Vee of A Haven for Vee (see my blog list to the right for link), said of my last post:
So, pray tell, what kind of woman was your maternal grandmother? She looks as if she's carrying the weight of the world upon her shoulders.Here is a detail of the picture Vee asked about:
Yes, I think my grandmother, Jenny Gertrude (“Gertie”), was accustomed to the weight of the world. This is not to say that becoming accustomed to that weight made it feel any lighter. Let’s consider just the outline of her life:
She said to me that her earliest memory was of her parents’ move from a northern part of our state to the central location where they settled in the early, early 1900’s (1902, maybe?) The Arkansas River cuts right through our state, and her parents came by boat. Her description fascinated me as a child—in a mildy-horrified type of fascination.
She was just a little girl of three or four years, with one older brother. The “boat” she was on was a big raft (barge?) with a box-like structure built in the middle to give them some shelter. Inside the “box,” there was a big hole in the bottom of the boat that went to the river where waste was thrown. They were on the boat several nights, and her mother did not sleep those nights for fear that the children would fall into the river. This fear was vivid with her, too, as she retold the story to me decades later. And, my, it seemed like a pioneer life apart to me, a child of television and air conditioning.
I can remember chills running down my spine as a child to think of the dark water rushing under the boat, especially at night. (Where was OSHA? Where were Child Protection Services?). Oh, the world is most definitely different today!
Her parents settled and two more girls were born, four in all: Alfred, Gertie, Annis, and Donnie. When Gertie was 12, her mother died, leaving my Great Grandfather with four children. I believe Alfred left home, leaving the girls behind; Gertie became surrogate mother to her two younger sisters. Here is Gertie with her two sisters late in their lives.
My impression of my Great Grandfather is one of stern aloofness. I don’t know much about these times, but I do remember Gertie telling me of being afraid to go out to fetch wood, etc. in the dark at night (they lived deep in the woods). Her father would scold and chide her, making her complete her chores. Again, horror to a young, spoiled baby-boomer kid!
Even as a child, Gertie did work for others (washing, cleaning, picking cotton. She eventually met and married my Grandfather Robert, and they lived on his family’s farm and had five children. My mother was the least and, when she was 13 months old, Robert died. For some reason, my Grandmother felt unwelcome and took her five (!) children and moved from her husband’s family’s farm; alone and impoverished. All I can say is that there was some powerful reason for her to leave with nothing except five children depending on her.
My mother’s childhood was one of raw poverty. The rest of her life, my grandmother wasted NOTHING, and was amazed at our waste. It shames me to think of it now. This family lived in structures where they did not have to pay rent. There was no “homeplace” for them, only moving from one shack to a hopefully better one. My mother recalls being able to peer out through the slats of the side of the house, waking to snow dusting on her bedcovers, and hearing (much to their dismay) jars of canned food popping as they froze in the winter cold and broke—food supply audibly dwindling.
Although it seems that my deceased grandfather’s family had plenty (several went on to be wealthy), they did not seem cognizant of my Grandmother’s plight. I don’t recall her ever talking about interacting with them except for one horrifying story of Christmas.
My grandmother was desperate for something special for her children on Christmas morning (this would be oranges or something like that…no Barbies!). The only thing she could think of that she could spare to trade was a jar of molasses. She walked mile-upon-mile to a store owned by her husband’s brother to try to trade this molasses for some treat. She was spurned; he needed no more molasses in his store, he told her. So she returned home, molasses in hand. She told her children that she guessed they just had not been good enough to warrant any visit from Santa. In our day and age, this sounds harsh and scarring, but I just think it was the only way she knew to handle her pain and the disappointment of her children.
Gertie later married Oscar and, while things were not plush, they were better. So far as I know, my Grandmother never owned any real estate. She never drove a car. She was a deeply-religious woman who drew strength from her relationship with God and had an understanding that the hardships of this life were temporary. There was a visible sign of her devout nature: her hair was never cut. She kept it tightly braided in two braids which were coiled on each side of her head. When she would wash and comb it out, it reached the ground—another fascination for me. She felt that the Bible taught that a woman's hair was "her glory," and it should not be cut. In this portrait, you can kind of see her braid on one side.
The picture above is marked" 1959, 65 years of age."
When I think of her, I think of creativity (her house was decorated floor to ceiling with her handmade art—all of throw-away objects, including braided rugs from plastic bread wrappers and a wreath of purple syringe holders—very symmetrical and pretty once you got past the oddity). I think of Bible reading and of aprons (her poor abode was not fancy, but it was spotlessly clean). And I think of her tin cake box filled with buttons. As a child I used to take this button box and string buttons for hours on thread. My grandmother never, ever threw a button away.
So, yes, the weight she had on her shoulders was unimaginable to me. But she handled it with grace and not one fist-shaking at God that I ever knew about. To all appearances she loved the Lord, dearly and sacrificially loved her children, and accepted her lot in life. What a woman! - C