Tag Archives: Reverend Starke Jett

One Hundred YEARS of Gratitude

Halfway on our path from the cottage to the bay.

From December 31, 1920 to September 30, 2020 a small piece of land on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia offers a tiny slice of beauty, bugs and the best of life to my grandfather, Starke Jett II, and his family.

He inherits this property from his father, Theodore Augustus Jett. There used to be far more land to the tiny peninsular where the property sits than is there now. There was a good size hotel complete with a ten pin bowling alley and guest cottages adjacent to our family claim.

By the time our cottage is a reality the hotel has washed into the bay. Three very small cottages and the bowling alley all grown over with vines and inching closer and closer to the bay with each passing year are all that is left. We kids are discouraged from playing around them but being kids we occasionally get curious and explore the empty tilting buildings. My cousin Jett falls during one adventure and and breaks her arm. After that the properties are declared off limits and truthfully it doesn’t matter too much to us as the beach is more fun. By the next season everything is gone anyway taking away any possible new temptations.

Having no need for the hotel amenities my grandparents stay in their family property about a mile inland in the wee hamlet of Tibitha situated on State Route 657 between menhaden fishing mecca Reedville and end of the road village Fleeton. Then Tibitha was a legitimate postal address for the few houses, church, and store for many years, now it’s just a name on maps. The house is still there and occupied. That’s how little things have changed over the years.

The house starts life as my great grandfather’s general store. When he makes plans for the disposition of his properties he tells my grandfather that he will leave the bulk of his estate, including the family home Sunnyside, also located on the peninsula but not on the bay proper to son Theo. My great grandfather tells my grandfather he has not concerns for his success. He is a well respected minister in the Methodist conference and has also married well. But my uncle Theo, a lifelong fisherman, has fewer prospects for gain. He wife, Maud Eyre Williams, is a local gal who could upon occasion be somewhat self absorbed.

And that is how my grandfather acquires the tiny store plus three lots on the Chesapeake Bay for his part of the inheritance. It all comes into his actual possession on December 31, 1920 upon the death of my great grandmother Florence.

The store, now a summer cottage for my grandparents, my dad and his two sisters has no running water, no power and a two seater outhouse. They get daily fresh water from Maud’s brother (Octavius) Rosser who lives nearby with his sister, Tyther Ethel. Their father is Tibitha’s postmaster. This is the kids’ chore. Then it’s off down the dusty lane to the beach. They spend their days on the bay. Occasionally my grandmother will come down to the bay for a dip which encompasses her gently settling herself into the lapping surf to cool off.

My grandfather joins the kids more often than my grandmother does. He has one bathing suit his entire life. He purchases it when the long sleeved and long legged body suit is in style. Through the years IG snips and trims at the legs and sleeves so my grandfather will not embarrass her as much.

Maybe my favorite family vacation story of theirs though is when Mother Leigh throws a bucket of water on Keese and my dad and IG while they play a game on the porch. She is so hot and wants to cool them off, sensing that they must be at least as if not hotter than she is.

The cottage that I know comes into existence in the mid fifties. My dad’s youngest sister Clarice to few, Keese to most, marries in 1947 and my grandfather reasons that no one will have any interest in vacationing in such a primitive manner and sells the house. My dad is already married and has planned a career as an Air Force pilot. IG is living an urban life as a librarian at Duke University. When Keese finds out about the sale she is aghast, explaining to her father that everyone wants to spend time at the beach.

To right his unpopular decision, Other Dad decides to build a family vacation cottage on one of the three lots on the bay. He sells the other two lots to finance the cottage construction, one lot to Rev Loving and one lot to Rev David Henry Lewis Jr, an Episcopal priest who later becomes bishop. Three preachers all in a row.

Camping and crabbing on the bay in earlier days before the cottage gets built. Mom tells of Dad once falling asleep and getting the bottom of his feet so sunburnt that it is painful for days. We are a family good at finding fun in any situation.

