. Postal Service – long story). He didn’t stay plump. I always said he looked like a little Indian boy. I would swing him in the rope swing on the oak tree in the yard and sing “You Are My Sunshine” to him. Paul became a roofer, carpenter, and jack of all trades.
Timothy Grant “Tim” McDaniel was born in 1961 with a lazy eye, which was corrected when he grew up and went into the Air Force.
He is the funniest comedian I’ve ever seen on or off television. One-liners roll off his tongue like they were born there and waiting for the spotlight.
He and Katie are both talented impressionists. Tim impersonates ordinary people and famous people in body language and voice. Katie would have made a great mime.
This is Mama’s life — her families — both as a child herself and as a wife and mother.