Three Sisters, an Interview by Terry Engel
May 2, 1998
Mazie Louise Robinson died on April 28, 1998, leaving [at that time] three daughters, three sons, twenty-six grandchildren, forty-two great-grandchildren, and five great-great grandchildren. One daughter died shortly after birth and another in 1965. Her husband died in 1936, two months before her last daughter was born, in the heart of the Depression. She never remarried, and except for occasional visits to family, she spent her entire life, ninety-five years, within a few miles radius of St. Florian and Florence, Alabama.
Florence sits above the Tennessee River in the curve where it turns to the north and flows into Tennessee and Kentucky and empties into the Ohio. The land is a red dirt plateau, but where it breaks to fall into the river there are steep hollows lined with hardwoods and clear creeks punctuated by gravel shoals and blue holes.
The day after the funeral, her three living daughters—Christine (‘tine) Wright [1924-2013], 74, of Detroit, Michigan; Elizabeth (Libo) Bennett, 67, of Florence, Alabama; and Peggy Engel, 62, of Tupelo, Mississippi–sat down to talk about what they remembered of their mother and father and growing up during the depression. The interview took place in Elizabeth’s kitchen, just a few feet from the apartment addition that Louise Robinson’s children built for her and where she spent the last six years of her life. Christine talked as she packed to return home to Detroit. Elizabeth had just come back from the cemetery.
The first house I remember . . . the first house that we lived in was a sharecropper’s little house at St. Florian. My daddy was a farmer and he sharecropped with Mr. Johnson, and we lived in, I guess it was a little three room house. It was me and James, my brother, and Norma Jean and Elizabeth, my two sisters at that time.
We moved from there to a little farm which had a little two room house and he farmed for Mr. Kreiger in St. Florian. They grew wheat and potatoes and he drove the tractor and farmed. From there he went to work on the Wilson Dam [a flood control and hydroelectric dam on the Tennessee River, built by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)] when it first was being built. From there we moved several places. We moved to different locations, small houses that we rented.
He became a lineman. His trade was a lineman, and he had worked up until that time–it was during the depression at that time, 1939–he got without work, and he didn’t work for a while, and we moved into a big tent. I guess it was a sixteen by twenty-four. It was a huge tent. One end of it was the living quarters and the other end was the cooking quarters and it was framed up from the middle of the tent, but it had a dirt floor. We only stayed there one fall, until it got real cold, and he bought an acre of land from a lady in Ohio for $13 for the back taxes. He began to build a little house on it, and it was one day before–she had a year to redeem it–and one day before the year was up she redeemed that acre of land and we had to move that little house over into the edge of the neighbor’s woods until we could find another acre of land or whatever we wanted to buy.
In the meantime he went back to work for TVA. He only worked a few weeks–we still lived in this little house in the edge of the woods. It was two rooms and it didn’t even have the windows in it because he was building it himself. We lived in it two weeks or maybe three and he got without work again; they laid him off, and so he was out of work at that time, and he went to help his neighbor kill the hogs and hang them in the loft of the barn. Since he was a lineman he climbed up to take down the tackle and pulley that they pulled the hogs up with, and he either had a heart attack–the coroner thought he had a heart attack–but he fell. When he went to take the tackle down he called Mr. Peters twice. He said, “John, John,” and by that time he fell forward.
When the coroner got there he said he thought he’d had a heart attack, or otherwise, if he had a fell he would have landed maybe on his feet. He would have tried to caught, but he didn’t try to catch. He just fell forward and broke his collar bone or his neck. He fell out of the loft and he was pronounced dead right then when the coroner got there.
My mother had at that time all of us children. There was six children, and the baby girl, Peggy, had not been born. She was born two months after that. But anyway, we were all in that little house that he’d built, and we left there after his funeral. They come and got us and took us to our grandfather’s house, Willard Jaynes. He moved us to Florence on Highway 72, at his house, and we stayed there until they could move our little house, which was two rooms, through the field on wagons. My grandfather Bob Robinson gave us an acre of his property. That’s where we located the house.
Grandfather Willard Jaynes, my mother’s dad, was a carpenter, so he built us another long room onto that house that my dad had started. So we had two long rooms and a little kitchen, and that’s where we stayed. That’s where we grew up. We stayed until we all began to get married and moved away. My mother lived there with my baby sister Peggy until about 1948 or ‘49.
Elizabeth: I can remember the night that he got killed, a little bit. I can remember that mama had supper cooked. She had fried salt meat, and she told us that she wasn’t going to let us eat until he got there. Then she seen that light coming across the fields and she thought it was him. She said, “Here comes your dad. We’ll eat now.”
But then Miss Peters come to the door, and she said that Walter had a–Happy, she called my daddy Happy–said he’d had a accident and they was coming to take him to the hospital. But when she got back home he was already dead. They probably carried him to the hospital. I don’t know whether they did or not. I can’t remember that much about it. But I do know–I can’t remember if we eat then or what. I just can’t remember all about it. I was about five.