Big Sister

William Wayne Weems

© 2003 by William Wayne Weems

Photo of Pearl Saunders and Ossie Parrot in the early 1900's.
Pearl Saunders (1881--1973) as a career woman with Ossie Parrot
in the early 1900's and as a doll and blanket entrepreneur in 1950.

The following is a personal recollection by the writer of people and events long past.  It is not likely to lighten your mood, but has the virtue of being the sort of truth that can be stranger than fiction.

In the course of preparing a booklet for the 75th Anniversary of my Mother's social club I listened to a recording of a radio broadcast in which the club "girls" chanted a greeting to her Aunt Pearl, and realized with a start that in December 2003 Pearl will have been dead thirty years.  She died from a series of strokes. The first had no obvious outward effect, but it did a marvelous thing to her mind.  Pearl found her memories flooding around her like full color video, and she could select from her 92 years of experience any she desired and virtually relive them in almost every detail, enjoying the scents of a long-vanished flower garden or commenting on the color and texture of Spanish-American war uniforms she had volunteered to repair by sewing.  But only one memory impelled her to any sort of action, and thereby hangs this tale.

Pearl Saunders is missed even today by those few who still remember her.  She never married, electing instead a business career at a time when such a choice offered women few opportunities and insufficient rewards.  Nevertheless she rose to a position of influence and considerable power in the office of a major flour manufacturer and after retirement teamed with her widowed roommate Blanche Hickman to run a successful little enterprise making hand-sewn quilts and dolls.  She also managed to squeeze in an astonishing amount of social activities and good works, becoming beloved by many in her family and community.  Pearl felt blessed by a good life and felt a great sympathy for those less fortunate.

In mid-1973 Pearl was under the influence of her first stroke, dipping into her memories with the frequency and enthusiasm that an addict displays toward his crack pipe.  I was away at school, irritated that no one had taken my suggestion that Pearl's recollections be tape recorded. They seemed so different from those senile repetitions of the same tales too common in older folk. But the niece who whom she lived (Blanche having since passed away) had burned out listening to Pearl's incessant chatter about things and people from the distant past.

Pearl's increasingly insistent request that she visit Big Sister's grave was also mostly ignored.  Pearl's supercharged memory showed her clearly Big Sister's struggle to aid their overwhelmed mother by acting as a surrogate parent to her siblings, and revived the bitterness they all felt when her many sacrifices for them were rewarded only by a savage illness and death just as she was at last set to begin her own life.  Pearl couldn't do much now to honor her Big Sister's memory, but she would like to decorate her Big Sister's grave with flowers before she herself succumbed to the next stroke her Doctor hinted she could expect.  Pearl asked my Mother to help in the search, for the exact location of Big Sister's grave had since been forgotten.  My Grandmother (another Sister, but too young to remember clearly the things that animated Pearl) who was by then living with my Mother, showed clearly that she thought Pearl had gone crazy.  Nonetheless those three drove to southern Kentucky almost every fair weather weekend in the summer of 1973, going from graveyard to graveyard in search of Big Sister's remains.  Pearl kept up her chatter on the road, telling (among other things) how before the funeral her sister's open coffin was set up for "viewing" by perching it on wooden straight chairs, how many of them had to be lifted up to that height in order to kiss Big Sister good-bye, and how each of them were given a lock of Big Sister's hair for a keepsake.
Photo of Maggie Sanders, her hair, and her funeral notice.

Maggie Saunders (1868--1887), her funeral rememberance
 and a lock of her hair, somewhat faded from the original
 dark reddish-brown color.

 Photo of Pearl and Caroll at grave of their sister, Maggie.

Pearl Saunders and her sister Carroll Saunders Cathey 
at the graveside of their "Big Sister", Maggie L. Saunders, 
on August 19, 1973.

Toward the end of summer they at last found the grave, and a small group of people watched the next weekend as an elaborate wreath was placed over Big Sister's (Maggie Saunders') headstone.  As one of the observers...a cemetery trustee..put it, "It isn't often that someone comes to visit who actually knew a person that died in 1887."

As they drove back to Nashville Pearl was unusually silent. Then she observed that the tombstone had weathered better than she feared it might.  She went on to explain they were a poor family but their grief-stricken father had spent freely on his daughter's funeral, even to the extent of having printed obituary notices as remembrances to give out at the services. But when it was time to set the headstone he had only enough money left to pay for the stone's carving, not the stone itself.  So he went to one of his wife's prized possessions, a dresser with a marble top, and emptied the contents of the drawers on their bed.  He then wrestled the heavy piece of furniture outside and demolished it with an ax.  Grimly he took the marble counter top away to be carved into a tombstone.  My Mother and Grandmother were quite aware just how few the material possessions of a poor rural family of that era were, and they were sobered by the magnitude of the sacrifice implied.  Pearl continued in silence for the remainder of the return trip, her attention doubtless consumed by the compelling vision of a man with tear-streaked cheeks splintering a beautiful piece of furniture with his ax.

Obituary notice printed in the February 1887 "Hopkinsville New Era"

MAGGIE L. SAUNDERS Died of pneumonia, January 17, 1887 Maggie L., oldest child of William D. And Susie Saunders, aged 18 years. The illness which issued in her death was of brief duration and it was a manifest surprise to all when the tide of life began to ebb away so rapidly. Seldom have I known of death under sadder circumstances. The idol of her home, beloved by all who knew her, just entered upon the threshold of real life, full of bright hopes for the future, this young lady had grown and was just entering into the full bloom of early womanhood. May we all press forward to meet her in that better land where parting never comes.

An Uncle

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