“People Used to Have Manners”
Before Interstate 95 was eight lanes of angry, roaring traffic carrying commuters down to Miami, eventually depositing itself into U.S. Highway 1, and Military Trail was showered with dilapidated shopping malls, my grandmother’s family made the decision to move from New York down to Florida.
I would ask her about her childhood and she would say, “Let me think,” lean back in her blue-and-yellow plaid chair and look up at the popcorn ceiling of her and my grandfather’s brick house in Palm Springs.
The house was the brick and white concrete one that my mother and my two uncles grew up in. It had survived every hurricane including Hurricane Andrew in 1992. I myself had felt the protection of its walls during both Hurricanes Jean and Francis when I was in high school.
Trees around the house had fallen but the two dogs, three cats, me, and a completely nonplused goldfish named for Atticus Finch barely heard anything but the whistle of the wind through spaces between the plywood shutters and the windows. We were told the winds would be less down in West Palm Beach.
My grandparents had been upset when their home was rezoned for Palm Springs instead of West Palm Beach. They both had lived in West Palm for as long as they could remember.
“Let me think,” Sarah Adelaide England, affectionately called Addie or Adelaide, would say and my grandfather would pitch in to remind her where to start, “You moved here from Buffalo…”
“That’s right,” she would agree. “I must’ve been 18-months old because I can’t remember anything back farther than when we moved to Military Trail.”
Along with her mother, her father, William Ferdinand McLemore and her brother, John, my grandmother moved into a little white house on Sandspur Ranch off of 441 and Southern Boulevard in 1944. Sandspur was bought by two rich men trying to avoid the war because, back then, farmers couldn’t be drafted. My great grandfather served as overseer on that ranch while the rich enjoyed their beachy, peachy Palm Beach lifestyle as farmers elsewhere.
My great grandmother fried rattlesnakes as quick as her husband could clear them out, my grandmother would say, half-jokingly.
A Home Depot proudly stands where Sandspur Ranch had been and a rattlesnake rarely slithers across the too-hot, black parking lot pavement.
According to my grandmother, a big hurricane came by and flooded her family’s street in front of the ranch entrance. Older teenagers floated a boat down the road.
The McLemore’s then moved to Military Trail when my grandmother was old enough to attend grade school at Military Trail School, same as my grandfather had done four years previously. The school, now an education center for adults, was located north of Okeechobee Road. They all took a bus.
“What kind of school bus?” I would ask.
“Yellow,” my grandmother would reply stoutly.
Segregation was an evil in Palm Beach County like it was throughout the South. Colored bathrooms, colored people sections in the back of the city bus. They didn’t go to school with my grandparents.
On most occasions when I asked my grandparents about their lives as pioneers of Palm Beach County, we would dig out the box of old pictures. Like most big families, our box of photos had no organization to them besides what were placed in half-made albums, fraying at the corners from use.
I held up a picture of my grandmother at two years old, clinging to her mother’s leg, also a Sarah Adelaide. A little blonde girl with a mean face scowled back at me in black and white. My grandmother, to this day, won’t smile in pictures despite her constant smiles, wisecracks and songs in everyday life.
She would sing about crazy old men from China, Patsy Cline and tidbits from old films, reminiscent of her era.
My grandmother moved onto South Military Trail when she was 5-years-old. My grandfather lived down the road and their families were close friends. They would play cards together and attended the same church despite my grandmother’s grandmother being a strict Presbyterian.
“What was your grandma, Jimma, like?” I would ask.
“Mean,” my grandfather would reply before my grandmother had the chance to defend her.
My great, great grandmother, was 5-foot tall and 5-foot wide with the grammar rules of a dictionary and the etiquette of English bourgeoisie much like Harper Lee’s character, Aunt Alexandra in To Kill A Mockingbird as my grandmother described her. Jimma moved down from Tennessee to live with my grandmother in 1945 when she was no taller than the middle of her mailbox post.
“All people from Tennessee are afraid of water mostly,” my grandmother would say. “They have what they call creeks that are totally dry but when a flash flood happens they fill up to drain all the water.”
This would always serve as an explanation for why Jimma would plan out all the church meals but wouldn’t become a Baptist which required an immersion baptism. Jimma, until her passing, lived with my grandmother.
When the McLemore’s first moved onto South Military Trail, they lived in two log cabins connected by a wood plank walkway. Eventually, the smaller of the log cabins was torn down to build a modest, 3-bedroom white concrete house with a Florida porch.
A Florida porch can be discerned from a regular porch by the screen to keep out the mosquitos, a godsend in the hotter and humid seasons. Hurricanes came with each summer to mid-fall.
“They would shut me in the cabin with grandma and say, ‘See ya in the mornin’,” my grandmother explained. She remembered the sound of the rain on the cabin’s tin roof.
