The Way We Were: Catherine and Kara Williams

The Way We Were: Catherine and Kara Williams
Kara and Catherine Williams in Holland

For 20 years, they were roommates. Now they are neighbors. The best of friends. Not every mother and daughter can say that, but Catherine and Kara Williams can.

Until recently they lived together in the house on Thornwood Lane in San Marco that Catherine’s father bought in the 1940s. Now Kara, 54, lives across the street, just a few steps away from her mother and a house of memories.

“My father always loved this house,” said Catherine, 87. “I have, too. I love the openness, all the windows. I feel comfortable here. There are so many memories.”

When she was young, Catherine and her sisters, Marie and Shirley, took over the top floor of the split-level house while her brother David and their parents had bedrooms on the first floor.

“At the end of the street was a park and a little stream, Craig Creek, that flowed through it. It’s been cut off now, but we used to go down there and play,” Catherine said. “It was very pretty.”

On hot summer days, they would go downtown to Barrier’s Ice Cream on Main Street or to a place on the Northside where horses would grind sugar cane and you could buy cane juice.

“Sometimes we would get in the car and drive out to the airport,” Catherine said. “It was a nice long ride out to the airport, and it was nice and cool.”

Nicholas and Ona Mae Ghiz with Catherine, Marie and David

Nicholas and Ona Mae Ghiz with Catherine, Marie and David

Catherine’s father, Nicholas Ghiz, came to the United States in the 1920s from Damascus, Syria. She not’s not sure why he settled in Jacksonville. It may have been because he fell for a Georgia girl — Ona Mae Williams of Waycross.

Over the years Ghiz owned several businesses, including Nick’s 5 & Dime downtown on Davis Street. His wife worked with him, and when they were old enough, the children helped, too.

His first business was a pool hall on Edison Avenue, where the Chappelle School is now located. The family lived on the first floor of a Riverside duplex that is now the studio of artist Daryl Bunn. They played hopscotch and hide-and-seek in the empty lot next door. 

Across the street was a bakery. “We’d go over there and get ‘long johns,’ what we call eclairs,” Catherine said. “They were so good.”

The family had a maid. “Her name was Minnie and she would tell us ghost stories,” Catherine said. “We loved ghost stories. She was so much fun.” They also listened to ghost stories and mysteries on the radio, especially “The Inner Sanctum” with its squeaky door.

The children attended Annie Lytle Elementary School, and Catherine remembers playing jacks on the wide porch. Her favorite doll was a Shirley Temple.

The family moved to Forest Street where her parents opened their first 5& Dime. It wasn’t long before family moved to Gilmore and Osceola Streets.

Catherine attended John Gorrie Junior High School. “I remember running to school,” she said. “I did that a lot. I don’t know if I was late or what.”

Although the family moved to San Marco while she was still in high school, Catherine continued at Robert E. Lee. She described herself as quiet and studious.

After school, she helped in the 5 & Dime. “We dusted and straightened things out,” Catherine said. “We watched the customers for shoplifting. My father sold Bay Rum aftershave, which had alcohol in it, and drunks would buy it and drink it.”

Kara remembered her grandfather’s 5 & Dime, too, especially the rows and rows of penny candy. “We also got free candy because our grandpa owned the store,” she said.

But it wasn’t all study and work. Catherine remembered going dancing with her friends at The Pier on the river and to the movies at 5 Points and Florida Theatre.

Her favorite thing were the sing-alongs at Florida Theatre.

“I remember a man named Knight played the organ and the bouncing ball jumping from word to word (on the screen),” she said. “Those were special times.”

The Florida Theatre was also where she had her “big moment” when she and her sister Marie performed a duet in a tap dance recital.

There were piano lessons, too. “We hated the teacher,” she said. “When we did good he would kiss us on the cheek. So, when he came to the house, we’d run and hide. My brother was the only one who learned to play.”

Catherine also remembered her mother taking them to art classes in a building Downtown. Catherine said she always loved to draw and somewhere in the house is a notebook of sketches she did of her children.

Catherine graduated from Lee in 1947 and headed off to Florida State University with her friends. “I went there because everyone else was going there,” she said. “I had to do what everyone else did. I didn’t want to be different. I went to school with a lot of smart people. They turned out to be doctors and professionals,” she said.

