As we prepare for the October edition of Let the Stories Be Told, I, too, am scrolling through my family’s tales looking for a few to share. Many of them involve the episodes of Robert and Zollie Sisk and their seven children.
My mother was one of those seven children, all of whom were lively and smart, rambunctious and active, so there are stories a-plenty there.
Mama was fifth of the seven, three years younger than her older brother Paul and three years older than her brother Aubrey.
As such, she found herself somewhat the “middle child,” with four bossy older siblings and two pesty younger ones.
During the World War I era, the family lived in the “Tannery Row,” company houses for workers at Unaka Tannery. My grandfather was a bark boss there. With a wife and seven children to feed (plus, it always seemed an aunt or two and maybe a cousin enjoying extended “visits” with the family), I’m sure money was tight.
Granddaddy was a master gardener, who ruled that plot of ground with the same rigid rules he demanded his household to follow. Every year the soil had to be prepared just so, and the rows aligned with mathematical precision. A weed knew better than to put its roots down in Bob Sisk’s bean patch.
He planted corn every two weeks from the earliest possible date in the spring until the last possible day that would give a fall crop time to mature. Nothing ever went to waste.
He also loved his hound dogs. I guess he hunted, but sadly I never thought to ask my mother or any of her siblings about this. I just know that he thought highly of a “red-bone” hound he had around 1916.
The tracks of the T&NC Railroad ran behind the home. One day, my mother and Uncle Aubrey were walking on those tracks, pretending they were circus performers. At the time, my mother would have been about 7 years old, and Uncle Aubrey around 4.
Grandmother had given Uncle Aubrey some leftover cornbread and he carried this with him onto the “high-wire” track. Everything went well, until the dog suddenly grabbed the bread from Uncle Aubrey’s hand.
Incensed, my mother grabbed a stick and proceeded to chase the dog, who easily outran her. I don’t know in which direction they went, nor how far they ran, but to hear Mama’s version of the story, they must have gone at least to Hall’s Top.
Anyway, the dog enjoyed the bread, Uncle Aubrey had a good cry, and Mama finally gave up and returned home.
When suppertime arrived, all the family appeared at the table, scrubbed and quietly seated, as per Granddaddy’s strict rules. However, there was no sign of the dog.
The pooch didn’t show up the next morning either, nor that night. Granddaddy asked all he saw, “Have you seen my old dog?”
Mama chose the “lie and deny” route and prayed feverishly that Uncle Aubrey would keep his mouth shut. I think she found a penny or two to bribe him into remaining silent.
After a few days, the old dog came slinking home, as most hound dogs do, and to my knowledge Granddaddy never knew what part two of his “youngins” played in the dog’s vacation from the Sisk homestead.
As the years passed, first Aunt Mattie Lee, Mama’s older sister, and then Mama discovered the opposite sex.
Like most fathers, Granddaddy kept an eagle eye out for any improper shenanigans, and his definition of “improper” encompassed nearly everything. He once gave my mother a severe whipping for allowing Charlie Wilds to hold her hand as she descended the shaky steps at the old Baltimore Church following a revival service, saying, “She was being too forward.”
During my mother’s junior years at Central High School, she began dating my dad, who was four years older and who was a student at UT at the time.
To hear my father tell it, he was a model child, never giving his parents any cause for worry, but based on some letters I found after my parents’ deaths, I have a feeling he kicked up his heels on “The Hill” more than he let on.
No doubt word of his high-jinks filtered back to Newport and to my granddaddy who became increasingly worried about his daughter’s relationship with this fellow.
Whenever my dad arrived to collect my mother for a date, driving a snazzy vehicle, I might add, Uncle Aubrey was sent along as chaperone.
But as young people have done down through the ages, Mama and Daddy found ways to circumvent such restrictions.
Money exchanged hands.
For a mere dime, Uncle Aubrey would willingly leave the car so that the courting couple could have their time alone. He apparently did quite well in this financial scheme, for I remember Mama telling that he nearly broke her with his demands for another dime to keep his mouth shut.
Eventually Granddaddy handed down the edict that Mama must end her courtship with “that O’Neil boy.”
As any father of a teenage girl should know, such an order only intensified the allure my dad held for my mother. Much sneaking and plotting ensued and then Mama and Daddy eloped on Aug. 5, 1926, thus bringing to an end Granddaddy’s intense scrutiny of their courtship and Uncle Aubrey’s lucrative business.