Saturday, February 06, 2010
This picture was drawn 100 year ago this month, by a 13-year old girl named Ruth. This depicted her home, which she drew and colored in her mother's autograph album. Ruth was my grandmother.
I never knew my grandmothers. One died in 1934 and the other in 1947. The two women could not have been more dissimilar. My paternal grandmother comes across as an almost sainted figure in the family saga: a light-hearted, joyous and compassionate Christian; musically accomplished, a woman who sang in the kitchen; who was first in the community with food for the sick. She and my granddad made a good team--her practicality and management being a needful brake on his pride and enthusiasm for risk. The Depression caught up with them, and they lost the farm and everything they owned, quickly followed by her sudden, tragic, far-too-early death. The children were soon out on their own, supporting their dad, infant brother and each other. Growing up in the egalitarian Hill Country of central Texas, it was only then that my dad realized that they were actually poor, for the quality of their lives had been anything but. Never did they see themselves as victims, or pitiable. This was my grandmother Lillie's legacy to her children.
But that is not the story I am telling. My other grandmother, Ruth, was another matter altogether. She grew up poor, and never saw herself as anything else. Her dad was the illegitimate youngest child of a 40-ish widow whose husband had died in the Civil War 4 earlier. With no known father, he was orphaned young and raised up among older half-siblings. The only thing my mother ever heard about him was that he was a "hard man," and that he had been "brought up hard." He married a local girl from down on the Lavaca River, whose circumstances were somewhat better by comparison. But it made no difference, the dye was set, so to speak. She bore him 12 children and buried 5, as they moved around the state, seeking greener pastures. By 1908, they inexplicably found themselves in East Texas, far from their previous homes and connections. Here they settled-in and sharecropped for a large landowner who owned a gin, store and some 900 acres of good cotton land.
I have an old picture from about 1912, with the whole family lined up on the front porch of this sharecropper's house. In fact, I remember the house--somewhat falling down--from my own youth. At that time, Ruth was about 15 or so, and there was already something a little disturbing and not quite right about the set of her jaw, as if she has already locked herself in against a world that she believed was set against her. The family had a deserved reputation for stubbornness and hard-headedness. But with my grandmother and her 2 sisters, it went somewhat farther. I knew my great-aunts. Between the 3, they ran the gamut from simply eccentric to wildly eccentric to crazy-mean eccentric. My dad never talked about his mother-in-law, but once let it slip that she was, in his words, a "hellcat." None of the stories passed down about her had any of that Norman Rockwallish grandmotherly sentimentality. One cousin remembered that she could be nice as you please one minute, and cuss you like a sailor the next.
Her father died in 1914, and within a few months, Ruth had run off with their landlord's grandson, she being 17 and he 16. She clashed with her mother-in-law from the beginning. the fact that her husband's grandfather was well-fixed was of no bearing, as there were about 30 grandchildren altogether. So, they set up house-keeping and sharecropped in the community, as she had done all her life. Perhaps things could have worked out--there are faded pictures of my mother in a white Sunday dress, wearing black buckle shores and holding a doll. But even these family pictures reveal part of the story. There were never any of those hard-backed family portrait-type pictures that nearly every family of that era--no matter how poor--insisted on having. A cheap Kodak was my grandmother's one extravagance. If there were to be any pictures taken, she took them with this.
Children came quickly--six while they were still in their twenties. And things never came together. Both of these grandparents were hard workers, but poor managers. They were simply never able to get ahead. And with the Depression, they were barely able to feed and clothe their children. I think the only way they survived at all was due to my great-grandfather's death and my great-grandmother's quick remarriage, which allowed my grandparents to move into his parents' house on the old home place.
But this in itself, does not explain what happened to the family. Lots of people were poor. My grandfather was a good, but weak man. Ruth was of a domineering nature and mercurial temperament. And as she got older, her eccentricities became more pronounced. After the arrival of the youngest 2 children, it was almost as if the oldest 4 were largely forgotten. The older children, particularly my mother and her older sister, suffered considerable abuse, while the youngest two were petted. I have long attributed it to mental instability on my grandmother's part. My mother rarely mentioned her, and would certainly oppose thinking of her in that way--but really, that is the most charitable face one can put on it.
Basically, all three of the daughters ran away from home--my mother being the only one with any respectability attached to it. My dad had come for her and was waiting in the yard. Ruth followed her out to the car, scolding her that "if she left with that man, not to ever come back." Of course she left with him. He was her ticket out.
Ruth never warmed up to my dad. About 15 years ago, I heard an anecdote which offered insight into both their characters. I had carried my mother to the funeral of a cousin. We were in the cemetery, and my mother--already very weak--was resting by leaning against her great-aunt's tombstone. While she was regaining her strength before walking back to our car, another cousin told me the story about Ruth. It was in 1937, and she was over at his parents' house, cussing-out my dad up one side and down the other. My dad and mom had moved back to East Texas, and my dad was jobless, with no prospects. Ruth had made him a cotton sack, so he could pick cotton. When she gave it to him, he looked at her and said, "No. I don't know what I am going to do, but I do know I am not going to do that." My dad realized that whatever the future held for him, it did not involve picking cotton. Convinced that my dad thought himself too good for picking cotton, my grandmother was still fuming when she visited my cousin's house. She noted with biting sarcasm, "I don't know what John is going to do. We already have a Governor and a President." My dad made his way quickly in the world, and in a few years time had built Ruth and my grandfather a new house. And during her long, lingering illness, they moved in and cared for her. Despite this, she never came around to liking my dad. And while my mother was caring for her night and day, Ruth talked on to visitors about her youngest daughter, the "pretty one."
But that is all water under the bridge, as she died so long ago. Except that it isn't. Ruth's way lives on, in varying degrees, in her progeny. The exception was my mom's next youngest brother--a thoughtful, studious and gentle man who died at age 31. On a superficial level, my mother's life was, I suppose, relatively "normal." And yet, she could be subject to the same extremities of temperament, the same paranoia, the same violent and suspicious nature that plagued her mother. The less said about the rest of the bunch, the better. My dad and mom supported all these siblings, in one way or the other, for the rest of their lives--and not a few of the next generation, as well. That was not resented on our part, but nothing good really came from it. It is a sad train wreck of a family, generation after generation.
From my earliest memories, I recall my parents having to deal with this alcoholic aunt or uncle, or to get a cousin out of another jam. It was always something. And as I came to better understand the family dynamics, I know I tended to blame it all on Ruth. And I realize I have been harsh in my estimation of her. Life can be hard, and hers was harder than most. But it is this picture that gnaws at me. There was a time in her life when Ruth had a vision of a happy home--a home with blue curtains in the window, and yellow and red flowers in the yard. What happened? The better question is--What happens to us all?