“I don’t really remember meeting your grandfather,” my grandmother would say, “but I went to school with all his brothers and sisters. His brother WA bought a car from my dad, a 4-door Dodge Sudan, originally gray but Clyde had painted it green with a paint brush because people couldn’t afford a paint job.”
My grandmother’s father, William Ferdinand McLemore, known to most of his close friends and family as “Mac,” died at age 60 when my grandmother was 15 but he had known my grandfather since he was a young boy.
“My father said he was a bully and that he would never have a child behave in that manner, “Adelaide recalled. “He tried to bum a cigarette off of him when he was 12 or 11-years-old. He would tease the younger kids and punch his brothers and sisters in the stomach.”
Clyde Wendell England, the oldest boy of 8 children, did have quite a few siblings to punch. The Englands moved from Tennessee to Pahokee. When the doctor told my grandfather’s dad he had asthma and the dust in Pahokee was irritating it, Clyde Elijah England moved his family to West Palm Beach County, originally Dade County until 1909 when it was reestablished as its original name.
My grandfather’s dad bought 40 acres from a man named Kenyon Reynolds but eventually sold all but 10 to pay for various health scares including when his own father feel ill and injuries due to an automobile accident in 1956.
My grandfather, referred to by my grandmother as “Wendell” and by myself simply as PaPa (pronounced Paw Paw), cleans his glasses with his shirt as he recalls his father moving to Pahokee first to build a two-car garage for his family to live in while he constructed their house to the side of it.
When PaPa was growing up, his house was one of three on Military Trail, a road that is now six lanes wide and home to hundreds of stores and chain restaurants. It even has its own exit off of I-95.
Eventually, the two-car garage and the house would be connected by a breeze way with open windows instead of screens. The youngest of the eight, little Ruthie England, would be born in that breezeway. None of his siblings or my grandfather was born in a hospital.
In the 30s, hospitals cost too much money.
Before he decided to ask my grandmother out officially, my grandfather had bought a ring for Bonnie Radish. The year was 1961.
At this point in the story, he would look at my grandmother, glasses now on, and say, “But then I saw your grandmother and took the ring back the next day.”
“No, Wendell!” my grandmother would scold, “You’ve known me since I was a little girl!”
She would turn to me and explain, “When your grandfather first asked me out, he had a beard. I told him to shave it off and I would go out with him.”
Their first date would be to the evening service of church and my grandmother wore a dress that had orchid flowers on it with wide cummerbund. It was a light, sleeveless, taffeta material that caught the summer breeze when it blew.
“Back then,” my grandmother would begin her nostalgic rant, “People helped their neighbors when something was going on, when there was a death people brought food and built their houses. My first church was on north military trail right next to my house. It was a non-denominational. And we had to wear our Sunday clothes with patent leather shoes you could only wear on Sundays. You spent Saturday night making sure your hair was done. Church was where everyone went to “show their stuff.” Well, I mean, you had to dress up.”
Jeans were considered trashy when my grandparents were growing up.
“Well what did you wear then?” I would say, surprised. I always thought Levi Strauss invented them in the 1800s and, from then on, those were the only pants Americans wore.
Skirts with lined kremlins which were made out of knit and made a skirt stick out like a Big Top. These With that, girls would wear a plain shirt. Dresses were also acceptable but women did not wear pants, jeans or khaki. Men wore dress pants and khakis and plaid shirts, ironed.
My grandfather bought engineering boats when he was old enough to could afford them on his own. Oxfords were for school each year: white with brown. Only options for shoes were black or brown because you had to wear them with everything.
“They lasted all year long, you could not wear those suckers out,” my grandmother would tell me on the sadly common occasion I would need new shoes.
People listened to the radio, no TV, but there were movies. Good movies.
“It wasn’t really our first date,” my grandmother would add. “He just doesn’t remember.”
A few months previously, Debbie Reynolds and Andy Griffith starred in “A Second Time Around.” My grandmother would later name my own mother after the film’s star.
The film came into theaters when my grandmother was in high school. My grandfather came over one day when my grandmother’s brother was fixing an old Chevrolet he bought that never ran and never would.
In all my memory, even my PaPa had always had an old car that never ran so it doesn’t surprise me he was over watching Great Uncle John attempt to fix his.
According to my grandmother, my grandfather popped his head up from the hood and said, “Adelaide, will you go to the movies with me and bring a friend for my buddy, Earl?”
The movie theater, now a playhouse called Palm Beach DramaWorks still standing at 201 Clematis, was called the Florida Theater. My grandfather claims to have seen Elvis at the adjacent theater, Palm Theater, back in 1957.
Earl had just come back in town from the Army. His time there must have made him bashful or rude because he didn’t even walk my grandmother’s friend to the door, which was what you did back then. Eventually, she got out of the car and walked herself to her door.
“Honest to god, earl was ugly, he had buck teeth and all,” she would laugh. “I just thought, Jean is never going to forgive me!”