Granny Paintbrush – My Mom

By Suzy Barile
Back in the late 60s and early 70s, depression wasn’t acknowledged or talked about, and seldom was it treated. That is when my mother became depressed.

Suzy Barile and Eleanor Hope Newell Maynard
By today’s standards, she had every right to be. Her favorite aunt died of cancer in January, and less than a month later, both parents died unexpectedly within three days of one another. She was left with a loving-but-domineering uncle, a mentally and physically handicapped sister, seven children ranging in age from 18-months to sixteen, and a lot of regrets.

That amount of loss and stress is enough to push anyone over the edge, but instead of an understanding of her losses, she was expected to behave like nothing unusual had happened. Life went on, and she should too. And she did, for the most part. She got us up and to school, to soccer practices and baseball games, to scout meetings and doctor appointments. Laundry was done, meals prepared, diapers changed, and hugs given. As normal as it seemed, all was not well, for my mom lost her faith in God.

Here’s how it happened. The day my grandmother died, I arrived home from school to find my dad there and upstairs in their bedroom. What’s going on, I asked. What Mom said next is one of the two phrases I hear when I conjure up her voice in my head: “Oh, Suzy, the most horrible thing in the world has happened. Granny has died.”

On top of that, her father, my Poppee, had been hospitalized, collapsing shortly after his wife was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Dad took Mom and my 10-year-old brother to the airport and called for his parents to come down from New York to help with the rest of us. A U.S. Navy officer working at the Pentagon, he was expected to be at work, no matter the problems at home. Today’s military is so much more family friendly.

Two days later, Poppee died after acknowledging that he knew his wife was gone by marking his name with an X on an official document. Dad got down there, and first one funeral, then the other, was held. Mom did for her sister what her parents had always told her to do: Packed her bags and took her to McClenny, the state hospital where she’d find lots of activities to keep her handicapped mind and body busy. Some legal work was taken care of and then they were home. Life was moving on, or so it seemed.

From the first call that my Granny had been hospitalized, Mom kicked herself: she’d not gone to Florida for Aunt Pat’s funeral, and by not attending and taking my baby sister Pattie with her, Granny and Poppee didn’t have a chance to see the youngest child one last time. Over the course of what by then was Dad’s nearly 20-year Naval career, Mom had often felt like an awful daughter for living so far away from her parents, and what she considered a lapse in judgment simply added to that guilty load. Then there was the matter of dealing with Uncle Tyn, who was embarrassed that a niece of his would become a ward of the state. He promptly ignored his sister’s and Mom’s wishes and moved my Auntnie into a group home where, we later learned, she did little all day but read and watch television. It was such an awful situation that even packages we sent didn’t always get to her.

When school got out in June, Dad took all of us to Orlando so Mom could clean out her childhood home. Although we’d visited for at least a week every year, none of us could envision what was in store. Built in 1896 as a wedding gift for my great-grandmother, it had been lived in continuously since then, and as I tell folks who marvel that I have so many family heirlooms, no one ever threw anything away. After two weeks of trying to determine what in a dresser drawer was worth saving and what was not, Mom called in an estate firm run by two women my sister Ellie and I called “the vultures.” They arrived each morning at 8 and rummaged through closets and drawers and cupboards, selecting what they deemed valuable and could be sold. What they really did was to take Mom for a ride, as they offered her pennies for what they later sold for dollars.

During the two months we stayed in Orlando, Pattie was potty trained, friends of my grandparents came and took us places so Mom could have a break from sorting, childcare and sister-care, and Uncle Tyn stayed as close as he could to make certain nothing of even slight value was overlooked. Dad had already said we couldn’t take a lot back home with us, so I cannot imagine being my Mom during those weeks as she watched furnishings and belongings she’d known since the day she was born vanish into the vultures’ van.

The days leading up to the sale of the property brought no relief, either, for it was a sale that promised this grand house on a street once called “Honeymoon Row” because of the many newlyweds living there would be torn down to make way for condominiums. I remember Mom telling me once that my Granny had never liked the house because it wasn’t “hers.” It was the home of her mother-in-law and had been decorated long before she and Poppee married. None of the home’s touches were hers. Nevertheless, knowing the house would be no more was painfully sad.

