Terri Kirby Erickson – Samuel and Nannie White, a “Southern” Love Story

I love to write about my great-grandparents, Samuel J. and Nannie Gardner White, who we always called “Papa” and “Granny.”  Papa was a carpenter, a coffin maker, and an Elder at Old Hollow (or as my family refers to it, “Old Holler”) Primitive Baptist Church in Toast, North Carolina—and he never learned to read.  Granny read the bible to him so he could preach from “the Word,” took care of their two daughters, cooked, cleaned, canned vegetables, milked the cow, churned butter, and worked in the “fields.”  She was also in charge of a henhouse full of chickens.

When the two of them met, Granny was still relatively young (though ten years older than her future husband), but had already resigned herself to life as an “old maid.”  She was chatting with friends outside the church one Sunday morning, when Papa rode by on a fine looking stallion.  It was a toss-up as to whether the horse or Samuel J. White was better looking since Granny was a long-time rider and horse lover, herself.  Papa, however, with his coal-black hair and blue eyes, won the contest.  He could also (literally) charm squirrels and birds right out of the trees, and apparently, his charm worked on Granny, too, even though she was much more “serious” in temperament.  They were married soon after they met.

Granny suffered a number of miscarriages and stillbirths before and between the births of their two daughters.  The worst tragedy of their lives, however, was the death of their little boy, Clyde Willis.  Granny left him in the care of a neighbor for a short while, who gave him a dose of castor oil.  For whatever reason, this medicine was lethal to their 3-month old baby.

Granny was so distraught over the baby’s death that Papa packed up the whole family and moved to Winston-Salem.  When their youngest daughter, Ila (my grandmother), married, she and my grandfather stayed with Granny and Papa.  Eventually, they all moved into a bigger house together, where they lived prior to the birth of my mother and her brother, and for many years afterward.

As Papa grew older, my grandparents decided it was unsafe for him to drive, which was okay with Papa since he preferred to walk, anyway.  He loved to take long walks by the railroad tracks, and made frequent trips to the general store.  My mother told me how he’d come “traipsing” home every few weeks during the summer, carrying a watermelon on his shoulder.  Then he’d “stow” it under the bushes in the backyard to keep it cool until it was ready to “cut.”

Early one Sunday, however, Granny and Papa snuck out to the garage and took off with the family car.  They wanted to attend the service at “Old Holler” Church by themselves without anybody “kicking up a fuss” about it.  So away they went, with no one the wiser—that is, until they ran the car into a ditch on the way home.  That was definitely Papa’s last time behind the wheel.

After Granny broke her hip and Papa started having a series of strokes, it became increasingly difficult for my grandmother to care for them.  She could no longer lift Granny out of the bed, or keep up with Papa’s penchant for wandering “down the road” when he “took a mind to.”  For their safety and her own health, she had no choice but to place her parents in a nursing home.

Men and women were housed in separate wings in Knollwood Hall, but Papa sat in a chair beside Granny’s bed all day, every day, until she died at the age of ninety-six.  Both Granny and Papa are buried in their beloved church’s cemetery in Toast, alongside Clyde Willis and two stillborn children.  Each of them rests in coffins my papa made with his own hands.

It’s such a privilege for me to have the opportunity to share bits and pieces of Granny and Papa’s remarkable lives through poetry and prose, and to be a descendent of such resilient people.  I often imagine Granny sitting on her front porch with a butter churn, or Papa preaching his heart out from a bible he couldn’t read.  I remain grateful for these and other memories that have been handed down through generations of my very “Southern” family—and will continue to do my best to honor their stories when telling stories of my own.

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