Meet Bon­nie Falken­berry: Mak­ing life good

The Catoosa County News - - COMMENTARY - By Ta­mara Wolk

Chicka­mauga res­i­dent Bon­nie Falken­berry freely ad­mits she’s a pack rat, but that term de­scribes her soul as well as her store, Susie’s An­tiques & Col­lectibles, in Fort Oglethorpe.

Falken­berry’s life has been pack­aged with enough love, loss, friend­ship and ex­pe­ri­ences to ser­vice two or three lives.

On any given day, one might find Falken­berry in her shop sift­ing through the lat­est box of old dolls or other trea­sures she’s un­cov­ered or en­cour­ag­ing a new mother or turn­ing a beloved daddy’s over­alls and flan­nel shirts into a mem­ory bear for a griev­ing daugh­ter or spoil­ing her grand­chil­dren or driv­ing around the coun­try­side with her hus­band of over 50 years.

But one night a week, you’ll find this busy lady in her den – danc­ing. “Ev­ery Satur­day night, Molly Bee comes on TV,” says Falken­berry, “and I’m cut­tin’ a rug for an hour. I was al­ways a toe-tap­per. Danc­ing is in my blood.”

Years ago, Falken­berry de­cided she wanted to learn to clog – with her hus­band. “Billy didn’t want any­thing to do with it,” she says, “but he came around.” The two took lessons then went on to dance in ex­hi­bi­tions, grand open­ings and com­pe­ti­tions in Alabama, Ge­or­gia, Ten­nessee, North Carolina and Texas. In the 1970s, they added square danc­ing to their reper­toire.

Falken­berry’s life grow­ing up in Alabama was an in­ter­est­ing one from the start. “I have two sib­lings, but my fam­ily and my aunt’s fam­ily lived to­gether for a long time, and she had 13 chil­dren. So I re­ally had 15 broth­ers and sis­ters and four par­ents.”

Life in­volved a lot of hard work, but Falken­berry says they never saw them­selves as poor.

“Mon­day was wash day. We loaded the clothes and a big pot on the wagon and took them down to the creek. We built a fire and filled the pot and boiled the clothes and cleaned them with home­made soap, then we rinsed them and wrung them out and took them back to the house to hang them up to dry.”

Falken­berry says the fam­i­lies grew most of their own food and kept chick­ens, goats, cows, guineas, tur­keys and pigs. “One time the chick­ens got into the corn crib and gorged them­selves and got re­ally sick. My mother held onto the chick­ens while Aunt Rosie cut them open and got the corn out and sewed them back up. We couldn’t af­ford to lose them.”

Doc­tor­ing, like most other things in life, was a fam­ily func­tion. “The only time we had a doc­tor out was when a baby was be­ing born and once when my ten-year-old cousin got pneu­mo­nia.” Falken­berry says the doc­tor made a tent over her cousin and in­structed the fam­ily to boil pots of wa­ter and have the boy hang his head over them and breathe in the steam.

Flour and feed sacks were saved for mak­ing clothes. “We got new home­made clothes and store-bought shoes for school and Easter ev­ery year. We didn’t have a lot of things, but we had the world and we had love,” says Falken­berry.

At the end of the day, when the work was done, Falken­berry says her mama, Hazel, and her Aunt Rosie would sit on the front porch and sing hymns while the chil­dren played. “Ev­ery year, they got a new Al­bert E. Brum­ley song book.” In the win­ter, the fam­i­lies gath­ered around the fire­place and Hazel and Rosie told ghost sto­ries.

Falken­berry says she loved school and did well there. “We walked a half mile to the bus stop, then it was a 20-mile ride to school.”

Falken­berry’s father worked buy­ing tim­ber for elec­tric com­pany power poles. “I started go­ing with my daddy on week­ends when I was old enough. He would mea­sure the poles and I would write the lengths on the ends of them.”

One Sun­day af­ter­noon, when Falken­berry was a lit­tle older, she was on a date with a young man. “There wasn’t much to do, so we went to the lo­cal swim­ming hole. I saw a boy out in the wa­ter and asked some­one who he was. They told me and I said, ‘He’s go­ing to be my hus­band.’”

The boy of whom Falken­berry spoke, Billy, emerged from the wa­ter and she and he were in­tro­duced. “I said to him, ‘I hear bells,’ and he said, ‘I do, too.’ We’ve been hear­ing bells ever since.”

Falken­berry de­voted her early mar­ried years to rais­ing her three chil­dren. When the lit­tle ones were all in school, she got a job as the prin­ci­pal’s sec­re­tary and worked at that for 15 years. Later, she worked at a phar­macy where she was trained as a tech and filled pre­scrip­tions. She and her hus­band started their danc­ing hobby, and Falken­berry drew on skills she learned as a child to do other things, too.

“I learned to quilt at my grand­mother’s knee when I was eight or nine.” In 1984, Falken­berry made her first mem­ory quilt – a patch­work of her mother’s clothes. Later she made one out of her father’s clothes. “They’re all I sleep un­der,” she says. She started mak­ing mem­ory quilts and mem­ory bears for oth­ers who had lost loved ones. To that she added chris­ten­ing dresses and other spe­cial clothes made from things like a grand­mother’s wed­ding gown.

“Ev­ery quilt or bear I make is so spe­cial it brings tears to my eyes,” says Falken­berry.

Not one to be idle for even a minute, Falken­berry also delved into the busi­ness of buy­ing and sell­ing an­tiques and col­lectibles and soon amassed a for­mi­da­ble amount of mer­chan­dise. She rented space in an­tique stores and flea mar­kets and filled her home and nu­mer­ous stor­age units.

Five years ago, Falken­berry’s world was turned up­side down when she lost her youngest daugh­ter, Susie. “It changed my whole view of life,” she says. “Susie was a pack­rat like me and we had talked open­ing a store to­gether.”

Falken­berry ful­filled that dream three years ago when she rented space for her store and named it in honor of her daugh­ter. She con­sol­i­dated her in­ven­tory, moved her huge quilt­ing ma­chine into the store, and worked on heal­ing her bro­ken heart.

“It helps to be around peo­ple and to hear their sto­ries and com­fort them,” Falken­berry says. “It helps you ac­cept your own loss and it also helps me keep Susie alive in my heart. I feel like she’s here with me. She would love this place and she would love the peo­ple who come in. She was a writer and a story-teller. She would have loved shar­ing their sto­ries.”

Life is all about sto­ries. “I love hear­ing peo­ple’s sto­ries, just like Susie did,” says Falken­berry. “If I can help some­one by lis­ten­ing, cry­ing with them or mak­ing some­thing to help pre­serve a mem­ory, their life is bet­ter and so is mine.” Bon­nie Falken­berry still makes mem­ory bears and quilts and other spe­cial-or­der items. Her store, Susie’s An­tiques & Col­lectibles, is lo­cated at 2738 Lafayette Road in Fort Oglethorpe. She can be reached at 423580-4153.

Bon­nie Falken­berry’s Fort Oglethorpe shop, Susie’s An­tiques & Col­lectibles, is a place of heal­ing as well as a place to find a lot of unique items. (Ca­toosa News photo/Ta­mara Wolk)

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