Mother, Madge Baya
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Last update May 14, 2020

Chapter 19: Mother- Madge White Baya (Nee Madge Greenway White)

In addition to the memories below there are also some memories of my mother in Chapter 17: Abingdon, Virginia

My mother was born Madge Greenway White in Abingdon, Virginia in 1907. Actually I think she may have been born in Bristol, Tennessee, but her parents lived in Abingdon

I have never felt comfortable with the word “love”. I am not sure I have ever been “in love”. However, I have had a lot of experiences in life and have read a lot. All things considered I am about as sure that I loved my mother and she loved me as I can be of anything related to love.

From that experience I believe that I have loved others and been loved by them. It’s a good feeling. I wish it were clearer.

Thinking about what to write here has given me some insights. Though I was fairly close to my mother for all the time we shared this world I realize I did not know her very well as a person, as a friend, as a soul mate. I knew her as my mother, a caring person who always wanted what was best for me and behaved accordingly. It’s difficult to see her the way a close friend would see her. I did not hear or know her inner thoughts or how she thought of herself. I knew her from her behavior and the way others responded to her. I will do my best to tell you about her, but I don’t think I can convey what made her so special.

I recall reading a vignette in a book by Baba Ram Dass where a young man set off in search of enlightenment and ended in an Ashram in India for years before returning to the family home in the Midwest. Only his grandmother was there and the first morning he sat at the kitchen table while she made breakfast and told her about his search. He told that he had reached a level in his search where he knew that he needed to be with a truly enlightened being and he had spent years searching for such a mentor. Finally he had given up finding such a person and had now returned to his old home, a failure.  His grandmother’s response was “Would you like some pancakes?”  Hearing her voice, looking at her, was an utterly overwhelming experience. All these years of searching had suddenly ended. He looked at her and said “Grandma, You?”.

That’s kind of the way I feel. I don’t mean that my mother was spiritually enlightened in a way that I could recognize. I mean that she had some inner peace and strength that is beyond my ability to really understand and even more beyond my ability to communicate.

I have talked to many people about their parents. I have read many books, fiction and non-fiction about specific parents, about a wide range of behaviors in relation to their children. In many cases the parents were neurotic or strange in some way. They were sometimes mean, or selfish, or too pushy, or too needy, or too something. These “too muchnesses” of their characters helped define them. I suppose many parents are a kind of force field pushing a child’s growth in some direction the parent preferred, perhaps even unconsciously. Sometimes an adult can look back and see some of those pushes and then have an opinion as to whether they were, all things considered, helpful in their lives.

Here’s one of the confusing things about my memories of my mother. I can’t remember anything neurotic about her. I can’t remember any “too muchness” in her character. I never saw her as petty or mean. I never saw her as unforgiving or particularly pushy. I never saw her as depressed or manic. To me she seemed like a happy well balanced person enjoying her life. If she had any strong unfulfilled desires or strong day to day frustrations, I could not see them. I have to assume that she did sometimes get frustrated, that there were sometimes things that bothered her a lot. I did not see them.

The only clear sign of a frustration I can recall was that on a number of different Mother’s Day she had a particular wish. She asked that for that one day no-one would ask here where anything was. I guess we asked a lot on most days.

It was not that she did not show emotion or seemed cold and distant. My guess is that everyone in my generation who spent a lot of time with her would remember as a very warm empathetic person.  She was kind of a second mother to many.  There were a number of these because after Daddy retired and he and mother moved to Tampa, there were a number of young people, mostly cousins, who spent a lot of time with her. These include my cousins Rosalie, Sara, Kaye and Harriet. She also spent time with my cousin Henry after his mother died and my cousin Markham after his mother died. I think June Kosky was close to mother, and possibly others. I have had conversations with many of them about my mother and all of them considered her to be one of their favorites in my parent generation. I suspect some of them knew her inner self better than I did.

