Roxana Jewel (Grice) Bohanan, my paternal grandmother, was born 18 April 1916 on her parents’ farm, five miles northeast of Goodwell, Okla., where her father had filed a homestead claim on a quarter section of land.
She lived in the Oklahoma Panhandle throughout the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, then moved in 1940 to Amarillo, Texas, after two of her three children were born. She’s lived in Amarillo ever since.
Jewel recently turned 97, and I called her after work that day to wish her a happy birthday. We talked for about an hour and a half, until my phone battery died. I want to share some of the things we talked about and the details of her early life that I’ve compiled from her memories in recent years.
Grandma didn’t care a whit about turning 97. “I feel just like I did yesterday,” she said. “I never did worry about age.” She had been to a birthday lunch at Furr’s cafeteria with my parents, Ron and Marty Bohanan, my sister Kathy and my niece Jewelee. She was, as always, in a good mood when I called.
She told me that she’d had to renew her driver’s license, which was expiring on her birthday. The Texas Department of Public Safety had sent a reminder notice telling her to bring her birth certificate to their office because of her advanced age.
“I didn’t have to drive or take a written test,” she said, “but I had to take something to prove I was born.”
That was a bit of a problem – born on the farm, she’s never had a birth certificate. She wrote a letter to the U.S. Census Bureau to see if they could help and received in return a document that listed her parents’ names and hers and confirmed her age at the time of the 1920 Census – three and three-quarters years. She took it to the DPS office, along with her Social Security card, school records and a passport she had obtained 20 years ago (hoping to go to Europe) but had never used.
The papers were in order. Her license was renewed. She will continue to drive herself to Paramount Baptist Church on Sundays and to the grocery store and to take her friend their weekly Bible lesson from church. She doesn’t drive much, and never at night. She used to be 5 feet 3 inches tall, but because of osteoporosis she is now 4 feet 11 (well, almost) and sits on two pillows to drive. She’s had one fender-bender that I know of in the last 50 years.
Her driver’s license is valid only until 2015, instead of the usual six years. “When you get this old, you just get a license for two years,” she said. “I’ll be 99 when it expires. So who knows what will happen then? I may be dead, who knows?”
I very much doubt that. She still maintains her tidy, attractive home in southwest Amarillo. Until four years ago she volunteered several days a week at the Baptist-St. Anthony’s Hospital gift shop. She was there the day the hospital opened, in 1968, and stayed for the next 41 years, doing whatever work was needed. She piled up 38,000 volunteer hours in the gift shop, in the library, sterilizing surgical instruments, assisting nurses on the floor, and playing taped messages about disease care for the hospital’s Telmed line. She retired at age 93.
Grandma married Lester Clarence Bohanan in 1935. She graduated in 1939 from Oklahoma A&M College in Goodwell (now Oklahoma Panhandle State University) with a bachelor’s degree in social studies and a minor in math, and she earned a teaching certificate. They moved to Amarillo the following year. She never taught school.
“Your grandpa didn’t want me to teach,” she told me. I asked if she had wanted to. “I mostly wanted to keep peace in the family,” she said. Some of her friends through the years had wondered whether she felt unfulfilled. “No,” she said, “I had plenty of responsibility at home.” She began volunteering at the hospital when she was 52, then got her hairdresser’s license at 58. She worked at two salons for a period of about four years in the 1970s; afterward, she cut and styled hair in her home at the request of some of her customers. Through the years she also crafted beautiful handmade quilts and afghans for every member of the family.
My grandmother, Jewel Bohanan, with her son Jerry Bohanan, at my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.
Oct. 20, 2012, in Amarillo.
Grandma has outlived her husband, her nine siblings, most of her friends, her daughter Jo Dickinson, and one of her granddaughters, my sister Misti Knox. She has four remaining grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Her grandfather and great-grandfather fought in the Civil War, on opposite sides. I asked the secret to her longevity, and she said, “I really like getting up and getting out and being around people.” She added, “Maybe I just made a good choice of genes.”
Indeed, her parents lived to be 79 and 80, and her three oldest siblings – May, Roaten and Lawson – lived to age 93. But I think her approach to life has played a part, too. I’ve never seen my grandmother act with bitterness or self-pity. She loves to laugh. And I’ve never heard her speak ill of another person.
Grandma’s parents and grandparents
Her mother, Roxana (Pilgrim) Grice, was born 22 May 1885 in Alabama. She died in 1965 at the age of 79. Her father, Lawson Ross Grice, was born 16 October 1877 in Gilmer County, Ga. He died in 1958 at the age of 80.
Roxana Pilgrim attended school only through the second grade in Alabama. She and her family came to the Oklahoma Panhandle in 1903, when she was about 18. Her parents, George Washington Pilgrim and Camelie (Smith or Schmidt or Smythe) Pilgrim, filed a homestead claim, but they let the claim go and moved to Eastland County, Texas, near Ranger.
