Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Emma Jean Lucy Burris Lensing

Jean Burris, 17 years, 1950
Photo taken by friend, Bobby Hargrave in Gurdon, Arkansas

From time to time, a person comes along who is a true blessing to everyone they come in contact with.   My mother, Emma Jean Burris Lensing, was one such person.   She has been and continues to be even after her death, the compass and the guide that all of her family, I know I do, continue to look to for getting along in this world.  She was the glue that held our family together, our teacher and our role model.  She left a legacy of love and joy that was so strong it continues on through her children and grandchildren today and will surely continue with each and every generation to come.  Her love was that strong – she was a blessing to us all.

Let me address something some of you may be scratching your head about right now – the Lucy name.  She was not born with it, it is a Catholic name.  She took St. Lucy as her patron saint when she was confirmed into the Catholic Church in December 1955, a month before she married my father, Thomas A. Lensing.  In the Catholic Church, her official name was Jean Lucy Burris.  I have a copy of their  beautiful church marriage certificate, which lists her name as such.   The church doesn't do this anymore.  In fact when I was married in the church in 1982, I didn't even get a special church marriage certificate, just the common county issued one.

I never asked her why she chose St. Lucy but upon looking the information up I made some interesting discoveries that could shed some lightAccording to Wikipedia, all that is really known for certain of St. Lucy is that she was a martyr – as were most of the saints of that time - in Italy during the Diocletian persecutions of 304 AD.  As with most female Christian saints she was a strong woman who suffered greatly for her faith.  St. Lucy was executed for being Christian and in medieval accounts, her eyes are gouged out prior to her execution (sorry for mentioning this but it has relevance later)

St. Lucy’s Feast Day, the day she is celebrated in the church, is during the Advent Season (Christmas Season) and is known as Saint Lucy’s Day in parts of the Europe.  Her feast day once coincided with the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, which used to be earlier in the month than it is today before calendar reforms.  Because it fell on this darkest day,  Saint Lucy’s Day has become what is called a Festival of Light in many countries, where believers hold up candles spreading light in the darkness.  

Maybe mom chose St. Lucy as her patron saint because she is the patron saint of writers, which is something my mom LOVED to do. St. Lucy was also the patron saint of the blind and those with eye troubles, hence the eye-gouging mentioned above.  Mom always had a special care and sensitivity towards the blind often saying that blindness had to be one of the hardest disabilities to live with.  She would always buy a broom from the blind man who walked the neighborhood selling brooms and mops door to door back in the day, whether she needed one or not.  But the most amazing thing about the information I learned about St. Lucy  is the fact that her actual feast day is celebrated on  December 13th, the very day my mother died.   Mom could not have known this when she joined the Catholic church all those years ago, and I’m not sure what it means if anything, but it gives me great comfort to know that St. Lucy, her patron saint and protector, might have been there to help escort my mother into Heaven.  She deserved nothing less.

The reason I began writing this tribute with matters of faith and religion is because those were the most important things in my mother’s life – her family a very close second or maybe a tie.  She – and my Dad for that matter – had very strong faith.  It kept them going when times were rough, and there were plenty of rough times.  Many good times, too, but she took a lot of undeserved hits throughout her life.  She was able to get back up and “move forward” as she would always say, with the help of her faith in God.   One of her favorite bible verses was “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  Philippians 4:13.  It got her through life with a smile and positive attitude to the very end.  I feel so fortunate to have inherited all 3 of her bibles:  her childhood bible given to her by her parents when she was 9 years old in 1942, the Lensing Family Bible my parents acquired when they were married in 1956 and her own personal bible, the one she wrote in, highlighted, bookmarked, and dog-eared.  She wrote notes in the margins telling how she interpreted a verse, how it made her feel, what inspired her, what helped her through hardships, etc.  She continues to guide me with her written words and thoughts, which is something I cherish.   She was and always will be my hero.

Emma Jean Burris was born on May 12, 1933.  May is my favorite month, beautiful spring flowers everywhere and especially strawberries.  Mom's favorite birthday cake was strawberry shortcake. 

