October 16, 2010 10:11:00 PM
Birney Imes - [email protected]
Chances are if you''ve ever gotten a letter from my mother-in-law, you did with it exactly what I''ve done with those she''s written me, you kept it.
Come Halloween, Marguerite or Rety, as she''s known by her friends, Granny, as she''s known by her grandchildren, will be 91 years old.
Her health is failing and though her letter writing days may be few, the memory of a well-lived life remains clear and in sharp focus for her.
"Are you kidding?" she responded to a question about what hospital she was born in. "That was 90 years ago; you didn''t go to a hospital."
The third of four spirited children born to a railroad man and a wise woman (her characterization) in Trezevant, Tenn., Marguerite Ryan Hickel grew up in a world where a vivid imagination was a child''s best friend. In a column years back I wrote of a series of expressions Marguerite and her siblings developed and used throughout their lives: One would assume from "Fat as Mert" that Mert was, well, large; serving biscuits "Pearl style" meant you were serving them just as their housekeeper served them, from the pan they were cooked in and "shake up the phone Callie, I can''t hear you" is something you say when you can''t hear someone, on the phone or otherwise. You see, Rety''s next door neighbor had a sister named Callie and once ... well, you can imagine.
After graduating valedictorian at Trezevant High, Rety moved to Memphis where at the tender age of 17 she enrolled in Miss Wylie''s Office Training School. There under the tutelage of a "bossy ole maid," who required her students to wear gloves and hats, she learned shorthand, typing, bookkeeping, spelling, English and business law.
After nine months with Miss Wylie, Rety landed a job with an outfit called International Distributors. She was a stenographer writing letters about, among other things, defective rubber goods. Her attitude about that job changed when Agnes Rutledge, a co-worker, explained there were black girls upstairs rolling prophylactics.
"Here I was, 18 years old from a town that never had or ever would have more than 800 people, and I was selling prophylactics and didn''t have sense enough to know what I was doing."
She still seems a little embarrassed about it.
She then went to National Screen Services, an outfit that handled movie promotions, trailers and posters. There she met a shipping clerk named A.D., the man she would eventually marry.
She quit work in 1947, after she got pregnant with her first son, Ryan. Her new family moved in with her mother and her little brother, Joe, so she could take care of her mother. Two more children followed. To say she quit working, as any mother will tell you, is an insult. She quit her job and shouldered a lot more work and responsibility.
A.D. was trying but not having much luck selling Monroe calculators. A brother-in-law told him he ought to try cars, and at Jimmy Payne Volkswagen, A.D. found his groove. Eventually he had a chance to buy a dealership in Columbus that became Hickel Motors.
"I loved Columbus always," Rety said. "I liked the size of it, the fact they were trying to preserve the old things. The people were a lot more talented, and everything they did, they tried to do well."
What Rety did well was parenting. She is a wise and loving mother.
"I had good parents, good patterns to follow," she explained. "Mama let it be known early on that we were the most important things in her life.
"My children were the most important things in my life. I think you have to have a pattern somewhere."
Sometime in the early 70s Rety volunteered and found herself head of the Baptist Mission Center, which amounted to a few well-meaning women in an abandoned house on Southside handing out cast-off clothes to the needy.
When the local FBI agent told A.D. that his wife was working in a dangerous part of town, she replied, "You tell Lynn Smith to mind his own business."
"I learned a lot," she says about the Mission Center experience.
"I learned how shallow my Christianity was; I learned how difficult it is to pull a person out of that environment and I learned that there are people who are grown and have never had someone say to them, ''I love you.''"
About her letter writing, she says "like topsy it grew.
"I''ve always written notes to people; it just got to be one of the things I did."
Margaret Lewis, a friend, told her her letter writing was a form of ministry, that not everyone could do it.
As her brother Joe was dying of cancer in Memphis, Rety wrote him a letter every day for two years. We have those letters; they offer an eloquent and loving account of the lives of our children during those years.
"I have a memory of waking up early and my mother was already up typing," said daughter Beth. "It was like somebody playing the piano, the typing, the back spacing, her throwing the carriage. Her fingers just flew."
"I used to write Mable Whitfield and Bill (Mabel''s husband) said he had saved every one of my letters," said Rety.
David Owen, a close friend of Rety''s youngest son, J., would tell you the same thing.
"You just write like you talk, Rety says, just like you''re having a conversation with somebody. We were taught by Miss Wylie to make everything clear."
"When did you realize you had this gift?" I asked my mother in law.
"I still haven''t realized it," she answered.
You may have not realized it, Granny, but there are a lot of us who do. And I''d be willing to bet those who received your written offerings of love still have them and, given the chance, would thank you for them one last time.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.