Roxana’s mother Camelie was orphaned in Louisiana when her mother died of smallpox and her father died fighting for the North in the Civil War. A couple took Camelie in, employing her to take care of their children. “I think she was 7 years old,” Grandma said. When the Civil War ended, Camelie’s aunts found her living with the family. The man she was working for took her by wagon to Alabama, where her aunts lived. He hid her possessions along the route, and she had nothing when she arrived to meet her aunts. She met her future husband, George Pilgrim, in Alabama. Her aunts were more sophisticated than she was, Grandma said, and they didn’t approve of George Pilgrim. So he and Camelie wrote notes to each other and hid them in a tree.
Their daughter Roxana was a small woman, like my Grandma. She not only did the housework, but also helped in some of the heavier chores outdoors, such as repairing the fence and planting trees, Grandma said. She had very little luck growing trees on the plains, because it required hauling water from the windmill to irrigate them.
Grandma said she wishes she knew more about her parents’ early lives and their ancestors. “When people would start asking questions about genealogy and the family, Mama would say, ‘You might find some hanging by the neck, but you won’t find any hanging by the tail.’ ” She didn’t subscribe to the theory that humans descended from primates.
Roxana’s husband Lawson Ross was called Lawson when he was young and Ross when he got older. After 1912, most people called him Moose because of his spirited allegiance to Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party – officially the Progressive Party. Lawson Ross received an eighth-grade education in Georgia, which was unusual for the time. “He stayed longer than he would have because he had tuberculosis of the bone,” Grandma said. When he was a child, the disease destroyed a section of shinbone in his right leg and left a sunken hole about midway between the knee and ankle. His cousin told Grandma that the family poured whiskey into the wound to disinfect it, and that you could hear the poor boy scream “all over the mountain.” The bone grew back together. But it left the leg several inches shorter than the other and he had a pronounced limp the rest of his life.
Lawson Ross’s parents, Lawson M. Grice and Jane Banther Grice, married in 1856 in Rutherford County, N.C., then moved to Georgia, where my great-grandfather was born. L.M. Grice arrived in the Oklahoma Territory between 1903 and 1905, but his wife Jane had died en route. L.M. Grice also fought in the Civil War, but for the South. He and two of his sons – Lawson and Tom – filed separate homestead claims in the area that would become the Oklahoma Panhandle. L.M. Grice died in the fall of 1914 while living in a house on Lawson and Roxana’s farm.
Lawson Ross worked in a packing house in Fort Worth before he came to the Oklahoma Territory. In 1905, he homesteaded 160 acres between Guymon and Goodwell. About 30 years later, the area was the epicenter of one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in American history, the Dust Bowl.
He and Roxana married 01 September 1907, two months before Oklahoma was admitted to the United States. They had 10 children. All grew to be adults except their third son, Grady, who died just before his first birthday.
The children were born like clockwork, every two years or so, from 1908 to 1926. All but one of them – their oldest son Roaten – were born on the homestead.
May Camelie Jane, the oldest, was born 27 May 1908. Her dad sometimes called her High Pockets because she was tall and slim, though she didn’t like the nickname.She graduated from Panhandle A&M College in Goodwell and moved to Amarillo in 1938. She was married to Elmer Ray “Bud” Emanuel and worked as a saleslady at C.R. Anthony’s.
Roaten Hadley was born 18 October 1909 in Breckenridge, Texas. He was born on his parents’ return trip from Eastland County, where his maternal grandparents George and Camelie Pilgrim lived. Lawson Ross and Roxana had traveled there in a covered wagon to return the horses the Pilgrims had left behind in Oklahoma when they moved to Texas.
George Lawson was born 21 June 1912. Lawson had an amazing memory, Grandma said, and remembered the names of the horses his parents had taken to Texas when Roaten was born. He moved east of Hardesty in 1944, and farmed and ranched there until his death in 2005.
Kermit Ross was born 02 May 1914. Ross was a headstrong fellow like his dad, who called him Priest. “We’d play church,” Grandma said, “and he was always the preacher.” During a reunion I attended about 25 years ago at Grandma’s house, he told a story about a dustup that occurred when he was in his early 70s. He was announcing a Hooker (Okla.) High School baseball game and had caught a foul ball when a kid about 18 to 20 years old tried to take it away from him. Ross wouldn’t let him have it, and the kid called him a red-headed son of a bitch. The young man discovered, as Ross laid into him, that those were fighting words.
Roxana Jewel, my beautiful grandmother, was born 18 April 1916.
Woodfin Grady was born 28 April 1918. Grady died 11 April 1919 of summer complaint, or acute dysentery.
Ernest Ray was born 23 January 1920. Ernest was killed 12 April 1945, on Cebu Island in the Philippines during WWII. He was in the Army, Americal Division. He and his little brother Gale (aka Bill) were in the same division. Ernest was buried on Leyte Island in the Philippines; after the war they brought his body back to Guymon, and his final burial was there. His father gave him the nickname Eck, short for Ichabod Crane, because he was so tall and skinny.
John Gale was born 06 August 1922. Gale’s father nicknamed him Bill Blowhard because he talked so much and told outrageous stories. The name Bill stuck, and that’s what everyone called him the rest of his life.
