Moira P. Baker
Oral History Project
“I Mean To Tell You”: Reflections on the Life of an Older Woman
Peg Patrick tells it like it is, whether I want to hear it or not. But if she says it, then it needed to be said. She makes me nervous and she makes me believe in myself, because she equally observes weakness and strength. I felt guilty about not seeing her for so long, but after her reprimand she hugged me like I had never left the dimly-lit kitchen filled with cigarette smoke and belly laughs.
I had not seen Peg since 1997, when I interviewed her husband Raymond for a county cultural heritage article. Both of them are storehouses of local information, remembering every detail of a former time through funny and heart-warming stories. Raymond does not mind to tell you he used to be an alcoholic, and laughs over Peg throwing his clothes down the steps to await him on coming home one late night. But he thanks her for it because she loved him enough to care about his well being, whereas his family forgot him after he turned 18. Peg loves him because he loves her for who she is, a little mean and tactless “used to be fat” girl who will throw you out the door if you fail to do what’s right, and invite you back in when you show her that you at least know who is right—her.
I do not remember when I first met them. Raymond is the kind of person you run into at funerals and see walking out of the Farm Bureau on the corner. Peg does not get out much since her leg crumbled six years ago and she was restricted to the house. My sister and I have always called her Granny Peg, the funny lady who made us Barbie clothes and revealed all
the things about the townspeople we always suspected were true. She looks the same as I remember her, with short white hair and glasses, but never in the “little old lady” sense. Peg is 74 and looks 54, not from expert primping or vanity, but from leading a simple, hard-working life. She greets me sitting in her wheelchair in the tiny kitchen, a prosthetic right leg jutting out of her blue shorts. I take her with a grain of salt, but love her anyway.
“Hey, doll baby. Where you been so long? What in the world did you do to your hair? It used to be so pretty.”
“What? I just put a little red in it.”
“Aw, god.” She lights a cigarette. “What the hell you want red hair for? Oh, well. Now sit down and let’s talk about me, sweetheart.”
Peggy Terrell Flannery Patrick was born December 31, 1926, in Richlands, Virginia, in “the brickyard,” a place owned by the General Shell Company where bricks were made in coal-fired kilns. She is one of eight children—four girls and four boys. When I asked her about the roles and expectations of her childhood, she revealed that “gender had nothing to do with it.” She is one of the oldest three girls in the Flannery family. They helped their widowed mother to raise the younger children as they did their household chores. Peg believes that such early and intense involvement with young people is why she loves children, and why she became a teacher. I was surprised to learn that the Flannery boys received the most attention. “They were babied because they were harder to raise. We were always with them.” Peg declared this without being aware of any personal gender oppression or perpetuating a societal practice.
Peg recounted her childhood without adhering to the question of gender difference. She never noticed any differences, though I can see them as she talks with me. She shared stories of pet funerals, respecting elders by leaving the room when they were talking (about the neighbors), going to Sunday school regularly but being “not real religious,” and having been “kept busy” in the garden with removing bean and potato bugs from plants. I suspect the girls were busier, especially her other “beautiful and skinny” sisters with talking to the service men who would visit them every two hours while Peg learned to cook. “That way I was ready when I got married”--and successfully fulfilled the role of proper labor within that institution. Her mother loved when the boys visited just as much as her daughters did. In addition, she set out pictures of her sons, but none of her girls, never providing any explanation when her daughters asked.
Peg did not think she was treated any differently from boys while in school. She lived during the Great Depression—“when everybody had nothing, but you didn’t know it.” “Boys when I went to school were so nice. They respected you because they were brought up that way. And they knew who the girls were that were . . . I don’t know what you would call it, but you know what I mean. I mean to tell you, we had nothing to do with those types of girls. The boys knew who would go out with them and who wouldn’t.” Even though the boys did not respect that kind of girl, they still went out with them. Society affects even the small town.
I was surprised and somewhat disappointed to find Granny Peg in such adoration of her male peers and future students. She was very sympathetic toward them for serving during World War II, and for the boys at home still having their chores to do after walking home for how ever many miles after football practice. While I could certainly understand their extra
burdens, the conversation did not go in the direction I had hoped. Traditional thinking has indelibly shaped her life, but I can respect that.
Peg attended James Madison University in hopes of training to become a Home Economics teacher but failed the chemistry requirements since she never received that education at high school. She transferred into the typing courses, and was hired back home to teach every subject in a one-room schoolhouse. The surrounding communities all had one-room schools because there was no busing available until one entered high school. When I asked her if boys were treated any differently when she was a teacher than when she was being taught, she responded, “I took up for the boys, I don’t know why . . . because they were meaner.” Perhaps this derives from Peg’s not having been one of the prettiest girls; rather, she drew upon “good horse sense” and how to take care of herself while being “mean,” as Raymond attests. I think she nurtured toughness and independence in her students.