Looking back I guess maybe she spoiled me a little, but not all that much. I think the White family and Baya family had a somewhat old fashioned view that the young men in the family deserved a special kind of treatment and respect. It seemed to me that It was not that males were more important than females in any basic way. Rather it seemed that men were expected to play more public roles related to earning a living and establishing the reputation of their families and they were to be made aware of this early on.

Although I do wonder about the accuracy of my perception I will repeat something I have often said about my confusion with the women’s lib movement of the 70’s and 80’s. I had a hard time understanding it because it seemed to me that women in my parent’s generation were strong independent people. My mother was quite able to stand up for herself. I never felt she was subservient to my father. My aunts, with the exception of my mother’s sister, Aunt Kathleen, all seemed strong people to me. Aunt Rosalie, Aunt Tillie, Bill’s Kathleen, Aunt Harriet, Aunt Mary, and Aunt Clare ( especially Aunt Clare) all seemed like fairly strong independent women to me. Even Aunt Kathleen managed to take care of herself, and help take care of some of her parents’ generation, for many years.

Here is a slightly different perspective. One of my cousins told Phyllis that my mother was a little “ditzy”. This made me realize that I need to add a few comments. I would not choose the word “ditzy”, but I do want to broaden my picture of mother. Mother was intelligent, reasonably clever, and fairly well read. However, she had no pretense to being an intellectual. My father and his cousin, Frances Hosch, each had an intellectual side, as do I, and they had some interesting conversations and debates. Mother might participate at times but she felt no compulsion to do so and had no pretenses in this area. Mother was a fairly good Bridge player and during my childhood we all played a lot of card games and board games. She was not a particularly weak player at any of these.

Though mother kept a reasonably clean house and, was much neater and more organized that I am, I would not call her a well organized person. I don’t think she would have done well as an accountant or any job that required meticulous attention to detail The back porch upstairs in Tampa was a fairly messy confused area and that did not bother her. I’m trying to relate to “ditzy”. Mother was not uptight, far from OCD. She had a fairly relaxed manner and was not easily upset. She could kind of go with the flow when she needed to. That’s the best I can do. I plan to ask my cousins if they can send me any memories of mother and that may add to this picture.

In keeping with “full disclosure” I want to add that I am not offended by my cousin saying my mother was “ditzy”. I can see where that’s coming from. However, in the same light I want to add that it would be equally accurate to call me a bit “goofy”. I accept that too.

Mother had several hobbies in addition to cooking. One was gardening. She spent a fair amount of time taking care of her flowers around the outside of the house in Tampa and she was an active member of her garden club. I was in Tampa several times when the garden club met at 2009 Bayshore – all ladies, mostly around mother’s age, and a happy group from what I could see. Mother also painted things like flower pots and waste baskets. Rather than describe the style I will look for a picture of her work. It used bright colors painted in patterns using stencils to give the shapes. She also corresponded by letter with her siblings, relatives and friends. I have a number of letters that she sent to her mother and her sister Kathleen. She also would sometimes sew things. She had a good sewing machine. I think she could make pretty much anything she wanted to. She also occasionally did knitting and crocheting. She taught these last two to me while we were England. I was not careful enough with knitting and did not like having to undo work to fix and error. I did better with crocheting and made a few things.

Here are a few memories of my mother dealing with me when I was a child.

My parents would occasionally spank Madge or me when they felt the offense was severe enough. I don’t recall that this was frequent, probably less than two or three times a year. I think mother used the back of a hairbrush some times. If I had been particularly bad she might say “Your father will deal with this when he get’s home.” That was really scary. Though the spankings were painful they certainly didn’t leave bruises. I don’t think they were ever done in anger. Keeping in mind how literal I am, and how a child of 4 or 5 does not associate the word “pain” with psychological distress, see if you can understand how upsetting it was to me when mother said, while spanking me, “This is hurting me more than it’s hurting you.” I was enraged. That was a lie. I was probably angry enough to tell her that at the time. We moved to England in the summer of 1950. I turned 11 that year. I don’t recall ever being spanked after we moved to England. Of course my English school did believe in corporal punishment and I got “the strap” a number of times in school.