Back in Vienna, a northern Virginia suburb of Washington, DC, the next school year began, then I graduated and went off to college, and slowly Mom quit going to church. No more look-alike Easter and Christmas dresses specially embroidered or with smocking for me and my sisters; no more cramming all seven of us kids into the blue VW bug for the ride to church – the four older on the back seat and the three younger ones in the “way back.” This, of course, was long before mandatory seatbelt laws. It was frightening to hear the woman who had made certain that as babies we all were baptized suddenly cry out, “If there is a God, how could he do this to me?”

Once in college, I made it home on school breaks. But by then I was in a world that revolved around me, even opting to remain in Chapel Hill to work the summer between junior and senior year. I wasn’t privy to what was happening to my Mom – not until I'd graduated and was on my own and she called one night in spring of 1979. I was hosting a going-away party for a friend and Mom heard partying in the background. She told me to have fun. But when she called back the next day, she heartbreakingly told me my Dad had left her. She hadn’t told me the night before because she didn’t want to ruin my party.

Suffice it to say the next few years were difficult for her. At 52, she was past being able to get a newspaper job. She tackled real estate, but sold little and hated it. She worked  in the media center at NC State’s D.H. Hill Library, but it was the night shift and she hated walking to her car alone at 10 p.m. She was a substitute teacher at Cary High, which was probably her saving grace, for she was loved by the students and she loved them. When offered an assistant’s position in the Trainable Mentally Handicapped classroom, she was thrilled to be working daily with a classroom full of appreciative students.

To supplement her income, on the weekends she turned into Granny Paintbrush, a clown who made balloon animals at children’s birthday parties and at the twice-monthly Family Day at Pizza Inn. As at the high school, she was in her element -- working with children, something she’d loved as a troop leader when I was a Brownie and Junior Girl Scout, and a den mother when my brothers were in Boy Scouts.

As a mom, I often wished I’d had my mother’s creativity: she designed the embroidery and smocking on our childhood dresses, she could create anything we wanted atop a birthday cake  – like “monk-monk,” the only teddy bear that looked like a monkey and was loved by my brother Donnie. She cooked a mean leg-of-lamb and sesame seed pork chops. She made her grandchildren feel special, like picking up Jen each Tuesday afternoon from school for what came to be known as “Tuesdays with Granny.” And she made each of her children believe they were the only one in her life.

In December 1990, when she was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme – the fastest-growing and deadliest of brain tumors – she tore out its description from her encyclopedia to keep us from knowing its seriousness. She had the doctors tell us they’d removed “a neat little package” and she’d be back teaching the following fall. When we finally learned the truth after an awful weekend of setbacks – a weekend where those same doctors who lied to us for her told us to put her in a nursing home – I was the one who had to tell her we knew, that there was nothing more they could do. Then we waited.

Eleanor Hope Newell Maynard – the sports editor of her high school and junior college newspapers, a reporter for UNC’s The Daily Tar Heel, a UNC journalism grad and former reporter for The Raleigh Times and The Orlando Sentinel – gave up her dream of one day owning a small community newspaper to support a husband’s career, to raise seven children, and to “mother” many more.
Despite the unacknowledged and untreated depression that gripped her for many years, what we had inscribed on her marker said it all when she died April 29, 1991: “Granny Paintbrush – She left them laughing.”

Love and miss you, Mom.

How Bill Powell Challenged Me to Be a Better Tarheel
April 28, 1919 - April 10, 2015

It hardly seems possible that 40 years ago next month, I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in journalism and a reporter’s job awaiting me at The Messenger in Madison, NC. A “Navy brat” with no real hometown, I had made the decision to remain in the Tarheel state after arriving for college from Northern Virginia and being introduced to BBQ, sweet tea, Southern hospitality, and William S. Powell’s HIST 366 – the History of North Carolina to 1865.

William S. Powell

A Statesville resident from the age of three and a proud graduate of what was then called Mitchell Junior College, Bill Powell made his way to Chapel Hill and received an undergraduate degree and served in the U.S. Army in World War II before earning a master’s degree, and then a few years later, landing a job in the University’s library. His own love of history led him to make use of the abundance of research available, and soon he was writing the more than 1,000 books and articles about the state that brought him the well-deserved-though-unofficial title “dean of North Carolina history.”

I knew nothing about Professor Powell’s illustrious background when I enrolled in his course, only that in deciding to live and work in North Carolina, I probably needed to know a bit about its history. While my maternal grandmother was born in North Carolina, and that line of my family goes all the way back to Jamestown, my knowledge consisted mainly of family stories, not facts and figures. That is what Professor Powell could provide.

