I grew up in a semi-rural nook in the middle of Queens, New York. The city had surrounded us leaving a tiny enclave walking distance from the subway.
The house was more than a hundred years old. It had been changed by each family who had lived there, so much that I doubt the original builder would have recognized it. From its birth as a 4-room bungalow in the 1800s, by 1951 it had become a warren of hallways, staircases and odd rooms that could be hard to find.
It sat at the top of a hill amidst the last remaining fully-grown white oaks in New York, the rest having fallen to make masts for tall ships. The shadows of the oaks were always over the house. Beautiful, huge and a bit ominous. Some of the branches were bigger than ordinary trees. I remember watching the oaks during storms, how the enormous trees swayed. I wondered if one would crash through the roof and crush me.
I was four when we moved into the house, five by summer. When the weather grew warm, I was told to go out and play. Like an unsocialized puppy, I had no experience with other children, except my baby sister and older brother and that didn’t count. Now, I discovered other little girls. What a shock! I had no idea what to do. It was like greeting aliens … except that I was the alien.
First contact took place on the sidewalk. We stood, three little girls, staring at each other. First on one foot, then the other, until I broke the silence with a brilliant witticism. “I live up there,” I said. I pointed to my house. “We just moved here. Who are you?” I was sure they had a private club into which I would not be invited. They were pretty — I was lumpy and awkward.
“I’m Liz,” said a pretty girl with green eyes. She looked like a china doll, with long straight hair. I wanted that hair. I hated mine, which was wild, curly and full of knots. She gestured. “I live there,” she pointed. The house was a red Dutch colonial. It had dark shutters and a sharply pitched roof.
A dark-haired, freckle-faced girl with braids was watching solemnly. “I’m Karen,” she said. “That’s my house,” she said, pointing at a tidy brick colonial with bright red geraniums in ornate cement pots on both sides of a long brick staircase. I’d never seen geraniums or masonry flower pots.
“Hello,” I said again, wondering what else I could say to keep them around for a while. I’d never had friends, but something told me I wanted some. We stood in the sunlight for a while, warily eyeing each other. I, a stranger. I shuffled from foot to foot.
Finally, I fired off my best shot. “I’ve got a big brother,” I announced. They were unimpressed. I was at a loss for additional repartee. More silence ensued.
“We’re going to Liz’s house for lemonade,” Karen said, finally. Liz nodded. They turned and went away. I wondered if we would meet again. I hadn’t the experience to know our future as friends was inevitable.
Summer lasted much longer back then than it does nowadays. By the time spring had metamorphosed into summer, I had become a probationary member of The Kids Who Lived On The Block. I did not know what went on in anyone else’s house. I imagined lights were bright and cheerful in other houses. No dark shadows. No sadness or pain except in my scary world where the scream of a child in pain was background noise, the sound of life going on as usual. Behind it, you could hear my mother pleading: “Please, the neighbors will hear!” As if that was the issue.
Across the street, Karen’s mother was drinking herself into a stupor every night. The only thing that kept Karen from a nightly beating was her father. He was a kindly older man who seemed to be from another world. As it turned out, he would soon go to another world. Before summer was ended, Karen’s father died of a heart attack and after that, she fought her battles alone.
In the old clapboard house where I thought Liz led a perfect life, battle raged. Liz’s father never earned enough money and their house was crumbling. It legally belonged to Liz’s grandmother. Nana was senile, incontinent and mean, but she owned the place. In lucid moments, she always reminded Liz’s dad the family lived there on her sufferance. Where I imagined a life full of peace and good will, there was neither.
A lovely neighborhood. Fine old homes shaded by tall oaks. Green lawns rolling down to quiet streets where we could play day or night. I’m sure the few travelers who strayed onto our street, envied us.
“How lucky these folks are,” they must have thought, seeing our grand old houses. “These people must be so happy.”
I have a picture in my album. It’s black and white, a bit faded. It shows us sitting in Liz’s back yard. I’m the tiny one in the middle. A little sad. Not quite smiling.
We envied each other. It would be years before we learned each other’s secrets and by then, we’d be adults. Too late to give each other the comfort we’d needed while we grew up, lonely in our big old houses all those years ago.
My father hated change. My mother loved to redecorate. What could possibly go wrong?