One time when I was probably about nine years old mother did something that still amazes me. We were living in Fairlington and there were a lot of children in the neighborhood. This experience began about a block from our front door. I got into some kind of confrontation with another boy who was bigger, and I think meaner, than me. I ended up calling him a name ( I wonder what) and took off running. I had a good start and made it to the front door a few seconds ahead of him. I rushed in and slammed the door. Mother was near the door and witnessed my entry. She asked what was going on. I told her that another boy, bigger than me, was chasing me and wanted to hit me. She asked me why he wanted to hit me and I told her that I had called him whatever it was that I had said. She told me that I could not run away from things like that and I had to deal with it. She opened the door, pushed me out, and closed the door behind me. I think I was shocked by this. The other kid hit me and I cried. Then I was allowed back in.

I think my mother did all she could to raise me to become a southern gentlemen, like the men of her parents’ generation and her brothers. Uncle Jimmy was a classic southern gentleman in my mind, and compared to me, so was my Uncle Bill. Mother did the best she could with the material at hand and I do have a few gentlemanly attributes. However, I don’t think I was in a very supportive culture for that in my youth (England and Venezuela had their own cultural force fields unique to the particular situation I was in) and MIT did not help either. Looking back I suspect that being a little more uptight than I am might have lowered the odds of my first divorce happening and might have helped my professional career – but that’s not something I could have done much about and is completely irrelevant now.

Here are some other memories of my mother

My mother told the story of my father driving her to the hospital for my birth. Mother was in the back seat, moaning. My father said “Lie down Madge!” and, as mother tells it, she replied “Lie down hell!, That’s what got me into this condition in the first place.”  True or not the fact that she told this story tells something about my mother. Mother also told me that there were some problems with Madge’s birth and the doctor told her that she should not have any more children. It was too risky. Mother told me that I was completely her idea. She wanted another child and she chose to do so. She had not asked for my father’s agreement.

I went to Mobile last year (2019) to visit my cousin Emery on his 70th birthday. While there my son Paul and I were discussing one of the fish Emery had mounted on his wall. It was a good-sized bass, maybe 8 pounds or so. Emery told us his story. He was fishing off the dock at church lake when he was 10 or 12 or so (I should ask him how old he was) and he hooked this large bass and reeled it into the dock. This may have been the largest fish ever caught off that dock. It was a big deal to everyone there at the time and Emery reeled it in where everyone could see it splashing around at the end of the fishing line near the dock.  Emery did not want to try lift it out of the water with the fishing pole for fear that the line might break. He was yelling for someone to get a net.  Mother was there and saw the large fish. She immediately waded out into the water, grabbed the fish with both hands and carried it back to the cabin.

I sent the above paragraph to Emery and he replied with the text below:

I’m glad to hear of your project and hope I’ll get to see it one day. Catching the bass is one of my fondest memories of the lake. I’m not sure exactly how old I was, 10 is probably the best guess. The fish was close to 8 lbs., I seem to remember 7 ¾. I was sitting on the dock, looking down at the water, and the fish swam under the dock right below me. There was a fishing pole in a rod holder at the end of the dock with a dead shiner on it. (That was typical. We would put a live shiner on the hook beneath a cork, and the shiner would die.) I remember thinking that I had to reel it in real fast so I could put a live shiner on it. Reeling it in must have given the bait a lot of action, because it caught the bass’s attention and he swam to it fast and bit. I was able to fight the fish and reel it close to shore and that’s when I yelled for help. Your mother waded out in the lake and “scooped” it up on to the shore.  Emery

My mother was a very good cook. I think she was known to be the best cook in the White family. I did not realize what a good cook she was until I was an adult and began to have meals in other homes, including my own. I have known other good cooks (Phyllis is the best of these) but I think mother was even better.  I think she loved cooking. I read a book called “The Five Languages of Love”. Two of them were “Acts of Service” and “Gifts”.  I think mother’s cooking was a big part of the way she expressed love. I loved her for it, and I loved what she cooked..