She never settled on a major and came home after two years and finished her education at Jones College. Then Catherine became a career woman, working for Tucker Brothers Mortgage Company and later as an intake worker at juvenile court. “Nobody loved me. I was the one who assigned cases to the case workers and they were always complaining they had too much to do,” she said.

One night she went on a blind date. She and Joe Williams went dancing and everything changed.

Joe was a salesman at Ford Motor Company and later at Claude Nolan Cadillac. They liked dancing and music. He liked Bing Crosby, Catherine was a fan of Frank Sinatra. They got married at the Woman’s Garden Club on Riverside in 1952, and Catherine wore a street-length dress covered in lace with a short veil.

They bought a house on Claremont Circle in Spring Park where they raised their children, Kim, Mark and Kara.

The Williams family at Marineland:  Joe and Catherine, Kim, Mark and Kara

The Williams family at Marineland:
Joe and Catherine, Kim, Mark and Kara

Catherine quit her job to take care of the children but found ways to earn money from home, doing surveys either over the phone or going door-to-door and conducting market research with her children. Kara remembers “helping” with market research, taste-testing products. One she remembers is Cheeri-Gos – a ring of Cheerios that you could eat off your finger. It never made it to the market.

Kara walked to Spring Park Elementary and was met every afternoon by her dog Pumpkin, a Dachshund Chihuahua mix as she walked home. “One of the neighbors told her she could set her clock by Pumpkin,” Kara said.

Kara attended Landon Middle School and graduated from Englewood High School in 1981. She was a cross-country runner and said she loved the outdoors. After high school, she spent a year in Holland as an exchange student, living with a family who loved the outdoors, too, she said.

Kara said she formed a strong bond with her Dutch family when she joined them sailing and hiking. The family arranged for her to study at a sports college where she learned judo and folk dancing. “It was kind of funny, no matter what I did I was always one step behind because everything was in Dutch,” she said. “They treated me really well,” Kara said. “We’ve kept in touch.”

Kara has been back several times to visit them, and on one special visit, in 2000, she took Catherine to meet the couple she refers to as her “Dutch mom and dad.” When her Dutch mom was dying, Kara flew to Holland to see her. Although the Dutch mom had dementia and recognized very few people, Kara said she responded to her, tearing up as she recounted the story.

After high school, Kara studied at Florida State College at Jacksonville and University of North Florida, where she saw bobcats and other wildlife while running in the nature preserve.

After earning a degree in recreation management at FSU, Kara returned to Europe and got a job for a year providing outdoor recreation for Air Force personnel at Ramstein Air Force Base. She organized canoeing, skiing, and hang gliding trips all over Europe.

When she came back to the United States, she moved to San Antonio and tried her hand at teaching. But she said she realized she missed the camaraderie of the Air Force and in 1992 joined the Air Force Reserve at Lackland Air Force Base as a flight medic. Kara didn’t know it at the time, but her father had been a medic in the Army Air Corps in World War II.

When her father died in 1998, Kara decided to move back to Jacksonville. In 2000, Kara and her mom moved into the house on Thornwood. Seven years ago Kara bought a house across the street then spent the next six years renovating it.

Catherine was working full time as a technical assistant in the cardiology department at St. Vincent’s Hospital. She took information from patients and got them ready for tests. “I loved the people,” she said. “I’d heat blankets for them, transport them from their room. I loved taking care of them. Sometimes I held their hands.”

She stayed on the job until she was 79. 

Kara had earned a recreation management degree at the University of North Florida, but when she moved home she decided to pursue a degree in social work in the distance-learning program at FSU.

And then she, too, went to work at St. Vincent’s as a discharge planner, where mother and daughter had lunch from time to time, despite having different shifts.

For the last seven years, Kara has been working with chronically ill children at Community PedsCare, the palliative care program at Community Hospice. She’s still a flight medic, attached to Patrick Air Force Base in Cocoa Beach.

And for 20 years, Kara and her mom were roommates.

“Mom has always been my best friend,” said Kara, who never married. “That was what was so hard about moving away. When I’d go home from college, we would talk in the kitchen because I wanted to tell her everything going on in my life. My father couldn’t believe we could talk so much,” she said. “She’s the best roommate I’ve ever had.”

There’s no doubt Catherine and Kara Williams will spend Mother’s Day together.

By Lilla Ross
Resident Community News

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