Updated: Jan 21, 2022
In 2003, when I was a student in an Oral History class at Salem College I chose to do an Oral History with my family. My aunts and uncles, all ten of them were very gracious to help me with this assignment. I had prepared a list of questions for each of them to answer as we gathered around my aunt’s large kitchen table one Sunday afternoon. And never would my heart be the same after hearing their stories of childhood, love, and loss. This is an excerpt from The Quilt, A Family Memoir
Oral History of the Rhodes Family. I want to say a special thank you to my cousin, Sharon Bowers Alexander, for sharing with me an interview she did with my grandmother for one of her college assignments. I used a portion of her interview with our grandmother in my project. Quotes shared are those from my aunts and uncles.
A quilt is made up of bits and pieces of fabric and colors each representing identity and uniqueness. Fragments of material are carefully sewn together and when one of the stitches becomes loose and frayed the rest of the quilt is weakened by the loss of the togetherness. To regain strength and harmony, the tear has to be carefully mended and once again the quilt will be made whole.
A quilt is much like a family. Just as a thread in a quilt may become weak and need to be sewn once again–a family at times needs to use the strength of that common bond called love to grow together in both joyous times as well as difficult times.
The family of Otto Lonnie Rhodes, Mamie Caroline Whitley Rhodes England, and Charlie Burton England has held steadfast for over 86 years and the conversation, tears, laughter, and some first time confessions shared at a common kitchen table on a cold Sunday afternoon in December was very evident of how deeply this family–my family continues to be strong in faith and love.
Otto Rhodes and Mamie Whitley secretly made their way to Independence, Virginia in a borrowed car and exchanged their marriage vows on November 9, 1935. They quickly became farmers, self-sufficient, having twenty pullets and a cow (Bowers-Alexander). And at the age of 21, Mamie gave birth to their first daughter. And more children came and their family of two grew to a total of twelve with ten children together--eight girls and two boys.
Otto Lonnie Rhodes, my Grandpa was the eldest son and one of five children, two boys and 3 girls. He attended Mountain View School and was said to have been a good student excelling in math. Common in those days, as a young boy he had to drop out of school after completing the fifth grade to work on the family farm.
My Grandpa died at the young age of 45, of an apparent heart attack. I was really young when he died and I often stare at his photograph trying hard to remember him. But the memories, they just won’t come. But every time I look at my Uncle Junior, I can see my Grandpa. And I can see his gentle disposition and an example of his strong farming work ethic.
“I just wanted to be with my Dad. Everywhere he went I wanted to be there.”
Mamie Whitley Rhodes England, my “Granny Rhodes” was one of nine children. Mamie was a child who had to become a woman at the early age of eleven when she was asked to leave her childhood home and move in with her uncle and aunt. It was not of her choice and she left not knowing why she was being forced to leave.
When my Grandpa died, Granny Rhodes was left a widower at the age of 44 with the sole responsibility of the day-to-day operations of the poultry farm and with six of the 10 children still at home.
Granny Rhodes, I wish I could have bottled up her infectious laugh and saved it for the hard days. For the days I miss her the most. She was a farm woman, a woman who worked with her hands sewing her girls’ dresses and knitting and crocheting. And she was one of the best biscuit makers in all of Hays, if not the best.
She died just days before her 75th birthday in 1990.
“She loved to laugh and when Mama was happy, everybody was happy.”
“Mama did so much for us.”
Charlie Burton England was originally from West Virginia and worked in the coal mines before moving to North Carolina. He and Mamie met at church and were married later (Bowers-Alexander). Burton, my Step-Grandpa, was also an easy going man and one with a strong work ethic. He loved to laugh too and on any given Saturday evening he and my Granny Rhodes could be found sitting in their matching Lazy-Boy chairs, side-by-side watching wrestling. They retired from the poultry business in 1971 and traveled and spent many winter months in Florida to help Burton deal with his black lung disease. They were married for over two decades. After a long struggle, Burton lost his life to lung cancer in 1986.
“Burton was a good man. How many men would have went in and took care of six children?”
The Quilt, A Family Memoir
Oral History of the Rhodes Family
by: Tathel Miller
blessed to be Farmer Rhodes' Granddaughter