There were lots of fights about decorating in my house growing up. Constantly. My mother won, but it could get surprisingly unpleasant before then – not to mention very loud. My father would shout that all decorating was too expensive and totally unnecessary, no matter how long it had been since the room had been fixed up. He was morally opposed to changing anything. Ever. Not a faded chair, a broken lamp, peeling wallpaper.
My mother tried to mollify him in many ways. She tried to involve my father in the decision-making process. She tried to give him control over the decorating choices so as to make the change less jarring for him. Nothing worked.
Eventually my mother instituted the blitzkrieg form of decorating, which I call passive-aggressive decorating. Here’s how it worked.
We spent every summer in our house in Connecticut so the New York apartment was vacant for three months., which also meant that the Connecticut house was vacant for nine months.
My mother used her time well. She carefully made all her plans for redecorating a room in New York without telling my father. She chose the furniture, the wall color or paper, fabric for the upholstered pieces. She picked out every lamp, piece of art and chatchkah. Then, when my father was safely in Connecticut for the summer, she’d have the workmen swoop in. They would completely redo the room, top to bottom. One year, the walls in the study went from beige grasscloth to a bold fabric with a deep red background and large, bright-colored flowers.
My father would leave one room in June and come back to a completely different room in September. He would scream and yell about how he hated change. He would excoriate my mother about her ridiculous obsession with redecorating. He would get all of this out of his system in one big explosion – and then it was over. After that, he would become gradually used to the ‘new’ room. Then, ten or so years later, when it got changed again, he would rant and rave about the loss of the old ‘new’ room.
The process was reversed when it came to the house in Connecticut. When Dad said goodbye to the New England house in September, my mother had until June to do a complete make-over on one of the rooms in the house. The same scene would occur there when Dad discovered the bi-annual treachery.
After which, all would be calm. Until the next time.
The New York apartment had 11 rooms and the Connecticut house had 10. So this went on every year, twice a year, for thirty years! It’s a pretty dramatic way to get a new sofa or bedroom set. But Mom was persistent. She did what she had to do. Both homes were beautiful, warm, and inviting.
Even Dad thought so. After he stopped yelling.
SBI: A THINNING CROWD
Last year, I was asked to write an article about Cordell Hull for the Tennessee Baptist History Journal. During the process, I did quite a bit of research. However, the best part of the assignment was the day I spent at his birthplace. My parents joined me on the drive through the back roads of Tennessee, and we spent the day looking at the scenery and talking about all kinds of things.
The article was recently published, but I could find no online resource. Instead of sharing a link, I decided to share the article. Oh, if you have never heard of Cordell Hull, then let me introduce you to the man.
In 2013, the State of Tennessee proposed the demolition of the Cordell Hull Building, which has housed government employees since the 1950s. Uproar ensued as preservationists and citizens expressed outrage toward the plan, and, after furious debate, state officials determined that renovation of the Cordell Hull Building was the best option.
Despite the intensity of the argument, few people mentioned the person for whom the building is named. Perhaps that was because Middle Tennessee is dotted with places named in his honor: Cordell Hull Dam, Cordell Hull Lake, Cordell Hull State Park. Perhaps it was because people who argued against the demolition of the building did not realize the important role he played in the history of the United States and the history of the world. As Harold B. Hinton wrote, “There are scores of Tennesseans who have helped mightily in the building of the United States, and Cordell Hull must be numbered among them.”
On October 2, 1871, Cordell Hull was born in a log cabin on a twelve-acre farm rented by his sharecropper father, Billy. In his memoirs, Hull described Olympus, the nearest community, as “the only store in the entire section. This was also the post office.” This was also the rural setting from which he learned the value of hard work and from which his love for learning began.
Hull’s childhood was filled with days working with his siblings in his father’s fields. They cultivated oats, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, corn and made molasses to give all of that a sweeter flavor. When his father bought a larger farm and built a store, Hull continued to assist the family economically. At age eleven, he clerked at the store, and, as Hull wrote, “Sometimes a customer would come in and ask for the man in charge. I would reply proudly, ‘I am the man in charge.’” His father agreed, as he once stated, “Cord was always just like a grown man, from the time he could walk.”
