Miss Conway Lea
East Cedar Street in Livingston was one of the places my family lived while I was growing up. I have one sister and two brothers, and we lived in a small stucco house on one corner of that street, while on the other end of the same street, the Davis family lived. There were five kids in that family, Tom, Bill, Joe, Jane and Jack. Tom and my sister, Sue, were the same age, Joe and my brother, Phil, were the same age, I was one year older than Jane, and Jack and my brother, David, were the same age. We spent many happy hours together, especially Jane and myself. I have always thought the Davis kids had a most unique mother, unlike any other mother I was acquainted with. She pretty much let us do anything we wanted to, and I cannot recall a single time I ever heard her raise her voice to her children, much less to anyone who came to play. I remember Blanche Davis as always smiling and cheerful, and could easily be a very good subject for a story, and one well worth writing about, not to mention Mamma Davis and Nanny Lansden who both shared the Davis home, and that I also loved to visit with. I still a little box of dolls clothes that Mamma Davis made by hand and gave to me on one of these visits. But it is a neighbor immediately across the street from the Davis home that I am going to attempt to piece together a story about in this article. Since I have very few memories and practically no personal knowledge of my own about this particular lady, most of this story comes from what others remember about her, especially the Davis family.
Miss Conway Lea was the only child of Wash and Belle Lea, and grew up just outside Livingston city limits in a peaceful little valley near to what is often referred to as the Wash Lea Cave, which is, of course, named after her father. She attended the Fredonia Methodist Church as a child and went to a school that stood where Good Hope Cemetery is now located. Mrs. Flora Lea Collins grew up as a close friend of Miss Conway and the Lea family. Mrs. Collins told me that Mr. and Mrs. Lea treated her as special as if she were their grandchild, that she spent many nights in their home before they moved to East Cedar Street, and has lots of fond memories of times spent with them. In fact, her middle name comes from the Lea family. One of the things that Mrs. Collins says she learned from the Leas were good table manners which they believed were very important for youngsters to learn. The Lea family moved to the large white, two story house on East Cedar Street after Miss Conway was grown, and the home is now owned by Clay and Eldrith Parsons. Most everyone I’ve spoken to remembers the yard of the Conway home as being quite overgrown, not the manicured one that it is now. Miss Conway was never known for caring about how the yard or how the house appeared to others.
She can be described as of a petite build, and in her adult years, she always dressed in what could only be called an old fashioned manner, wearing dark colored dresses with an apron. A bonnet and shawl were also part of her attire. In cold weather, her Sunday best consisted of a black fur coat that came down to her ankles, a hat, and she always had this on when she walked to town in the winter months.
I have come to the conclusion that Miss Conway was evidently a very sentimental person, and the reason I believe that is I’m told she kept the last biscuits her mother made before she died hanging in a bag on the wall of the kitchen, and the last bouquet of flowers her mother picked was never thrown away long after they had dried up. And across the front porch of the home, foot prints could be seen where, right after the porch floor was painted, Miss Conway’s father walked before the paint was good and dry. The foot prints were left there and painted around anytime a fresh coat of paint was needed on the porch. Miss Conway eventually painted the foot prints with a coat of black paint.
Although the Conway house was wired for electricity, it was not used by Miss Conway. I was told she had the power cut off after her parents both died. The screens on the doors and windows were painted dark green, making it impossible to see through. Inside the home was an old pump organ, and Jane Davis Jolley and Jack Davis both remember Miss Conway playing it most every Sunday afternoon. Anyone walking by the house or outside in the neighborhood could hear the music coming from the organ. Jane said every time she heard her play, there was an extremely sad atmosphere that seemed to surround the place on those occasions.
Jack Davis has memories of going to visit Miss Conway with his Mamma Davis on many occasions, and that although he, as a very small child, was a little fearful whenever they went for a visit, he was fascinated with her house. Evidently she was not an orderly housekeeper and everything was piled high with her worldly possessions. No one was allowed to go upstairs in her home, and both Jack and Joe tell me they often wondered what was up there.
Another story that was shared with me was the Miss Conway owned a model T automobile that was never driven after being placed in the little garage building in the yard of the house until she sold the car to Jasper Poston. The car, parts of it still wrapped in paper, left the garage in the nearly the same condition as the day it was sold as a brand new vehicle.
Bantam chickens were considered very special family members by Miss Conway, and could be found not only in the yard, but also inside the house, and were permitted to roost on the back porch of the home, or anywhere else they might chose, and sometimes this included the fireplace mantel in Miss Conway’s bedroom. Baby chicks often had a home in an old shoe box. Joe Davis recalls that anytime he, or other family members, went into the yard of Miss Conway’s home, the bantam chickens would scurry away on the hunt of Miss Conway, and if she was out in the yard, they would huddle in behind her until she spoke to them, saying that everything was alright, they didn’t need to be afraid, at which time the chickens went about their business as usual, pecking about in the yard. Joe says he thought this was the chickens’ way of letting her know that someone was on the premises. A story was told about a time when Miss Conway was approached concerning the possibility of her selling the lot that adjoined her property on which the home of Sonny and Debra Parsons is now located. She declined to sell this lot time and time again to this particular individual, and when asked why she wouldn’t sell, her answer was that one of her bantam chickens was buried there, and she would not sell the property for that reason. The lot remained in her possession until after her death.
