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Retired teacher pens book about family

By DAWN HANKINS - dhankins@t-g.com
Posted 11/28/20

Sharon Shelton McDonald still lives in her childhood home in Bedford County. After 70 years, the memories there are still so vivid, she was inspired to write her own memoirs, which she most recently titled, “Precious Memories.” “Record everything that you can recall, while you can still remember,” says McDonald, a retired Eakin Elementary first grade teacher...

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Retired teacher pens book about family


Sharon Shelton McDonald still lives in her childhood home in Bedford County. After 70 years, the memories there are still so vivid, she was inspired to write her own memoirs, which she most recently titled, “Precious Memories.”

“Record everything that you can recall, while you can still remember,” says McDonald, a retired Eakin Elementary first grade teacher.

That’s exactly what she’s done in her new book. She covers every inch of her family history — from her great grandfather, Jesse Ransom Shelton, to her own life as a wife and mother of two sons and daughter.

Through the 200-plus pages, McDonald delves into what she describes as sort of the southern rivers of her own life. She doesn’t fail to mention paternal and maternal ancestors like the Frizzells and the Griders.

As well, McDonald openly discusses married life with her late husband, George; she has a picture included of her wedding gown, which she fashioned. The author also includes photos and sentiments about her own three children; she’s looking forward to all of her children reading the book.

One son has shared tears already, she says. There are a lot of memories from the front to the back cover, she says.

McDonald and her husband moved into the family farmhouse back in 1970, when her late parents, Lon and Cleo Shelton, moved into another Shelbyville home. From the stairs of her circa 1900s home, McDonald has fond memories of late mother, calling the family to supper. McDonald remembers happy times with her siblings, Linda S. McGill, who now lives in Murfreesboro, and the late Norma S. Bell, who lived in Georgia during her married life.

From her garden, which she says will never compare to her parents’ in abundance, McDonald can see a large maple tree — one just like her family loved to see turn red or yellow every autumn. As well, local residents will certainly remember many of the people, places and things she describes in her memoirs.

The black and white photos, most made with her mom’s Brownie camera, capture rural Bedford County life as it was known around her home. Within “Precious Memories,” McDonald says her parents were frugal, by choice, and very practical in providing for the needs of their family.

The author describes her father, an educator at the Shelbyville Mills School, as also a farmer, the household accountant and community musician. Lon was a song leader at their church, Garrison Fork Primitive Baptist in Beech Grove, where McDonald still attends worship.

McDonald easily recalls from her kitchen how she and her sisters would climb up to the sink to wash supper dishes. Though the three might have quarreled, but it was through those simple tasks, she recalls, that her parents taught them “work is love made visible.”

In her recollections of her mother, born in 1915 and passing in 2002, McDonald describes Cleo Gonce Shelton as a friend to many; she was known to have invited 30-plus people into her home. The local author describes how when she and her sisters became ill, her mother was always decisive and practical in seeking doctors.

“My earliest memories of my mother are of warmth, comfort and gentleness. She knew how to soothe fussy little ones . . . had been a mother’s helper to four of her nieces and nephews. She was watchful and quick to respond to a child’s needs.”

She describes her mother’s statuesque frame as one which could outwork most women and even some men. Whether her stamina was the result of good genes or perhaps due to chasing after three little stair steps, she lived a life of self-sufficiency until her passing at age 87, she says.

Still youthful in appearance, after 37 years of teaching kids, McDonald is humble when describing herself within the memoir. “I have never used the word pretty to describe myself, though in my youth, I was vain about my slender ankles. So when someone says that I resemble my mother, I am pleased, because as a child, I thought she was as beautiful as Miss America.”

McDonald says she would have been amiss if she had not included some of the love letters exchanged during the late 1930s between her mother and father. She actually only discovered their handwritten personal sentiments about a year ago.

McDonald says she felt a little like she was prying into her parents’ privacy, at first. As a widow, the author notes they actually brought her comfort and even a deeper understanding of her parents’ relationship of 65 years.

One from her mother states: “My Dearest Lon, One more perfect day is through with a letter from my sweetheart. Of course the letter always makes up for every little thing that has gone wrong during the day. I’m so glad to hear that the meeting [revival] is meaning so much to everyone. I am sure there will be several more conversions before it closes.”

While their relationship might seem old fashioned to some, McDonald explains how her parents took on their own responsibilities within their commitments to one another. “My mother and father were models of wisdom, as they lived simply and purposefully.”

One of her dad’s letters from Beech Grove to her mom in Alabama, where she was working, states: “Dearest Cleo, I’m as glad you got my letter Wednesday . . . look forward from one week to the next with a great deal of pleasure for your letters. I enjoy them so much and they help me on through these long days of waiting for the time I will see you. With all my love, Lon.”

The author’s childhood picture of her dad was one of power and intelligence. His guidance, albeit sometimes strict, was presented with immeasurable love.

McDonald says those love letters were a part of the glue which held Lon and Cleo’s love together; they likely did not have a phone or it was too expensive to use. Their marriage would last for 65 years; her mom passed first, then her dad, a few years after, at age 98.

The couple are likely remembered most by their former students, as described by the author. McDonald shares anecdotes, particularly from her mother’s teaching days.

Her father began teaching at Shelbyville Mills School in 1945, and would affectionately be known there as “Pop Shelton.” McDonald and her sisters would eventually attend Shelbyville Mills School.

“Mother taught the first grade there, too, so our family felt loyal to SMS. In the school basement, we entered the cafeteria through screen doors. I loved the smell and taste of the freshly-made yeast rolls and I thirstily drank every drop of my cold homogenized milk from a glass one-half pint bottle.”

Having worked most of her marriage in education, McDonald notes it has taken the last 6 years to finish composing such fond memories of four family generations. Publishing the memoir for her is the Jesse Stuart Foundation of Ashland, Ky., which in 2019, published a special Christmas anthology, featuring Christmas memories from the Shelton childhood.

McDonald carries that story into this book, talking about their wonderful Christmases — those made possible in tough financial times in part by her parents’ hard work. “Both my parents believed in hard work, but Daddy was a cautious perfectionist, while Mother taught us the meaning of ‘good enough.’”

McDonald said if she had to choose, her parents’ essays are likely her favorite sections of the book. She says considering this is the first time she’s ever written a book, she’s proud of the accomplishment, even though it took her a while to stop writing first grade version sentences.

She says with a laugh that old habits die hard. Still, James M. Gifford, Chief Executive Officer of the Jesse Stuart Foundation, is complimentary of McDonald’s work.

“Her story of family life covers four generations. It is a strong contribution to our understanding of the hard working middle class that has made America a great nation — a middle class that is beginning to appear more frequently in Appalachian memoirs.”

McDonald explains, “I cherish the memories that reside in my place that is ‘lovelier than any other,’ near the banks of Hurricane Creek.”