Of "girls to help" and peafowls, the late 1950s

J. H. Osborne • Jan 31, 2020 at 6:30 PM

If you know anything about a Cathy (or Kathy) Hand, possible maiden name Roberts, who was from Lee County (maybe) but later lived with her husband Jim at Allandale Farm, my mother would like to hear from you. Actually, she’d like to hear from Cathy (I’m just arbitrarily sticking with the “C” for now).

In my last column I mentioned Harvey C. Brooks, who built Allandale. The mansion and farm have long held a special place in the hearts of my family. In my high school days I, for a time, volunteered to lead tours of the mansion’s interior, a gig I got at the recommendation of, I think, Margaret Murray through my involvement with theater programs of Kingsport’s Parks and Recreation Department. My brother and sister-in-law later got married in the mansion’s formal garden. 

Mom’s memories of Allandale go back much further, to the late 1950s. And she owes them to Cathy. And the birth of my sister Pamela in January 1956. And some help from my Aunt Ova.

Mom and Dad had moved to East Sullivan Street near Borden Park as soon as they were married in early 1955. Aunt Ova and her husband already lived on East Sevier, a few blocks over. Mom had Pam, and, as apparently was the norm in that time and place, needed “a girl to help.” Aunt Ova knew that Lilly and Dan Livesay, on Holyoke, had a baby boy and a “girl to help.” That girl’s time with the Livesays was about to come to an end. So, Aunt Ova mentioned her to my parents. Dad went over to talk to her and the Livesays. The girl was Cathy. Mom thinks she might have been from the Flag Pond area near Blackwater, Va. Dad had grown up in Flag Pond.

Cathy came to be Mom’s “girl” when Pam was brought home from the hospital. For the next six weeks she cooked meals and helped Mom get around and take care of the baby. Cloth diapers were washed on a ringer-type washer in the basement, which was heated by a stove. At first the washed diapers were air-dried, hung on line in the warm garage. But soon Dad bought a dryer.

Mom estimates Cathy to have been about 16 at the time. Mom herself was a newlywed country girl who’d gone from her father’s farmhouse in rural Lee County to her husband’s home (rented from his parents) in the big city of Kingsport. “I couldn’t wait every day to dress Pam up in a different outfit,” Mom said last week. Mom said she grew to feel quite close to Cathy, who seemed a bit on edge at first, but quickly relaxed and fit right in. “We grew to love her and she loved us,” Mom said.

After the six weeks was up, Mom kept in touch with Cathy, who eventually married a man named Jim Hand and started her own family. Hand, Mom said, worked at Allandale Farm and he and Cathy lived in a house on the property. Mom, Dad and Pam would go visit. A highlight for Mom and Pam: peacock feathers. Brooks had peacocks. Cathy would collect their shed feathers and give some to Mom and Pam. (A note: my Aunt Bonnie would correct me here and demand I use “peafowl,” another sign of that time and place —  “peacock” was deemed to vulgar sounding to be said by or in the presence of a lady.)

It was during these later visits that Cathy finally told Mom why she’d been nervous when she first came to work as her “girl.” Her prior employer had told her she was moving into high cotton going over to work for those Osbornes — she’d best step up her game and mind her Ps and Qs. Those Osbornes lived big, probably had high expectations, could be demanding. Cathy said she’d been nervous, nervous, nervous the first few mornings of making breakfast, scared she’d do something not up to snuff. “It didn’t take her long to realize we were just as down to earth as anyone,” Mom said. “When she finally told me she’d been so nervous, expecting ... I’m not sure what ... I got a big laugh out of it. I’m was as country as you could get.” Mom thinks maybe the big-living Osbornes were Dad’s family. And even that makes us all laugh.

“Over time we just lost track of Cathy and her husband,” Mom said. “I hate that. I wish I’d kept in touch with her over the years. She was a really good friend. We just loved her.”

By the way, my mother had a “girl to help” for at least six weeks after the birth of each of us siblings. None seem to have made the lasting impression of Cathy.