Though mother was a great cook she did not pass this skill on to the next generation. Neither I nor my sister were interested in cooking growing up. After I was divorced from Bonnie it seemed appropriate that I should learn something about cooking. Mother gave me a set of cookbooks and some of her recipes written out on 4”x 6” cards. I did not make much effort back in my apartment in Hastings. However, one time when I was visiting in Tampa I decided that it would be good to have mother teach me how to make some of the things she made that I particularly liked. She was more than willing.  We decided to start with rolls. She did not have a recipe, it was all in her head. I took notes as I went through the steps. All went pretty well though I was bothered by things like “a pinch of salt’. How much is a pinch? A big pinch? We got through this and eventually the rolls were put in the oven at the temperature she told me. I asked how long to cook them and she replied “Until they are done.”  That did not work for me. I wanted a time. She said she did not know the time but gave me a very rough estimate and said that regardless of the time I should cook them until they were done and no longer. I said I did not know how to tell if they were done.  She said that I should look at them. I said that I would not be able to tell if they were done.  She hit me. This was a shock. She did not hit me hard enough that it hurt, but it was not a gentle tap. It was clearly a strong rebuke. That did it for me. I decided I would not pursue having her teach me how to cook.  The basic problem, as I saw it, was that much of mother’s cooking skill, regardless of how it was learned, was now what seemed to her like common sense. She did say that she would sometimes vary recipes if she felt like it. I did learn how to make corn beef stew and I had a recipe for Sally Lunn bread that I used a few times.

Mother would sometimes make jams and jellies. She would seal them in jars and they would keep for years. Some years she would make a lot ( like 24 or 48 little jars) of guava jelly and I think the jelly was still good a number of years later. I love guava jelly.

For many, perhaps most, of the years that we lived in the U.S. mother would visit Abingdon for a week or more in the summer. When Madge and I were young she would often take us with her, either on the train, or being driven down by my father. He would usually stay for the weekend before going back to Fairlington. After Daddy retired to Tampa he began to go with my mother for these visits. They would drive up from Tampa, usually spending two days each way.

After I was divorced I would sometimes fly down to Tampa and drive up to Abingdon with them. I think I did this at least 3 or 4 times. I would do a lot of the driving. I would stay for a few days, in Abingdon and then fly back to New York. I loved these trips. It would be just the three of us in the car and we had good conversations. Mother would often sit in the back seat. She had an orange makeup kit ( I think it was part of the luggage set we got when Daddy had made a down payment for a Tucker car) that she took on trips. I believe she put on some makeup, and maybe perfume, almost every day – even when we had spent the night in a motel. I have strong memories of mother sitting in the back seat of the car doing her nails. When I smell nail polish those memories return. They are happy memories.

On these trips from Tampa to Abingdon Daddy would lay out a trip plan with tentative plans for where we would spend the night and a schedule for when we would leave each morning (ETD expected time of departure) and when we would stop in the afternoon (ETA Expected time of arrival). He was not pushy about these times and we often ignored them. Coming up from Tampa I think we often stopped around Macon, Georgia. We would stop fairly early, maybe around 4 PM. Move our stuff into the motel room and then have drinks with ice before supper. I don’t remember the evening meals much. We probably ate at the motel restaurant. Mother usually made sandwiches for the first day of the trip, and had other snacks like carrots and apples.

I remember one of the motels where we stayed at least twice. It had a separate little chapel that could seat around 20 people. I remember spending 20 to 30 minutes in that chapel with mother. I think we talked some and also just sat in the silence. Another happy memory.

I recall a particular experience on one of these trips. It was probably in 1980 or 1981. We were on the second day of the trip and stopped for lunch at something like a Waffle house. It was a cold blustery day and we had to walk across the parking lot through the wind. Mother and daddy were walking together in front of me, kind of huddled together. I remember thinking how old and frail they were. I felt good about being able to look after them a little at least for a few days. The image of a candles in the wind came to me I envisioned my job right then as to do what I could to keep the wind from blowing out the flames of their lives. I was about 41 and they were about 73.

