George Albert Cason Sr. could talk the hands off a clock, make a dollar off a handful of sand, whip up a stunning wreath in five minutes and teach a city boy how to tell a good full Mason jar from bad.
He was folksy, but wry. His believable banter sucked you in like quicksand for a poignant story of hard times or a left field, dry-witted dad joke you never saw coming.
George, who died on Groundhog Day at the age of 89, was the last of the seven brothers who grew up hardscrabble on the edge of Charlottesville during the Great Depression. His one sister, Nancy Roberts, survives him.
George did whatever it took to make enough money for his family, from real estate to landscaping. He and his brothers were instrumental in setting up the City Market and were active vendors until recently.
He was a softie. Running the annual Cason Family Christmas Tree stand, he was known for cooking up ham and cheese sandwiches for customers coming from the cold and anyone who was just dropping by to chat.
He was forever finding junk and fixing it, like the dancing, hip-swiveling, bilingual mechanical Santa Claus tossed out by some retailer because of a broken wire or two. Sure, it sometimes started randomly singing and swiveling like a zombie elven Elvis Presley, but it worked.
George always gave a percentage of profits from the tree stand to Meals on Wheels, sometimes as much as $2,000. I once asked him why.
“They do a big service to people, bringing them meals. Some of those folks may only get that one meal every day,” he told me. “Food is something you gotta have, and not everyone has it. Growing up, people didn’t deliver food to people like they do now. You just had to find your own. So we grew a lot of our own and Mom canned everything in the world. You had to buy 100 pounds of pinto beans at a time, and cornmeal came in 50-pound bags and flour in 25-pound bags. We ate a lot of biscuits and we had cows for milk. It was hard.”
That, he said, was one reason he brought potatoes, apples and other goods from his farm to give away to customers at the lot.
“We worked hard. We lived through some hard times,” George told me years ago when the Virginia Film Festival screened a Doug Bari-made documentary of his family, “Growing Up Cason.”
“We farmed what we could, mostly rocks. We all worked odd jobs and we sold Christmas trees downtown during the winter.”
The Casons were, even by Depression standards, poor.
“One time, the county welfare agency told my father they had collected some shoes, and that was something that was hard to get when you’ve got seven boys. So Dad walked into town and brought home the bag, and when he opened it up, it was all high-heeled women’s shoes,” he laughed. “Dad took them out back and knocked the heels off with a hatchet so we could wear them but Momma said, ‘the boys are not gonna wear no women’s shoes.’ So we went barefoot or kept wearing what we had.”
His folksy stories gave advice.
“I used to take lunch to school with me and it wasn’t much, you know, often something like a collard green sandwich or what have you,” he once told me. “There was this other guy who always had a big sack that looked like it was full and I was always after him to trade his lunch for mine. So, one day, I finally talked him into trading his lunch and when I opened that big bag, I found a claw-hammer and a couple of hickory nuts.”
Even the Christmas tree tradition sprang from desperation. The family would create holiday decorations, fell trees, pick a corner on Main Street and tote their trees to sell.
Every morning, they brought their goods to that corner. Every evening, they took back what they didn’t sell while at least one brother stayed behind and slept on the cold street corner to prevent other vendors from stealing their spot.
“Moving all of the trees was easier when I was younger, before I met the Itis brothers: Arthur and Burse,” George would laugh, darkly. “You know, they ought to do a man a favor and shoot him when he turns 65.”
When his brothers Leonard, Charles, Ralph, William and Lee went off to fight the Japanese in World War II, George and his brother Jack were too young to enlist, though they tried to anyway.
Home responsibilities — from milking cows to heating water to farm jobs — fell on the two teenagers.
“It about killed us. We did the best we could and it was about all we could stand. Trying to keep the farm going, I didn’t have time to go to school. That explains a lot, don’t it?” he laughed.
Not really. George, like all of his brothers, wound up making a good living, raised a family and contributed to the community. He was kind. He was decent. He was forever giving away bags of his farm’s produce. His legacy is that of a life well lived and being a man well loved.
And if you happen to run across a Mason jar full of clear liquid, turn it sideways and shake it. If the bubbles make a nice pearl necklace, it’s a good one.
Thanks, George. Rest well.