She said as an orphaned child she prayed every year for Santa to bring her a baby doll for Christmas. She said, she just knew he would do it. So on every Christmas morning, she’d jump up full of anticipation and run to the tree with the rest of the children. They would be giggling, talking, and opening their presents, but there was never anything there for her. She said later, the Good Lord gave her seven baby dolls. She believed in Santa until the day, she died. She said he was a spirit. She had seven boys, two sets of twins. She had a few adopted sons as well. She nursed not only her biological children, but also neighboring babies whose mothers couldn’t provide all the milk they needed.
One of the orphans she took in was my Uncle Doug. He was two weeks old when his Mama (Cora Mae’s daughter-in-law) died. His Gramma loved and cared for him for every day of 15 years until she died in 1969 at the age of 70.
She also frequently took in two wayward family members, J.D. Ross Jr. and Clinton Harris. I’m sure there will be a story or two about those characters here eventually.
Another orphan she took in was a boy named Avent Johnson. One of her sons, Suggs brought the boy home to the farm one day. He was one of two little, black, orphaned boys, brothers, who were dancing for pennies on the city streets for their subsistence. Whatever happened to Avent’s brother, I don’t know, someone said he rode a bicycle around town throughout his adulthood, again, I don’t know. Back in the day when Avent came to live with my family it was probably unprecedented. This was long before the Civil Rights Movement and in the day of Jim Crow, but Avent came, and there he was. He lived in a little room off of the back of the house. Gleaning from what I’ve been told, he was always trying to fit into the family in work, in play, etc… Cora told my uncle one time that she was sitting in a rocker by the fireplace and he was standing behind her. She said he ask her, if he could lay his hand on her shoulder. She told him yes. He was just a child, he needed to be loved, he needed affection, and Cora was his mother figure. During his school days, he never missed. At the age of seventeen or eighteen, during WWII, I believe, he left Cora’s house and attended college. I don’t know how or where. Some people told me he made a doctor, and others said he made a school teacher. I guess that will always be a mystery. I think, I was told he ended up in either North or South Carolina. He was one of only two people raised by Cora including her sons that finished high school and got a college education (the other being my Uncle Doug).
Cora had lost two sons before it was her time to step across the veil. First, she lost one of her twins, Ruben Dee when he was about four months old. He was the twin brother to Rufus Lee, whom she also lost, but much later during WWII. By all accounts, Ruben was a sickly child. She was given the medical advice of the time to switch him off breastmilk and give him other things. He contracted a gastrointestinal ailment which eventually lead to his death.
It was said Cora always regretted her decision to follow that advice, and never again would any of her babies go without her milk. I had some advice passed down to me on the matter. She, like me was gifted with a particular problem of over production and forceful let-down when it came to nursing. She said the best thing for it was to “find you a toddler to take off the first of the milk, then it will calm down and your baby can suckle comfortable.” This was given to me by my grandma (my grandfather eventually remarried, but that’s a story for another time). My grandma, like Cora was a breastfeeding advocate. At a time when doctors were telling young mothers to choose formula instead, she was a the public health office handing out handwritten pamphlets encouraging mothers to breastfeed and offering help for them to do so.
Speaking of women’s health matters, I often wondered what it was like for Cora to give birth to all those babies, especially the twins in her small country homestead in rural Mississippi. She had told that the first birth was the hardest. My Uncle Frank took a long time in coming and it took her weeks to recover. By the time she had her last, she joked that she was out in the fields hoeing by the end of the day. I was never quite sure if that was a jest or not, she was an extraordinarily tough woman.
And she had to be. Orphaned herself at the age of six, she went to live with her older brother and his young family. She was well-loved, but hard-worked, and never quite got to be a child herself. She grew up to love children, though, which is good because she had more than her share of them, and all boys at that! Her husband, Rufus, my great-grandfather was not around overmuch. He was an interesting character. In addition to battling TB after serving in the First World War, he had a nervous condition. He spent a good many years on “The Nervous Farm” and seemed to be home only often and long enough to impregnate his tired wife and return to the institutions which sustained him.
Cora Mae managed the house, worked the farm, raised the kids, volunteered in her community, regularly attended church and did this until the day she died. From the little orphan girl, she somehow raised herself up to be a mother in every sense of the word. She did it in absolute poverty, in the deep rural countryside, but she was strong and she made something amazing out of her life, and continues to be an inspiration to her many, many offspring: well over 60 souls by my last count.