A Nephew Remembers Bess Truman and His Childhood in a Gingerbread Dream House
11/08/1982 at 01:00 AM EST
On October 21, I said one final goodbye to my aunt, Bess Wallace Truman, who had died at 97. I was not alone. Her funeral at Trinity Episcopal Church of Independence, Mo. was packed to capacity with 140 invited guests, among them Nancy Reagan, Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford, ex-Sen. Stuart Symington and former presidential aide Clark Clifford. Many of the mourners had not seen each another for decades, and their pleasure at meeting again was obvious from the most un-churchlike level of conversation. But the Episcopal service was formal and ancient and moving, and as the organist played, memories flooded back.
This was the woman whom President Harry S Truman always called "the Boss." I called her Aunt B. For nine years—from 1934 to 1942—I lived with Aunt B and Uncle Harry in the 17-room Wallace family home that would become known as the summer White House during the Truman presidency. To that huge gingerbread mansion, built by my great-grandfather in 1865, Uncle Harry had come courting in 1910. He had returned a cake plate to my grandmother, Madge Wallace, and had encountered Bess. They had been school chums, but he had moved away after high school to work in Kansas City. Now he was 26, and she was 25. Their romance moved slowly even for those post-Victorian days. It was not until 1919 that they married. They went to live in Grand-view, 15 miles southwest of Independence, but soon they were back at 219 N. Delaware Street helping my grandmother through a painful sciatica attack—and they never left. In 1924 their daughter Margaret was born in the house.
With its wonderfully cluttered attic and its mysterious catacomblike basement, the place was a child's delight. It was always full of people. My grandmother, the matriarch of the family, lived in a large bedroom downstairs (the room to which Aunt B, crippled by arthritis, moved 10 years ago). Harry and Bess resided upstairs in the south bedroom. Their daughter occupied an adjacent room. My mother and father shared the north bedroom, and my sister Marian and I bunked in the huge west bedroom, with its mahogany-fronted fireplace and colored-glass windows. In that house, in the manner of a now-vanished time, this extended family shared their happiness and their sorrows. I have vivid memories of both. I remember the smell of Grandmother Wallace's steamed fruitcakes and decorating the Christmas tree with Uncle Harry. To this day there is still a mark on the 11-foot ceiling from a too-tall tree that had to be jockeyed into place. On torrid summer days there were trips to nearby Blue Springs with Aunt B and Margaret for the best chocolate sodas around.
But there were the family upsets too. I remember accidentally igniting my bathrobe on the kitchen stove and Aunt B ripping the flaming garment off my back. Before that, I had burned myself crawling over the hot forced-air radiator in the hall. I recall crying over a venison dinner a few days after seeing the movie Bambi, and Aunt B reassuring me that it was Bambi's enemy we were eating.
Bess Truman was a simple woman—simple in the sense that she never tried to fool anyone (except small boys) or to impress anyone with what she was. As a teenager, she had been the first girl of her age able to whistle through her teeth and for a while the best third baseman of either sex in Independence. At Barstow Finishing School, where she was a basketball star, she also won the shot-put competition—good training, she later joked, for a career shaking hands on White House receiving lines.
Once, traveling from the White House to Independence by train, she noticed an advertisement for gloves in a Washington newspaper. She promptly dispatched a check for $1.50 and never understood why the seller never cashed it.
She was a private woman who never warmed to life in the limelight. Those people foolish enough to get too personal were stopped dead by a freezing stare. With her intimates, though, her sense of humor never failed. Not long after she moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 1945, she received a letter from England asking for her favorite recipe. "I don't have any idea of what to send," she told my Aunt May, "but I like those bran rolls that you make." May gave her the recipe and she sent it along. Soon, she received another letter asking for the quantity the recipe would make. "I don't have the ghost of an idea," she replied. "It depends on what size you make them."
After Aunt B's funeral, I looked again at the house where she and I had lived, the house where she died. It was the first place I ever called home and it enclosed the happiest years of my life. I remembered how my dog, Spot, used to trip the electric eye on the security fence around the house with his tail, setting off alarms. And I remembered the last time I saw Aunt B a couple of years ago. Her once sturdy frame had shrunk and her hair was startlingly silver white. Her body was betraying her, but her mind was still sharp. She sat quietly, close to her telephone so she could talk to Margaret. And she still retained her love for chocolate: Every evening, she dispatched a Secret Service man to fetch her a chocolate milk shake.
I drove away from Independence as the sun set on that house full of memories. In the front yard, the maple tree I used to climb was shedding its gold and scarlet leaves. Next to it the flagpole carried its banner at half-mast. The house has been left to the government, and that is probably as it should be. Margaret lives in New York and the rest of us are spread far and wide. But it is sad to think that the house which saw so much life, so much history, will never again be a home.
The 47-year-old author is a PEOPLE correspondent in Los Angeles.