She was born at home on Logan Street in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, to George Washington Burris, Jr. and Addie Louise Herrington Burris.    

Below is a picture taken of mom as a baby several months after her birth in 1933 in the yard of the Logan Street house with her older sister Mary Ann.  This is the only photo that I am aware of that mom had of the Logan Street house.  

Mom was the second child, second daughter, and was named after her Daddy’s favorite sister, Emma Dora Burris Crites, whom she loved dearly.  She also shares the name Emma with one of her beautiful granddaughters.  She went by the name of Jean all of her life, though some people in her family called her Jeanie when she was younger.  Notably one of her favorite uncles, Sam Granite, who was married to her Aunt Eunice, one of her mother’s younger sisters and one of mom’s favorite aunts.  She said he would sing “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair” to her all the time, which was a famous song back in the day.  She even referred to herself as Jeanie on one picture that I have of her at 14 years old.  On the back of the picture she wrote “To Mom and Dad” and on the bottom of the picture she wrote “Jeanie”. 

Incidentally, I named one of my kitties after her when I named my female kitten Jeanie.  Since she never was a cat person, I wasn't sure how she would take it at first, but in mom's usual positive and kind way,  she said that she approved.  She grew to love my cats as they grew that first year, and made sure to weigh them once a week so I would have that to look on later.  They loved her too, of course.  She loved all of her children’s pets, and treated them like her own grandchildren in a lot of ways.   Just another reason to love her more.  

Mom told me that she was a very shy child and that she loved to read more than anything.  She would ride her bicycle to the Clark County Library (the building still stands today) and check out books all the time.  She told me that her mother said to her that she always had her “nose stuck in a book”, and  her mother would catch her hiding in the closet at night with a flashlight reading or under the covers after all the lights in the Burris house were out for the night.   It was her love of reading that she inherited from her father and shared with  us, her children.  She took us to the library at least once every month to check out books when we were kids.  I still remember climbing the steps to the 2nd floor of the Little Rock Public Library when it was on Louisiana Street, where the children’s section was, and choosing booksI remember it and will always appreciate the opportunity she gave us.

She didn't have that in her own mother when she was a child, but we certainly did.  In defense of my grandmother, she didn’t have it either.  My grandmother, Louise Herrington Burris, was one of 14 children and practically raised her sister Eunice.  Her father Jasper Herrington was a hard working farmer and the family probably did not have access to many books or the time to read them.  Grandmother did not have the chance to go to high school because she had to help work on the family farm.    My grandfather, George W. Burris, Jr., however, was very supportive of my mom’s love of reading.  He loved to read too,  and to tell her stories.  One particular story I remember Mom telling me was that when she was a child he told her stories of the South Seas and that someday they would go there.  That would never happen but it brought a tear to her eye thinking about it.  Her daddy was her hero.

The picture below is of Jean Burris and her daddy, G. W. Burris, Jr. at the beach in St. Petersburg, Florida, 1950.  They as a family spent a lot of time there.

Mother was the 2nd of 4 children, a quiet and studious child.   She and her older sister, Mary Ann helped with chores around the house.  Mary Ann enjoyed yard work so she helped granddaddy with the outdoor chores, while Mom helped grandmother with the indoor chores.  She used to say that she was so young she would have to stand on a chair to do the dishes.  She grew up during the depression but because my grandfather worked as assistant postmaster they had a nice roof over their heads and plenty of food to eat, so much so they had visitors constantly.  Mom felt sorry for grandmother because everyone would come to their house for meals, and she always cooked generously for everyone.  Grandmother even gave something to eat to homeless folks who would come to their door asking for food.   This happened many times during that time.  They had one car that they drove very little because tires were hard to come by during the depression and WWII and they couldn’t afford to wear them out.  My grandfather walked to and from work every day and mom and her sisters and brother walked to and from school every day and they all walked home for lunch as well.  My grandmother made big, nutritious lunches every day for her family.