She was hired straight out of college because teachers were hard to come by so soon after the end of World War II. There were so many children going to school that the day had to be split in half. Peg taught from noon until 4 p.m., while others taught from 8 a.m. until noon. After school, she would go to the bank and wrap money. She would then go on to work at her family business, the Flannery Theater. However, she was only paid for the first two jobs when she started. She and Raymond married in 1949. She continued to work at the theater, and was then paid one cent for every bag of popcorn she sold. Business was good because the theatre was a new and exciting attraction in the small town. Peg was often able to make “good money”—ten to twelve dollars a week.
Peg taught nearly every subject imaginable, including special education in which she made life-long friends with many of her students. Once a female teacher married, she was no longer allowed employment. Nevertheless, substitutes were often needed, and Peg did that for a while. A teacher of the “gifted” fifth grade class quit, and Peg was called in to take over. She laughs when telling me, “They taught me more than I taught them. They’ve gone on to be really successful. Some of them have been computer analysts, professors, even written books.” Peg was known to be strict, but caring and attentive. “I was strict, but I loved them and they knew I would take up for them.” In most cases, they were the boys. She encouraged them all to respect their mothers. In keeping with tradition, Peg had them bring in their mother’s favorite recipe. They decorated it and presented it on Mother’s Day.
I asked Peg if she became cautious about spending money after living during the Great Depression. Her family had ration cards for items such as sugar, coffee, and shoes. Virtually no one in town had a car. However, classism was present among those who did own a car and those who lived in Richlands, unlike the poor in the brickyard across the bridge. Peg says that living during that time taught her the value of a dollar and how to save. “Back then it was the value of a penny.” A luxury item in the Flannery house was a ten-cent loaf of light bread. Her most interesting response to living during the time is that it caused her to see now that people “don’t know how to eat.” She attributes this fault to the introduction of fast food, which appeared in Richlands during the 1960s. Her family raised their food from the garden and they had chickens. Peg said, “Mama saw that our meals had all the vitamins and minerals.” Yet Peg says that she was “fat,” and had to have her clothes
specially made because the one store in town only carried certain, smaller sizes.
When I asked if the ‘60s affected Richlands other than the introduction of fast food chains, she responded, “Oh, yes, honey. Lordy!” “Those girls” wore shorter dresses. Peg once heard a stomping sound on the street outside and looked out the window to see the Ku Klux Klan walking toward a promiscuous woman’s house and setting up a burning cross. It seems women’s behavior was observed more closely than that of the few African Americans living in the area. Peg loved to dance and claims that she could jitterbug “like nobody’s business.” She enjoyed the introduction of the twist during the ‘60s, and loved to embarrass her only child, a daughter named Terry, during chaperoned school dances. Peg declares, “I may have been older and knew what was what, but I got in there with ‘em, ya know? I had fun.”
Terry was born in 1951. Peg does not think she raised her any differently than Peg had been raised—“with all the right morals.” Peg thinks that parents are to blame for the faults of today’s youth. She thinks that because parents may not have had much, they gave it all to their children, and it was “too much, too fast.” As a senior citizen in a small town, Peg has enjoyed being respected. She does not think this would be the case in a larger region and finds parents to blame for failing to instill children’s respect for their elders.
She admits she feels her age in the changes of her body. She had to stop teaching after twenty years when a car accident injured her back. She had to have a mastectomy in 1983. I asked her if she felt any less of a woman after the surgery. “For a time, yes. I thought he wouldn’t want me anymore. But he told me he married me, not my breast.
And when I had to have my leg amputated, he said he married me, not my leg . . . . But I am still here. I still have a purpose.”
Peg believes that with age comes wisdom. She says that she matured, learned how to “calm down, listen, and retain so much more than when I was in my thirties and forties.” She contends, “enjoy life till you’re 39, then the real thing begins.” She had hopes and dreams that did not come true. She always wanted to learn a foreign language and help the less fortunate in other countries. “I wanted to help people to learn that they could live so comfortably on so little.” Nevertheless, she says she would not change a thing: “I’ve had a good life. I thank the Lord for letting me live when he did. It was in an era where I learned from the hard, and lived from the good to the better. I am going back down the road, see? You go up so far, then you level off, and go back down, remembering all the good things you had.”
Peg had many pieces of advice for younger people, but not for women in particular. I think this is because she believes in equality. She urges people to never say “I can’t,” because they can always try and always learn something, to be thankful, realize that someone is always worse off than they are, and to know that everything happens for a reason. She goes on to say, “I’m not going to bring religion in here much, but always (points toward the sky) have Him, because He is the main one. If you don’t have Him, you have nothing.”
Her greatest peace and satisfaction is that “God has been good to me--I have lived a wonderful life with a wonderful,
loving family. I was brought up to love other people.”
For all the surprise responses, I was pleased to hear her say: “I want to end with this: To gain wisdom and be a good person,
get out there and find out how the rest of the world lives.”