Years into our cottage vacation days, Mom spies a perfectly weathered and worn tree root system that will be easy to turn into a coffee table. She drafts my uncle Dick to help her haul it up a low rise in the cliff and back to the cottage. She’s at the top pulling the last few feet needed to crest the rise, Dick is below pushing. I have been walking on the beach and come along just at the moment when Mom’s bathing suit top falls down. Both adults gasp and then shamelessly start laughing. I cannot scramble up the cliff to help Mom because their project is monopolizing the only easily scalable spot. If Mom lets go to fix the impropriety all of their progress will be lost. Dick saves the moment. “Oh Midge, I’m not looking, keep going.”

My own memories begin in earnest when we begin taking our annual family summer vacations at the cottage. We as a family have just returned from a tour of duty on Guam and this no frills cottage reminds me enough of our flat roof cinderblock base quarters to immediately feel like home. It too is cinderblock with screens for windows. Our base house screen windows have wooden louvers to regulate air flow, the cottage has heavy wooden shutters that have to be shut from the outside when rain threatens to blow inside.

The cottage roof line is A shaped allowing for an attic. The cottage shape is a rectangle with two bedrooms at the front corners. At the back corner is the kitchen joined by the one bathroom, a very small bedroom and the last corner bedroom. The T shaped balance of the space provides room for eating, reading, card playing, sitting by the fireplace on cool nights, and bay viewing. The attic is floored across the part over the kitchen, bath and two bedrooms and has a pulley style drop down set of stairs. There are narrow walkways along each edge for storing tubes and such. The rest is open loft that provides light from windows in the two end walls. Our tiny cottage is airy and perfect.

And it sails us through summer after summer of cherished memories. We have no radios much less TV which is in its infancy, no fans nor air conditioning which too is in its startup years as a home commodity and sometimes not even a working toilet as the unfamiliar overload causes our one toilet to give up. But that’s all minor. What we do have is the bay, each other, fresh decks of cards, and random books brought by one relative or another. It is here I discover James Bond thanks to my Uncle Martin. I fall in love with Big Little Books and original Nancy Drew mysteries.

We deal with mosquitos, sunburns, chiggers and the awful smell of the local menhaden fish factory churning out fertilizer and cat food. The night that the fleet returns finds Dad excitedly calling out, “The fleet’s coming in!” He can see the lights of the boats rounding Smith Point. He hastily loads any of us who want to see them dock and unload into his car and we’re off. It’s a short drive and the dockyard small. This smell really is ungodly. I breathe through my mouth and hold a tiny bottle of perfume to my nose to keep from gagging and barfing. But the wonder of the night with fishermen knee deep in dead fish vacuuming them up out of the hold under harsh bright lights makes it all so exciting and daring.

We visit relatives and occasionally take an hour long trip to the nearest town of Kilmarnock where we peruse the goods at the town drug store while having a soda or cherry coke at the fountain. I’m always eager to buy a new nail polish or lipstick with my hard earned babysitting money.

But mostly we play on our beach, a term very generous in name because it is full of fallen down pine trees, broken washed up glass but not washed enough for collecting as all the shards still have sharp edges (Keese spends every day picking up buckets of broken glass so that we can play safely), drifting sea nettles and slippery clay. Still it is ours and we love it. We pretend the trees are ships, we each have our own, we use black inner tubes to avoid the stinging sea nettles, and the clay is in small patches mostly and thankfully down the beach from us.

We need access to this unique beach from a fifteen foot or so tall bank that spans most of the bay side of the peninsula. All of that is flattened out now due to erosion. But then we have no money for stairs that will wash away in the winter anyway and so dad carves footholds down to the beach and we’re all set. We are on the beach from morning to dusk. We kids are usually sent to the house to pack simple sandwiches for everyone. Peanut butter & jelly, relish, lettuce & tomato, things like that.

Sometimes we walk the beach, the fallen pine trees making it an adventure because we have to go into the sea nettle infested water so many times. Climbing over or under the trees works sometimes but not always. If we get all the way to Bayview at the end of our peninsula the land spreads out into a flat wide beach. We sigh over what might have been. My grandfather really wants this piece of property and a cousin who owns it agrees to give my grandfather first refusal when he decides to sell but then changes his mind and sells it out of the family.

