Early Times 6 – Grandmother

You never know everything about any one, even in your own family. Some people don’t make a big deal about what they have done.
My grandmother, Mary Gentry Pepper, was one such person.
During the early 1930s, when my mother, brothers and sister lived with her and Aunt Georgia, in East Lake outside Atlanta, she seemed very old to we kids, even though she was only 60.
Grandmother ran the household. She planned and prepared the meals, did the shopping with mother and Georgia, supervised the cleaning of the home, the maintenance of about eight acres of garden. Supervised the maid she had and any handymen or hoboes who happened to be working there. She canned the produce and chickens from the garden and stored the results in our substantial pantry. She did the baking and made candy from fruits, as well as tons of cookies.
I can’t ever remember being aware of the amount of work she did, it as just something that happened.
But that wasn’t all.
She had a Singer Sewing Machine powered by a foot treadle, and at night when chores were done, she would sit at it in the living room alcove and sew while we did our homework, then listened to the small radio. We would also have some craft work to do, such as weaving potholders from stocking loops she had brought from the cotton mills.
Grandmother made stuffed toys, everything from Raggdey Anns and Andys to whales and bears, balls and a plethora of other items. She sold some in hotels and restaurants in Atlanta. But she saved the largest amount of the toys in a spare room which would be stacked to the ceiling with toys.
At Christmastime, the toys would be loaded into Georgia’s Plymouth and taken to the children’s wards at Grady Hospital where they were given to any child in the hospital. All the toys were given away. I can remember riding through the cold night to help unload the toys and then wait outside because I wasn’t allowed in the hospital.
Grandmother paid for the toys by the sales in the souvenir shops.
The prodigious amount of work she did probably wouldn’t be tolerated by modern women. After all there were few of the modern labor saving devices we have now. She was a remarkable women.
But as the radio commentator Paul Harvey always said: “You need to know the rest of the story.”
Mary Gentry Pepper was born Dec. 17, 1876, into the wealthy and socially prominent family of Col. William T. and Nina Mann Gentry. She was one of six children. Her father was president of Southern Bell Telephone Company and, with Asa Candler, a founder of the Coca Cola Company. He had been an assistant to Alexander Graham Bell. As boy during the Civil War, he lost his left arm at the elbow in a threshing machine accident. This did not stop him from working as a lineman and in Bell’s laboratory.
Grandmother went to some good schools and somehow got a job on the Atlanta Constitution in the society section, the place women were allowed in the male dominated newspaper business of the time. My mother would follow here into the business writing high school sports news.
The South of those days was not far removed from the devastation of the war. Northerners were not viewed with enthusiasm, so it was a shock when the 27 year-old daughter of Southern society became engaged to Lt. Kelton Lyon Pepper of Illinois. Atlantans adapted to the idea.
The wedding took place at the family mansion on April 22, 1903. Blue uniforms mixed with men, some of whom had worn gray.
Col. Gentry paid for the couple’s honeymoon in Miami but his view of things might be gauged by the fact, according to family legend, their rail tickets was made out to “Miss Gentry and one.”
The marriage would take grandmother around the United States, to Hawaii, the Philippines, Japan, China and Panama.
World War I found grandfather sent to Europe and Grandmother returned to Atlanta with their three daughters.
Troop trains rumbled through the train station at all hours of the day and night. Grandmother learned that the men on the late night trains were tired and hungry but there was nothing for them.
She gathered a lot of Army wives and set out to meet each train with sandwiches, doughnuts and coffee. It was no small undertaking but it worked. Soon there was a statewide replication of the program in an effort to help morale. Very soon, the American Red Cross adopted the program leaving grandmother in charge. It was the start of the famed Red Cross Canteens.
In all the time I lived with her, I never learned a thing of this. Only after she died in researching for her obituary did it come out. Most people including the Red Cross had forgotten her.
And, as Paul Harvey would say: “You know the rest of the story.”

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