By Libby Cluett
Grandma Honey – as long-time Mineral Wells resident Mary Helen Bass is known by most – has seen many changes in her 70-plus years.
Her frame house on S.E. Martin Luther King Jr. St. has witnessed generations of Basses grow up and celebrate holidays.
With 11 grandchildren (from her four children) and 18 great-grandchildren from eight of those grandchildren, Bass’ house was packed when family arrived for an occasion.
Bass seems to beam as she illustrates what her house was like when filled with family during the holidays.
“This house is full of memories,” she said then sighs after reflecting on Thanksgivings and Christmases past. “Now those were memories.”
She points to a folding metal game table, etched with evidence of many dominoes and checkers games once played by her deceased sister Francis and husband Milton.
“The dining room table would be filled with food and with punch in the center,” she described holiday feasts.
“I had greenery going everywhere,” Bass pointed to the ceiling and walls.
A billiard table that no longer graces the home was the centerpiece during the holidays. An enormous stocking, once purchased by her grandson Thomas at the “five-and-dime” store, delighted the children as its contents were poured out across the billiard table on Christmas Eve.
Adult family members would pick up items well in advance of the holiday celebration to fill the large stocking – putting items in order of age groups and their respective attention spans. Bass said that goodies at the top were for the youngest children, goodies in the middle for the next age and items at the large foot of the stocking were for the older kids.
Bass told how friends would come by and everyone had fun. The biggest celebration was Thanksgiving.
“All my family wants to come here. I had a son-in-law who didn’t go anywhere on Thanksgiving but here,” she said.
Bass and her home have witnessed many changes in Mineral Wells.
Bass describes how she remembers when Martin Luther King Jr. Street was “a dirt road.” As she says this, an enormous-semi truck and trailer loaded with plastic pipe heads west toward U.S. Highway 281.
She recalls her feelings when the city recently renamed Seventh Street. Bass said that having her street named after Martin Luther King Jr. means a lot to her and to the black community.
“We all thought it was real nice to have a street named after one of our leaders,” Bass said.
Before she and her deceased husband Milton bought the home in 1968, they lived on the Second Avenue circle until they were flooded out after “it rained all night.”
“That whole area was flooded; water filled the house. We opened the front door and water rushed in. A snake came in with it and wiggled on out the back door,” she recalled.
“Everything was just about ruined,” said Bass.
She and Milton moved in with his mother who helped them out until they could regroup and purchase the house where she still lives.
Some may know Bass from church; busing tables at Shotguns, where she retired in 1991; from cleaning homes; or many other places.
She recalls working with her sister in the bath department of the Baker Hotel – she gave baths and massages to customers.
“You used to meet celebrities and prominent people who came from Neiman Marcus,” she remembered.
Bass said that she usually worked seven days a week with an occasional day off, but not on the weekend. “The weekends were where the money was,” she said.
Bass worked several jobs to help support her four children and her grandchildren.
“I try to do what I can for my children,” she said, explaining that now she travels “from Mineral Wells to San Antonio and Mineral Wells to Oklahoma City and back home” to visit her children and grandchildren.
Today she sees evidence of her hard work through many of her descendants, including a granddaughter who serves as a district judge in Oklahoma City. The judge – who calls Bass “Momma” because “I raised her and her brother” – “calls all the time.”
“They went to Head Start,” Bass said of the two grandchildren.
For several years, she worked as a cook for the Head Start program on Oak Street. She walked the few blocks to work every school day morning with the two grandchildren in tow. On the way, she would pick up two neighbor boys “and all four of us would walk down to Head Start at 6 a.m.”
Bass recalled that sometimes one of the neighbor boys would be crying when she picked him up and she was told she could “whup him” if she wanted to. Bass let the youngster cry all the way there and she said he usually dried his eyes by the time they arrived at school.
She also remembers some of the “cutest things” out of the mouths of children; things that kept her entertained while she fixed them breakfast.
One of Bass’ strongest memories is “going to beauty school in ’78.”
“Lovie Burns and I were the only blacks in school at that time,” she remembered.
Bass put herself through school. She said she “did house work from 8 a.m. to noon for D.C. Harris and went to school in the afternoons.”
After finishing beauty school, she built a clientele working for a beauty shop on Fifth Street, “owned by Archie Wilmer, a deacon in my church,” she said.
Some of Bass’ experiences in Mineral Wells and her hometowns of Jacksboro and Graham leave her with admittedly mixed feelings.
“We can go through the front door and can sit at the counter,” said Bass who seems to distinctly recall a time when she had to enter a restaurant through the side door.
“In Jacksboro [where Bass grew up], we couldn’t go through the front door if we wanted to order a hamburger,” Bass recalls.
While Bass said she is grateful that Mineral Wells has a black mayor, councilman and school board president, she thinks there is still a long way to go.
“It was a struggle for us to get this far and we still have a long ways to go,” she said.
In addition to following soap operas, Bass said she has been keeping up with the presidential candidates. She seems pleased that among those campaigning are a woman and black man.
A haunting memory of her neighborhood and the vulnerability of human life seems etched indelibly in Bass’ mind and heart.
“I lived here when two ladies were killed – right up the block from me,” she said of her friend Emma London, 80, and Emma’s sister Francis Hodges, 78, who were murdered in their home in 1983.
Bass recalls that her husband, Milton, called her before she left work to tell her something had happened nearby.
When she arrived home, she said there were people all around the neighborhood.
“People had gathered after hearing of the tragedy. Everybody was in disbelief. Who could do something like this?” she remarked.
Today, she seems thankful for her neighbors.
“We look out for each other,” Bass said of family members who live with her and friends who live nearby.
Bass can name every neighbor within a few blocks on this highly trafficked city street that sometimes appears more like a truck thoroughfare.
However, statements like, “I can walk out my back door and right into my church,” seem to make Bass’ community especially close.
In addition to sewing – “keeping buttons sewed on shirts and hemming pants” for family members – doing crossword puzzles, embroidering and cooking “whatever comes to my mind,” Bass attends church and mission weekly.
She embroidered her favorite verse: “In all thy way acknowledge him and he will direct thy path.”
Bass said she is thankful for her many friends in Mineral Wells and for her pastor Henry L. Smith.
Church is a big part of her life, she said. As member of her church choir, one of Bass’ favorite hymns is “Walk With Me, Lord.”
“It’s a song that sticks with you and keeps you going. You want the Lord to walk with you every day,” she said.
One thing Bass hopes to see is the next generation of great-great-grandchildren.
“I’m hoping the Lord will let me live that long.”
By Libby Cluett
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