Walking in the other direction gets us to the public beach for the town of Reedville. It’s a small but wide and sandy beach and is very popular. We always feel a bit smug to have our own private beach even if it does have fallen trees and broken glass.

For many years Mom and my aunts lament not having a dock but monies are tight and it is a pipe dream until they realize that they are literally sitting on most of the building materials. They begin shoving and toting water washed pine trunks until they have enough to create a foundation for a modest platform built with lumber yard cheap plywood. Upgrade!

Time marches on like it always does and sees the family going in many directions. Family vacations continue but begin to dwindle. Donny & I spend our honeymoon at the cottage and some of our first vacations as a family there. Years after that my brother lives in the cottage for awhile as does my cousin Mart later still. There is discussion about selling the property that goes on for decades. Keese has built nearby as have IG & Dick, and Mom as well. She and Dad split the blanket years earlier but she will not be denied the beach life.

And now we are here and I purposefully post this piece exactly one hundred years later on December 31, 2020. The property has finally been sold and is in the capable hands of its new owners. They are lovely people according to Keese. They plan to live in the cottage, updating it. She tells them that it has seen a lot of special moments. They tell her that they know, they can feel the love it emanates.

Epilogue

As our final step everyone’s copy of the sale documents need to be notarized and so it’s off to the bank for me. There I am delighted to find Anna Shipley Mccurdy in her office ready to help me. Anna and I share many Outer Banks moments. Her dad is responsible for helping to set the scene to create truly great family memories of our own. When Donny and I are discussing house plans with various builders Jim Shipley looks them over and suggests to Donny that we rework them to make the wraparound covered porch one foot wider. He tells Donny that by adding just that one foot will make a huge difference. Donny follows the suggestion and everyone who knows us knows how much our porch is used and beloved. Anna and her sisters were swimming students of mine, going on to be instructors and lifeguards themselves. And it is her mother Mary Ann that gets us started on home school testing, our current business and life saver when the family lighting store falls to big box businesses and the early nineties savings and loan crises. Mary Ann needed help getting testing materials and I knew the ropes. The world is a wide and an amazingly small place.

PS If you are an avid reader you may recognize some of the photos and episodes from earlier posts. I chose to repeat them here as final homage to The Cottage, our beloved unceremoniously named family getaway. My cousin Jett tried to name it The Other Dad well into its years of unfaltering service to us but it only somewhat stuck.

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Branch Leigh Arthur Jett

Mother Leigh & Other Dad

Mother Leigh (Leigh Jett) & Other Dad (Rev Starke Jett II)

“I’m your youngest daughter,” time and again I tell my grandmother, whom I am named after and whom I decide to call Mother Leigh. I live with my paternal grandparents (I name our grandfather Other Dad) so much in my single digit years that it feels like that to me. She smiles and pats me on the head, never a word one way or the other crossing her lips.

It is she who teaches me to cook, by example. Mom, a teen bride, becomes a great cook but in her early married life years she is just beginning to hone her skills.¬†Mother Leigh never lets lack of a recipe stop her. Once she chases a dressing that a chef refuses to divulge to her until she gets it to her liking. It’s simple but I can understand the elusiveness of it. It’s a sweet and sour combination dressing for a fruit salad. Donny & I both love it.

In my years with my grandparents (Other Dad is a minister on the Methodist circuit so they move a lot) I collect a plethora of amazing memories. Mother Leigh making me white sugar and butter sandwiches on the new time saver, sliced bread. Or scrapping the burnt topping off of breakfast toast and then convincing me that it is perfect. And she sells me on the chicken back. That piece that no one ever wants has a sweet chunk of hidden meat if you know where to look. Being a child of a successful gentleman farmer Mother Leigh learns this secret and more from her practical upbringing. She calls out a butcher if he offers her less than the prime cut of any animal. She knows where to find the best country hams. Usually in some out of the way gas station. She is onto the marvels of gas station food decades before it becomes popular.

Mother Leigh

Branch Leigh Arthur. She does not like the name Branch and always uses Leigh instead. She tells me that she is named Lee but that she changes it to Leigh when one of her brothers also named Lee keeps opening her mail.

