Thursday, March 28, 2013

Missing Irma

She was the one who stayed home.  She went away, but she came back.  Her sisters moved far away from Rainelle, West Virginia, and stayed there.
Irma Belle Amick, about age three.

Except for some unhappy years spent in Richmond, Virginia, she lived in West Virginia.  It didn't matter to her that she didn't have much money; West Virginia was her home.  She was the queen of "make do with what you have."

My mother, Irma Belle Amick Tuck Ballengee, died 13 years ago on March 30, 2000.  I've thought of her a thousand times this week.  As my daughter nears the delivery date for her first child, I remember how my mom came to stay with me when Katie was born.  I don't remember her being as anxious as I have been.  To me, she was calm, cool and collected.  "Sometimes if you set them up and rub their back, it helps," she told me when Katie's crying would not be comforted.  It worked.  When I was a child, she was not always so calm, if the truth be told.

Irma Belle was born 13 November 1915 in Runa, Nicholas County, West Virginia.  Her parents were Irvin Starling Amick and Lelia Clingman Humphries Amick.  In August 2012 I wrote a blog about the family of Irvin and Lelia that has more details about their history, "Our Amicks in Modern Times".

Irma was the fourth of five children who grew up in the rolling farmland of Nicholas County.  On 25 April 1931 she married Charles George Tuck with whom she had three children:  Charles, Martha Jane, and Carol Ann.  Charlie Tuck worked in the mines in southern West Virginia, and the family lived in Beards Fork, East Rainelle, and other mining towns.  When work was scarce, they moved to the Newport News area where Charlie worked in the ship yard.

But things were not peaceful in the Tuck household, and it came to a point where Irma filed for divorce, which was finalized 10 October 1947 in Richmond, Virginia.  Irma and her children returned to Rainelle and lived with her parents.

Irma Amick Tuck and Red Ballengee.
She worked to support her family as a waitress and also as a clerk in the Men's Quality Store on Main Street.  A certain railroader began coming by the store every morning to help Irma work the crossword puzzle in the newspaper.  On 1 July 1949, Irma and Austin David (Red) Ballengee were married in Richmond, Virginia.

We lived a rather contented life in the Osborne Addition outside East Rainelle, my dad working on the railroad, my mom dragging the box springs outside to clean them every spring and cooking dinner after church every Sunday.  In those days women always wore dresses, even when cleaning house, and all meals were cooked at home.  It was exciting when we were driving home from church, and my dad just drove right on past the street to our house.  "What are you doing?" Mom would ask.  "Let's just go down to Thelma's and eat," Daddy would say.

One spring day Mom had all the windows open and was cleaning away in her bedroom at the front of the house.  A salesman saw the windows open and walked right up and called out to her.  It scared my mom so badly that she couldn't speak.  When the salesman made his pitch, she said, "Oh, no.  We couldn't buy anything.  He (my father) hasn't worked since the fiddle of Mebruary."  That story was told for years at our house.

Her sisters and their families came to visit from California, Arizona, Ohio, Texas,and North Carolina.  Cousins, nieces, and nephews came to visit.  Once Aunt Carrie brought the fixings for tacos in her suitcase from Phoenix, strange food indeed to eat in East Rainelle.  All our visitors seemed so successful, but they were really no more successful than we were, wearing our home-sewn dresses and eating our home-canned vegetables. Irma much preferred the comfort of making-do-with-what-you-have in the mountains of West Virginia.
My mother and me at Anthony's
Creek in Greenbrier Co., 1951.

My parents were married for only 21 years; my dad died 3 July 1970.  Then began the most difficult years that I can ever remember, for both my mother and me.

Before my dad's funeral, Mom went to the beauty salon to have her hair done.  The stylist pinned up Mom's dark hair in beautiful small curls at the back of her head.  For the rest of the summer, until I returned to college, once a week she sat in front of the dresser with the big round mirror while I pinned her hair up into those curls.  I never saw her wear her hair like that again.

I debated whether to return to college after my dad's death, but I did.  My mother's two friends, Merlene McClung and Zora Smith, drove us to Berea.  After depositing my things at the dorm, we ate lunch at a restaurant in the town.  As I stood on the street watching them drive away, my mom turned around in the back seat to take a last look at me.  She was facing a long, cold, lonely winter at home.
Irma resting after cooking Sunday dinner.

Somehow we made it through.  She was absolutely  joyous to find that Larry and I were going to have a baby.  When she came to help me after the birth, she plugged along like a trooper.  She took loads of wet wash up the stairs from the basement to hang the laundry on the clothes line.  Did I mention that she was 70 years old?  When I wanted to do things on my own, like giving Katie her first bath, she stood by to advise and support.  She never complained.  But she was always available anytime to come and sit with Katie while Larry and I worked.  They watched Batman on the little TV in Katie's room; she waited for the preschool bus from Westminster Presbyterian; she read the same books over and over; she made a doll who wore a dress that matched the one she made for Katie.

Irma Belle was devoted to Christ.  She did her best to instruct me in Christian ways, and now I can see that I should have heeded more of her instruction.  During the time that my dad worked at Charleston and was gone for a week at a time, she and I read the Bible and prayed every night before going to bed.  It was a little awkward for me at the time (I was a teenager, after all), but it makes a tender memory for me as I recall her devotion.

As we prepare for another new life in our family, I am sure that she (and my dad, too) would be elated to welcome little Lucas James.  I think of my mom and dad even more often now, thinking how nice it would be to have her here so that I could fix us lunch, maybe we would crochet baby blankets together.  But this was not to be.  She has been gone from us for 13 years; it hardly seems that long.

Irma Belle Ballengee, we miss you still.

Irma Ballengee in front of her
parents' house in East Rainelle.

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