Saturday, February 06, 2010

Ruth's House

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?


margaret said...

I think that the greatest problem for young people now and “then” is lack of stable family. I made 100 mistakes but my dad was always here and the house was always here so there was somewhere to run to, to hide, to lick wounds and recoup. If someone doesn’t have that then they don’t have much hope, especially a girl. If she has a baby at 17 and regrets it and has no home to go to then she sticks with the man and has another one at 19, another one at 20 and so on and then, as my dad used to say, “she‘d never been out the bit“. My father’s family were always just on the right side of poor but they were always okay because they were stable and stuck together but my mother’s family had the first world war, the Russian revolution and the civil war and they were a completely different bunch. The ones that weren’t in Russia during the revolution - one in the army, one with the Red Cross and one long married to an Englishman - were pretty normal; but my grandmother and another sister who didn’t get out till 1928 and were near starvation, served prison sentences, were widowed/abandoned with babies, etc, were totally different. My Baba was a sweet, graceful woman but she never made friends, never let people in the house and maintained certain lies that were the bane and embarrassment of my mother’s life. The sister had eight ‘husbands’ and was a pathological liar. I think at some time she’d had a breakdown and all the lying she’d done simply to survive got hardwired into her. When someone very young is caught up in something like a civil war or the Depression and there’s literally nowhere to go it does have a dreadful effect. Quite possibly even if Ruth did have what we now call a ‘personality disorder’ if she had grown up in a more stable family in a happier time things could have been very different for her but the impact of so much hardship starting so young and lasting so long was probably much more than her mind could cope with. My father’s uncle was considered “a wee bit different” before WWI, afterwards he never left his room except for work, his mother left food on a tray outside, he took his cat on the tram every morning and kept it with him in the Weights & Measures at Leith Docks not noticing that everyone had to hold their nose. Now if there hadn’t been a War and he hadn’t been stuck in a trench for three years he would probably have been okay, eaten with the family and left the cat at home. The same might be true of Ruth, if there had been no Depression her problems might have been far less pronounced. Anyway, thank you for writing about her, I love family stories - and it’s not often I find someone my age whose grandparents were the same generation :)

Reader John said...

I enjoy your blog and found this one a keeper.
My Dad became the one who sort of "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." In his case, though, it was a kind of repayment, for they had pooled resources to send him, the second youngest, to college, which led after WW II to professional school on the GI Bill.
Some of my cousins or cousins once removed have been angry when I ceased supporting them after my father's death.
One niggling point. I don't think "dye is set" is the figure you were looking for, though it is evocative in its own way. Did you mean "die is cast"? (

elizabeth said...

Lord have mercy. what a lament you have written. There is hope though always - my grandfather was roughed by his father and forgave but he could be rough at times years ago (he got better over time) with his tounge; my dad was able to not do either and is very gentle, so over the generations, starting with my grandfather, the chain of hardness was broken.

My small prayers today.

Terry (John) said...

Thanks, all.

Margaret--what a story about your mother's family! If you ever write it all down, I would love to read it. You are correct, things could have been different for Ruth, if circumstances had been changed. I recall a picture of Ruth's cousin--poor herself, but not destitute. She lived in the city (San Antonio) and made a living as a seamstress. But the image of her was totally different--a stunning young woman in a dress and hat she undoubtedly made herself--with hair piled-up high in the Gibson Girl fashion of that day. They were first cousins of about the same age. One had options, the other didn't. And yes, the generational thing is interesting. I teach one night class a semester at the local university. My students are mostly in their early 20s, which means that their parents were generally born in late 50s and during the 60s. Ruth and her husband were actually my younger grandparents. On the other side of things, my dad could remember (barely) the end of the First World War. The husband of my grandmother's sister was old enough to have fought in the Spanish-American War. My great-grandmother had a brother who fought in the American Civil War! I reflect on this, from time to time, and think how far removed my perspective is from that of my students.

