Stories my grandmother told me… because I asked.

I love putting the stories I’ve heard all my life into print. It helps document things I don’t want to be forgotten, though most of these stories happened before I was born. Writing these memories down also helps me decompress from Saturdays on my feet, selling my wares, chatting and laughing at the Farmer’s Market. As I write, I prepare for the upcoming week in my mind. I reconnect with my reasons for starting this business: to honor all that is good about family and community.

I was always naturally curious about “the olden days”, those lifetimes all children tend to assume were in black and white or sepia because, well, all those photos were like that… I asked my Granny a lot of questions over the years, and she answered every one patiently and with a chuckle in her voice. I could tell she enjoyed reliving those moments as she passed them along to her extremely curious and energetic granddaughter… a little apple that certainly does not fall far from her tree.

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I’ll start our Family Stories with my favorite. Though this story is not “the beginning” of my family’s Richmond roots, it certainly felt like the beginning to me the first time I heard it from my maternal Grandmother, Claryce. I think you’ll understand why…

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The Lady in the Lavender Hat 

     Claryce, my “Granny”, was born at home and grew up in an old Richmond neighborhood called Oregon Hill. It was 1923. For a variety of reasons (each their own short story, to be posted later), she left St. Andrew’s School after the eighth grade in order to get a job and help her family financially.

Each day Claryce would ride to work on the trolley. She enjoyed the views, watching the city go by, usually with the same group of people. One morning, a woman got on the trolley who caught Granny’s attention: The woman had beautiful auburn hair, pulled back in a low bun, crowned by a lavender hat.

Each morning my grandmother, still a teenager, would secretly wait for the woman with the auburn hair and lavender hat to board the trolley. Granny marveled at her beautiful skin, her kind eyes, her auburn hair, and the way it looked so lovely against the lavender.

Once in a while Granny was free from helping around the house and caring for her three siblings, one of whom had Cerebral Palsy. She would meet her friends at the ice cream shop and hang out much the way we do in coffee shops today. At this point, she was around eighteen years old. There was a boy also hanging around the ice cream shop who was particularly handsome.  He reminded Granny of Humphrey Bogart. She got up the nerve to talk to him and, having no money that day, asked if she could have a lick of his ice cream. His name was Herbert.

Herb and Claryce began dating and would ride around town on the trolleys for ten cents, holding hands. “Just people watchin'” she’d say. Eventually Herb (my grandfather) took Claryce home to meet his mother. As they opened the front door and entered the parlor, Granny could not believe her good fortune: There, smiling and holding out her hand, stood Lois Ann, the woman from the trolley, the lady with the auburn hair and lavender hat.

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Claryce and Herb (a.k.a. Granny & Bumpa)

    

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Great Granny, Lois Ann Martin Tyler

                                                           

                                                                     


…and that’s where YOU came from.

My Mom remembered the name of the restaurant the extended family would eat in every night of their Buckroe Beach vacations in the 1950s: The Central Restaurant.
Next door there was a toy store. One night after dinner as everyone meandered on the sidewalk, preparing to go to the beach amusement park area, my mom turned and looked in the toy store window. There stood a line of new Madame Alexander dolls, the Little Women set.
Without meaning to, Mom let out a little, “Oh!” upon seeing such lovely dolls. My great grandfather silently took her hand and led her inside. There she picked out who she thought was the most beautiful of all the March Sisters: Beth.
Mom sparkled her eyes at me while telling this story saying, “and that’s where YOU came from.”

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Under the Mimosa Tree

Claryce and Herb (a.k.a. Granny and Bumpa) were married and the house rapidly became full and noisy: just the way they liked it. However, they were still renting. The extended family pooled their money together with the newlyweds and bought a house using the GI Bill after Herb returned from World War II. Many veterans bought homes in a newly built neighborhood called Sandston, east of the city. The street names (still just red clay at the time the family moved in) are still an homage to the Civil War with names like Union St. and Confederate Avenue.

Granny’s family bought a little yellow cape and settled in on Pickett Avenue.

In that one small house lived Granny and Bumpa, their three children (Janet, Bert, and Donna), Granny’s parents (Lena Otto Mason and George Henry Mason), and Granny’s sister Frances, with her new husband (Arthur: who would later wear a red velvet suit, white beard, a jingle bell belt and work seasonally at Miller & Rhoads Department Store downtown – but that is another story, for another time). Lois Ann and Hunter remained in Highland Park.

