Friday, November 4, 2011

A house with a story to tell: Jan. 26, 2003

Before we married, Jim and I bought an unremarkable little dump of a house that turned out to have a pretty remarkable history. After I wrote a column ruminating on the little bit I knew about our house, people started getting in touch with me to fill in the blanks.

For a girl who lives for a good story, that was a terrific gift.

The history of my house is a story with heart

    My grandmother is really into genealogy. Two summers ago she came all the way from Florida to attend the Darwin family reunion in Dayton, Tenn. She said it felt strange, sitting in a room with all those people, knowing she was related to each of them.

    My mom, who went with her, said it just looked to her like a bunch of strangers, and she didn’t feel a thing. I’m with Mom on that one. I figure we’re all related if you go back far enough, and people I’ve never met are no more or less interesting to me just because we’re kin.

    Lately, however, I’ve developed an interest in a sort of secondary genealogy. It’s not based on bloodlines or last names, but on an address.

    I own and love an old, crooked house. After my husband and I moved in six years ago, we found a rolled-up high school diploma in the attic written out to Mary Jo Thompson and dated 1918. Last summer, after I wrote a column about my house and the diploma, people began writing me letters, calling and stopping by to tell me about the woman whose diploma I had found.

    I’ve learned a lot about Mary Jo through these stories. I know she grew African violets and made fantastic chocolate rum balls for her book club every Christmas. She had a baby grand piano in her tiny living room. She never learned to drive and took the bus everywhere, including to her job as a secretary for Judge Sam A. Connor. She had an 8-foot-tall mahogany headboard she bought for $75 at a Ninth Street antiques store; my neighbor bought it from Mary Jo’s daughter and still has it.     

    But every story about Mary Jo always comes back to one thing: She was completely devoted to her son, Bud, who was born with Down syndrome in a time when little was known about the disorder, and few school or work options existed for people who had it.

    "Mary Jo really lived her whole life for Bud," said Bettye Seepe, a lifelong friend of the family and Judge Connor’s granddaughter. "She was a lovely little woman, but she was so strong."

    In 1925, when she was 25 years old, Mary Jo built a two-bedroom cottage in North Chattanooga with her first husband. They had a daughter, Carolyn, in 1929, but divorced a few years later. When she remarried, it was to a man named Edward Parker. They had a son, Edward Parker Jr., in 1939, and called him Bud.

    Mary Jo was determined to give Bud every chance at a happy, productive life. She and her husband were part of a small group of parents who founded the Orange Grove School in 1953.     

    "Everybody just loved Mary Jo," recalls Betty Jo Smith, whose mother was Mary Jo’s first cousin. "She was so patient and good to Bud. And she wanted to help other children, too."

    Bud attended Orange Grove School and, when he was old enough, worked at the school making pens. Every month, Mary Jo called each member of the Orange Grove board of directors to find out if they planned to attend the next meeting.

    "She did that from the first time the board met until her death," said Hal Baker, the deputy director of Orange Grove. "She would call everyone, then call the school and say who was coming. They relied on her. She was their conscience."

    In 1964, Mary Jo was named the Mother of the Year by the executive committee of the Chattanooga Council for Retarded Children Inc. of Orange Grove School. Her devotion to her son and to Orange Grove helped Bud thrive, Mrs. Smith said.

    "Bud was a delight," Mrs. Smith said. "He had a wonderful sense of humor."

    From the time Bud was born, Mary Jo had one great fear, Mrs. Seepe said.

    "Mary Jo had a horror of leaving Bud," she said. "She hoped she would live longer than he would so he would not have to leave her."

    After Mary Jo’s husband died in 1974, she and Bud lived in this house until the late 1980s, when Mary Jo became ill. Mrs. Seepe remembers visiting them in those last years.

    "This house, I remember, when I would come to see Mary Jo and Bud, it just radiated love," she said.

    When Mary Jo died in 1990 at age 90, it was with the knowledge that Bud would be cared for. Throughout his life, she had done everything she could to make sure that would happen. She left the house and its furnishings to Carolyn. The house sold quickly to a family friend. Everything else went for Bud’s care.

    Bud, who was 51 when his mother died, moved to an Orange Grove group home. His housemother loved him dearly, Mrs. Smith said, and she still takes flowers to the graves of Bud and his parents.

    Bud lived nine years after his mother’s death, and passed away in 1999 age 60. His sister, Carolyn, who had long since settled in Texas, died in 2001.

    In January 1997, I wandered through this house with the man who would become my husband. The place was in sad shape, in need of everything from new wiring and plumbing to central heat and air. I wanted it almost immediately.

    My husband and I have loved this place, and we have put everything we have into renovating it. But Mary Jo lived nearly 65 years in these rooms. In some ways, this house is still very much hers. I have a neighbor who has lived more than 40 years on our block. When I invited him in recently to see the addition we’ve built, he looked around and grinned, shaking his head.

    "It’s just amazing what you’ve done with Mrs. Parker’s house," he said.

    Sometimes, as I read my son to sleep in the bedroom that was Bud’s, or stir a pot in the kitchen where Mary Jo must have cooked thousands of meals, I think maybe I know why my grandmother came all the way from Florida to sit in a room full of Darwins she’d never met before.

    I never met Mary Jo, I never will, but I feel connected to her, to her history, to this house.

    And I have the strongest sense sometimes that she is still here, in the most benevolent way. 

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