Rdr. John, it is amazing how often this scenario plays out in families. And like you say, the support becomes expected, and taken for granted after a while. An older friend of mine tells a similar story. His mother and father sent money on a regular basis back to her brothers in Michigan. Later, it was her nephews. And then later, it was the great-nephews. My friend indicated that they were a little miffed after he finally broke it off after 70 years or so! And of course you are right--the die is cast, not set. Thanks!

Elizabeth, it is a lament--and I don't even really touch the tragedy of succeeding generations. I guess where I am going with this is realizing just how I have judged her. She was a harsh woman, and we never really talked about her. My mother, if pressed, would only mention what a hard worker she was, and I suppose that was the best face she could put on things. But then I come across this childish drawing of hers from 100 years ago. This harsh woman was once a child who saw the world in better light. The lesson here for me is clear. The world can do crazy things to people, and a little more charity is called for on my part. I can start with my own grandmother.

Steve Robinson said...

John, I envy your knowledge of your family. It has only been in the last 3-4 years listening to my mother talk to my wife about her family that I have begun to get a vague picture of all the drama of my mother's past generations. My dad doesn't talk about his family much, I just know we had a pedophile and a favorite "rich" uncle who was a union guy and did time in prison for fraud. Both my mom and dad left their families right out of high school to escape something, what that something was... I don't know.

Ian Climacus said...

As s-p wrote, I too envy your knowledge; I feel I am often too caught up in my own world to ponder those before me, and even around me at times. Thank you for sharing as you always do these insights into your family and life.

Becky said...

Loved reading this, as I do all your family stories. I have several "what happened?" people in my family too. My paternal grandmother grew up in the Appalachian hills of Eastern Kentucky, during the 20's and the Depression (literally dirt poor, in other words). She lost her mother when she was 5, and was soon after sent to live with her oldest sister. She was the kindest, most compassionate, most giving person. Yet 3 out of her 4 siblings were absolute train wrecks...alcoholism, drug abuse, early deaths, and in the case of the oldest, just plain mean. As soon as they could get away from the home place they did, and never looked back, and rarely even had any contact with each other as adults. Thanks to Find A Grave, I've recently gotten in contact with one of my Dad's first cousins, my great uncle's child. I discovered he'd had EIGHT children - none of whom we've ever had any contact with, or even knew they existed, all because of whatever trauma their upbringing caused made my uncle take off for NY as a young man and never come home or stay close with his sisters. It puzzles me, and I ponder over why my Nana was able to channel her childhood trauma into making the best possible life she could, and doing, doing, doing for her children and grandchildren what she never had done for her; and why her baby sister went the complete opposite direction, became a selfish, lost, husband-collecting addict and died in her late 30's. Why? Like you, I unfairly judged some folks for years but the older I get I try to climb inside their heads and figure out why, and become a little more forgiving.


Terry (John) said...

s-p and ian, thanks for your comments, but you must understand that I have an unfair advantage. I live in the relatively small area that at least 1/2 of my family has lived in for 165 years. Under those conditions, nearly every road you drive down and nearly every house you pass has a story that goes with it that you've heard. I've picked up most of it very naturally. And then I listen. And s-p, my advice to you is--while you still have time--find out what your own parents were escaping. It could explain a lot. In my own case, my frustrations with my mother were heavily tempered by my learning of her early life. Every family is different, but I think that advice would fit most any.

Terry (John) said...

Mary, good to hear your story. I think you and I could set down early in the morning and trade stories until dark! FYI, Ruth is buried across the road from the mission.

Becky said...

John, I know we could...someday we're going to have to make another trek to Holy Archangels and do just that in the car, with a stop at that fabulous diner on the way, of course. I'll have to pay Ruth a visit the next time I wander over to the cemetery. : )

Lise said...

An amazing story that, yes, contrasts so poignantly with the happy drawing. Your family's history brings my own's tempestuous past back to mind. I was fortunate to know many older relatives, great aunts and a great, great aunt. Seeing photographs of them as young ladies and some young men, and later knowing them as elderly adults, I can only ponder the in-between lives that led them to the place they were when I knew them. Whether well-off or poor, they were a curious, diverse bunch. Thanks for a beautiful bit of history and life.