Here is a little about what I know of my mother’s life before she married my father. I think she was the fourth of the six surviving children (one died at birth). I think Aunt Mary and mother were especially talented and attractive young women. Aunt Harriet may have been also. Aunt Kathleen was sickly and was sent to live with her father’s sisters, Annie and Maggie, in Abingdon. I’ve seen pictures of mother when she was a young woman and I think she was beautiful. She was, I think, about 5’ 5” tall and somewhat busty and full figured. She grew up in Abingdon and attend both the junior colleges for women there, Martha Washington College (which is now the Martha Washington Inn) and another junior college whose name I don’t remember (William King?). So far as I know none of the four sisters went to a four year college.

My mother’s father, WYC White, had an interesting life and I hope to write what little I know. I infer that he did not live up to his promise and the expectations of his family – which may have been quite a burden and may explain some of his history. I believe he was a kind of bon vivant by Abingdon standards and may have been an alcoholic  I believe the family was looking for a viable career for him. At one point they arranged for him to manage a farm an hour or so from Abingdon. The farm was called Greenfield and is not too far from Glade Spring.  He and his family moved out to the farm and lived there for several years. Aunt Kathleen was sent to live with her aunts in Abingdon.  It did not work out and he eventually moved back into Abingdon. However, I think this experience had a significant impact on my mother. I think the Whites of Abingdon during her childhood were part of the top level of society in the area. They were probably somewhat elitist and snobby. My guess is that the two years on the farm helped them to see themselves as less privileged and entitled. It seemed to me that mother had a kind of earthy side that allowed her get in the mud, work with animals, and deal with people from all walks of life. I’m guessing the farm experience helped nurture this side of her. I think she was in her early to mid-teens when she lived on the farm.

My mother met my father at a VMI dance around 1923 or 1924. They were both 16 or 17 years old. They did not marry till 1935 but I think my father continued to court her most of those years.

At some point mother moved to New York City and lived there for a couple of years. I think this was another experience that significantly shaped who she was. This would have been around 1928. She did not tell me a lot about this part of her life and my memories are vague, but I will write what I recall. She lived in a nice big home on Gramercy Park, which is in the Greenwhich village part of the city. The Village then, as now, was the heart of the avant-garde artists and musicians, not to mention the Gay community. The roaring 20’s, Jazz and the blues were in full swing.  Mother lived with an older male relative who I believe acted as her guardian and chaperone to some extent. Though I don’t think she lead what I would call a wild life, I am sure it was a lot different from the life in Abingdon for a young woman her age. She was young, beautiful, spirited and had what I consider to be a lovely southern accent. She had a job as a greeter at Bergdorf Goodman. Bergdorf Goodman was then kind of at the top of the food chain for ladies garments and I think mother’s job was partly to welcome customers and communicate the sense of upper class associated with the store.

I believe the experience of two years in New York gave mother a kind of worldliness and sensibility that allowed her to deal with a wide variety of people, including gay people and eccentrics, that stayed with her. Though I sometimes felt my father saw me as different enough from him to be a little strange, I never got that feeling from my mother. I think my father went up to visit her in New York several times while she was there.

Mother’s accent was an interesting “tell” about who she was. For much of my life I did not recognize it as an accent, but later on I did. When I moved to Abingdon in 2004, mother had been dead since 1981 and I did not remember her accent. One day I was in a store in Abingdon when I heard a woman, somewhat elderly, speaking in an identical accent. It was not that her voice would be confused with mother’s, it was that it was the same accent. I would classify it as an upper class southwest Virgina accent with a slight hint of the accent of the eastern shore of Virginia and Maryland. I have some tape recordings of mother and some of her generation but so far the sound quality is so bad that I am hesitant to spend time working with them. I do have one little recording of mother singing a short song. Here is a link to that (Click for Oyster song ).

