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Conversation with Mary Russell

Russell, Mary
Butler, Belinda
Date of Interview: 
Relationships with People and Places; Then and Now
Mary Russell recalls her family`s former estate in Michigan and her memories of visiting there.
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
Belinda Butler interviews Charlotteans to collect stories for a class project at UNC Charlotte.
Interview Audio: 
MR (Mary Russell): OK. Are you ready?
BB (Belinda Butler): Ready.
MR: All right. This is the story of Robin Hood. Robin Hood is, uh, or was, way back when, the home of my mother, as she grew up in Alma, Michigan. Um, it was a community that was put together by Englishmen, um, they were all farms, and each one had a name, like Robin Hood or something to do with England. Uh, there was some land, that would have been so many acres per house, and Robin Hood, um, had fond memories for my mother [pause]. But the story I want to tell happens more, um, as I was a little girl, so it was many years later. I was born in 1936. Uh, we were at my grandfather's farm, which was a different farm at that time, but it's still in the same Alma, Michigan, uh, area. And my aunts were all visiting, my uncles, and the cousins were there also. And one of the aunts, or my mother, said, "Let's go see Robin Hood." Well, Robin Hood had been, they moved many years ago from there, uh, so we all piled into the car and went to see Robin Hood. As we drove up to Robin Hood, you could tell it was left to the elements. There was grass, waving in the breeze and it was rather sad, no paint on the house, but you could see it had been a beautiful home at one time. We went up the back porch uh, the well was open, anyone could've fallen into the well, it was in the back porch, or the side porch. Went in, and, uh, it always, Mother had always talked about the staircase and how beautiful it was, and indeed it probably had been. As we walked up the stairs, the window was broken and the shade was flapping in the breeze, and the wallpaper was wet from the rain, and the elements had been coming in for years, as we walked through the home, and I have fond memories of that day, I was probably in the fifth or sixth grade, I would imagine. Um, we went outdoors then, went into the barn, and there was a dead calf in the barn. Now, whether that calf had just wandered in, or whatever I don't know. Uh, we ourselves lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, so we went home, uh, from Grandpa's farm that night. Uh, [pause] and my mother sat down, probably that first week, and she wrote a poem and, uh, the poem tells a lot. My mother's name was, uh, Catherine Berry McGovern. [Pause] The poem is titled, "The Place of my Childhood Dreams": Nearer and nearer my footsteps led me Back to the place of my childhood dreams. Cautiously, I opened the door; I remembered no key had been turned in the lock. Slowly, I entered each battered room And saw the cracked plaster, the discolored walls. Lastly, I ascended the old, open stairway, Once the pride of my joyful, young life. At the landing, I gazed out the window, And there was the woods in the distance--- The woods where we had gathered wildflowers in the spring. And then I remembered our mother's voice calling from somewhere, "Children, be sure to put them in water---'tis cruel to pluck them, and then let them wither and die." Slowly as I had entered, I walked, from the home of my childhood dreams [long pause]. As if from some sacred tomb I'd walked down and out and into the bright sunny spring air. The birds, I could hear them singing. How I had loved any one of those songs. Our favorite rosebush was gone, I saw, And wondered if others had loved it as I. From the distance, the town hall clock was striking, the school bell was ringing, I could hear, from the small town away. Then suddenly, the thought came. The sights and the sounds of the world could go on forever, But the place of my childhood dreams could never again feel the same inside.
BB: It's beautiful.
MR: My mother, um, had a wonderful life, really. Uh, Robin Hood, they moved into Robin Hood as a brand new farm. It burned within the first month that they were there. It was then rebuilt, and they moved in. And I believe, after a time, they really couldn't afford to live there any more. So, they moved to another farm, and lo and behold, that house also caught on fire. Um, as I grew up, we lived in the city until I was in the sixth grade. And Mother and Dad then purchased an old farmhouse, and remodeled this farmhouse, it took al, took almost a year to remodel. It wa, it was a wonderful uh, farm, it had wonderful gardens, as you might tell, my mother was a gardener. Um, when they were still remodeling the house, it was Christmas time, and we still lived in the city, the phone rang uh, whether it did or it didn't, my father said it did. And we went, uh, he said that we had to go out to the farm because, uh, someone had left the light on in the barn. So we piled into the car, Christmas Eve, and it was snowing, so beautiful. Typical, as I remember, dream Christmas Eve. And we went out, and we drove up the driveway, and Daddy went down to the bottom, the barn, and as we opened the door, a horse whinnied. And it was our first horse that we had, it was, uh, a Christmas present. And I still can picture that with the, uh, the light, the outdoor light of the barn and the snow coming down, it was really, beautiful. But, uh, we lived there, we moved in the spring of '48, and uh, February, around February 10 of 1959, I got a call and the house was on fire. It was winter, and of course, there wasn't any water and, uh, they just had water in the tank truck, and the house was gutted out, as a result of that. My father was in the hospital at the time, and he died a month later. So my mother then left our home, and, uh, didn't have a home to go to, and built a home in the city, then, uh, was happy there, although she was lonely, I'm sure. And, uh, created another garden, but was never the same thing. There was a piano that was always in each one of those homes. My sister still has that piano and, uh, still has the best tune of any piano I've ever heard. Sorry for my crackly voice. It's been difficult, but I loved her [pause]. Um, when my mother passed away, she passed away in 1992 and, uh, after her funeral, we went out to the farm. By then it, someone else had built a house on the same spot, what had been a dirt road was then a four-lane highway. We pulled into the driveway, and someone was living in the house, of course, and the barn was still there. I mean the house that they had built on this property. Where there had been a formal garden to the left of the driveway was then, a woods, as time had taken its toll. And, um, the people were very happy to see us. And it was a very healing experience, we walked the property somewhat. We walked down to the creek and the watercress was still growing in the creek as it had as I grew up. Uh, it was interesting that the man was sensitive as we are, and he said that they would go to certain corners of the fields on the property that was sixty-seven acres and, you could still feel Mr. McGovern's presence. And, uh, I liked that [laugh] because my father was a very sensitive man, although he came across as he was being very gruff, he was not [laugh]. OK.