Nashville History

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Monday, January 16, 2012

My Mama

Lola Mae Steele Oeser

Mama was a story teller and she had a fantastic memory. She shared many tales about her parents, her brothers and sisters, and her grandparents. It was from her that I learned about the family history. She knew so much about her family and Daddy's, too. Daddy's grandmother, Granny Davis, lived with Mama and Daddy for several years and Mama learned about her family through her stories.
Mama was born, on August 23, 1919, in a big old house in the 300 block of Shelby Avenue in East Nashville. The house stood just west of I-24 on property that is now a part of the Titan's stadium. Mama was the third child born to Wilmoth and Minnie Hunt Steele . Her brother Edwin had just turned three in June and her sister Lorena was 18 months old. Mama's parents were renting an apartment in the house. Her maternal grandparents, Felix and Annie Capps Hunt lived in the house as well.

Shelby Avenue House where Mama was born

Mama's father Wilmoth, was called Pat by family and friends. I don't know where the nickname came from but he was called that from childhood. Perhaps it was because of his fair, blond, red cheeked looks. Pat Steele was born in his parents, Alex and Lola Dickson Steele's, home at 620 Shelby Avenue. He was the only boy, and youngest child, in a family of four children. Though Pat's father had graduated in the first class of Peabody College, taught school and went to work as a title researcher in his uncle's title abstract firm, Pat did not finish high school. Pat worked a variety of jobs, possibly even worked briefly for the title company. Much of his life he worked as a porter in downtown Nashville hotels.
Wilmoth "Pat" Steele

Mama's mother Minnie, was the only girl in a family of five children. Minnie and Pat were married in June of 1915, at the Vine Street Christian Church. She was 16 and Pat was 22. In the 21 years following their marriage Minnie would be pregnant 14 times, resulting in 12 live births, a set of stillborn twins and one miscarriage. Minnie was a beautiful girl with black hair and dark eyes and was the apple of her father's and her four brother's eye.

Mama loved her Daddy dearly and never spoke a bad word against him. He was obviously not always a good provider for what would become a large family and they were very poor and often relied on Minnie's parents for help. Often her Hunt grandparents were living with the family, or the other way around. Grandpa Hunt worked in his family's carriage manufacturing - turned auto body shop company and often paid the rent. Mama would tell us, that when she was a girl, her family would move every time the rent came due. While not quite that often, they did move frequently. They would rent a place and stay a few months, then miss a rent payment or two or three. It was cheaper to move, than to try and catch up on the past due rent.

Mama had a great ghost story. My cousins and I would make her retell it every few months. Mama said that when she was a child, seven years old, a family member told of seeing two shooting stars. About the same time two birds had somehow gotten into the house. Local superstitious beliefs were that both were predictors of a coming death. Her fifteen month old baby sister, Ila Ruth, who was blond and blue eyed like Lorena, died on Sept. 15, 1926. Little Grandma Hunt died three days later on Sept. 18. Mama said that she helped to fix grandmother's hair after she died. It seemed very odd to her in recalling it, but was probably a normal practice back then. The family was living with the Hunt grandparents at 1815 Long Avenue. Soon after their deaths, Grandpa Hunt hired a woman to help out with cleaning, cooking, etc. There were five children, under the age of ten and Mama's mother Minnie, grieving for her little Ila Ruth, was pregnant with child number seven, Felix. Little Grandpa gave the bedroom that he and Little Grandma had shared, to the hired woman. The house was very old, with high ceilings and transom windows over the doorway. The door itself had a long clear glass panel. The bedroom had a fireplace and it had been Little Grandma's practice to heat bricks on the hearth and then place the warm bricks at the foot of her bed, to warm her feet. A few days after she was hired, the lady told Grandpa Hunt that she was quitting and would leave at the end of the day. When he asked why, the lady told him she could not sleep for all the interruptions during the night. She said that every night since she had been there, a small child, with big blue eyes, had come to the door and looked in through the glass at her. Each time she got out of bed and opened the door and the child had vanished. But the worst, she said had happened during the past night. She was sleeping, when she felt a touch and opened her eyes to find a woman standing beside her. The woman told the cleaning lady that the bed was hers and asked the lady to move over so she could get in, because her feet were cold.

Mama said her Daddy came in early one morning soon after her sister and grandmother had died to wake her up with the news that there was a new baby brother, Felix. She was instructed to get up and wash diapers and help with the baby. Taking care of babies was her chore from that time on. By the time Mama was eight, she was in charge of buying groceries for the family. Her father made tips in his job as a hotel porter. The tip money was given over to her to budget for meals for the day. Sometimes there plenty, other times little money. The family in 1927, consisted of her parents, five children and sometimes her maternal grandparents. As Mama grew older, and more babies were born into the family, her responsibility increased. She quit high school, to stay home and help with the babies, cooking, laundry and housework.

