Flora Belle Atkinson Barbee and her six children lived in a small, green house at 709 Applewood Street. Built on a slight hill, the house had steep steps leading from the back door, and she once ran down them to escape a drunk husband who was attempting to cut her throat. An abused woman of the 1950s, she and her children were saved by the husband/father’s decision to desert them, not any legal or social institution. To support her six children and herself, she worked hemming washcloths in Plant 1 of Cannon Mills. In the mid-1950s the owner of the small house, her father-in-law told her that she and her children had to move.
For whatever reason, this Christmas season, I have been thinking of Mrs. Barbee and her children living in the small, green house on Applewood Street before their eviction by the grandfather. I have wondered how she managed six children sharing two bedrooms, living room, kitchen, and a room built for a bathroom that never materialized. Instead, the toilet was down the hill at the back edge of the property and bathing was a number two washtub. The room was, instead, used as a bedroom and gathering space for dirty clothes. The heat was a basement furnace that spewed hot air through a grate in the tiny hallway between the bedrooms and living room. One cold night, when she had just gotten home from her second shift of hemming, the furnace was out. In her attempt to get it working, a ball of flame rushed through the grate, but she managed to control that. But it was a cold night for a tired mother and her children.
Christmas, 2018, and Mrs. Barbee has troubled my mind. Every day must have been a struggle for her: Working in a cotton mill hemming washcloths. Riding a bus to and from work. Shopping and paying for groceries for her children. Being a divorced woman in the South. Washing clothes in the open basement with a ringer washer and hanging them on a clothesline. Attending the same church as her in-laws. Each day. Each week. All a difficult time, but I think particularly Christmas.
I hear parents, but especially mothers, complain of the hectic days leading to Christmas. The buying, wrapping, and decorating demands time, thought, and treasure. That was true, I think, in the 1950s as well. But, what of Mrs. Barbee, who had severe limits. Her finances were slim-after all, how much could a single mother of six save for Christmas or even birthdays? She had no car, so the spotty bus service was all she had to travel to town for shopping. Where did her tree come from and how did she get it? Her older children, three girls, helped with the packages and tree and all that. But how did she afford Christmas gifts for her little ones, who undoubtably anticipated gifts for them under the shaggy tree. Perhaps she had one or two of the older girls go with her on the bus to town and help purchase toys and slip them unseen into the small, green house. She did so much, and she did it alone. No spouse to share any Christmas or any day, for that matter, with. And it would be years after those in the small, green house before any present would be under a Christmas tree for her.
This 2018 Christmas sees Mrs. Barbee in her mill house, at 312. It is the house she managed to move her family into after their eviction. She is the first woman to ever have had a mill house. Unless you understand the culture of a mill town during the 1950s, and Mrs. Barbee being a divorced woman, you cannot grasp the significance of her achievement in being allowed to rent a house on the mill hill. Life improved because she now could walk to work in Plant 1; the house had three bedrooms; it was closer to town and the schools; the mill company maintained the house; and it had an indoor bathroom. However, she now spends her days and nights in 312, bedridden and unaware of many things. But she turns her head as if she can see the person or persons speaking. At times she will gesture for one of her four daughters who rotate weekly in order to care for her. She has visitors and receives cards on special occasions. She is honored by all who know her and some who have heard of her.
Over the years shared with Mrs. Barbee, I never heard her utter regrets about, as she would say, “Me and my six little children.” Yes, I am certain that she wished that some things of her life had been different, such as her talented husband not being enslaved by alcohol. But there is a difference in wishing for and regretting about. Mrs. Barbee is of that breed and generation who accept circumstances and do the best that can be done in that moment. She has the courage not to regret because she knows that she never compromised but did the best allway that she could.