The family had finally found their place to put down roots after being in Oregon Hill and Highland Park, and several other family members eventually bought homes just blocks away in the surrounding neighborhood. My Granny still lives in that Sandston house some 70 years later.

During summer vacation Granny’s father George would spring for the whole family to go to Buckroe Beach. They would rent two little cottages right next to each other.  Between the two cottages was a Mimosa tree, and the children would climb in it and hang upside down from it’s branches all day whenever they weren’t at the beach. Each night the entire family would go to the same restaurant for dinner.

After dinner, Bumpa George would hand out quarters to the children so they could play carnival games among the lights, noises, and ocean breezes of Buckroe Beach. So many people stayed together in the two tiny cottages that some camped out on the floor at night. Being together was all that really mattered.

Windows were wide open, fans were blowing, waves were crashing in the dark, and crickets were chirping just outside under the Mimosa tree.

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Outside the nightly restaurant at Buckroe Beach, Bumpa, a.k.a. George Henry Mason (right) with some of the family after dinner


“Sneeze your nose off again, Bumpa!”

After moving around the corner from Cary St. to Randolph St. in Oregon Hill, the family had moved once more, this time to Highland Park,  a neighborhood a short distance away to the north.

As I described in The Lady in the Lavender Hat, my Granny Claryce first laid eyes on her future mother-in-law, an auburn-haired beauty named Lois, while riding the trolley to work. This was 1940, and Granny had left school at St. Andrew’s in Oregon Hill after eighth grade to help earn money for her family. Lois was on the trolley each morning for the same reason: Her husband had gone blind, and so she, too, went to work outside of the home to make ends meet.

Lois was married to a man named Hunter William Tyler. Although he could no longer work outside of the home, he kept busy and insisted on being a productive member of the household. Though blind, he could find his way upstairs and downstairs, throughout the house, and even did the laundry. Once rinsed and wrung out (all by hand), he hung it out on the clothesline in the back yard. This is where he was the first afternoon Granny came to meet the family (she was dating their son -my grandfather- Herbert).

In the early 1940s, medical science was not able to help Hunter’s condition. However, 25 years later, that all changed. In the 1960s he underwent surgery that allowed him to see once more. He spent a good deal of time away in the hospital, and the family picked him up at the train station in Richmond. Though he had seen earlier in life, he had gone blind before meeting my Granny and had never seen his daughter-in-law’s face. When she was there to help take him home from the train, he had to adjust his imaginings of what she (and many of those in his life) looked like. However, he had not seen women’s fashion since the 1930s, and the sight of women in mini skirts caused a vast array of reactions on a regular basis. My Granny still laughs about it when I ask her to tell me the stories once more.

Part of “Bumpa Tyler’s” (Hunter’s) medical treatment involved radiation to his face. This caused the cartilage on his nose to be burned away. All that remained were two holes flush with his face with skin grafts. When he went out in public he wore a brass nose, adhered to his face with wax. The family was used to him that way, particularly the children, and they were not afraid of him.

One of my favorite family traits is our twisted sense of humor. Bumpa Tyler would gather the children around him and tell them he felt a sneeze coming on. In splendid anticipation, the children would begin to giggle as Bumpa built up with an “Ahhh…Ahhhh… AAAAHHHHH… CHOOOO!”

-and off he’d sneeze his brass nose, right into his hand as the children squealed with laughter.

“Sneeze your nose off again, Bumpa!”


Laughter & Freedom

Laughter and Freedom

Clarence, Lena, Lorene, Papa, Tres and George Mason (Lena's husband)

Backyard at 811 W. Cary St., Oregon Hill

Granny’s family lived at 811 W. Cary Street. In those days Oregon Hill continued into that area, before the Downtown Expressway sliced through it’s edge, and before Virginia Commonwealth University put up a parking deck at Cary and Laurel.  The house was just a few doors down from Paragon Pharmacy, where Granny and her friends would roller skate out front due to it having the only concrete. The rest of the sidewalks in the neighborhood were red brick. The family’s house had two sets of steps on the front: one set went up to the porch and front door, the other set went down to the family grocery store where Granny would steal penny candy throughout the day.

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Sisters Frances and Claryce (“Ikey”), eldest two of the four siblings

The house was attached on the right side to another home and the two families were friendly. Granny says she rarely got from one place to another in the usual fashion, much to her mother’s (Lena’s) chagrin: To visit her neighbors, Granny would simply climb over the railing dividing their porches.