For 50 minutes each Monday, Wednesday and Friday of Fall semester of my senior year, I listened to him lecture on North Carolina’s history, throwing out dates –the Halifax Resolves were signed April 12, 1776 – and tidbits, such as the names of the four busts found on the second floor rotunda of the state Capitol are John Motley Morehead, William A. Graham, Samuel Johnston and Matt Whitaker Ransom. The midterm and final exams were filled with the information he expected us to learn, as well as an essay question. On the mid-term I wrote, “I don’t know this answer, but here is what I do know,” then wrote an essay on that topic. I failed it, the final exam, and the course.

Never a failure, however, I registered again for HIST 366 -- Spring semester when I was to graduate and for a Pass/Fail grade. But the mid-term and final exams went no better the second time around, and while I can discuss the heck out of just about any topic, remembering those names, dates and places Professor Powell believed important wasn’t a skill I’d mastered, even after four years of college. In a week, I was due to graduate, but only if I passed HIST 366. My entire family was coming for the ceremony – Mom and Dad, and two sisters and four brothers who all were younger than I and expecting me to be the first of we seven to graduate from college. Though I did have that newspaper job waiting, not having a degree would not go over well with my dad.

In the days between exams ending and graduation, I called Professor Powell four times, in each call asking if I’d passed. Now, for the past 12 years, I’ve been an associate professor of English at Wake Tech Community College in Raleigh. Any student who contacted me after exams wanting to know a final grade was told I’d send out email when grades were posted. Yet Professor Powell politely told me the first three times that he didn’t have the grades ready. The fourth call brought an exasperated “Yes, yes. You passed, you passed.” Had I really, or did he not want that fifth call? I’ll never know.

It wasn’t until years later when I began researching a book about a UNC family that I learned the extent of Professor Powell’s knowledge of North Carolina history. Time and again, queries directed me to his work. I discovered that he’d loved history from the time he was an elementary school student in Statesville, and that 40 years later, when he was to be named a UNC professor of North Carolina history, the appointment was scrutinized because he didn’t have a doctorate. After someone wheeled in a library cart overflowing with the books he’d written, the discussion ended, and when he retired in 1986, it was with the title “Professor Emeritus.”

I also learned that I was one of some-6,000 students passing through his courses during those teaching years that began in Fall 1973, just two years before my entry into HIST 366. Perhaps as a new professor, he hadn’t yet found the heart to tell students to wait for final grades to be posted!

Sometime in the early 1990s, when I called on him for research assistance with my book, and asked about the possibility of me writing an entry for the Encyclopedia of North Carolina he was compiling, he graciously said yes to both, and added that he recalled me as a student, but not the four phone calls. The Encyclopedia was finally published in 2006, nearly 30 years after its inception. It was a thrill to find my name alongside his and the 550 volunteer writers who produced more than 2000 entries and provided 400-plus photographs and maps. Its online version is an ongoing project and today boasts 6,842 entries and 7,134 images.

As with Professor Powell’s writing projects, mine was in the works for nearly 20 years. But nine years away from publication, I had enough information for what I hoped was an interesting presentation on former NC Governor and UNC President David L. Swain and his daughter’s marriage to a Union general at the end of the Civil War.

That first program was scheduled for a cold Valentine’s Day in 2000 to members of the Chapel Hill Historical Society. As I was introduced and approached the microphone, who did I spot in the middle of the last row but my former teacher. I knew I’d soon be laughed off the podium, for my facts would be inaccurate and Professor Powell would jump up and cry, “No! No! She’s wrong! She’s wrong!”

It never happened. Instead, I watched as he nodded approvingly time and again. My facts were correct. At program’s end, he congratulated me, and I was elated, feeling finally like the successful student I’d wanted to be so long ago.

Oftentimes Professor Powell and his wife Virginia were in the audience for my programs, and when Undaunted Heart: The True Story of a Southern Belle & a Yankee General was finally published in 2009, it was he who I thanked in the Acknowledgments for instilling in me “an abiding love for North Carolina history.”

His death last Friday, April 10, leaves a void of anyone with immediate recall of names, facts, places or events about North Carolina. Anyone needing information on the state should look to his North Carolina: A History (1997) for general readers, North Carolina Through Four Centuries (1989), a well-used undergraduate text, or The North Carolina Gazeteer (1968), listing the names and founding dates and a short essay of every noteworthy place in the state.

I want to believe his leaving this earth on the day after the 150th anniversary of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Virginia to Union Gen. William T. Sherman has some sort of significance, for Professor William Stevens Powell from Iredell County was a true lover of North Carolina and Southern history.