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Sad letter stirs childhood memories

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POSTED: March 26, 2013 6:30 p.m.

Last week, my article was about ’coon and ’possum hunting according to Luther Henry Quarterman. He married Mary Elizabeth Walker from McIntosh County, and this week, my focus is on her.
Mary was born in 1879 to Lydia Caroline Quarterman and Reuben King Walker. There were five boys and six girls in her family. Her family had a summer home at “The Bluff.” When Mary was a few years old, her father bought the place called Ashantilly as he worked in Darien. Mary wrote a small book, “The Home at the Bluff,” that tells of her childhood from the time she could remember until she married Luther Quarterman. She lived with her husband the last 17 years of her life in Flemington. Mary died in 1959, and her husband died in 1968. Both are buried in the historic St. Andrews Cemetery, which is near Ashantilly.
I want to share an incident that happened during Mary’s childhood that she wrote about.
After the Civil War, Mary’s grandmother was widowed, her house burned from over her and six children between the ages of 7 and 16. No resources were left for the maintenance of the home after the Yankees had done all their damage. The two elder sons and a daughter had married and also were having very difficult times. They were having a hard time trying to make a new start under new conditions in a devastated area.
However, each of them did whatever they could to help relieve some of their mother’s distress.
Mary’s mother, Lydia, married just after the war and took her 9-year-old sister, Nana, to live with her and her husband, Reuben King Walker. She never regretted it as Nana was a daughter to her and a big sister to the babies who appeared rapidly. Mary was the ninth child in the family, and Nana was a grown woman by this time. Nana was blithe, lighthearted and gay, yet steady and dependable. One could feel that she would stand like the Rock of Gibraltar in any emergency.
Mary’s father, who was in the railroad and lumber business, had to go to New York on business once or twice a year. He also had a few relatives there and wanted them to meet his wife. He considered her to be the most beautiful and charming woman in all the world, and he wanted to show her off. Mary’s mother finally gave in and went, knowing she was leaving her children in the hands of a good babysitter, Nana.
She was having a wonderful time in the big city, sightseeing, shopping and being entertained by all these Yankee cousins. They delighted in hearing her Southern drawl and all her delight and wonder at all they did for her. They thought Father had done well in marrying her. All this was good, but in her mind, every moment was with her children back near Darien.
Father went to the office with Mr. Roberts every day. On the days the mail came in from the South, he carried the letter that Nana had written in minute detail about everything that happened while they had been gone. He quickly glanced over it as soon as he got his hands on it. Mother knew the day the South mail arrived, and she waited at the window watching for him to arrive home. He always came up the walkway smiling and waving the letter at her. He had glanced briefly at it, but now they sat down and reread it slowly in order to comprehend all of it.
One morning when it was letter day, Mother watched out the window until she saw him coming. His head was bent low, and his shoulders were sagging. His footsteps were very slow. She saw the letter in his hand, but he did not wave it at all. Mother knew something bad must be wrong. The nearer he came, the more apprehensive she became. He seemed almost distraught with some emotion. She stood in stunned immobility facing the door when he entered and, without a word, he sank with a deep groan into a chair.
“What is it, Reuben?” she said. “Oh, Reuben, Reuben! You have bad news. I can see. What IS it? I must know!”
Reuben could not answer. He sat with his head between his hands staring at the floor. Faltering, she tried again.
“Has the house burned? Are the children OK?”
Reuben reached out and drew her down on his knee, holding her close so she could not see his face.
“Darling,” he said with great effort, “it is indeed bad news. Terrible news. I don’t know how I can tell you. We will have to be brave and try to help each other.”
And then she knew it was no business disaster or the loss of the home, but a thing that concerned both of them at the very roots of their being. What could that be but one or all of the children?
“Tell me,” she said faintly.
Holding her in a convulsive grasp, he bent his face down to her soft brown hair and, on a dry sob, forced out the words.
“It’s Reade. It’s our son. He has fallen down the bluff and broken his neck.”
They clung to each other in silent agony for long minutes, and then Mother aroused herself and rose unsteadily to her feet.
“We must go home at once,” she said. “When can we get a train? When did it happen? When will he be — ”
But on this question her courage and voice failed. Sinking into a chair, she moaned, “Read me the letter.”
Unfolding the letter, Father began reading the letter again to Mother the words that had brought tragedy so close.
“Dearest Brother and Sister: How can I tell you of the dreadful thing that has happened? After having left me in such a position of trust, I know that you will feel that I have been unpardonably careless and negligent. But believe me, I am heartbroken over what has happened.
“This morning, I sent Reade to the stable to feed Old Blind as usual, and as he stayed so long, I went to see what was keeping him. I had carelessly failed to latch the stable door last night, and Old Blind had gotten out and wandered over the place. Reade tried to track him and when I finally found him, he had fallen over the bluff and broken his neck.”
This was as far as Father had read before putting the letter back in the envelope and hurrying home. Now he read on down the page and learned the news was not quite as bad as he originally thought.
“I can never forgive myself. I know he was a valuable horse, though blind, and that you will feel his loss greatly.”
They realized the horse, not Reade, was gone. Incredulous round eyes met incredulous round eyes. Father sprang to his feet, but my little mother slipped like water from her chair and lay on the floor in a dead faint.
Mary said the earliest recollection of her life was when she was 3 years old in 1881, sitting one Sunday morning on the veranda, puzzling her young brain over the grief and dismay on the faces of the others in the group, her brother and sisters and the young Aunt Nana they all loved so much.
“Old Blind. Poor Old Blind,” they kept saying over and over. It was not until she was much older that she understood the sad story of Old Blind’s tragic demise.

 

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