Mom’s Mother

Mary Roe Mullenax

(left) Mary Roe Mullenax, Melvin Mullenax (right) Samuel J, Vernee Plum Roe

Mary Roe Mullenax & Melvin Mullenax, Samuel J Roe & Vernee Plum Roe

We know little about my grandmother. According to my mother (her youngest daughter), Mary Elizabeth Roe (the oldest) was taken out of school in the 3rd grade by her father Samuel J Roe and put out to work for a minister and his family as a maid. Her brothers were also made to work in the coal mines as children, but I don’t think her younger sisters ever had to work. Her paltry salary of, perhaps, 50 cents a week went directly to her father to support his family, while Mary stayed with the preacher.  The preacher’s wife taught her how to cook and clean. I’m not sure what religion, if any, was practiced by her parents, but my grandmother was brought up in a very strict Protestant sect.

It might have been Methodist, because it was popular at that time, and my grandmother had strict guidelines for living, which she imparted both to her husband and their children: swearing was ok, but not taking the Lord’s name in vain or filthy language; no alcohol of any kind; no dancing or singing; no card-playing or other games; and, obviously, no lying, cheating, or stealing. Her mid-Victorian stance against sex was passed on to her daughters. Her sons, however, had free reign to do whatever they could safely get away with (the presumption being that they would ‘do the right thing’ if they got some poor girl pregnant).

As an adult, my grandmother could read and write, but had neither the time nor the inclination to read, unlike my grandfather Melvin Robert Mullenax who had been a teacher before marrying and who read every chance he had.  My grandmother was only 16 when she married my grandfather (who was 12 years her senior!) and began having a large family. Because my grandfather was a coal miner when my mother was growing up, they often moved from place to place, as opportunities changed, and my grandmother would get out her scrub brushes, mops, brooms, and lye soap  and clean every inch of the company-owned houses into which the family moved.

My mother told me her mother was an excellent cook (good old-fashioned country cooking) but she never even owned a cookbook! They had neither electricity nor indoor plumbing so my grandmother made do with coal-oil lamps and cooked on the fireplace when they didn’t have a wood or coal stove. When they had space for it, she always had a vegetable garden and canned much of their food, baked bread every day, made her own soap, and did laundry by boiling the clothes in a big cauldron of scalding hot water with detergent and bleach. My mother’s earliest memory is crawling across the old wood floor that her mother had just scrubbed, being yanked off it, and crying from the lye-soap burns.

When Mom was about four, she spent a lot of time outdoors, roaming the fields and woods surrounding wherever they were living. One day, she brought home the cutest little ‘wood pussy’ because she always loved animals and she needed a pet, she thought. Imagine her surprise when my grandmother tossed the fur ball in the woods and tore off my mother’s clothes to burn in the outside fire. Little Frankie (as her family called her) didn’t know that her cute little, black-and-white ‘wood pussy’ was, in fact, a skunk! Her mother scrubbed every inch of her to get the stench off.

My grandmother also ran a boarding house for a time, but they lost it during the Great Depression. At another time she cooked for a lumberjack camp. At the lumberjack camp, she did all the cooking and laundry outside over a wood campfire. This was before my Mom was born, because her oldest sister, my Aunt Midge, told me about the lumberjack camp (Aunt Midge was 12 years older than my mother, so she knew their mother when she was young.

Mary Elizabeth Roe was a bit of a witch, in that she knew all about the plants, seeds, herbs, berries, etc. to use medicinally. She was a natural healer, recognizing and using herbs and plants found in the woods to create home remedies for her family and neighbors. She was a midwife who would go out at all hours to help the physician deliver babies. She was psychic and would arise in the middle of the night because she ‘knew’ that the doctor would arrive shortly for an unplanned birth–they didn’t have a phone; she just knew. She often had premonitions about future events. As a skilled midwife, she would often awaken her husband (my grandfather Melvin Robert Mullenax) in the night to get the horse hitched because so-and-so was about to give birth!  The local physician often picked her up in his horse and buggy to assist him. Her psychic gifts were passed on to my mother, Frances L (Mullenax) Labin, who always knew who was calling even before the phone rang.

