January 30, 2021

The Cate Girls: Harriett and Della


The two sisters couldn’t have been more different—in looks and disposition.  Della was four years older than Harriett.  Della (like their younger brother Jack) had dark hair and dancing brown eyes. Harriett (like their older brother Clifford) had blonde hair and pale blue eyes.  Della was fun loving and cheerful.  She had no interest in sewing or quilting, and wasn’t very interested in school or housework. Harriett was sickly as a teenager, loved school (she longed to become a nurse), gardening, sewing and quilting.

An elderly neighbor used to see the sisters walking down the road past his house and he nicknamed them Sunshine (Harriett) and Tempest (Della).  Tempest and Sunshine was a novel by Mary Jane Holmes that was published in 1854.  To reflect the personalities of the two sisters in the novel, the benevolent sister Fanny was called Sunshine and her deceitful sister Julia was Tempest.  I’m not sure what led him to attach these labels to the Cate sisters, but likely it was just how different they were.

Harriett would go spend a week every summer with her father’s two unmarried sisters. She saw this as a personal sacrifice—and the one highlight of the week was when her Aunt Tine would open the cedar chest and show Harriett all the lovely quilts she had made.  She secretly hoped Aunt Tine would give her a quilt someday.  However, it was Della who received a lovely handmade quilt for a wedding gift—which she didn’t fully appreciate.

Harriett married Robert Hurst when she was 20. When the Hurst family moved to their community a year or so earlier, everyone said Della should set her cap for Robert!  This time Sunshine prevailed. Within a year, Harriett and Robert had a baby boy, Glenn, and three years later, Robert died from tuberculosis.  The young widow and her son lived with her parents—as well as Della and Jack.  Harriett went to work as a clerk in Miller’s Department Store and her mother and Della took care of Glenn.  He always adored his Aunt Della.

Della didn’t marry until she was 30.  She and her husband Richard Underwood moved to Atlanta and had one daughter, Juanita.  Over the years, the whole family loved visiting Aunt Della in her West End bungalow.  City life, close neighbors, streetcars, Rich’s department store, the Fox Theater—it was magical. She loved to laugh, would host picnics on the front porch, tried new products like cake mixes and instant tea, and got a television set years before we did.

The two sisters wrote long weekly letters to each other for many years and visited by phone or in person often.  Always different, each was uniquely lovely and beloved.

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