The North Carolina
where the stories come from
1940s - 1960s
by: Russ Lancaster
It was a late fall afternoon sometime in the late 1940s. Rain was falling and the utility room where I was sitting was only dimly lit with the sky darkening outside under the clouds. The hint of fall was in the air and I was listening to Loretta and my mom swap tales of their childhood. ______________________
Loretta was busy ironing clothes, Mama was having an afternoon cup of coffee and I was sacked out on the old couch. The smell of the freshly ironed clothes was pleasant, something I can still recall today. The room was warm and cozy and the stories coming from those two women were better than any book I had ever read and more interesting than the music coming from WAYN on the table radio in the next room. I was doing what many kids did back then, being seen - not heard.
I have been asked many times where my stories come from and the two paragraphs above are the best answer I have. Loretta and my mom would whisk me back in time with their stories. It was as if I were there with them as things happened as they told them, as if I had a window back to times before I was born that allowed me to see with my own eyes the events as they poured from their memories.
Loretta was our "maid". During those times, most folks in our neighborhoods in small town America had a woman come in two or three times a week to help out with housework. I don't know if it was a status symbol or really necessary. I know my mom was quite capable of doing her own ironing and housework and even when Loretta was there, she would pitch in and help her.
I don't know how much Loretta got paid but doubt it was very much. We were far from being well off though we lacked for nothing. I suspect my mom had her there for friendship as much as for helping out with the housework. Loretta was a very good friend of my entire family. We all respected her and loved her.
Loretta would disappear from time to time for months at a time. Then, she would suddenly appear. Her story was always the same.... "I was in Cleveland." We knew it was none of our business and that was a good enough answer for us.
She would usually arrive at our house on "work days" on foot. She would take the Rockingham - Hamlet Bus from her home and walk the last few blocks to our house. She would begin work immediately. When lunch time came, she would eat with us but preferred bringing her lunch with her to eating whatever we were having. When it was quitting time, my mom would drive her home, at least until I got old enough to get my own drivers license - then that became my pleasure.
Loretta always lived in poverty, in poorly built shanties in either the old North Yard section or down at the end of Bridges Street. The roads to her house were dirt. They were dusty in dry weather and a quagmire when it rained.
As a child, I was allowed (at my request) to go spend an evening at Loretta's house more than once. I met her children, she had many, and was welcomed into their neighborhood and home. I never felt out of place there. They were kids just like my brothers and sisters, only a different color. Loretta's house may not have looked like much on the outside and the yard was just plain dirt - no grass. But inside, she kept her place spotless. Her children knew their place and were loving and polite.
My mom and Loretta were about the same age and had grown up in a time that I could never know without having been privileged to listen to their stories as they told them to one another. They could take me back so quickly to their one roomed school houses, farms, outhouses and such. There were no cars owned by their families. Walking was required anywhere one went. They told of home made dolls and how much they had loved them. They told of being chased by bulls, of boyfriends, of bullies, of fights, of illnesses that had taken family members away and of near experiences with death from appendicitis and diseases which were now waning. They told of swimming in creeks and ponds, of wearing hand me down clothes. They told of walking miles to the nearest school and of having to share school books with other kids. Each thing they told stuck deep in my memory and I relished being a part of their past. I felt I had lived those days with them.
Loretta was a big woman.. not fat, just tall and muscular. She was like having a second mother. I could tell her things I would tell no one else and she gave excellent advice. She taught me how to stand up for myself, how to get a girlfriend, how to act as a gentleman. She taught me how to respect my friends and how valuable it was to have them.
She was also allowed to scold my brothers, sister and me if we got out of line. We gave her no sass. We knew better.
Those days of having a "maid" are long gone I am sure. They were probably not good days at all when looked upon by today's standards and should not return. But, I am thankful for those times. If not for them, I would have never known Loretta, never heard her stories, and never learned many of the lessons that have made me who I am. She influenced my life more than she could ever know. I am sad that I never told Loretta these things but suspect she knew them anyway.
I will always remember Loretta with great fondness. I will never forget those rainy afternoons and the smell of those freshly ironed clothes as Loretta and my mom told those great old tales of their childhood. They laid the foundation for me to pass down my own memories of my past to those who would read or hear them. Each story I write begins with the picture in my mind of Loretta and my mom way back when.
They are the reason I can say..... I remember Hamlet