Once upon a time on a hot, summer day (in fact, it was August 31, 1929, on a Saturday), this little baby girl was born. Yes, I was actually a little baby back then--can you believe that! I was named Mertice Jewell Chastain. What a name. My mother must have ran out of names because the doctor who delivered me gave me this name. His name was Dr. William F. Sharp. My parents were Caleb James Chastain (1897-1934) and Laura Rosetta Stewart (1895-1958). 1 was born in Monroe County, near Vonore and not far from the Mt. Zion Baptist Church. I was the 6th of seven children born to the most wonderful couple who were my parents.
The first three children were my brothers, Claude, Blake and Joe. Then my parents had their first girl, who they named Dora Marie. She too was born on August 31, but four years before I was. But seven weeks later in October 1925, tragedy struck. Little Dora Marie was taken sick one day and passed away the next. She was stricken with meningitis, which in those days they didn't know what to do for it. My parents were very sad, but in 1927 they were blessed with another baby girl who they named Mary Sue. Then the next child was me, which I mentioned in the beginning. I think I may have been reincarnated from my older sister, Dora Marie, since I came along on what would have been her fourth birthday. Is that cool or what? Anyway, they said I was a beautiful baby with blue eyes, blonde hair and fair complexion. Everyone said I looked like my mama, which was a compliment to her.
And guess what, would you believe---yet another baby girl was born (1932). My parents named her Reba Nell in honor of Reba Nell Hunt. She was the runt of the family. And you wouldn't believe the belly aches this kid had! Every morning when she was getting ready for school, she got a belly ache. One morning she was in such pain, she absolutely refused to go. She crawled under the floor of the house just like a little puppy. Our mother finally got her to come out and I took her and started off to school. Before we got to school, Reba Nell took a turn for the worse with her belly ache. She got so bad that she couldn't even walk. So I carried her on my back all the way home. Our mother was furious because she knew Reba Nell was faking. So she got a switch and give Reba Nell a good whipping and almost gave me one too for bringing her back home. Our mother then made us both go back to school. I was so tired and mad at my sister, I gave her an occasional lick with the switch all the way back to school.
But let's go back to the times before that when I was only 4 1/2 years old. One cold and windy day in March, I played outside with my sister, Sue, and my brothers, Joe and Blake. But I paid very dearly for what fun I had. That night before my parents went to bed, I started burning up with fever. I became delirious and saw what I thought was the booger-man peeping out from behind the door at me. I was so scared. When the doctors came, they said I was real sick with double pneumonia. The doctor (who was the same one that delivered me) told my father to go somewhere and get some whiskey or I wouldn't make it till morning. So he did. Regardless, I got so sick they had to do surgery to save me. There were three doctors who performed the surgery which took place on my mother's dining room table at home. The doctors were Dr. Sharp, Dr. McCollum and Dr. Kimbrough. They gave me some money not to cry because back then they didn't put you to sleep --- just numbed it with needles. I didn't cry a tear and the doctors gave me about fifty cents, which was a lot of money back then. It took me a good little while to get well. My mother would carry me around out in the garden so I could get some sunshine. Doctors orders.
Just about the time I was getting well, my father was diagnosed with cancer. It was such a sad time for the whole family. Doctors did surgery on him twice, but the cancer came back. The doctors said he would live about six months. He was so young to die and to have to leave his sweet wife whom he adored, and she him. But during his illness, he enjoyed his family. He played in the yard with us girls, Sue, Nell and I. Sue being the oldest girl, she naturally had to do more chores than I. One day my father asked me to go get him some fresh water from the spring so as to give sister Sue a break from carrying all the water. My dad told me my water was much colder than my sister's and he would love to have some of it. Well, this was just what I wanted to hear, and I go running to the spring. But things didn't work out quite as I expected because I was so excited that my dad preferred my water over my sister's --- I got in a big hurry and when I went to dip the half gallon bucket into the spring, I fell in head over heels and got soaking wet! I went back to the house crying without any water. But my dad said everything was alright and picked me up and loved me. And sister Sue, poor thing, had to carry the water after all.
During the time of my dad's sickness, there were people who come and stayed day and night. Relatives, friends and neighbors brought food, etc. People cared for each other in those days. We were never left alone. I remember how people would sit in the yard all night and keep vigil. Then the day came in spite of everything anyone could do. While my brother, Joe, stood outside the window where our father lay in bed, the death angels came and carried him to Heaven to be with Jesus and little Dora Marie. Our whole family was very sad because we loved and missed him. Our mother loved and missed him so much that she never dated another man. Although she was only 37 years old, she remained single until she went to be with our father in 1958 at the age of 64.
Between 1934 and 1944, there were some awful hard times for my mother and all us children. We never had any electricity, no refrigerator, etc. We did have a nice cold spring though--the best water you could ever drink. We had a little spring-house built over the branch below the spring where we kept milk and butter. We also had a cow and mother would make butter in a churn. I got to milk the cow when I got old enough. We also had to wash clothes on a wash-board and iron with a stove iron. We cut wood to make a fire to cook and iron with. Sister Sue and I would come home from school every day and go to the "Pond Holler" to get old, dead limbs to use in the fire when mother cooked supper and breakfast. And every day, we would carry about six gallons of water from the spring to cook with and take our baths in. We would heat the water on a wood stove and then put it in a wash tub. Back then, you made the most of your water, so we girls all took baths in one tub of water, or took a sponge bath. And everything had to be ironed. If you wore it, you ironed it. We didn't have a sink, bathtub or toilet, but we were just glad we had enough to eat.
