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 423-580-4153.