Instead of playing with her friends, she and most other kids had to walk around the neighborhood collecting scrap metal for the war effort.  This wasn't something they were asked to do, it was something they HAD to do.  Mom's memory of that time includes seeing her father pace up and down the floor in the house worrying about what would happen to his family if we did not win that war.   According to mom it was a real concern - it was not always clear who the winner of World War II was going to be.

As for school, mom told me that there was one thing that she remembered about first grade, that the teacher had made a train out of boxes and that they all got to play in the train.  She must have enjoyed that to remember it after all those years.  

Below is a picture  of mom  in first grade dressed like a princess for her first grade play circa 1939-1940.


My grandfather made  his children take speech all through school and it helped mom come out of her shell a little.  Along with her first grade play, she was in her senior play in high school also, which was titled “Nine Girls”.   Her character was Frieda.  She kept the script all her life and I have it among the papers she left behind, with all of Frieda’s lines underlined.  I would love to have seen it.  

I asked her what she wanted to be when she was growing up.  She told me that she wanted to be a math teacher.   She would frequently go into the family car garage and write on the walls with chalk pretending to be teaching imaginary students math.   Sometimes her younger brother, Bill, would see what was going on and come in and start laughing and making trouble and she would have to chase him out.    

She was a very good math student and in her adult years I remember seeing mom do their own and other family member's federal taxes.  She did them all by hand since there were no computers or software to help as there is now.  She spoke often of taking Latin in high school, like her grandson would do many decades later.  She had enough credits to complete high school in December 1950, but walked with the class of 1951.  Her graduation class song was “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.  Her strong faith throughout her life made sure she never did.

After Mom graduated high school she attended Henderson State Teacher’s College (now Henderson University) which was very close to their home in Arkadelphia.  Mom said that her father settled in Arkadelphia specifically because it had 2 colleges and he had hoped his children would go to college.  

Her sister Mary Ann and her husband Horace Rutherford, Jr.  had moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, and mom said she was always– as mom put it dangling Florida in front of her by asking her to come down and live with them.  Mom happily gave in and  moved to Florida in 1952 and lived there for about 2 years.  She loved warm weather and the beach and spent many days with family and friends laying out on her beach towel on the sand trying to get a tan.  Her beach towel, by the way was a gift from her boss at Maas Brother's Department Store, Barbara Brantley.  She kept it all of her life.

Her fair skin didn’t take to the sun and she told me that once she got so sunburned she could hardly move.  Back in those days they didn’t wear sun screen.  Here is a picture of mom (seated) with her friend, Ila Craine,  goofing around in the ocean.


Her other favorite thing to do was dance.  In high school back in Arkadelphia they had what was called The Teenage Club where she would go and dance her favorite dance, the Jitterbug.  I asked her what singer she enjoyed listening to in those days.  We all know about Frank Sinatra being one of her big favorites, but she also named someone else who I never heard of:  Joni James, a lesser remembered singer who was also a big hit back then. 

In Florida she and her friends would go to the dance club where a lot of guys in the military hung out – I want to say she called it the Officer’s Club.  There she met a member of the Air Force by the name of Walt Webster, who she dated for a while.  She said he was cute enough, but he was too bossy.  One night he was driving her home from somewhere and the windows of the car were down.  Mom had her elbow propped up in the open window and he asked her to put her arm down, that ladies didn’t do that.  Mom was furious and promptly asked him to stop the car and let her out, that she would walk home – I don’t know if she did or not, but that was vintage Jean Burris!   So the romance fizzled out at about the time she got word from Arkadelphia that her daddy was seriously ill and that he might not survive.  After two years she packed her bags and moved back to Arkansas to be with her daddy.  Thankfully he did recover from his illness.

Back in Arkansas, she needed to get settled somewhere and find a job.  Her first choice was Hot Springs, AR, a city where she spent many days visiting as a child and teenager. 

This photo is from one of their family trips to Hot Springs;  Jean on the left with her brother Bill and sister Mary Ann.  Notice the sign on the left of the photo says "Hot Springs". 

