A fire licked the home of memories, back in 1947. My father recalled being summoned by the farm’s bell, and dashing up the pasture with his dad to watch a chimney fire consume the Dodson Home Place, built in 1860 just off of Butcher’s Creek, Mecklenburg County, Virginia. Family Bibles, photographs, letters and clippings; beds, clothing, sheets, tables, books, piano – all gone in a matter of hours. Family and friends gathered food and clothing to comfort the Stricklands, and others shared photographs – like this one – that the memory of Oakview and her history might not be buried in the ashes of that tragedy.
Today is the anniversary of the birth of my grandmother. Born December 4, 1901 to two middle-aged farmers in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, Anna Florette Sayles was a bit of a miracle girl.
Her father, Clifton Duvall Sayles, had five children from his first marriage to Anna McCullough, both Yankees drawn to the south after the Civil War. After Anna died sometime during the year of 1900 Clifton paid court to his first love, Miss Rebecca Eulelia “Lilly” Dodson, a spinster who lived down the road near Butchers Creek on the family’s farm with her two spinster sisters.
Lilly and Clifton had fallen in love right after his arrival in Mecklenburg County in 1870 but James and Sarah Jane Dodson would not accept Clifton’s proposal to marry their daughter. Feelings ran high against Yankees for the Dodson’s had lost both a son and a brother to the Cause. So Lilly lived her life, without ever marrying. Clifton met and married Anna in 1879. They had five children, two of whom were still at home when Anna died in 1900. Clifton set out to complete his family.
In January of 1901, no longer needing anyone’s approval, Lilly and Clifton were married in Chase City, Virginia. Just twelve months later, the forty-five year old bride gave birth to her only child. Anna Florette grew up pretty much an only child, for all the McCullough Sayles had married or moved off the farm by the time she was a young girl.
In 1920 George R. Strickland, who had been adopted by Lilly Dodson Sayles’ sisters and unmarried brother, hitched up a wagon and drove his team to the Sayles’ house to pay court to Florette. They were married September 28, 1921 in the Baptist parsonage in Chase City, Virginia by the Rev. H. L. Williams. Four sons were born to this union: George Sidney, Clifford Ricks, Paul Warren, and Norman Scott. The family survived the depression by returning to the Dodson farm.
By 1951 all the boys had left Mecklenburg County, and my grandmother and grandfather lived in Chase City, keeping up the farm with the help of tenant farmers and the like. My grandfather ran several school buses for the Chase City district and was landlord for several city properties. My grandmother kept George straight, and the home running smoothly.
Florette Strickland loved music; she made sure all of her boys could play an instrument, and that they played together regularly. She played the piano; my granddaddy had purchased this big old piano which sat in the living room of their home. Her pile of music contained anthems for her church choir, as well as popular ballads and tunes. One of my favorite memories is of me on the bench, playing Clair de Lune, by Claude Debussy. Grandmother sat on the couch, crocheting another blanket. When I finished I turned to see her smiling and she said, “I believe you just made that piano sing.”
Anna Florette Sayles Strickland died in March 1981, leaving behind a rich legacy of music loving family.
This Fairy Princess is actually my grandmother, Anna Florette Sayles Strickland (1901-1981), dressed for her ninth or tenth Halloween celebration, or so I thought as a child. Now I gaze at this photograph in awe of the craftsmanship and wonder who claimed the title of its seamstress? What was on the materials list? Was the character taken from a storybook, and if so, which one? And why was a formal portrait taken of my favorite fairy princess?
My father would have been eighty-three years old today. The fourth boy of George and Florette Sayles Strickland, Norman grew up on the family farm outside of Chase City, Virginia. When the eldest brother, Sidney, got to seventh grade, George decided to buy a bus and transport his children and those of his neighbors into the city schools. Within a few years George had at least four buses and was responsible for closing several area one room school houses.
During high school Norman drove bus #3; his pals Charles Duckworth and Grayson Mullins also drove buses for my grandfather. Charles related in a June 8, 2010 letter that all the guys had nicknames — Norman was “Chick”, a kick off from Strick; Charles was “Duck” and Grayson was known as “Moon”.
After Chick, Moon and myself had finished our school routes, we each had two routes, we would gather in one of the buses to wait for the bell to ring. On one morning it was noticed that I had on mismatched socks. The three of us decided to wear our socks mismatched the next day. We did and with in a few days all the high school was dressed in mismatched socks.
My father was a good kid, quiet, reserved and never in trouble. In fact, those are adjectives that probably described my dad every day of his life. Norman was also responsible, smart, caring, and ever ready to lend a hand and share a smile —
a true friend to a host of people.
Even when my own children arrived, I remained a daddy’s girl.
Five years ago this girl lost her daddy.
I could recount the story of where I was when I heard the news, but I can’t invite that chest-cracking pain into my day.
I wish I could sit one more time, holding my father’s hands. I miss the possibility of his hello; I miss the ever-ready energy that he brought to life; I miss the smile. I miss the calm that seeped into all the cracks of my life just because he loved me. Absolutely.
I buried my father in the sky. Since then, the birds clean and comb him every morning and pull the blanket up to his chin every night.
From the poem Little Father by Li-Young Lee