Hull also helped his mother, Elizabeth, with spinning, weaving and milking the cows. However, it was from his mother that he gained his love for learning. Hull wrote:
With all her work, however, she taught us our A B C’s and the first portion of Noah Webster’s old blue-back speller, which was current for generations in all public schools. She required us children to read the Bible as much as possible, and she herself read it constantly.
Obviously, religion played an important role in the daily life of the Hull family, and Cordell Hull looked fondly upon this foundation of his faith. In his memoirs, he recounted:
The people of our section were mostly Primitive Baptists and Methodists…We had to go between one and two miles to the Primitive Baptist church on Wolf River, though sometimes services were held in private homes. The preacher was generally a farmer who tried to make a living on a farm and also undertook to preach. He was known locally as “the preacher.” Members of the church gave a little toward paying the preacher but not much.
Sometimes they had a preacher come from a distance and then they held splendid meetings. People went to the church from far and near. They walked or rode on horseback or in wagons and carts. There were no buggies in the ridge country at that time. Young men joined up with girl friends and went together to church. The boys wore stiff-standing paper collars, which on hot days were pretty well wilted down by the time they got to church walking or riding. I shall never forget the solemnity and fervor with which those people sand the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.”
He also remembered the important role of faith in local society when he wrote:
If a person was “skeptical,” he was promptly discovered and branded as an infidel, which rendered him somewhat unpopular and at that time deprived him of the right to testify under oath. Such persons were few and far between. The social life in the ridge country revolved largely around the church.
Hull’s work ethic; thirst for knowledge; and strong faith served him well as his world expanded through higher education, but, at a time when rural families often chose one son to pursue a professional career, he first had to convince his father with what Hinton called “the most important speech in his life.” Local parents established a debating society because, as Hull wrote, “they were deadly earnest that their children should get the utmost from their schooling.” In 1885, Hull took his turn at the podium and argued that George Washington was more important to American history than Christopher Columbus. In front of a crowded room, he won the contest, and his father decided that his son “should go away to the best school he could afford,” which was the Montvale Institute in Celina, Tennessee.
From Montvale, Cordell Hull matriculated to a normal school in Bowling Green, Kentucky and, after a few semesters, transferred to the National Normal University in Lebanon, Ohio. Normal schools specialized in training students to become teachers. Despite this training, Hull wanted to study law, and his father rented an office in Celina where his son could begin reading the law.Lawyers had been learning in this fashion for decades, however, in last decades of the 19th Century, the American Bar Association asserted that more rigorous training was needed.
In 1891, Hull enrolled in the law school at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee, an institution with the reputation of developing some of the nation’s best legal minds. As Hinton wrote in his biography of Cordell Hull, “Ever since the Civil War many of the greatest figures in Tennessee’s legal and political life have had their principal training at Cumberland.” Hull recalled, “When I went to Congress sixteen years later I found in Washington four or five Senators, one Justice of the Supreme Court and twelve to fifteen Congressmen who were graduates of Cumberland University.”
In addition to his academic growth, Hull gained experience outside the classroom that prepared him for the future. At age fourteen, he attended his first court session and first became interested in law. At age seventeen, he read his first newspaper, the Nashville American and listened to the ideas of men who gathered at the general store. From them he learned that “a person can’t ever amount to something unless he stands for something.”
When Hull traveled to Bowling Green, he rode a train for the first time, and, when he attended school in Lebanon, Ohio, he first experienced life outside of the South. However, his political career began back home when he was asked to speak at a rally. The organizers ran out of speakers but remembered his previous debate performance. At age sixteen, Hull spoke in support of Grover Cleveland for president of the United States. Cleveland lost, but, a few years later, Hull was elected Chairman of the Clay County Democratic Committee.
In 1892, Hull ran for the State Legislature. While not yet old enough to hold office, his birthday would come before the general election. Until that time, he had to face a formidable opponent for the Democratic nomination. Realizing that he could not win in a party convention, Hull maneuvered his opponent into a primary election. He bought and horse; stumped throughout four counties; and carried each one. He also won the general election and served in the State House until 1897.
SEE ORIGINAL ARTICLE INCLUDING REFERENCES: Cordell Hull, Peacemaker – Direct comments to the original author, please!