Mama’s Last Words

This post replies to this week’s “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” theme from Amy Johnson Crow: “Document.” 

I found in my late mother’s mass of papers a photocopy of a handwritten note titled, “Mama’s Last Words, Effie Wrote Them Down.” The script of the note is cursive. Somebody typed the title across the top of the first page, but it was poorly rendered, and so someone else re-wrote the title in pen or marker. I have a photocopy of this document, printed on two small pages, stapled back-to-back, as if multiple copies were made for family members.

“Dont take me back to Provencal,” the note begins, “it will be too expensive. I had just as soon be over here if you all are going to stay up here. You all wont stay tho will you.”

The “mama” of the note is my great-grandmother Sallie Annie (Pharris) Hawthorne. She was born in July 1880 in the small northwestern Louisiana town of Provencal, in Natchitoches Parish. Her father, David Thomas Pharris, was born in Virginia and migrated to Louisiana some time in the early 1870s. There he met and married Mary Ann Malone , who was born in Mississippi. David and Mary wed in 1874 in Provencal and had at least nine children, seven of whom survived into adulthood.

In Provencal, Sallie met James F. “Fred” Hawthorne, whose paternal grandfather Fred Hawthorne had come to Louisiana around 1859, and whose maternal grandfather James L. McBride had migrated from Tennessee around that same time.

Sallie and Fred married in Provencal on December 23, 1897. The village had between 200 and 300 residents. From 1898 to 1923, the couple had 12 children, including my grandmother Cora Belle, their ninth child and youngest daughter (she had three younger brothers).

Fred Hawthorne and family, policy jury ward 7, Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, 1920 U.S. Census. Two more sons would be born after 1920. Note Louis T. and Fannie Hawthorne are the next family; they are Fred’s parents. Via

Effie May, who wrote the note, was Sallie and Fred’s third child, born October 9, 1901. She was a teacher before she got married.

At some point in the 1920s, Fred Hawthorne moved his family from Provencal to Cass County, Texas, located about 140 miles northwest of their home. “Over” and “up here” in Sallie’s mind. Fred worked as a farmer in both places.

“I want you to take care of my little children. Just do the best you can. I wasn’t much help to you anyway. I think you get along better without me. Of course I’m just looking on. Don’t let them worry you. Come down on them more.”

Sallie Annie Pharris Hawthorne, ca 1914, photo in author’s collection

Sallie Pharris Hawthorne contracted tuberculosis some time in the mid-1920s. Her sad plea to Effie, then 24 and likely then still residing at home, and the oldest child still in the home, to “take care of my little children” is a reflection on Effie’s younger siblings still at home (or who may have been at home): Jewel (23), James (20), Willie Elmer (19); Fannie Annie (15); Bonnie (13); Cora (11); Eddie (8); Arthur (4); and Cecil (3). Effie’s two older siblings, Estelle and Louis T. were married already and long gone from home. “Don’t let them worry you” and “come down on them more” suggests motherly advice to sometimes discipline her own siblings as a parent might.

“Now don’t you all grieve after me for you see I can’t live and I’ll be better off I hope I’ll be at rest. All dead people look to me like they are at rest. Now don’t you all grieve after me one bit.”

Sallie Hawthorne died on June 12, 1926, in Cass County, Texas, aged 45. Dying from TB is drawn-out and painful, so it must have been a difficult death. Sallie may have welcomed it in the end, as she believed she would be “at rest.” It is interesting to me that there is no mention of the afterlife in the note, or her personal God.

You can hear how Sallie switches audiences, from “you”–meaning just Effie, to “you all”–meaning all of the children. Who besides Effie was in the room with the dying woman is unknown, but Sallie must have expected her daughter to convey the messages address to “you all.” I’m sure they all grieved to lose their mother so young, and I expect that Effie did the best she could, as her dying mother twice requested, over the few years she remained in the household to help her father and siblings, until some of the older “little children” were older still.

All Sallie’s children went on to have children of their own, except Fannie Annie, who died in 1930 of tuberculosis, and Jewel, who married career soldier Frank Knott and became a sort of second set of grandparents (on that side) for me, my sister, and our cousins. Great-aunt Effie married Henry Nolley in about 1930 and they had seven children. She died in 1994, aged 93. According to my uncle, Effie had beautiful blue eyes.

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