Family ties|Old house, old stories join McNamara siblings

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 10, 2010

Joe McNamara said he appreciated being allowed “to expound on things,” that his minimum comment would be, “Here I am, and that’s enough.”

But it wasn’t enough. There were stories to tell.

Joe and his sister, Lady, were in the parlour of the McNamara home on Grove Street. It is a room filled with furniture about as old as the house, which is thought to have been built in the 1850s.

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Lady — nobody knows her by her baptismal name of Martha — has lived in the house all of her 87 years. She and Joe, younger than Lady by two years, were born there, as were their nine siblings.

She got the name Lady when she was born and her brother Pat was so excited that there was a new girl in the family that he told everyone, “Oh, we have a little lady,” and it stuck. All the children used the baby bed in the front bedroom, “and it shows a lot of wear,” Joe said.

The McNamaras were a good Irish Catholic family, for as Joe quipped, “anybody with 11 children have got to be good Catholics.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.

Only one of the siblings, the first, died as a child, and today just Joe and Lady remain. Lady did not marry, but Joe did — “65 years ago, but I’m getting over it.” There are 27 nieces and nephews and they have children “beyond number. When we realized recently that our oldest niece is 70, I like to have fainted,” Lady said. Joe gets the generations, both past and present, mixed up.

Their father, Francis Xavier Leray McNamara, named for the famous Confederate priest, graduated from St. Aloysius College in 1898 and soon formed a company that bought out Hoffman Hardware and renamed it O’Neill-McNamara.

Deed abstracts show the land where the house is located being owned by the Vicks in 1820 and changing hands numerous times until S.H. Montgomery built the house in the early 1850s. After his death, it remained in litigation for years. Bart and JoHanna Donovan McNamara bought it in 1870. Lady thinks the owners were probably old and simply left some of the furniture, but that doesn’t include a handsome portrait of Gen. Robert E. Lee, an original oil that has hung in a place of prominence for well over a century. Lady doesn’t know where it came from, but her sister Jo “could tell you all kinds of tales.” The origin, including the name of the artist, remains shrouded in mystery.

Nothing is known about the role of the house during the siege of Vicksburg. It was outside the city limits but behind Confederate lines and near the home of a man whose name really was Lewis Lewis. The Lewises dug a cave in the hillside east of the house, in the yard, for safety from the bombardment. In later years, their son Tom Lewis was photographed at the entrance to the cave, charging people to go in.

Marauding Yankee soldiers might have made it into the house — no one knows — but Yankee tourists with money in their hands haven’t — and won’t. Several years ago, family and friends suggested to Lady that she spruce up the gardens, dig out the entrance to the cave and put the house on tour. With a bit of a theatrical indignation, Lady sat down her glass of wine and pronounced, “Yankees in my house? Never!”

Lady said she doesn’t remember the moment, but said that “it sounds like my mother who was quoted in the paper as saying something like that — that those Yankees would never pay to go into a cave.”

The cave collapsed one night many years ago during a terrible storm, Joe said, and he suspects he and his siblings had something to do with destroying a bit of history: they used big spoons to dig tunnels and scoop out dirt on the hill, which led to erosion.

The McNamara house is a large one — it had to be with so many children. In the summer, the boys lived dormitory-style on a sleeping porch, and in the winter moved upstairs. All went to the Catholic schools and to St. Paul Catholic Church, where they added significantly to the number attending Mass. There were too many of them to usually travel together, but Joe recalls that when the river bridge opened in 1930 his father packed everybody into an old Dodge, and “we went to the opening. Well, everybody that we know of in the family was in that car. Some of us might have been missing.”

With such a large family, Mrs. McNamara needed help and, “They were all wonderful,” Lady said, “especially Frances Moore, the housekeeper, who had complete control. She had a switch she used. We were to mind Frances.” But Joe put it more bluntly: “Mother told her to slap the hell out of us.”

Mrs. McNamara made all the clothes for the children, but she had a cook, a washwoman, an ironer and a yard man.

The McNamaras also had a cow named Sally, pigs, and Rhode Island and Domi-necker chickens, one named Miss Ada whose toes had been eaten off by rats.

The only animals around now are cats who, Lady said, “come from all over. This is a resort. They tear up everything. They winter in the cellar. They’re neighborhood cats that travel, but they come back to eat.”

When Joe was growing up, he was always tinkering with old cars. The back-yard was filled with tools and car parts, including a motor hanging from the chinaberry tree.

“It looked like a junkyard,” he said, and he guesses you can still find wrenches and pieces of automobiles under the vines and in the periwinkle.

Just before World War II, Joe bought a Model T Ford from McDonald’s junkyard for $15. It wasn’t long before he was in the Air Force, and one day he saw a picture from Vicksburg of the scrap drive. There was a tremendous mound of old iron, “And guess what was on top of it? My old Model T. And there I was fighting the battles to save democracy, and they took my car.”

Toward the end of the war, Lady said, “They would take anybody — anyone could get in the Army. Oh, I didn’t mean it that way.”

But Joe retorted, “Oh, yes you did!”

A memorable event for Lady was when her mother took her out of school in 1935 so they could go to the Saenger Theater to see “Gone With the Wind.” After graduation, “I was expected to get a job, so I did,” and for the next 36 years she was secretary to the head of the Mississippi River Commission — the only job she ever had.

Joe recalls a job he had pumping gas two hours a day at a service station in Charleston, S.C., where he was paid 60 to 70 cents an hour. He could hardly believe it because, “I never thought I would be worth that much.”

After the war, Joe went to mortuary school and worked for seven years as an undertaker at Fisher’s. He told of the day in 1953 when the tornado hit Vicksburg. He was at Crichelow’s bar downtown, and the town drunk, who was there every day, was sitting with his half pint, refilling his glass every now and then, “but when the tornado struck, and we realized what it was, he grabbed the bottle” and swigged down the whole thing.

Joe also worked for Spencer Chemical, where he solved a problem with observation and common sense, “and man, they thought I was a genius and I got promoted to supervisor. I could really load you with bull. Later, I took my expertise to South Korea and built a plant, where I became superintendent.” Joe reflected that he didn’t go to college, “hardly got out of high school.” Instead of spending time in class, he had learned to take apart a Model T.

He had more car stories. The highway patrol was new when he got stopped one day by Shot Finane, a patrolman, who just wanted to see “that we had everything right. He said I didn’t have headlights, but I told him I did. I kept ’em under the seat during the day so they wouldn’t get broken by gravel. At night, I took ’em out and plugged ’em in.”

He also recalled that Dodge automobiles had reverse where most cars had second gear — “which is why my Daddy knocked down the fence.”

Lady still lives upstairs, though “everybody tries to make me move downstairs. But I love it up there. Joe thinks I’m going to fall down and break my neck….”

“I call her every morning,” he interrupted.

“…. to check to see if I’ve fallen yet. I think he’ll be disappointed if I don’t, so he can say ‘I told you so.’”

Joe spends a lot of his time these days walking his dog, and Lady doesn’t know what she does other than feed the cats and read and go to the library except on Tuesday, which “is my beauty day. I’ve always been red headed — not this red — but red.”

Joe has lived in many parts of the world, but he’s more than satisfied being in Vicksburg.

What will become of the wonderful old house?

To Lady, it’s more than just an old house: “It’s a great house, and I love it. I haven’t always loved it, though. When I was young, I wanted everything modern, especially the bathroom.”

She doesn’t want to live anywhere else. She’s right where she belongs, where it all began.