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Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Garter, the Sword and the Veil

The Garter
“Guard this with your life,” said Stella Jenkins Carby as she handed over a scrapbook made for The Garter Girls, a group of women in Natchez, Mississippi, who began a wedding tradition around a bridal garter in 1946 that still continues. 

Stella’s daughter, Bettye Jane Carby, was the thirty-fifth girl to wear the coveted garter when she said, “I do,” to husband Charlie Roberts on December 13, 2008, at the Carby’s home in Natchez.

The garter was made by the late Mrs. Howard Pritchartt, Sr. for Buzzy Parker, when she married Bobby Crook in 1946. Buzzy and her friends, decided to share the garter, which would see them through marriages and births, war and peace, riches and despair, and beyond.

Rather than having the groom toss the garter, the girls decided it should be passed down to their children. 

They made some rules:

1. Can only be worn by a daughter or a son’s bride
2. Can be worn by Mabel (Raworth’s) children (an honorary member who was not part of the original group)
3. Can be worn once by any person to get married
4. Can be worn on 25th anniversaries (and now on 50th)

The first photo of the garter girls was taken by Mrs. Helen Jenkins, whose son, Sonny, was Bettye McGehee’s beau. He would later become her husband.

“She took the photo to send to Sonny in World War II,” remembered Sallie Ballard, one of the original Garter Girls. “He was flying the Hump in Burma. We were at the Beltzhoover’s pool at Green Leaves, and we were all sophomores, maybe juniors,” she added.

“The bigger girls at the pool all had cigarettes, so we all got cigarettes from them and posed. It was the first year two-piece bathing suits were available to the public, so it was kind of shocking.”

It’s too fragile now to actually wear, but is still reverently passed from one girl to the next, all descendants of the original seven girls, whose friendship lasted throughout the years — Mary Ann Brandon Jones, Bettye McGhee Jenkins, Virginia Beltzhoover Morrison, Sallie Junkin Ballard, the late Dunbar Merrill Flinn, the late Buzzy Parker, the late Mabel Conger Raworth and the late Alma Cassell Kellogg Carpenter.

“Once somebody had worn it, you kept it until somebody else needed it,” recalled Mrs. Ballard.“After [my daughter] Dix got married and the garter was hers, I remember telling [my late husband] Basil, ‘If by hook or crook our house catches fire, grab up all the family pictures and — whatever you do — get the garter.’”

Mrs. Ballard continued: “Basil looked at me and said, ‘I’ll go back into a burning house for family pictures, but not that garter. If it’s that important, you need to take it and put it in a lock box at the bank.’”

And that’s exactly what she did, as have many others burdened with the onus of such responsibility.

The Sword

“Be very, very careful with these,” said Joie Morrison as she handed over family photos. “Please don’t let anything happen to them.”

Standing in the hallway of a house that has been owned and lovingly cared for by her family since 1849, and surrounded by heirlooms such as bone china attributed to John James Audubon, a family Bible dating back to 1670, and old Natchez silver made by Natchez silversmith George MacPherson, it is clear that care should, indeed, be taken. The members of this family are keepers of the flame, stewards of history and tradition.

The story of the sword begins at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

“Unfortunately, this is all oral history, as the best stories always are,” said Ruthie Coy, Joie’s cousin and the niece of Joie’s mother, Virginia Lee Beltzhoover Morrison.

According to family lore, the sword was picked up after the battle of Waterloo by a French soldier whose grandson joined the Confederate army and was in Colonel Daniel Beltzhoover’s unit — Watson’s Louisiana Artillery. It was in Vicksburg where the grandson was mortally wounded, and as he lay dying gave it to “Colonel Dan.”

Can’t you just imagine the young soldier, mortally wounded, his lifeblood leaking out onto the Vicksburg soil, gasping, Colonel Dan, suh…cough!

What is it, son?

Mah sword, suh. Please, take it. It belonged to mah grandfathuh at Waterloo. Cough! Suh, guard it with your life!

Later, when Colonel Dan’s horse was shot out from under him, the bullet struck the scabbard of the sword and cracked the sword, itself.

“See, here’s the bullet hole,” said Joie, pointing to the scabbard. She pulled out the sword. “We still have the whole sword, but it broke it right in two.”

Still, the story has a happy ending: the family uses it to cut the family wedding cakes at Green Leaves.

“The first wedding that we know for sure it was used in was my mother and father’s [Ruth Audley Beltzhoover and Richard Conner] wedding in 1945,” said Ruthie Coy, “when he was on leave from the Army Air Corps during World War II. We have an account…of my grandparents’ wedding there in 1891, but no mention of the sword. The latest was my niece, Denise Conner Hiller in 2007.”

But if you want to use the sword to cut your cake, the keepers of the sword agree: get married at Green Leaves. The sword stays put.

The Veil

It was in 1848 when Fanny Turner married Lemuel P. Conner, wearing the beautiful lace veil that would also become a tradition at Green Leaves weddings.

“The weddings have been held at the church, in the parlors, and in the back garden,” said Coy. It was actually a Britton family [of Melrose Plantation] tradition, but then included us again when my mother and father married.”

Denise Conner Hiller, who was also the last to use the sword, was the last to use the veil, as well.
“Denise was the fifth generation to wear it,” said Coy, who included a list of all the family members who have worn the veil.

“My favorite part of the story is how jealous all her girlfriends were because she had all this fabulous ‘old stuff’ for her wedding.”

Ruthie recalled that when Denise wore the veil in 2007, the keepers kept careful watch.

“Oh, she didn’t wear it to the reception,” she said. “As soon as she walked back down that aisle, we snatched it off. Well, not really,” she laughed. She had wedding photos taken in it, but we weren’t going to chance it getting danced on.”

With their careful care the keepers ensured the veil will be here for future generations.

How does a tradition become a tangible link to the past and a generous gift to the future? 

You guard it with your life.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Parchman Prisoners Ponder and Paint

Icarus and His Sons by Michael Orell
Ink and Crayon

One of the artist's themes is that that crime (going too far) is passed down from generation to generation and it is all but impossible the break the cycle.
As many of you may already know, I have a writer friend from Oxford, Mississippi, who teaches writing to prisoners at Parchman Prison.  Louis Bourgeois, whose own memoir — The Gar Diaries — was nominated for the National Book Award, teaches poetry, fiction and memoir to the inmates.  He and his class have just released their second collection, 

Unit 30: New Writings from Parchman Farm.  Click on the link to purchase at Amazon.  The book is very good.  It definitely gives one a glimpse of the humanity behind the inmate, and not only helps the reader to understand, but also helps the inmate get insight into his own life and behavior.  I highly recommend it.

One of Louis's students, Michael Orell is a very talented, self-taught artist.  He'd like to get an art program at the prison and toward that end, is selling some of his work.  The money will go toward the art program.  Louis Bourgeois is trying to help that dream come true and has agreed to offer the artwork for sale through his publishing company, VOX Press.

If you're interested in any of these works, please make payment to:

VOX Press
P.O. Box 2954
Oxford, MS 38655

More artwork below
by Michael Orell
Ink and Crayon

This piece reflects Orell's fascination with pagan mythology

by Michael Orell

Ink and Crayon

This painting demonstrates how Christianity destroyed the beauty of the Native American gods and belief systems.