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Little Brother, Bruce

Eventually the family moved around the corner to Randolph Street. On the left side of the home there was a low building with a metal roof. Instead of going downstairs and out the front door, Granny would jump from her second story bedroom window onto the metal roof next door, then jump once more to the ground to run off and go play. She still describes this act with a far away look in her eyes and laughter in her voice.

Laughter and Freedom.

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811 W. Cary Street (with Harvey Hardware in the background) Photo courtesy of Charles Allen Sugg

The two middle homes pictured here – the first of which is 811 W. Cary St. – were torn down just a short time before I arrived to take a picture for my Granny. I was devastated. She had given me the address in her distinctive “Old Richmond” accent: “Eight Eleh’m West Curry Street” (811 W. Cary Street). Fortunately, Charles Allen Sugg had photographed it in 2008 and came to my rescue. A copy of this photo now sits framed in my Granny’s home. She brought it to her brother Bruce’s hospital bedside to decorate his room before he passed away in January of this year.

Granny is the last remaining of her siblings.


Uncle Butch

Donald Mason

Great Granny Lena had four children, born at home in a Richmond neighborhood called Oregon Hill.  The eldest was Frances, next came Claryce (nicknamed “Ikey” – a story for another time), then Bruce. The fourth and youngest of Lena’s children, Donald Layne (nicknamed “Butch”), had Cerebral Palsy. Sometimes Lena would hold Butch, sometimes big brother Bruce would carry him here and there outside. It all became natural as anything else. Why shouldn’t it have?

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Aunt Tres, Great Granny Lena, and “Butch”, age 9

Butch was included in the neighborhood children’s playtime, too. His sister Claryce (my Granny) would get her red wagon with the railings and put her bed pillow against the back. Once Butch was in, off they’d go down the bumpy brick sidewalks, around the neighborhood to play. If the children played kickball in the grassy lot by the church, Butch was there, too. If everyone decided to play jacks on the steps, Butch was there, too. If Claryce decided to duck into the family grocery store located in their basement to steal some penny candy, Butch would wait with the other children at the top of the steps for her return.

Donald Mason and Ikie Mason - August 1935

Bob Otto, Bruce Mason, Donald Mason and Ikey Mason - August 1935

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Sometimes the children strapped roller skates to their shoes and headed down to the Paragon Pharmacy: the one corner in Oregon Hill that had smooth cement out front. Granny says that there would be so many children roller-skating that they’d block the door to good paying customers, but the owner never fussed at them. In all the swirling laughter and commotion, Butch was there. He had a sweet disposition and everyone adored him. When big brother Bruce came home from 26 months in Germany after World War II, Lena took a photo of him in his uniform, holding Butch, though Butch was now a teenager. Both looked so happy.

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Donald Layne “Butch” Mason

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Butch passed away at the age of nineteen.

Claryce grew up and had three children of her own. She named her first born “Janet Layne” (my mother) and her youngest “Donna Ellen”, both after her little brother, Donald Layne… also known as “Butch”.

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Frances (top), Claryce and Butch, Bruce (bottom)


Day Trips to Buckroe Beach on the Train

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Luther Bible Study Group

                                                                                                                 

Growing up we called church, “First English”. The full name was “First English Evangelical Lutheran Church”and it sits on the corner of Monument and Stuart Avenues in the heart of Richmond. When my mother was little, the Sunday School classes would take a day trip to Buckroe Beach by train. Everyone would wear their bathing suits under their clothes, pack picnic lunches and meet at the station.

As the train pulled away, my mom swears the children would hang their heads out of the windows, jumping and squealing on the velvet seats with delight. I’m sure the grownups were excited to escape the heat and humidity of a city summer to feel the breeze off the Atlantic Ocean for a day.

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Great Granny Lena (left) at Buckroe with Mrs. Verelle, who is smoking a cigarette while swimming

                                                                                                        

The train rides back were more subdued.  With sand in their bathing suit bottoms and sunburned noses, the children slept against each other, against an Auntie’s shoulder, or with mouths open and cheeks pressed against glass windows. All together. One big extended church family.

Bruce Mason, William Lawrence Perkins, Jr. and Bob Otto - July 1936

In front of the Buckroe Hotel, 1936

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