Shared Stories: Lessons from Georgia

Kay Halsey was born in Atlanta in 1920, the daughter of immigrants from England. Her father was a minister, and her summers at his church camp in rural Georgia left a lasting impression. The arc of Kay’s life spans a time from paper dolls and sack cloth dresses to modern medical technology.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Kay Halsey

Sing them over again to me / Wonderful words of life / Let me more of their beauty see / Wonderful words of life.

The words that comfort me today are words I learned as a little girl in the state of Georgia.  I was born in Atlanta, September 5, 1920.  When America celebrated the birthday of the Statue of Liberty, it occurred to me that I was the child of immigrants, with no relatives stateside.
My father came from the North of England, Appleby, and my mother from North Ireland, Finnelly House, Moy, Dungannon, County Tyrone, before World War I.  They both escaped dire poverty on the same ship to Canada.  During their brief romance, they settled on the border of Michigan.  

Dad had gone to Manchester to study Law when he was converted to Christianity by the Salvation Army.  Today tears come to my eyes when I see the Salvation Army Band parade in Pasadena on New Year’s Day.  Being a Primitive Baptist, he became a preacher for a three point field, three churches and three congregations in Canada.

Canada had brutal winters, with snow as high as the tops of windows.  Dad had to shovel snow and saddle a horse to do his work.  My brother, Terence William Huck, was born in Canada in 1918.  

When a friend wrote a letter to my father stating that a church was available on the edge of Atlanta, where there was warm weather, the singing of birds, and blooming flowers, he courageously moved there after receiving his immigration papers.  He became the pastor of Rock Springs Presbyterian Church and I was born in the manse there in 1920.

In 1925 my father was called to be Executive Secretary of Home Missions for Atlanta Presbytery.  He supplied ministers and handled problems for the seventy-seven churches in twenty-two counties in the Atlanta area.  This was a time of economic depression in this area, and the churches were important socially.

My father organized youth leaders and councils, and in summer he organized youth conferences.  Near Conyers, Georgia, he discovered the Smyrna Church was surrounded by a camp-meeting tabernacle and cabins.  There was a natural lake and a well.  The farming community held camp meetings there every August, but the facility was not being used in July.  My father made arrangements to use the grounds in July, in exchange for making improvements to the facility.

I grew up going to the camp in June to be with the family while the preparations were being done.  This included carpentry, repair work, and contracts with local farmers for produce.  
I was free to amuse myself.  I cut out paper dolls and pictures of movie stars from movie magazines.  (I later noticed that Anne Frank did the same thing.)  I explored the lake, catching tadpoles and frogs.  I ran down to a country store to watch the farmers bring in their products in exchange for flour, sugar, and manufactured goods like buckets and wash boards.  I sat on the back porch of the old hotel and listened to the cooks as they told stories and laughed at their own adventures and shucked corn, strung beans, or pealed potatoes.

I played in the century-old cemetery under the old oak tree on the funeral biers.  Cots and mattresses were stacked up in the hotel dormitories and covered to prevent squirrels from destroying them when there was a thorough cleaning after the winter.  That was a good place to play Hide and Seek.

Sometimes Dad took me to Conyers to do banking and purchase supplies.  A country town centered around the railroad and was a fascinating place.  Farm wives in flour sack dresses shopped while the men did their business.

When night came, I had to go to bed early, until the time I was about twelve years old, but I could hear the singing from the tabernacle across the quiet camp during the evening service.  The songs were lullabies as I fell to sleep: “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “God of Our Fathers Whose Almighty Hand Leads Forth to Victory,” “Faith of Our Fathers Living Still.”  The quiet messages seeped into my soul as water sinking into the earth after a rain.

How has this experience of years of religious camp affected me?  The words of the Gospel message come to my mind during challenges in my life.  I married during World War II.  My generation was fearful that Hitler would overrun the world.  My husband was overseas during the destroyer war, and I received many changes of address, but no letters.

My husband had been traumatized during typhoons and dangerous battles and suffered nightmares for years after the war.  Our first child was born and died after three months just after he came home.  He went to San Francisco Seminary for three years, was ordained, and became an organizing pastor in a new tract community in California.

The Twenty-third Psalm was said many times.  “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”  I was strong and hopeful, in spite of the traumas of life.  I assisted my husband in every way while having five children.  I was committed to one man, one marriage.
I had a double mastectomy and a hysterectomy because of breast cancer.  The scripture, “If there is a mote in your eye, pluck it out,” seemed to minimize the problem.  My adult son died of melanoma, leaving four children.  I kept hearing, “Be still and know that I am God.”  We had several job-related traumas.  “God will take care of you,” seemed to come to my mind.  

My husband had a heart bypass surgery and recovery.  “All is well, all is well,” filled my thoughts.  My grandson had a disappointing Olympic tryout.  I immediately heard, “Forgetting those things that are behind and …looking forward to those things that are before, I press on for the high calling in Christ Jesus.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote wonderful words that come to me some mornings when I wake up:  “Still, Still with Thee when purple morning breaketh. / When the bird waketh and the shadows flee, / Fairer than the morning, lovelier than the daylight / Dawns the sweet consciousness, I am with thee.”