This picture is my mom, Jessie Velelia Harmon, in her twenties. The glass “frame” is cracked but I couldn’t give it up, so I had the whole thing matted and framed. The raven black hair and ruby lips remind me of Snow White. But my mother didn’t have it as magically perfect as Snow did, although I hope there has been a happy ending. She was born in 1926, and her early years were years of survival for a poor country family in Cleburne County, Arkansas. She remembers the depression and has described for me “canning kitchens” provided by the government so women could gather together and preserve the produce from their gardens and fruit trees while the children played outside. Her family’s house burned at some point and they lost everything. She told me that lids from cans of lard served as plates until they could gradually accumulate more dishes. Dresses were sewn from flour sacks and glassware was found in oatmeal boxes. The icebox was literally a box with blocks of ice in it and cooking was done on a wood stove. I have seen the remains of the one-room school that she attended and heard stories of her life on “Silver Ridge.”
This photograph was made in the 1930s by Michael Disfarmer in Heber Springs, Arkansas. In our time he has achieved significant artistic recognition for his depression-era photographs. Negatives were made of glass. A picture cost thirty-five cents. My mom is on the right and stands with her sister Georgia in a classic Disfarmer pose. They walked or rode a wagon to neighborhood events, including the Old Soldiers’ Reunion, an annual event at Spring Park in Heber Springs. Her family attended every year, mostly for the music that could be heard.
In the 1940s things were looking up a bit. First her father, and then shortly thereafter, she, her mother and sister traveled to Kansas to work in an airplane factory. She was literally a “Rosie Riveter” for a short period of time. Georgia was too young to work in the factory, so she waited tables. It was in the late 1940s that Mother met my father, Lee Andrew Roberson, who had served in the Army on Guam as a sharpshooter. He had been married before going to war and had two sons, my half-brothers. However, his wife divorced him in a “dear John” moment and took the boys away from him, living in California and refusing to share his letters with them. It was only late in his life that he was reconciled to one of them after the other died of esophageal cancer.
He met my mom on a blind date. They fell in love. Here I am. But her story had just begun. For life continued to be sometimes easy but sometimes very hard. We were not well-off, probably not even middle class, in my infant years. But shortly after my birth, my parents moved to Noblesville, Indiana. Mother loved it there. We lived in a neighborhood and they owned a home. Daddy worked for the Firestone tire factory. They had friends. A baby boy joined the family, my brother Alan. However, my dad decided he was ready to come back to Arkansas about 1959. Mother was not happy about showing the house to prospective buyers, but a buyer materialized, and we moved to Judsonia, Arkansas. I was nine years old.
Finances continued to be an issue much of the time. Dad initially worked as custodian for the Searcy Public School but then trained to operate an American gas station. Some of you may remember, back then someone pumped your gas, cleaned your windshield and checked tires and oil, all for twenty-five cents a gallon. My mother had to learn to drive because he was required to go to Memphis for several days for his training. That’s right, she was thirty-four years old and didn’t drive!
We lived in a “rent house” for about four years, and then my dad and my Uncle Truman built us a house, the house my mother lives in now. At one point my parents built another house at Pleasant Plains and lived there for several years so dad could have cattle, but as his health failed, he was wise enough to seek a place closer to family for her. God blessed with an opportunity to once again buy the house he had built. He died about eighteen months after their move to Judsonia, and my mom has lived there alone for twenty-two years now.
She has been a wonderful mother and was a phenomenal caregiver for my dad. She has a love for plants, especially flowering ones, and a true green thumb. She grieves her inability to care for her lawn herself and still is constantly undertaking little tasks of caring for her plants. (You know, I remember when we would visit my grandparents we would always take a tour of the yard to see what was growing well and what was in bloom. Guess the green thumb is an inherited trait that skipped me!)
She finished only the eighth grade but has been a great reader all her life. However, macular degeneration and “dry eyes” have slowed her reading. She loves musical theatre and bluegrass music and her family. Above all, she loves the Lord. Her severe spinal stenosis and chronic pain keep her from church now, but she was working in Bible School into her 80s. She is a faithful Bible reader and prayer warrior.
Her 93rd birthday is approaching. Her mind is beginning to fail, and I am hopeful that at some time she will yield to living with us. But for now she insists on her house, her yard, and her cat. (The psychotic cat cannot come live with us–although we do have a prospective home for “Callie” if Mom comes to be with us. Callie is a calico with the personality disorder to match.)
I feel so blessed to still have my mom with us. She is a hero to me. She has taught me so much about living for the Lord and caring for family and strong southern lady spirit. I love her with all my heart.
We visited Mountain View a few years ago, when her back was still strong enough for the walk. This is one of my favorite pictures of her, in her element, questioning every plant and drinking in Arkansas history.
Happy Mother’s Day with more love than you know, Jessie Velelia Harmon Roberson, my mom!