Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mary's Story, my mother

My great-grandmother, Dehila Curtis, and her baby, Johnny - approximately 1921
Banner Elk, NC Presbyterian Church

I have been inspired to write about my mother by Ruth who wrote a wonderful tribute to her mother at sync-ro-ni-zing. I always wanted this blog to be a family history for my grandchildren to read someday and my mother's story is very special. I also want to mention Willow's fascinating historical photos and stories on her blog Willow Manor. (Blog links are listed to the right.) I regret not having pictures for this blog yet. My mother was slim and pretty all her life. I will scan some pictures in soon.

I did not know my mother's story until I was about 17 and became curious at her lack of relatives and family hisory. She seemed to be completely open and outgoing, but I gradually discovered that she was actually a very private and secretive person. My father, who died at 43, never knew that she was raised in an orphanage. She didn't want anyone to feel sorry for her. The story that emerged was amazing. Mom did have a sister, my aunt Nellie, who was an amazing person herself. Thankfully she was not so secretive and my cousins and I were able to piece the story together in their later years. My cousin Nancy even found a book written by my mother's English teacher about the orphanage, school and hospital which were founded by her grandfather, Edgar Tufts, a presbyterian minister in a very remote part of North Carolina in the 1800's. The book is called A Sacred Flame by Margaret Tufts Neals but more about that later.

My mother was born in Johnson City, Tennessee in 1918. (I didn't even know her birth year for a long time since she was always secretive about her age.) Her mother was Dehlia Curtis. I think my mother's father was Dehlia's second or third husband. Mother had an older sister and a baby brother. The family was very poor. The father, Robert Zell, was a veteran of the Spanish American War and was quite a bit older than Dehlia. One day when my mother was about 5 years old, her sister was 7 or 8 and her baby brother was 3, her mother suddenly fell to the floor and her dress caught fire from the stove. We think she had a heart attack or stroke but the fire is what my mother remembers. My mother was sitting on the porch swing crying when her baby brother came up and said, "I'll give you my pennies if you stop crying."

All three children were taken to a nearby children's home in Banner Elk, NC. The girls were together in the little girls' cottage, but Johnny was separated in the little boys' cottage. He cried for so long that he was finally taken to live with some aunts, but the little girls grew up together at the Grandfather Childrens' Home near Grandfather mountain.

My mother said it was a good childhood. She remembered making maple syrup, churning butter, canning vegetables and doing other chores. People donated canned goods for the home and she said they sometimes didn't know what they were having for supper when the labels came off the cans. There were church services every morning and school. There was always a big Christmas tree and Christmas presents for everyone. She loved making snow ice cream in the winter. While getting butter from the basement one day a mouse bit her, fueling a lifelong terror of rodents.

My mother was a good student, especially reading and spelling, but she grew up being compared to her sister, Nellie, who was an even better student. Since they did have some relatives, the girls were taken once a year down a steep mountain road to Johnson City to shop for clothes. Mom said she always got car sick which I could understand when I made the same trip many years later.

Thank God for Edgar Tufts who came to the mountains as a young Presbyterian ministry student in 1895 and decided to stay. He spent the summer working to build his church out of local stone and sand. He returned the following year as the minister. It is a beautiful church even today on the campus of Lees McRae College which he also founded. He brought his beautiful bride, Bessie Hall Tufts, from a privileged life in Virginia to start his ministry in Banner Elk. Bessie somehow brought her piano and began a music ministry in the mountains, playing for services, weddings and funerals and teaching piano lessons and eventually helping Edgar start a school for girls in their home. Their ministry eventually founded Grace Hospital as well. My mother was in the first class to learn to be a medical record librarian at Lees McRae College and interned at Grace Hospital. She was fortunate to have a (Jr.) College degree and a rewarding career all of her life. My brother and I and all her grandchildren and great grandchildren have benefited from Edgar Tufts' generousity and my mother's hard work all of our lives.

As a child I found a yearbook from Lees McRae but all the comments inside were written to someone called Virginia and not my mother. I learned later that the yearbook had belonged to someone else since she couldn't afford one herself. She was also never able to afford a Phi Beta Kappa pin to which she was entitled. Someone donated a dress for her prom. It was the pink color of rhododendrons and she was delighted to find it on her bed one day. I also found a diary she kept at the time but she destroyed it when she found out I was reading it. I'm so sorry about that.

I have pictures of Dehlia and baby Johnny, my mother, Lees McRae and Banner Elk, NC which I look forward to sharing. If you read this post, thank you for your interest.


  1. thanks for hanging in there with me on this sure have been a trooper..and thanks for the kind means alot..i can't wait to share Teddy...

    sending love, my friend

  2. I wish my parents were alive to ask if they knew of the Tufts and their school. I am fascinated that your mother kept her story to herself (I'm a person who likes to talk about myself).

    The color of rhododendron. Beautiful.

    I hope you will keep sharing your family stories with us. It's good for you, and it's good for us. I'm glad mine inspired yours.

  3. Our histories are often fascinating. Thanks for sharing!