At times there was no plumbing or water in houses they lived in. Wash day meant rising very early and heating water to wash the clothes in. It depended on where they were living as to the method used. They once lived in a house in which the two adjacent houses were owned by the same landlord and the water supply for the three houses was a tap in the front yard of the middle house. Mama would have to take a large container to the water spigot and fill it and carry it back to a tub where the clothes would be rinsed. She made as many trips as it took to fill it. She also had to carry water to be heated and poured into another tub where the clothes would be washed. There was a wringer attached to one of the tubs. The clothes would be cranked through the wringer by hand, squeezing out the water, put into the rinse tub, back through the ringer again and then hung on a clothes line to dry. On a hot summer day, by the time you filled the last of the clotheslines, the first load of clothes that was hung, would be dry. You took those down and replaced them with the latest load. It was an all day job.

Mama and her sister Lorena were rivals of sorts. Only eighteen months apart in age, they had grown up very closely and yet were about as far apart as two sisters could be. The contention between them was caused in no small part by their Mother and Grandmother Hunt, who was called Little Grandma. Lorena had been the second grandchild and the first girl. She was named Annie Lorena for Little Grandma. She was gifted with golden curls, fair skin and blue eyes. Her mother and grandmother Hunt both had black hair and very dark, almost black eyes and her different look was beautiful to them. When Mama was born less than two years later, she came into the world looking very much like her Mother and Grandmother, with a head full of black hair and eyes that turned dark as she grew into a toddler. The two little girls were often introduced as Lorena, our blond, blue-eyed darling and Lola Mae, our ugly duckling. Mama never said how much that hurt her, but she told the story so many times, there is no doubt it affected her greatly. She would often say, "I knew if no one else loved me, my little Grandpa did." Little Grandpa was her Grandfather Hunt. He thought Mama was the beauty of the two girls. She, did after all, look very much like the girl he had married and his own beloved daughter. While Lorena had long curls, Mama's hair was stick straight, and was cut into a short bob. One day when Little Grandpa had care of the girls, he took Lorena to the barber shop and had her hair cut so she would be pretty like her sister Lola. He got into to trouble for that but he earned the love and respect of his young granddaughter forever.

Felix Z. Hunt, Little Grandpa

Mama and her sister Lorena viewed the world differently. Lorena had been spoiled and maybe was a little lazy. Even as a child, on the morning Felix was born, she was passed over, while Mama was told to get up and wash diapers. That may have been because Mama always eager to please and fain favor, was more reliable than Lorena. Real or imagined, Mama felt that Lorena was always the favorite and Mama spent much of her growing up years, working to prove her worth and earn her Mama's love. She did whatever needed to be done. She had given up her dream of graduating from high school to help out at home. Mama delighted in telling a story about Lorena and lemonade. One day warm early fall day in 1935, as Lorena got herself ready to go off to East High School, Mama began her day by cooking breakfast and getting the little kids ready for school and the ones too young for school dress and fed. While Lorena was at school, Mama was cleaning house and helping her Mother in looking after babies. In the early afternoon, while the babies were napping, she went to the grocery store to buy food. She had a little extra money and decided to buy a lemon, to go with the iced tea she planned to make. She returned home and put the groceries away. She and her mother started to prepare the food for cooking. Lorena came in from school and saw the lemon lying on the kitchen table and remarked how good a glass of lemonade would be. Mama quickly told her the lemon was for tea and she could not have it. Their mother broke in and said, "Lola Mae, make your sister a glass of lemonade. She has had a hard day at school." Mama made the lemonade and called Lorena to come and get it. Mama always had a big smile when she got to this part of the story. She would tell us, "Lorena came into the kitchen and I was holding the lemonade and I poured the entire glass over the top of her head." Mama did love her older sister and I am sure that Lorena loved her. Mama told other stories of them playing together, so they obviously got along sometime. She told us how Lorena would stick up for her against older girls when they teased or bullied. She and Lorena double dated and often swapped boyfriends. In fact, Mama dated the man Lorena married, Marion Clingan, before Lorena did. And Lorena dated my Daddy, Ernest Oeser, before Mama went out with him.

On October 17, 1936, Minnie Mae Hunt Steele, died. She was 37 years old and left her husband and eleven children surviving her.

Minnie Mae Hunt Steele

The children ranged in age from 20 years to six weeks old. Mama always said she was one of twelve and named them all in order. Edwin, Lorena, Lola Mae, Paul, Neva, Ila Ruth, Felix, Bob, Mary , Jerry, Raymond and Walter. Mama would often dream that she would discover that her mother had not died but was in a hospital somewhere. Mama, aged 17, and her sister Neva, aged 13, took over the job of being mother to all the little children. Edwin, Lorena and Paul were pretty much grown. Felix was nine, Bob was six, Mary was five, Jerry was three, Raymond was fifteen months, and Walter was six weeks old.

L to R - Front, Lorena Steele Clingan; Neva Steele Hunley; Mary Steele Gifford Cole; Lola Mae Steele Oeser. Back, Paul Perry Steel; Robert Eugene "Bob" Steele; Gerald Lee "Jerry" Steele; Edwin Wilmoth Steele; Walter Enloe Steele; Raymond Larrimore Steele.

I have more Mama stories to tell and will continue this another time.

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