In November 1975, Carrie Lee Nelson gathered some family for her mother Delsie Branham Dotson’s 90th birthday. Carrie Lee used the occasion for a freewheeling family interview which she recorded at her home near Washington, D.C.
A biography should be written about Carrie Lee’s life as she went from poverty, to an orphanage, to the Governor’s Mansion of Wisconsin, to the Capital of the United States of America. Both Carrie Lee and her husband Gaylord were featured in Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation. Carrie Lee met Gaylord Nelson, her husband-to-be, while both were serving in the US Army during World War 2. Carrie Lee was later stationed on the island of Okinawa in the Pacific as a nurse during the brutal battle there in 1945. She and Gaylord married after the war and her husband later became the Governor of Wisconsin and then a Senator. I just knew her as Aunt Carrie Lee, my grandmother Laura Spradlin’s sister.
The first voice you hear on the recording is Senator Gaylord Nelson. In this moment he is just making sure that the recording is working. To hear the Senator in his public role, you can watch the following short video.
Those present at table that day included Delsie, Gaylord and Carrie Lee, Laura Spradlin (my grandmother), Joyce Mayberry and Norma Richards (my aunts and Laura’s daughters) and a family member named Lucille. In the early part of the recording the family remembers recount a serious fall by Lucille and how young Roy (my Dad) was so kind to hold her hand during her recovery.
While the first part of the recording is difficult to follow, things take a gripping turn at the 14 minute mark when Carrie Lee asks Delsie to recount how Delsie had to send her children away (which included sending Carrie Lee away). At first Delsie is reticent to recount the story but after others insist, she tells the saga, heard here for the first time publicly, in her own words. The recording becomes crystal clear as the heartbreak of decades comes pouring out.
The Background: The Whole Mountains Had Turned on Me
Delsie’s husband Albert Dotson died of the heart dropsy in 1926 and the family store burned to the ground. With many children to feed, the local masonic lodge members convinced Delsie to send her children away to the Masonic Home of Virginia in far away Richmond. Even though Delsie had opened a boarding house, she could not afford to take care of the youngest of her many children. Pressured by townsfolk, she relented and sent away her youngest four children, Virgil, Delmar, Carrie Lee, and Ralph. Ralph would grow up, serve in World War 2, and after the war pitch for the Chicago Cubs in the minor leagues until a neck injury ended his career. Delmar would go on to serve in the peacetime Army in Hawaii and play in several big bands there. He disappeared in the skies of New Guinea in World War 2 and his mother Delsie never knew what happened to him. His picture was on every family member’s mantle after the war. You can read his story in the book Sons of the 43rd.
When Delsie returned home to Pound from giving up her youngest children to the Masonic Home in Richmond, she made the lonely walk up Mill Creek Road. She wanted to find some comfort by talking with her father, Wib Branham, who had known tragedy in his own life. As a six year old boy, Wib had helped bury his father in 1863 when bushwhackers killed him. Delsie said during that walk, “I felt like the whole mountains had turned against me.”
The Memory of Their Voices
How do you describe a familiar voice from the past? The sounds are too wrapped up in memories, smells, and love. At the end of the recording I can hear the voice of my grandmother, Laura Spradlin. Laura was too old to go to the orphanage when her Dad passed and she soon married anyway. I remember her telling me, “I am from the state of Virginia, and by that I mean Ol’ Virginia” in a voice that always reminded me of honeysuckle in the springtime.
So take a moment and listen to the bustle of family voices around the table. Reflect on what you would sacrifice for the good of your family. Draw your loved ones close and remember their voices. Someday that may be all that you have of them, the memory of their voices.