My mother always made a big garden. She would work all the time taking care of it. And when it got ready to eat, we really enjoyed those green onions, lettuce, etc. Mother grew just about every kind of vegetable you can think of and she canned up enough to do all winter. We also had apple trees and mother would dry apples in order to make stack cakes for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mother also made these cookie-type-things she called "tea-cakes". They were sort of like a biscuit, but thinner and oh so good. She always made a batch for the holidays and put them in a pillow case to keep them fresh. She then put them in what they called a meal chest. It was divided in the middle, one side was for meal and the other side for flour. We also had a pie safe where mother kept her pies.
In the summer time, we would pick black berries. Mother would make jelly preserves and jam. It was so good. She canned about one hundred half gallons, and then when it was cold and snowy, she'd make black berry cobblers. I hated picking berries because I was so afraid of snakes. I would spend all my time looking for snakes instead of berries.
I remember how my brothers, Claude, Blake and Joe helped to provide for the family after our dad passed away. They cut wood for people in the community to get money for food, and even kerosene for the lamp. These boys were also good at hunting. We had plenty of rabbits and squirrels, and just about every day they killed one or the other for supper. That's about all the meat we had. Once in awhile, we had some fat back or sow belly. Sometimes our neighbor would kill a hog and give us a good mess of meat like back bones and ribs. And they always gave us the hog's head. It was pretty good. People was glad to get anything back then. They appreciated what they got and what they had.
I remember one incident really well. One summer when I was 7 or 8 years old, we had a hound dog called "Ole June". It left for two weeks and came back with rabies. Sister Sue and I went to the spring early one morning and when we returned home, Ole June was in the yard. My brother, Joe, was standing on the edge of the front porch and yelled 'Get in the house, this dog is mad!" By the time my sister and I got in the house, Ole June attacked our only pig which was half grown. Ole June bit the pig on the hind leg and my brother then shot the dog with a 22 rifle. Ole June was dead. The pig never went mad and we ate it later on during the-fall or winter months.
Another dog the family had was "Ole Queen." It was a blue-tick hound. They had it when they lived down in a hollow near Howard's Chapel Church on Dr. Sharp's place. They moved there in the fall of 1940 before Caleb Jefferson Chastain was born in January of 1941. Claude & Grace lived with them. Sam & Virgie Smallen were their neighbors. Ole Queen started having fits and Mert was scared of the dog. Mert's mother had the boys put the dog in the tater house away from the main house. Ole Queen dug a hole under the door, the floor being just dirt. The dog followed the family later when they moved to the Buford White place to the right of Big Toqua, better known as "Stump Town," in the summer of 1941. Buford White was the son of Joe I. White. Old Queen began having fits all the time. It got under the barn and would not come out and would growl. Finally, thinking the dog had went mad, Arley Stewart shot the dog.
I went to school in a little two room school house called Mt. Zion. The first through fourth grades were in what they called "the little room" and the fifth through eighth grades were in the "big room". There was a wall in the middle that raised up so that when we had any kind of program, it was just one big room. At school we had a beautiful Christmas tree. Some of the older boys and girls would go out and cut a huge tree for the school house and got to help decorate it too. They got holly, mistletoe and pine cones to use to pretty everything up.
At home I never had a Christmas tree, except one time. I remember my mother put up a cedar tree and the only thing we had to decorate it with was cotton from the quilt bats. People were so poor back then they couldn't buy things for a tree. All the money went for food and clothes. I only got new shoes in the fall when school started. I went barefoot in the summer except when I went to church. At Christmas time at the school program, everyone got a bag of treats which included an apple, orange, nuts and some candy. And the church gave everyone the same thing on the Sunday night before Christmas. The children were so happy, they could hardly wait till they got home to eat it. I would lie in bed at night and wonder what Santa would bring me. My mother would always hang our stockings on the mantle, and the next morning when I got up, there was always some fruit, nuts and candy inside them. One time I got a doll from Santa. It was made out of pink cloth except for its head. It had black feet and hands. I thought that was the prettiest doll in the whole wide world, and to me, it was.
Once my teacher at school gave me a present for being the best speller in her class. I never had to study like the other kids did. I just looked at the words one time and that was it. Of course I was no expert, but I was good. Teachers I can remember were: Otella Sloan, Helen Stratton, Pearl Dean, Louise Curtis, Miss. Tom Loveday and Susie Boyd. One whole winter, Susie Boyd boarded in our home while she taught at nearby Mt. Zion School. Her room was once my mother's old kitchen and she had her own stove, chair and bed. Sometimes before bed, she would come out of her room and sit and talk with us around the wood stove heater. We walked to school with her each morning. ---Mertice Chastain Poe, May 9, 1994.
A few months after we posted this memoir, Chastain Central received a follow up message from Caleb G. Teffeteller:
In the Chastain biographies, under Mertice Chastain, I wanted to let you know she passed away on December 10, 2009, Maryville, Blount Co. TN. She celebrated her 80th birthday on August 31, 2009 with a cake that had one of her frequent sayings on it: "Up Your A**." Very funny and outspoken lady! Caleb G. Teffeteller (her nephew).