Happy Birthday, Nancy Ratcliffe!

Today, I give a shout out to birthday girl and Project Keepsake story contributor, Nancy Ratcliffe. Nancy shares a birthday with baseball great Shoeless Joe Jackson and comedian Will Ferrell of Saturday Night Live fame (the guy who parodied George W. Bush, posed as a cheerleader with Cheri Oteri, and starred with Christopher Walken in one of my favorite SNL skits, "NEED MORE COWBELL."

 Happy Birthday, Nancy! Thank you for your friendship, and thank you for being part of Project Keepsake!

Happy Birthday, Nancy! Thank you for your friendship, and thank you for being part of Project Keepsake!

I got to know Nancy a few years ago when I began working with Habitat for Humanity of Gordon County. As she and I talked one day, I told her about my idea to collect stories about keepsakes.  A few weeks later, she sent her story to me with a lovely photo of her keepsakes—two pieces of whimsical carnival glass.

Like some of my favorite writers, Nancy has a folksy, but polished, writing style and voice. Her story instantly won me over with mentions of the Goatman and reaching under a tablecloth to grab a stale biscuit cooked earlier in the day. Although Nancy is a few years older than me and although she grew up in a completely different region of Georgia, I share these memories with her—they connect us, in a way.

I vaguely remember sitting in heavy traffic on Highway 247 just south of Macon when I was about four years old (circa 1969), waiting for the Goatman (Ches McCartney) to pass through the area. He, his bizarre entourage of goats, and his junky wagon had stopped and slowed traffic that day. It was summer, and my mom and I baked in the oven-like car, even with the windows rolled down. Mom looked over at me that day and said, "I don't know why traffic has stopped. It's either a wreck or the Goatman." I was unfamiliar with the Goatman, and so I envisioned a mythological creature—a half man, half goat being—thirsty for the blood of a little blonde-headed girl. I was terrified—sweat rolling down my freckled face.

 Photo by Sam Ratlcliffe. Nancy Ratcliffe's beloved Carnival Glass—an heirloom passed to her from her Grandmother Emma (Emma Ralston Duvall). Her story starts on page seventy-three of Project Keepsake. 

Photo by Sam Ratlcliffe. Nancy Ratcliffe's beloved Carnival Glass—an heirloom passed to her from her Grandmother Emma (Emma Ralston Duvall). Her story starts on page seventy-three of Project Keepsake. 

And Nancy's stale biscuits reference reminds me of visiting my Grandmother Lanier's house outside of Metter, Georgia. After breakfast, she, too, would cover the leftovers with a thick cotton tablecloth to protect the food from bold, black house flies. When my siblings and I got hungry, we ran into her old farmhouse kitchen, helped ourselves to whatever was under the cloth, then raced back outside to resume whatever we were doing before our break. On a side note, I was a really skinny little girl, and Grandmother Lanier was always pushing food my way saying, "I think you must have worms." Thanks for that, Grandmother! Your statement scarred me for life.

But back to Nancy's story—I also love the fact that Nancy's keepsakes didn't appeal to her at first. Some times the passage of time, and the passing of loved ones, transform simple objects into priceless keepsakes. I've learned this lesson in my own lifetime.

"Carnival Glass" starts on page seventy-three of the book. Here's an excerpt:

The shiny treasures didn’t really seem like treasures to me more than thirty years ago when I was presented with them. Shortly after my wedding, my mother and father visited my oldest first cousin, and before the end of their time together, she handed them a shoebox tied together with twine.

“This is Nancy’s wedding present,” Cousin Bonnie said. “I’ve had these since Grandma died because I was the oldest, and now that Nancy’s married, it’s her turn to have them. After all, she’s named after Grandma: Nancy Emma.”

A few days later, my mother gave me the box. I was anxious to discover the contents—until I saw them.

“What is this?” I asked examining the two pieces of dark purple glassware. I had no idea the purpose of either piece, and nothing in our apartment matched the rather strange colors.

“I remember when Grandma bought those,” my father said. “We were living at Curryville in Gordon County, and she got those from the rolling store.”

Though I wasn’t old enough to have ever shopped from the rolling store, I had always been fascinated by the idea of a traveling merchant and his wares since we visited an elderly relative in Kentucky’s coal-mining country whose store was still parked in his yard long after he had given up his route. Most of what was left in the dilapidated truck was a combination of castoffs from their home and some Watkins products like liniment and vanilla flavoring. That image, along with the times I had seen the Goatman and his wagonload of treasures bring traffic to a standstill on Georgia’s Highway 41, made me more interested in my father’s recollection.

“I think she must have bought those about 1914, when I was about five years old,” my dad recalled. “She saved and saved to buy those. I think she must have paid five or ten cents for each piece, which was a small fortune back then.”

He pointed to one of the objects.

“This little thing that looks like a vase is a hatpin holder,” he explained.

I picked-up the other piece. It looked like a candy dish with a lid.
“And that’s a jelly jar,” he continued. “Before refrigeration, jellies stayed on the table between meals.”

I nodded with understanding. Even in my childhood, Aunt Mell, one of the last of the great farm wives, had simply spread a tablecloth over the leftovers that wouldn’t spoil. Anytime I visited, I peered under the cloth and filched one of her cold homemade biscuits for a snack.
— Nancy Ratcliffe, from Project Keepsake

Happy Birthday, Nancy! I'm so glad we are friends! And thank you for sharing your story!