The yard of Miss Conway’s home was very overgrown and unkept, but not to the point that beautiful flowers still grew amongst the weeds and grass. Jane Davis Jolley can remember a time when Miss Conway wanted to show her what she called her "blue rose", and Jane remembers what a time they had getting through all the undergrowth to look at the rose, but sure enough, there is was in full bloom. I asked Jane if the color was actually blue, and she said to the best of her memory, the color was what she would describe as pale lavender. Perhaps that old saying could be altered slightly with "color is in the eye of the beholder". Surely to Miss Conway, the color was indeed blue.
Miss Conway was known to be a very religious person, although she chose not to attend church in her adult years. She didn’t believe a woman should cut her hair, and her own was long enough that when she combed it out, it reached the floor. One story passed along to me was that Miss Conway thought it was sinful for the female gender to wear shorts, and she didn’t hesitate to tell some young girls riding bikes on the street in front of her house that they shouldn’t be wearing shorts. But her manner in telling them was not done so in a hateful or offensive manner, but at the same time, she definitely got her point across. Another story I heard is that one time she suffered a broken hip in a fall, and was found laying in the yard by the mailman. He went across the street to get help for Miss Conway, and when Blanche Davis came back with him dressed in shorts, Miss Conway, broken hip and all, made it known to Blanche that she felt it was inappropriate for her to be dressed in shorts.
Since Miss Conway used well water for drinking and cooking purposes, that made for a great source of non-chlorine water that she let the Davis kids have for their tropical fish and also their gold fish. Joe told me how she asked them to just open the back door and holler at her whenever they came over to get water. Her well was located at the back of the house, and the first time Joe went to get water for their fish, he got quite a scare when he started to open the door to holler for her, just as she had told him to do, and when he did, her homemade burglar alarm, which included all kinds of things such as coat hangers etc, attached to back door went off.
Joe was also on the receiving end of a lesson from Miss Conway that he says came about as a result of shooting birds in her yard with a B.B. gun. He told me he started out in his own yard playing with this new toy, but as kids will do, wandered across the street with it, and ended up in her yard shooting up in the trees at birds. She saw him out there and came out on the porch, and when she saw what he was doing, she said, "Well, why don’t you just shoot me? I’m one of God’s creatures too, so why don’t you just shoot me too?" Joe said he didn’t quite know how to answer that, but that he never shot at another bird from that day on But one thing he emphasized was that Miss Conway was not mad or hateful in the way she spoke to him that day about shooting birds, and he didn’t feel offended at all by what she said, so maybe it was because of her unusual manner in expressing her opinion to him that the end result was achieved.
Along with being an educated and well read person, Miss Conway was a talented artist. There are those today who possess paintings she did, some of which were painted not only on canvas, but on cardboard, or on window shades, and also on old crocks and pottery jugs. The paint she used for her art work was ordered from Sears and Roebuck. Joe Davis can remember that many of the pictures she painted included Christ on the cross somewhere in the scenery. He told me the flowers she painted looked so real it seemed they could be picked right out of the picture. He says lots of the paintings he remembers seeing that she did on cardboard were sometimes quite large. Another way she used her talent for painting was to give a little toy kitten that belonged to Jack Davis a new face when it became faded and worn. Jack told me the toy kitten he played with had a rubber face, and his Mamma Davis would take it over and have Miss Conway paint on a new face when the old one had been worn away.
Miss Conway’s life would probably have taken a different course entirely had the man she was engaged to not died before their wedding day. It is said that her life ended in some ways too with the passing of this man. I am told his name was Lee Keisling, and that he at some point in their courtship asked her to never change. From the time of his death, her life seemed to stand still in time, and in her mind, she remained in the period of the days when he was alive and they had plans to marry. From what I’m been told, she took his words literally and kept many things in her home covered with newspapers, trying in that way to prevent those objects also from moving past the time he was still alive. At her request, letters he had written to her during their courtship were placed along beside her in the casket when she died.
Miss Conway was still living at the time the little blonde haired neighbor girl, Jane, grew up, got married, and became Jane Jolley. From that point on, Miss Conway laughingly referred to her as "Jolley Jane". Jane told me how Miss Conway always teased her about being "Jolley Jane" until one Saturday when Jane had come home to visit her mother, Blanche, and Miss Conway knocked at the door. The purpose of her visit that day was to ask Jane if she had ever offended her by calling her that nickname. Jane said she did her best to assure her that was never the case, to which Miss Conway replied that the reason she needed to know this was because she "was getting ready to die" and she didn’t want to do so without apologizing if she had ever offended her. Jane said she assured her she had never minded in the least being called "Jolley Jane", and that she (Miss Conway) was not going to die, that she would be around forever. On Monday morning following Miss Conway’s visit on Saturday, she was found dead in her home. The story is told that before she died, she tied a scarf around her head so that when death did come, her mouth would remain closed. She then proceeded to lay down on her bed with her arms crossed over her chest, and passed on from this world.
Miss Conway and both her parents are buried in the Good Hope Cemetery in Livingston. She was born September 17, 1883, and died July 17, 1967, at the age of 84 years. These words which evidently were written by Miss Conway are inscribed on her tombstone - "Though unto dust our bodies turneth, from this, a body God will prepare. In likeness to Christ’s glorious body, when we meet him in the air. Conway" Even though I lived just down the street from her for several years, I realize I have missed out on an opportunity to get to know someone I would consider to be a very interesting, knowledgeable and talented lady. If her methods of trying to stop time had worked, I would definitely have her at the top of my list of those I need to visit and get acquainted with.