Here is yet another perspective on my mother’s mind. My math teacher at Colegio Americano in Caracas, Richard Brian, was very strong in math and I was one of his better students. At one point he gave me a math problem to work on. I did not get far. I had a drawing to use to explain the problem. Here is a verbal statement that approximates what I recall of the problem:

There is a hallway 4 feet wide. There are two ladders in the hall way, one is 8 feet long and the other is 6 feet long. The longer ladder has its base against the right wall and the top is leaning on the left wall. The shorter ladder has its base against the left wall and the top leaning against the right wall.  The two ladders are side by side so that they touch. The problem is to determine the distance from the bottom of the intersection of the two ladders to the floor. [ I could put a picture in, but I hope you get the idea]

I showed this problem to my father when I got home and he said he would like to work on it. At dinner time he told me that he had computed the distance. We explained the problem to Madge and mother using the drawing. Mother said she could find the answer. My father scoffed (great word, this may be the first time I’ve used it), and said “Madge, you can’t solve this. You would have to know some trigonometry and algebra to figure this out and I don’t think you know either.” Mother replied that she could solve this problem. My father said “prove it.”.Mother said that it would take her a little while and she would do it between the end of dinner and serving desert. She said we should leave her alone while she did it and that she would call us when she had the answer.

Fifteen or 20 minutes later mother called us back into the dining room. My father unfolded the paper in his pocket which had his calculations.  He said “OK Madge, what is the answer.”  Mother looked down at her piece of paper and gave an answer. [Since I don’t know the correct answer I’ll just make some numbers and you have to assume they relate to the correct answer.] Mother said “2 feet and 8 inches”. My father looked at his answer and said “Well, that’s pretty close. The correct answer if 2 feet and 7.473 inches. I’d say you did something right. How did you do that?” Mother then showed us that she had made a model of the hallway from cardboard shirt backs and scotch tape. She made everything in inches rather than feet. She cut two pieces for the ladder, to the same scale, and used a ruler to measure the distance from the intersection to the floor. I was very impressed. Though I never thought my mother was a math whiz, I recognized a native kind of intelligence that I did not think was all that common. I think I always looked at her a little differently after than experience.

I believe my personality was strongly shaped by my mother as well as my father. I think a lot of my common sense, what there is of it, was from her as well as the more human side of me, the one that cares about others and empathizes with them. My love of children may also reflect her influence.

Mother, and my father to a lesser extent, would often recall and tell stories about some incident in the past, often involving a relative. The thing is that over the years it became such that I would have heard well over 75% of these stories at least once in the past, and often many times. It wasn’t like she would tell the same story twice during one of my visits to Tampa.  The next telling of the same story would be on a later visit, maybe a year later. I was a little bothered by this at first. I came to the view that the frequency of the repetition was a reflection of how important mother thought it was for me to remember that story. I don’t think it was conscious.

When I would visit Abingdon with mother we would sometimes drive around town, perhaps on an errand, or perhaps to show me a place with an associated story.  As we drove she would point out particular houses where cousins or friends had lived. I can still remember some of the stories and sometimes even the particular house associated with the story. We would also visit people. We walked up the hill from Kathleen’s house to Roger Stuart’s house where we visited with his wife. I remember that she had a large harp in the living room. Sometimes we would walk over the hill to visit with Ann Tilson’s in the house that had been built by, I think, the original James White, my first Abingdon Ancestor (or maybe by his son). We also visited other friends of mother’s. One was Andrew Rowan Summers. I have written about him in my memories of Abingdon. Another was Frances Moore, my friend Jimmy Moore’s mother.Yet another was Beth Brown I have forgotten) who was the mother of Chris and Peter Brown who are mentioned in my Abingdon memories.

One year I was visiting with mother in Abingdon when the Martha Washington College had a reunion at the left wing of the Martha Washington inn. There were quite a few women there around my mother’s age and I felt especially welcome as a young man.