In 1946 the songwriting team of Charles Tobias and Nat Simon captured the hearts, and ears, of a post-war audience with their tune, The Old Lamp-Lighter. Band leader Sammy Kaye recorded the song, featuring vocals by Billy Williams, and the haunting melody hit the Billboard Best Sellers List by November. The Old Lamp-Lighter stayed on the charts for fourteen weeks, peaking at #1. Among Sammy and His Orchestra‘s many fans was fourteen year old Marilyn Minor, a young pianist and talented vocalist living in rural Greene County, Pennsylvania. Every Friday she traveled into nearby Waynesburg, to stay overnight with her Grandmother May Minor for her Saturday piano lesson. I imagine this young teen sitting at the bench, determined to parse out the arrangement’s rhythm of dotted eighth and sixteenth notes. And I wonder if her father, Donald, sang along, “He made the night a little brighter wherever he would go…”
Her palms hovered just inches from her ears, fingers-spread. As if a metronome, my mother’s hands rocked back and forth as she spat, “You are JUST like your father!” I never needed a decoder to understand that this phrase conveyed a mother’s disappointment; her eldest child, and only daughter, carried on the mannerisms and point of view of a barely tolerated ex-husband. My parents’ divorce was amicable as formal separations go. Since all the children were fairly grown up, no custody duels were overtly fought. But the covert competition for our allegiance and love was ceaseless throughout my adult life.
You cope, when your parents are divorced. You just cope, raising your own children as best you can, fending off the birth family battles with as much panache and courage as you dare, navigating the second marriages and blended family get-togethers without losing your mind. And finally you start feeling a bit old, mortal, and you set out to reclaim your childhood, your birth family, your ancestors. Or that is what you do when you get bitten by the genealogy bug.
I wandered the shoals of family memory, curious about how and why !?! my parents ever got together. There was a college romance. At RPI in Richmond. Norman transferred to VPI (Virginia Tech) and they got married. In Greene County, Pennsylvania. Then they lived in Blacksburg. Norman got a job with General Electric, and they moved to Boston, where Lyn finished her degree at Tufts. GE transferred the couple to Roanoke.
I had to DIG for this stuff, people.
Finally, late in life, my father admitted that he would always love the girl he married. Which plants the question: was Norman ever Lyn’s beloved? I would never hear the profession from her lips.
What was once lost has now been found
My father mailed a letter from Virginia Tech Station, Blacksburg, Virginia, to my mother’s dorm at 819 Franklin, Richmond 20, Virginia, every day from January 28, 1953 until May 28, 1953.
And my mother saved. them. all. *
The love letters chronicle the spring of their engagement; the Barnes Junction rendevous, unreasonable professors, wedding dates, and rambling musings of twenty-somethings. Sometimes the story is not left in the ink of a letter. It is inferred by the mere presence of that artifact. The words speak of my parents’ love for each other, once upon a time. The preservation of this seven inch stack says my mother always loved the boy she married.
It matters to me that my parents married because they wanted to, because they were in love, and optimistic, and happy to be together. It matters to me that I was welcomed with delight. Perhaps, after all, my mother was a teeny bit glad that I turned out to be just like my father.
*Norman S. Strickland, Blacksburg, Virginia, 1953, Letters to Marilyn Minor; Marilyn Minor Strickland Collection, archived with the author.
Sixty-one years ago, my mother left campus life behind to visit a little town a couple of hours south. In truth it wasn’t the little town she wanted to see, but the family of the man she loved.
Marilyn Minor was a junior occupational therapy major at the Richmond Polytechnic Institute that fall of 1952. Her man, Norman Strickland, was a junior transfer from RPI to Virginia Tech, where he was studying electrical engineering. Norman had been asked to come home for the weekend of September 20-21, because his brothers, Sidney, Clifford and Paul, were all coming to Chase City, bringing their wives and children. A conflicted Norman must have told his mother of his commitment to see Lyn that very weekend, and, as one can imagine, his mother offered a compromise that no one could turn down: ask Lyn to come along home with you!
As Norman proposed in a separate letter, received under separate cover, he would pick Lyn up that Sunday morning and take her back that night. They would be all together for church and lunch. These plans were made in early September as the young couple prepared to return to school, since Lyn would need both her parents’ permission and the school’s permission to leave campus. “I do hope you will come for the joy will be all mine,” wrote the Chase City boy.
The fact that my mother kept these letters suggests that Lyn dashed to her parents upon receiving the notes, and accepted the invitation before leaving her family home in Greene County, Pennsylvania. That year the fall equinox marked more than the changing of the seasons. The courtship of Lyn and Norman took a very serious turn.
A doll’s cradle, tucked away, unseen for a generation, has found its way into my home, a piece of my mother’s collection. In photographing this wicker treasure, I discovered a clue as to its origins. Affixed to the bottom of the toy was a piece of masking tape with the words “made by Robert Minor for Marilyn, 193?“, written in my mother’s handwriting.
Marilyn’s granddaddy Minor (1869-1943) was a substantial man, stocky, square. Looking at his picture, it is not hard to imagine that Robert Minor milked cows from an early age, or that he was groomed to take over the family cattle trading business as soon as he could count. But his sturdy physique and natty attire belied an emotional vulnerability. Intractable headaches and melancholy shaped Robert’s ability to work, to parent, to care and be cared for. And once the family sold the mineral rights for the coal on that Pennsylvania farm in 1906, Robert had the means to do more than suffer in silence.
Treatment for nervous conditions in the early 20th century was limited, with most, like Robert, seeking the rest cure at various resort-like sanitariums. Fresh air, clear spring water, no stressors, and occupational therapy were thought to be just the ticket to relief. Relief did not guarantee return to a normal, productive life.
The stories told at family reunions, and recently uncovered postcards and letters, reveal that Robert never quite shook the demon depression. He was subject to violent outbursts throughout his life. His wife, May Laura, had even advised their adolescent son, Donald, to never be alone with Robert out in the barn. Robert also had a habit of kicking his shin black and blue whenever he became upset.
Robert Minor must have retreated to sanitariums many, many times. Somehow the farm remained functional, and a legacy for Donald, his wife, Kerma, and his children, including Marilyn. And in spite of frequent absences, Robert appears to have been a doting grandfather, buying dresses and toys when at home, and writing letters when away, like this note to ten year old Marilyn from Mercer Sanitarium, Mercer, Pennsylvania, when once again he was a resident of that therapeutic institution.
“Dear Marylin(sic) you little sweet thing, I only wish I could write you a nice letter one you would be proud of but Grandady (sic) isn’t able to do it. Of course I could ask you about the school and your little friends and about your brothers and sisters and who your teacher is and where you go to school Willow Tree or Garards Fort, and how many there were in the school and do you mind the cold, and did you or any of them take the Hooping (sic) cough.”
At Mercer Sanitarium, Robert would have been under the care of Dr. W.W. Richardson, M.D. Many nurses would have been called up to serve in various war-time positions. I suppose, though short staffed, the basis of that 1942 care would have remained much the same as before the war: good food, raised on the premises; daily chores around the home and farm; and instruction in weaving, brass work, lace weaving, or basketry. Basketry.
When I look at this doll’s cradle, I see more than eight inches of woven wicker. I see a troubled mind holding in his heart what he couldn’t hold in his arms. My dear little Marilyn…..
My mother was very sad, but to my pre-adolescent mind the airplane ride she got to take was worth whatever calamity summoned her to Pittsburgh. Sometime later I realized that my grandpa would not be in Waynesburg to give hugs in 1965. Sometime later I felt the sadness: My mom’s daddy, Donald Corbley Minor, was dead.