Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016
Mary’s mother, Merle Townsend, always kept a beautiful garden. Her love of plants and flowers gave her daughter opportunities to develop her own interest in gardening. She knew that when a plant was transferred from one location to another, it required time and nurture to become re-rooted in its new environment.
While cleaning, sorting and rearranging things in her new home, Mary’s thoughts went back to her mother’s gardening. Suddenly she stopped as a thought crossed her mind. You know, what I’m doing here is like transferring plants in a garden. We are transplants, and we need to be nurtured in this new soil.
Looking out in the front yard she saw Paul in his chair and Hughie removing weeds and rocks, then raking the area to prepare for seeding grass. Paul was soaking up the fresh air, smiling from ear-to-ear. He was a picture of happiness. “Re-rooting,” she said to herself. “We were blooming where we were, now we’re putting down new roots in a different place.”
As September rolled around, Hughie went off to Montevideo High school in the nearby community of Penn Laird. This was a consolidated school, drawing students from surrounding communities where schools offered grades one through eleven. Montevideo would now offer grades eight through twelve. Hughie was being re-rooted in a new school where everybody was being re-rooted through change and expansion. When Mary understood that, she felt it would help him make the transition. It did have an impact.
One day he came home and announced, “Mom, I don’t want to be called “Hughie” anymore. That’s a baby name, and I hate it.”
Mary was taken aback. “Who told you that’s a baby name?”
He looked askance. “Nobody…I just know it is and I don’t like it.”
Remembering her own sensitivities as a teenager, and her issues when she had been shifted from one school to another, Mary knew where this was coming from. I guess the danger with new roots is you might get some different results from what you plant. She gave her son a hug. “I guess I gave you that nickname because you and your dad are both “Hugh.” He never wanted to be called Hubert, so he shortened it. I understand what you’re saying…I just don’t know what else to call you…maybe “Hugh, Jr.”
“Mom, I’m not a ‘Junior,'” he said sarcastically.
She absorbed his emotional response. “Okay, so why don’t we call you ‘Hugh T’?”
His body language suggested surrender. “Well, I guess that’ll do.” He soon took ownership and began signing his name, ‘Hugh T. Harris’–even practicing different signatures.
Sis, who had already insisted she was not a “Sissy,” was getting re-rooted at Keezletown Elementary School. Though it was only a half-mile down the road from the house, she had to ride the bus on an hour-long circuit that went almost to Harrisonburg and then swung back to Keezletown. That meant getting up early, but she was used to the whole routine from riding the bus to Condon School. Unlike Cincinnati, Rockingham County didn’t offer a special school she could attend because of her heart murmur. Mary had concerns about putting her in a regular school. She prayed that Sis would be okay, and apparently she was–prayers answered!
Paul’s re-rooting was the most pronounced. He loved the time he could spend outside with the breezes ruffling his hair, birds talking to him from the trees, and cows mooing across the road. One day in 1952 Mary took a picture of him out in the front yard and titled it, “My Happy Boy.” To her, Paul’s happiness made every difficulty and struggle worth while.
One day she was outside planting flower beds when a car came up the driveway. It was Aileen Clatterbuck and her children bearing gifts of delicious food, which included a half-gallon of crabapple juice with which to make jelly. Hugh had become acquainted with Aileen and her husband, Marl, when he first arrived looking for a house. They had a CP son named Don, who was older than Paul. He learned the Clatterbucks were part of a parent’s group serving Harrisonburg and the surrounding area. They had a goal of establishing a CP Center and school. Mary and Hugh soon became re-rooted from their experiences in Cincinnati to this new group and its goals.
The Clatterbucks helped them get re-rooted in church by introducing them to members of the small Keezletown Methodist Church. It was part of a circuit that included several churches under the care of one pastor. They had Sunday school every week, but only had “preaching” every other week. The parsonage for the circuit was a large, two-story house next door to the church. It was one of the two churches Mary had noticed driving into town on their first night…the other being the EUB Church that looked almost identical, across a field from it.
Worship was nothing like the stately formality she’d experienced at Clifton Church. Her pastor there had been an opera singer before he entered the ministry, so he fostered a more classical approach. At Keezletown, worship was more “down-home”–simpler, more spontaneous, less programmed. These were salt-of-the-earth people who loved God and supported each other in good times and bad. It became a place of spiritual kinship that enabled Mary and her family to sustain their faith.
Hugh took a new turn by going into business for himself as a contractor, remodeling homes in and around Harrisonburg. He even built one house on Liberty Street. In his spare time he continued making improvements at the house in Keezletown. Mary continued to give Paul his exercises each day, and to explore with others the possibilities for a CP center.
With so much of her attention drawn to Paul, Sis and Jimmy, she felt shocked to suddenly realize Hugh T was rapidly changing from a boy to a young man. He struggled sometimes for acceptance at school because he came, as some said tauntingly, “from the North.” Mary listened when he vented his frustrations, telling sometimes about her own teenage years, and trying to be encouraging.