Grandma used to make fruit brandy for special occasions, but when my Uncle Chuck (Mom’s older brother) broke into the root cellar and drank all the peach brandy and got drunk on it, my grandmother smashed every jar of brandy and never made any more. Although swearing was apparently common in the household, other vices were not—no gambling, not even card-playing games, no dancing, and no music, except for The Grand Ol’ Opry on the radio, were permitted. My grandmother never had her hair cut, never went to a beauty parlor, never got a manicure, never had any of the niceties of modern life. She never used make-up and must have been appalled when Aunt Midge started using powder, rouge (we now call it blush), and bright red lipstick. Mom said that her Dad would sit for hours at bedtime, undoing her Mom’s hair (pinned up so she could do her work) and combing it.

She was so sensitive to taste and smell that if someone were to put milk (which she despised) in her favorite glass, even though it had been thoroughly washed out, my grandmother could taste it. Mayhem would then ensue. I have a similar sensitivity, and both my grandmother and I share the love of ice cream. One way my Dad got on my grandmother’s good side when he married Mom was to take Grandma home-made ice cream. She vanilla, he chocolate. My Dad got along great with my grandfather, I’m told, because they were both quiet men who liked to exchange stories. Dad has his cigarettes and Granddad had his smelly old Cutty pipe to smoke.

Grandma was by necessity a thrifty housekeeper, making do, and never wasting anything, sewing her own and her children’s clothes, darning Granddad’s socks. Once a year, her elderly father, Samuel J Roe, would stay with her and her family for a time, and Mary would spend all of the household money to purchase clothing for him. She never turned away a hungry person. The hobos knew this and must have marked her house with one of their secret signs (as in the book/movie Fried Green Tomatoes) for they always found their way to her place. Mom must have inherited her generous heart. At one place they lived during the worst days of the Great Depression, Mom remembers taking the leftover canned fish (cod, probably) and some bread to the circuit preacher and her sister. No one knows what inspired her to do that, but the preacher and her sister had just arrived in the area and had no food until my mother surprised them.

When they moved to a farm Grandma spent the rest of her life raising chickens and pigs–for food and for sale.  She and her family relied on her egg business, fruit trees, and vegetable garden–not to mention her extensive canning (cold-pack)–for survival.  She was a good cook who never read a cookbook. She was a meticulous housekeeper in homes lacking electricity and indoor plumbing. She never drank, smoked, or swore, and forbid those things in her home. She had two enjoyments–ice cream and listening to The Grand Ole Opry on the radio. She never cut her hair. She loved her boys best, but it is said that she told her daughters, separately, that each was her favorite.

Her hard life caught up with her one day. After her first heart attack, when the doctors said she could not continue working so hard on the farm, she made plans to move in with youngest daughter, my Mom, and her husband Dick Labin, my Dad. Mom was pregnant with me and had had a difficult pregnancy, so Grandma was planning to move in with my parents to help Mom with me. She seemed to be improving in the hospital, but her enlarged and over-worked heart gave out.  She died of heart failure and double pneumonia two months before I was born. She was buried at Shinnston Masonic Cemetery, as was my Granddad decades later.

All I have of my grandmother are the stories my mother told me. And an amber Depression-glass cake plate that she gave my mother.


“Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Mullenax, age 54, Wallace Route 2, died January twenty seventh [1949] in a local hospital following two weeks’ illness. She was born October 4, 1894 at Tunnelton, WV, a daughter of Samuel and Laverna Rowe. Surviving is her husband, Melvin R. Mullenax, three sons, Harley J. of Poland, PA; Charles R. and Darrell A. at home; four daughters, Mrs. Mildred Wilkinson, Maidsville, WV; Mrs. Margaret Murphy, Greensboro, PA; Mrs. Louise Turns, Akron, Ohio and Mrs. Frances Labin, Poland, PA; four brothers, Pierce Rowe of Ohio, Samuel Rowe, Philadelphia, PA, William and Willard Rowe of Kingwood, PA; four sisters, Mrs. Anna Ward, Ambridge, PA; Mrs. Nora Nicholson, Salem WV; Mrs. Isabelle McGinnis, Tunnelton, WV, and Mrs. Jesse Hebbs, Dola, WV, and eight grandchildren. Friends may call at the Davis-Weaver Funeral Home, 329 East Main St. where funeral services will be held at a time to be announced later. Interment will be in the Shinnston Masonic cemetedy [sic]. Davis-Weaver Service.”

© Copyright 2015 Linda L Labin, PhD


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