Growing up, I thought my family, the Cartners, were the real world equivalent of television’s Walton family. My dad was number five of ten children that spanned twenty years from oldest to youngest. Almost every Sunday and definitely every holiday they and their spouses and children converged on the house where they grew up in Harmony, North Carolina. Eventually, there were twenty of us first cousins contributing to the chaos.
When I was very young I would hurry from the car to my Grandpa Cartner’s chair in the living room. He almost always had one or two of us grandkids on his knee, checking the top pocket of his overalls for Juicy Fruit gum. If he happened to run out, he would send us into the kitchen to ask Grandma Cartner for another pack. She kept them in the cabinet out of our reach in a repurposed Jif Peanut Butter jar. We would take the pack and head back in to the living room to have Grandpa open it and distribute it to us kids.
We would play on the floor, listening to all of the menfolk talk about farming and sports while our grandmother, mothers, and aunts laid out a spread on the kitchen table. The combined smell of roasted meat, savory casseroles, and sumptuous desserts would have us asking, “How much longer?” every five minutes until it was finally time for us to line up for Sunday dinner. Quieting down 35 or 40 Cartners was no small task. Grandpa Cartner would accomplish it with a whistle or a shout and then we would bow our heads as he blessed us and the food with a prayer.
The kitchen table could only sit about eight or ten, so we sat at card tables, held food on our laps out on the back carport glider, settled wherever we could find a spot, and ate in shifts. The youngest got to go first, which was pretty cool …. until I got older.
I’m not sure I knew how lucky I was to have this large tight-knit family, until I experienced the loss of a huge part of it. When I was only five years old, tragedy struck on the eve of Father’s Day. Normally a day they would all gather at the V-Point Community Center for the Cartner Reunion, instead all ten children gathered in a hospital waiting room on Father’s Day. Their Daddy, my Grandpa Cartner, had fallen the day before from a load of hay to the ground, hard as concrete from years of foot and tractor traffic. He landed on the back of his head and never regained consciousness. He passed away on June 20th, 1970.
I remember my Daddy calling my brother, Curtis, into my bedroom, having us sit side-by-side on my bed, and telling us with tears in his eyes that our Grandpa was gone. I was too young to really understand what that meant, but I sure did miss the man’s lap, the Juicy Fruit, and the silver dollars he gave me on my birthdays. Those are really my only memories of him. I wish I’d had the privilege of knowing him better. He had to be one special man to have had my Grandma, Mildred Cartner, as a wife.
My Grandpa had been married once before my Grandma. He’d fathered four children with Lois, his first wife. The fourth birth on September 8th, 1934 had not gone well and Lois died eighteen days after the birth of her only son, Johnny. She left three daughters, Mildred (born October 31st, 1928), Alene (born June 16th, 1931) and Nancy (born March 18, 1933) behind as well, all under the age of seven. My Grandpa had his hands full. A cousin, Dora, moved in to help with the children so my Grandpa could continue to run the farm.
Twenty-one year old Mildred Anderson went to church with the twenty-nine-year-old widower, Clayton Cartner. She admired the fact that he corralled all those kids and got them to church every Sunday. As she watched the way he marshaled on with his life, she found herself wanting to help. Word of her interest was passed to Clayton and the two began a three month courtship. Fifteen months after he lost his first wife, Clayton proposed to Mildred on a big flat rock at a rock quarry. When she told her father about the impending marriage, he thought she was crazy. They married on December 23rd, 1936. She became an instant mother to Mildred, who was eight, Alene, who was five, Nancy, who was three, and little Johnny, who was fifteen months old.
Thinking of a twenty-two year old taking on that responsibility would blow most people’s mind these days, but Mildred was used to being a caretaker. She was the oldest of four children and the only girl. She had been a great help to her mother who gave birth to four boys, James, Carl, Lawrence and Cecil, while they homesteaded in Saskatchewan, Canada from 1915 to 1920. (The eldest boy, James, was born at home in the middle of a snowstorm, choked, and died only minutes after his birth. He is buried somewhere near Saskatoon.) Mildred’s mother, Lizzie Ann, was unhappy in Canada because there were no churches to raise her children in, so they returned to Iredell County when the youngest boy, Cecil, was only 6 weeks old and Mildred, the oldest, was six. In 1929, Lizzie Ann and Ab also took on an orphaned boy named Charlie.
Mildred was always a good student. She could read before ever starting first grade. At age 12, she was the only student in her sixth grade class, so she was moved instead to seventh grade. She graduated on April 30th, 1931, at age 17. Immediately, she began to care full time for her mother, Lizzie Ann, who had undergone surgery for breast cancer in February. Her mother died four months later on September 8th, at age forty, leaving behind her husband, Mildred, and the four boys, ranging from 10 to 13 years old. Mildred stayed on and worked as a housekeeper for her father and a nanny for her brothers.
