Editor’s Note: This is a series of recollections written by Shelby Paul Horn, who was raised in Estill County and went on to become a successful attorney. He now lives in Joplin, Missouri. At the urging of a friend, he wrote down many of his life experiences, some of which we will share with our readers.
My mother was born in Estill County on August 28, 1904. She was much better educated than my father. Although she and her eleven siblings lived in the country, quite distant from town and high school, her father realized the importance of education. Unlike some men of his day, he believed not only in education for his sons, but for his daughters as well. I appreciate that quality in my maternal grandfather for it says a lot about his character. Although he died before I was born and I never knew him, I believe I would have liked him, likely much more than I might have liked my other grandfather, an inattentive father who took little interest in his offspring. My mother always referred to her father as “Papa,” and her facial expression and tone of voice said that she felt very close to him. Probably because of what I detected in her expression, I would place “Papa” at the same quality level as “Daddy.” Each of them must be earned.
Grandpa Warner, lacking transportation means for his children to go to high school in town, came up with a novel idea. Thinking that they surely had not learned everything they might have during those first eight years, he felt that they could benefit from attending the eighth grade four more years. Thus they spent the extra time in their rural one-room school that it would have taken to get a high school diploma. As a result, had my mother every made out a resume, she would have listed eighth grade in the education column, but would have been farm more qualified than that. I was always impressed by her handwriting, as clear and legible as anyone’s of any degree of learning. She never failed to write to me, no matter where I was, and it was always a pleasure to see that distinctive handwriting on an envelope. Her knowledge of the world may not have been sophisticated -she never traveled very far-but she had a basis for universal understanding that belied her station in life. Part of that was related to emotional intelligence, I am certain, but she had received enough education to value education itself. She liked to read, which is the door to knowledge, but she never had enough reading materials. She alone was the parent who wanted me to have an education. I know that my own ambitions in that regard were partially influenced by her early praise for my accomplishments in school.
While I cannot use the words I’d like in referring to my father, I can never thing of my mother other than as “Mama.” That word has within it all the times she checked my temperature by holding her hand to my fevered brown and worried that I might grow sicker, all the times she lay awake until I arrived home from wherever I may have been, and all the times that I knew-although willingly she would never have paced upon me the guilt of knowing—that she listened to or watched every news report from the war in which I had placed myself by my own volition. Mama is, I think, the most beautiful word in our language. When I think of mine, I realize that I too, subscribe to that mountain tradition of mother reverence.
I do not know just how Pryse and Mama met, except that first he dated her older sister, Anna. For the life of me, I could never imagine that paring as successful, but then, can I think of Pryse as good enough for Mama? Hardly. I do not know what particular quality of his might have attracted the woman I knew her to be, except that he had a native intelligence, could be charming, was extremely outgoing when he wanted to be, and was physically attractive, with a high-bridged straight nose, blue eyes and dark blonde hair. He was not extremely tall-about six feet– but had a wrestler’s physique, strong and lithe and with never an ounce of fat. He played banjo “by ear.” I’m certain he sang back then, too, folk songs handed down from the English, Irish and Scots to Appalachian mountain people. I’ve heard him play and sing “Barbara Allen” and others of that genre. Like many mountain people, he was a raconteur, and could entertain with jokes and have everyone laughing. His jokes were hokey and not so funny to me, but they may have seemed funnier earlier and with a different audience. Aunt Anna wasn’t buying. But what may have been less than essential to Aunt Anna may have seemed desirable to Mama, the innocent that she may have been, for at eighteen, she would have been guileless, without suspicion or premonition. He could have—must have—charmed her.
She could have had others, of course. I have a stack of letters to her from another suitor, the last letter written just before she married Pryse. I have read them, once, although I felt somewhat like a voyeur. She saved them, so they must have had some meaning. The gentleman in question seemed rather smitten. He said that he was eager to see her again when he returned to Estill County from someplace his business had taken him, that she was a “sweet little lady” and that he hoped she liked him as well. From his letters, I could see that he was literate, for his grammar, punctuation and syntax were excellent, and I wonder why he lost the race to someone else, someone less learned. What might her life have been had she chosen him? Would she have been a city wife, never having to wash clothes on a washboard or sell eggs to get money for things she needed or sacrifice her own needs for what her children needed? Her children would have not been us, of course, but whoever they would have been, they would have had her for their “mama,” and it would have been alright.
But she chose Pryse.