Hugh T worked at several jobs part-time, including helping his dad build the house on Liberty Street. He soon learned that the carpentry gene hadn’t passed through to him. He did have an artistic gene, which his little brother Jimmy also had. Throughout his high school years he experimented with different things, like raising several calves to eight-week steers and then selling them at the stock market. He also helped out on a dairy farm down the road, and one summer worked there full time.
When he came home dead tired at night, Mary remembered the dairymen of her growing-up years in Covedale. That time seemed so far behind her…and yet so close at hand! She felt like she had traversed a circle–farm to city and back to farm. She saw Hugh T learning lessons she hoped he would hold onto the rest of his life when he worked at threshing wheat and barley from one farm to the next.
While Hugh T learned new skills easily, he also had an impulsive streak that concerned her. The farmer he worked for taught him to drive tractors and farm machinery. When he was away one day he sent Hugh T through the woods to a back field that needed to be mowed for hay. Through inattention he hit a tree in the woods and broke the axle housing. Mary understood, but when Hugh came home he was furious. The storm soon passed, however, and Hugh T learned a hard lesson.
Claude, one of his friends at school who was also a year older than others in their class, told him about joining the Army National Guard. He invited Hugh T to attend a drill night with him. He loved it! When he told his mother he wanted to join the guard, she at first felt fear, remembering the experiences her brother had gone through in the North Africa campaign. But she understood. Her son had grown up during the war, practically worshiped her brother Bud, and she saw this as something he needed to get out of his system.
Since he was seventeen, she had to sign for him. They talked it over. “I guess there won’t be another war any time soon,” she said as she signed the papers.
Her faith as a parent was tested again the next spring when he came home with another of his announcements. “Mom, I’ve joined the football team.”
That took the wind out of her sails. She sat down and heaved a sigh.
“Are you sure about this? Remember, you broke your arm twice back in Cincinnati. I don’t want you to go through that again.”
“I know, but everybody’s doing it. I’ll be careful…promise.” Football was a new sport at Montevideo. He and his classmates would be seniors the next year. If they were going to play football, they had to do it now. Mary listened and heaved another sigh.
“I guess it’s okay…not that it matters. You did say you already joined?”
She watched him thrive through the experience. Although he was light weight, he played defense as a linebacker, and earned a letter. It also gave him some stature at school that overcame his not being from the area. He was part of the Homecoming Court, complete with flat-top haircut. She smiled within herself as she decided that was probably what it had felt like to her when she and Artie had climbed to the top of the Hughes High School tower to have their picture taken. An accomplishment!
During this time she had to do a lot of the parenting by herself. Hugh had closed his carpentry business and gone back to selling on the road, working now for an oil company out of Dallas, Texas.
As a National Guardsman, Hugh T was part of the 116th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Stonewall Jackson Brigade.” She saw this overcome some of the distance he had felt at being a northerner by birth. He rose to the rank of corporal by the end of his senior year. At that time he also had a Saturday job at a local lunch counter where he served the Army recruiter each week.
Mary felt good about the roots her family had planted in the Valley. She saw each person thriving which gave her deep satisfaction. Hugh T, however, pressed her hardest when he came home from school with yet another of his announcements.
“Mom, I think I’m going to join the Army.”
It struck her like a bolt of lightning. She thought back to the war years, but then decided that was another time, and he had to make his own decisions. She also wanted to make sure he knew what this meant.”
“I thought you wanted to go to UC to study architecture?”
Hugh T shuffled his feet and studied the floor. “Well, you’re going to find out anyway. I am failing calculus.” He looked at her with pleading eyes. “If I give up those plans until I’m a little older, my teacher says he’ll raise my F to a D-minus. If I get that F, I’ll miss graduation.”
She had talked to him when he signed up for higher math courses, because that had always been his weakest area. “Maybe it’s for the best,” she said. “I quit school without graduating, and I don’t want you to do that.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. The recruiter says they have a program where you sign up now and report for duty in July. Billy’s going to do it with the Navy, and Jack says he’s joining the Army. I’ve decided to do this, and I just wanted you to know why.”
Mary was taken aback by his directness, but she knew he was nineteen now, and he needed her blessing and confidence, not fear and judgement. She embraced him tearfully, then stood back, looking him in the eyes. “At least you have a couple of months before all of this happens!”
So it was Hughie, who had been re-rooted as Hugh T, became re-rooted again as Private Hugh Harris, U. S. Army in July, 1956. He went to South Carolina for basic training, then New York for schooling. After than he served a few months in Virginia and came home most weekends. Then it was off to France for two years.
Mary kept in touch with him as regularly as possible during those army years, and kept every letter he wrote home. She learned that when your kids grow up you have to let go…but you still hold on spiritually. It seemed to her now that life was a constant process of re-rooting!
(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)