Hot Springs was an exciting place back in the early and mid twentieth century, "wide open" she would say,  but she loved it.   In her teenage years her daddy told each one of his children that if he ever caught one of them in Hot Springs they would be in real trouble.  Mom never did, but I think her older sister was found out and let’s just say that he kept his promise.   Mom also chose Hot Springs because it was close enough to her parent’s home in Arkadelphia to visit when she wanted to.  Her daddy helped her in every way he could to find a job but there just wasn’t anything available that paid enough for living expenses so she headed even further north, to Little Rock, where she would find a good job, a nice apartment, and the love of her life.

Mom’s first job in Little Rock was working for Jack East Insurance and Dad was working for the Arkansas Democrat evening newspaper.  At that point and time they knew one person in common:  Stanley Barnes.  Stanley Barnes worked as a salesman for both places and he is the man responsible for introducing mom and dad.  She said Stanley told her he knew a nice guy he could fix her up with, but he was pretty ugly so she might want to think about it.   That was a joke of course.   She was interested and Dad called the very next day for a date.  I wish I had a picture of Stanley.  Mom said that he and his family  moved to Memphis pretty soon after that. 

Their first date was to the movies, but they didn’t remember which one - I asked.   They also had a date up on Petite Jean Mountain that they both enjoyed.  There are pictures of them at various parks in Little Rock:   MacArthur Park and War Memorial Park.  Mom's fondest memory of when they dated was when dad would let her have his car while he was at work and she would drive it downtown to the Walgreen's cafe at 5th and Main or the the cafe at the Marion Hotel, (which around 1980 was torn down to build the Little Rock Convention Center and Excelsior Hotel).  Mom would wait for dad in one of these cafes and when he got off work at the Democrat he would run to meet her.   On Saturday's dad worked 2 shifts, which he called "double headers".  She spoke of this often through the years with great love in her eyes.   

Below are photos taken on a date to the War Memorial Park area in Little Rock in December 1955.  The 2 photos with mom and dad in them were taken outside of the then 7 year old War Memorial Stadium.  Dad is being ever so polite by opening the car door for his date in the first one.  You will notice the big plaque behind him that gives a brief dedication of the stadium and with the year (1948) and to whom it is dedicated.  I noticed the name on the plaque:  Memorial Stadium.  It was always called War Memorial Stadium as far back as I can remember and still is.    The plaque says it is dedicated to the soldiers of the two great wars (I and II).   Maybe the word "War" was added to the name to include all the subsequent wars that were fought later in the century.  Just my guess.

So I decided to drive by the front of the stadium to see if the plaque is still there, and it is.  It is the exact same plaque and it even looks like it is still in the exact same spot as it was 61 years ago.  I pictured in my mind Daddy with his car standing there and mom taking his photo.  I wish they still could be... .

The picture of mom below shows her standing next to the car about to open the door herself. This picture gives a better view of dad's car.  It must not have been a very cold December day because neither one is wearing a coat, but if you notice on the picture following, there are no leaves on the trees.

The next photo below was near where the War Memorial golf course is now.  They seem to have found a mound of soil and grass to stand near.  Maybe something was being built there? The building behind him in the distance is St. Vincent's Infirmary, which is where all four of their children would be born.  It is still there, too, of course, but the whole area looks a lot different now. 

As I mentioned before, these pics were taken during the same date in December 1955. They were engaged to be married at this time.   This particular date must have held special memories for both of them for these photos to have been kept this long.

There are so many facets to my mother's life I could go on with this blog forever.  Instead, I will close it out here and pick up on other things in later entries.  None of the stories here were made up by me.   Mom told me these stories along they way..  She loved to talk about the early years of her life.  I loved hearing about them, we were best friends.

It should go without saying that I and my siblings miss my mom - and dad - very much. They were great people, to say the least, and even though they are gone from this world the lives they lived continue to touch us all.

Thank you Stanley Barnes.

Jean Burris and Tommy Lensing
In front of her parent's home
Arkadelphia, Arkansas
Christmas Day 1955