Today, September 4, 2014, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of my maternal grandmother, Cora Segrest, nee Hawthorne. She was the epitome of a grandmother; the content for the encyclopedia entry for “Grandmother”; she possessed the sine qua non of grandmotherliness.
My sister, my maternal cousins and I remember Nanny as a white-haired, physically strong, funny, stylish, and hardworking woman who lost her husband when we were all young. She watched the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson every weeknight and nearly every morning left before the sun came up to work as a nurse in Longview’s hospital. She still found time to bake chocolate-chip cookies, laying them out to cool on flattened paper bags, or cook spaghetti with a ketchup-based sauce, or prepare her singular three-layer Jell-O: an orange layer, a layer of white cottage cheese, and a green layer. Yum.
Cora Belle Hawthorne was born just days after the start of World War I, on Sept. 4, 1914 in Provencal, a tiny town in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. Her father, James Frederick Hawthorne, then 40, was a workingman, being either a sawmill laborer or a farmer at the time of her birth (the two occupations given by the 1910 and 1920 Censuses, respectively). His parents came from Georgia and Mississippi. Her mother, Sallie Annie Pharris, was then 33 and had already given birth to eight children when Cora, the youngest of six daughters, came along. Sallie would later give birth to three boys, completing the family. Her parents hailed from Virginia and Mississippi.
When her baby brother Cecil was three years old, in 1926, their mother took ill with tuberculosis. Sallie died that summer in the Texas town of Linden, over 140 miles to the northwest, where apparently the family, with the younger children, had relocated in the 1920s. So, at not quite the age of 12, Cora’s mother died, to be followed in 1930 by an older sister, Fannie, who died of T.B. in her twenty-first year. All the other siblings lived into quite old age, married, and all but one had children of their own.
In October of the next year, 1927, Fred Hawthorne remarried a Texan named Georgia Etta Josey, then 38 (to his 53). Unmarried and childless herself, it’s rumored that she was either the daughter of or the widow of a Confederate veteran whose portrait hung over her mantle. Georgia helped Fred raise the younger children from then on, and was known to us as Granny Georgie. She dipped snuff and cheated at checkers.
Although apparently living in Texas with her father and stepmother in 1930, she graduated from high school in Provencal probably in 1932, having lived with her older sister, Effie. It was in the midst of the Great Depression. Her father gave her $50, and she took off for Shreveport to enroll in beauty school there.
After Cora finished, she got a job in a beauty shop in Gladewater, Texas, about 80 miles due west of Shreveport. She boarded with the Ellises—George (Elijah) and his wife, Maude. Mr. Ellis was a Baptist minister. His nephew, one Frank Segrest (whose late mother, Avie, was Ellis’s older sister), visited the house and met Cora. Frank, 30-years-old in 1934, was an engineer for the Visco Chemical Company, a pretty good job for a self-educated young man who had been afflicted with polio as a child, and who was essentially an orphan. His father had been killed in a gun battle when Frank was an infant, and his mother died when he was but 14.
In Gladewater, Cora didn’t make much, if any, money, and almost starved to death. She became very ill and was hospitalized there. Frank helped take care of her.
Then, in November 1936, four days after Franklin Roosevelt beat Alf Landon to win his second presidential term, Cora and Frank ran off to Henderson, about 40 miles down the road, to get married by the justice of the peace.
After that, Cora and Frank Segrest moved around the state, and region, as he pursued various jobs and interests, mostly in the oil chemicals field. They lived in western Texas in the late 1930s, where my mother and her sister were born.
By 1940, the family lived on Main Street in Big Spring, Texas. If you were to make a triangle from Odessa, to Abilene, to Lubbock, Big Spring would be about right in the middle.
I’m not really sure how they fared during the war, but they always got along. Cora made dresses for her daughters. They had stints of living back east in places like Tyler, Texas. The family also had enough money to have a housekeeper. One of them, while living in the west, let my Aunt Patsy smoke a cigarette. My grandmother summarily fired the woman.
So, they raised their girls and added two more children, my uncles Jimmy and Charlie in 1948 and 1955 respectively. They lived again in western Texas, but also in Oklahoma and Shreveport. In Texarkana, my grandfather ran a gas station.
During one of the times out west, my grandfather—always an inventive and industrious man—bought an airplane hanger in a town called Terminal, near Midland-Odessa. He converted part of it into an apartment for his family, and in the other part put in a church and a store. Nanny helped him run this and other stores.
Cora Segrest went to nursing school when mom was in college, in the late 1950s but didn’t work as a nurse, I think, until later, since she still had a child at home.
Frank became ill and died in January 1970, when I was a baby and Cora was 53 years old. They lived in Lafayette, Louisiana at the time. Sometime after that, she and Charlie moved to Longview, Texas, where I came to know her in her little house at 305 Shamrock Lane.
A deep but usually dry creek ran through her backyard and on down into a stand of tall pine trees. I would play in that creek for hours, either with the neighborhood kids or with my cousins if they happened to be visiting, or both. In the backyard of the neighbor’s house there was an old metal merry-go-round. We’d hop the fence and spin ourselves dizzy on that, not worried at all about the fact that it was in the neighbor’s yard. The adults would “visit” with each other and we kids would play. She had a Lincoln Logs set in a little closet where the hot water heater lived, Reader’s Digest magazines to read (I especially loved the “Drama in Real Life” series), and at Christmas time, a metal tree illuminated by a spinning, multicolored light. Charlie continued to live with her in those days (and still lives in that house). They had a collie named Lady who greeted us warmly when we arrived for a visit. We had great times in those days.
Once, when I was a teenager, Nanny handed me a sheaf of papers and told me to go with my uncle to the store to make some copies. This was the mimeographed manuscript of a Hawthorne family document prepared in 1973 on the occasion of Grannie Georgie’s 84th birthday, which was the first family history document I ever possessed. So, Uncle Charlie and I went to the grocery store, found the copier, and I started copying. I put the paper on the glass the wrong way the first time, so I discarded those misaligned copies. Finished, we returned to Shamrock Lane.
Nanny asked me, “How’d it go?”
“Fine, I guess,” I replied, wondering at her odd question. How else could it go?
“No, I mean, did you have any problems?” she came back.
Well, I explained the misaligned paper but said that no, no problems really.
“What did you do with the bad copy?” she asked.
“Threw it away.”
“Go back up there right now and get it,” she demanded.
So, Uncle Charlie and I drove back to the grocery store, and I fished around in that trashcan to pull out the errant copies. When we arrived back at the house, Nanny held out her hand to receive them. What she did with them then, I don’t know.
She was quite protective about her family!
In her later years, until she had the first of a series of strokes, Nanny never seemed to slow down. She was always warm and loving, and remained strong to the end of her days. In her last years, I was lucky to take my wife, Paula, to Texas for a visit, and to meet her. I was enormously grateful that they got to meet, and when Nanny, lying in a bed in the nursing home, saw Paula, she reached out with both arms to embrace her.
Nanny died in March 2004, aged 89 years old. The occasion of her funeral service brought the scattered members of her family back together, including most of her grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews of whom I was unaware. Some of us cousins had never actually met.
Cora Belle Hawthorne Segrest was a great lady, mother, spouse, grandmother, daughter, sibling, and all the other possible things. Go ahead and look up the entry for “grandmother” in the encyclopedia. If you don’t see your own pictured there, you might just see mine.
— Fred Dews