A young wife and mother during the depression, she is never one to waste a thing. She has a continuous ball of saved string that she uses and adds to with such regularity that it hardly ever changes size. She gives me the task of turning plain lard packed in a new novel plastic sleeve into a buttery looking color by squeezing the red dot of food coloring tucked inside back and forth. She takes me with her to downtown Farmville, Virginia to buy real butter by the measure for special occasions. We walk. It is a short distance and ladies of her generation do not drive.

Mother Leigh spends her entire life going everywhere she wants to go, and she is a mover and a shaker, without ever getting behind the wheel of a car. Her oldest daughter, also a Leigh (Florence Leigh aka as IG. Go figure where that came from, no one seems to know. Not from me although I like it.) finally bites the bullet and learns to drive when she turns fifty.

I beg my grandmother to take me on a train ride and so she does, not once but over and over. We get our tickets at the tiny station in Farmville and patiently sit in the waiting room until our train arrives. The conductor helps us board, then folds up his steps and with a whistle the train leaves the station. We get off at the first town and take the next train home. It is all so exciting. I never tire of it.

When I am in college she quizzes the young neighbor girls and gets me the new fashion at the time, a wrap around skirt. (How could she know that I am wishing so hard for one.) She has no idea what they are but that doesn’t stop her. She takes the Westhampton bus to LaVogue (a very high fashion store) in downtown Richmond and tells the sales clerk what she needs.

evangeline

B Leigh (as she signs her books) plays the role of Evangeline in a ‘Colonial Tea’ at the local movie theater March 1911. Her note to me written in the flyleaf August 1968 just months before I meet Donny.

When we live in Whaleyville and there is no heat in the house, save a wood stove in the living room, she bundles me up in blankets warmed by the stove to make going to bed less chilling. And then rewarms the blankets as many times as I ask her. In Farmville she packs cold buttered rolls and the Sunday comics to entertain me while my grandfather preaches his sermon. No nursery for me. I will attend the service. But my young status is acknowledged. She knows the service will not ramble on. She taps her watch if my grandfather goes over his allotted minutes.

And the cooking, oh the cooking. She’ll gladly give you any recipe but it goes something like this. A lump of butter the size of an egg. About 3 cups of flour. Never an oven temperature or time with any of her recipes. She just knows and so will you after enough trials. She rolls biscuits from a huge ball of dough using a drinking glass to roll and then cut. She doesn’t own a spatula. Her knuckles do a better job of cleaning out a bowl than any tool.

wedding reception (1)

Our wedding reception at 6416 Three Chopt Road, June 7, 1969

She is her own woman. When she is a young adult, my grandfather is assigned to her family church in Alta Vista, Virginia. He pays all of his parishioners a visit. The day he arrives at my grandmother’s house she expresses no interest in meeting the new minister feeling that her sisters can cover the job well enough and sequesters herself in her room. Her mother will have no such nonsense and scoots her downstairs. At this point everyone is in the living room visiting. Slowly descending the staircase (think antebellum home) my grandmother pulls out her best manners for the young minister who rises to meet her, “So glad to meet you Rev Jett.” Her sister Clara’s up coming wedding at which he will officiate on her mind, she continues, “I understand that you will soon have the honor of changing one of our names.”

Already smitten by her charm and beauty he replies, not missing a beat, “I hope so Miss Arthur. I certainly hope so Miss Arthur.” She is teased the rest of her life for ‘proposing’ to my grandfather at their first meeting. She gives me her copy of Evangeline that seals the deal for their courtship. She writes their history on the flyleaf. She is the lead in the show and has gone with another but walks home with my grandfather who proposes to her.

And so there will be no other place for our wedding reception than her beautiful Richmond home. Miles from St James Episcopal Church where Donny & I are married makes no difference. I begin my formative years at her knee and I will enter my married life with her southern charm blessing our path.

With this I give you my last post for 2015 dedicated to the woman who set the grandmother bar for me. It’s a high one. I stretch up to reach it with her hand on my shoulder.

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