When the boys were a few years older and more self-sufficient, Mildred, who had always wanted to be a nurse, began staying with sick folks in the area as well as helping deliver and care for babies. She must have enjoyed that experience, for not only did she take on Clayton’s four children, she had six more of her own. Carl (my father) was born April 8th, 1938. A brother, Clint followed on January 1st, 1940. Twins, Andy and Ann, came along on April 4th, 1943. A daughter, Alice soon followed on June 6th, 1945. The baby, Willa, named after Mildred’s childhood best friend and the only one of the children born in a hospital, arrived on Christmas Eve in 1948. Mildred was then 31, her husband was 39. Her eldest stepchild, Mildred, had turned 20 on October 31st.
Though life was difficult with such a large family, Mildred never complained. (She told me once as an adult that she made up her mind when she married Clayton that she would try to always be an agreeable wife, easy to please, loving and compassionate.) Her days were filled with cooking, cleaning, caring for children, working in the fields, and being a good wife. She was always there for a neighbor in need and attended church three to four times a week. Hours of canning and preserving the fruits and vegetables the family grew ensured her children would have enough to eat through the winters. Pigs, chickens, and cows raised by the family sustained them, too.
All ten children got along well for the most part, which my Grandma saw as a special blessing. Nothing was more important to her than this family she had built with the man she loved and admired. She was only fifty-six when she lost him. He had just turned sixty-four eleven days earlier, on June 9th, 1970. Their youngest child, Willa, was twenty-two. My dad was thirty-two. Grandpa’s oldest daughter, Mildred, was forty-two.
The loss was immeasurable, but the family remained close, the children and their spouses pulling together to surround their mother with support and love. Grandpa Clayton had moved from farming tobacco to Dairy farming in the 1940s and Grandma and her son, Andy kept the dairy business going after Grandpa’s death. She had also, improbably, become a salesperson for World Book Encyclopedias in 1960. She continued to sell for them until 1989, when she turned 75. Pretty impressive for a woman who didn’t drive until her 50s.
During those years following my Grandpa’s death, there were big changes in the family. Alene, Johnny, Andy, Alice and Willa all were divorced from their original spouses and remarried. My Grandmother welcomed the new spouses like they were her own children and remained on friendly terms with all of the exes. Grandchildren married and started giving Grandma great-grandchildren. The new spouses and grandchildren were welcomed with open arms. Will Rogers is famous for having said, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” I would have to say that was either true of my grandmother, or she was the world’s best actress. She made everyone she knew feel like they were important to her.
I’ve often wondered if my mother, Joan Houpe Cartner, got married for my dad or for his family. She had grown up with a family more akin to The Addams Family than The Waltons. The Cartners must have looked like a slice of heaven to her when she married eighteen year old Carl Ray at only seventeen on December 21st, 1956. I know (because she said it many times) that no one on the face of the earth was more of an inspiration to her than my Grandma Cartner. She saw Mildred Anderson Cartner as the biggest blessing she ever received. Not too many people say that about their mother-in-law, I don’t think. My Grandma Cartner must’ve seemed to my mama too good to be true after growing up with a schizophrenic mother who was never the same from one day to the next. Grandma Cartner took my mama under her wing and loved her like her other children.
When my brother came along on August 23rd, 1960, Grandma became his babysitter so that my Mama could work. They lived right across the road from her, so morning drop-offs were easy and quick. She told me in her later years that it almost killed her when my dad decided to move his small family to Charlotte for a job opportunity. I didn’t come along until several moves later. I was born at Charlotte Memorial Hospital on March 21, 1965, and taken home to Huntersville a few days later.
Though we lived 50 miles away, which took about an hour to drive back then, we made the trek to Harmony, NC nearly every Sunday of my young life. I couldn’t wait to see my cousins, aunts and uncles, but my first stop was always in the kitchen, where I would get a big hug from my Grandma. (Her kitchen remained one of my favorite places on earth for the first 33 years of my life.)
In the summer and during Christmas breaks from school, I would beg to spend the week with my Grandma. Though I am sure she had other things to do, she was never the problem. She always said yes. It was my mother I had to convince that I wouldn’t drive Grandma too crazy. I absolutely loved getting Grandma all to myself. She spent hours showing me photos and telling me about her life. She had great recall and would even remember the names of her brothers’ old friends and girlfriends as we flipped through the yellowed photos. In all of that time I spent with her, looking at and discussing all of those people, I never heard her say an unkind word about anyone. Even later in life when I personally saw her hurt by family members, she turned the other cheek for eighty-five years, until she passed away from breast cancer on July 5th, 1999.
Because of the circumstances of my mother’s family and my Grandfather Cartner’s untimely death, I grew up only really knowing one grandparent. Still, I feel like I was the luckiest girl in the world because my Grandma Cartner was the poster child for what a mother or grandmother should be. She was the living exemplar of unconditional love. She taught all of us by example. She practiced what she preached. What was important to her was God, her family, and her community. She was dependable, trustworthy, honest, loving and kind. I am so grateful for her example in my parents’ lives and in my own. I wish every day that I was more like her.