Gene Francis was born 31 March 1924. The middle name Francois was engraved on Gene’s headstone instead of Francis because Bill had tricked him into thinking that was his real name. Gene’s wife Betty Jean obviously thought that was his middle name too, Grandma said. “I have thought I should tell her, but it doesn’t really matter now.” Gene’s nickname was Teddy. He was very small for his age as a child, and when he was learning to ride a horse his legs were so short that his feet stuck straight out. “He looked like a teddy bear,” Grandma said.
Joyce Geraldine, the baby of the family, was born 03 May 1926. Her dad called her Daughter, as did Gale, Gene and Ernest, Grandma said. Like her two sisters, she lived in Amarillo.
My grandparents Clarence and Jewel Bohanan in an undated photo.
Lester Clarence Bohanan, my paternal grandfather, was born 05 January 1912 in Putnam County, Tenn. He would be 101 if he were alive today.
His parents, Pleas and Ada Catherine (Lee) Bohanan, left Tennessee and moved out west around 1917. They went first to Colorado and stayed with a family there through one cold winter, then moved to Eva, northwest of Guymon, when Clarence was about 5 or 6. They moved south of Goodwell around 1930, Grandma said.
My Grandpa, the oldest son, had to quit school to help support the family. His father Pleas had blood poisoning in his leg, and he couldn’t work when it flared up each year. Grandma already knew Clarence’s sister Annice when she met her future husband about 1933. When Grandma started college, Clarence went back to finish high school in Goodwell, she said. He also took some college courses.
I asked Grandma if she had been swept off her feet by the dashingly handsome, young Clarence Bohanan. She laughed and said, “He was handsome when he was older, too.”
Grandma was 19 when they married on 20 July 1935. Grandpa was 23. “Mama and Papa were real upset that I got married before I finished college,” she said. “They didn’t like having their girls depend on somebody. Mama was 22 and Papa was 29 when they got married, so you can see why they were upset with me for getting married at 19.”
After her daughter Jo was born in 1936, Grandma left college for a couple of years, then returned and graduated in 1939, six months before my dad was born. During this time, Grandpa worked for the railroad and was often out of town repairing tracks.
Grandma and Grandpa moved to Amarillo in August 1940 and lived in the San Jacinto neighborhood, where they raised their three children. Grandpa first worked at the zinc smelter and then at the Texaco refinery. They moved to the Western Plateau neighborhood in July 1973, and he retired from Texaco the next year. Grandpa worked as a school crossing guard for a couple of years in the late 1970s until his health deteriorated. He died of a viral brain disease on 05 April 1981, a month before I graduated from high school. He was 69.
Grandma’s children and grandchildren
Clara Jo (Bohanan) Dickinson was born 26 April 1936 at a house in Goodwell where Grandma and Grandpa lived after they got married. Jo died of lung cancer in January 1996 in Amarillo. She was 59. Jo, who had previously lived in Albuquerque and Denver, worked many years in Dallas before living with Grandma in Amarillo during the last months of her life. She has two daughters – Linda Dickinson, who lives in Dallas, and Lisa (Dickinson) Corso, who lives in Butler, Pa., with her husband Mark Corso.
Marty and Ron Bohanan on the occasion
of their 50th wedding anniversary.
Oct. 20, 2012
Ronal Lee Bohanan, my father, was born 11 November 1939 at Roxana and Lawson’s house in Guymon. Grandpa was out of town working for the railroad when Dad was born, so Grandma had moved in with her parents. Ronnie lives in Amarillo with his wife of 50 years, Martha Dell (Robertson) Bohanan. They had three children: Misti Len (Malone) Knox, who died of a brain aneurysm on Dec. 13, 2007, in Amarillo; Ronal Lee Bohanan Jr. (but everyone calls me Sonny), who lives in Fort Worth; and Kathy Sue Bohanan, who lives in Amarillo.
Jerry Ross Bohanan was born 20 December 1942. He is a bachelor who worked as a computer programmer in a variety of places, including Saudi Arabia and Houston. He lives with my grandmother in Amarillo. He likes to read and play the guitar.
Oklahoma: The early years
The land that would become Oklahoma – and all or part of 14 other states – was acquired by the United States in 1803 for less than three cents an acre, as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The area included most of the Great Plains, from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, and doubled the nation’s size. President Thomas Jefferson and his successors used the land to forcibly resettle the Native American tribes. But the government systematically took the land back as white settlers poured westward. By the start of the Civil War, the Indian Territory had been reduced to roughly the boundaries of the future state of Oklahoma, and it was erased completely when Oklahoma was admitted to the union in 1907.
The Civil War also played a part in Oklahoma’s development. During the 1850s, northern Republicans had tried repeatedly to pass a federal homestead law but were blocked by southern Democrats. To prevent the spread of slavery, the Republicans demanded that western lands be opened to independent family farmers. The Democrats wanted the lands settled by slave-owners, fearing (correctly) that free land would attract European immigrants and poor Southern whites, like my family. The Republicans got their way when the South seceded and its representatives left Congress in 1861.
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act of 1862, opening millions of acres of unappropriated federal land to immigrants, landless farmers, single women and former slaves. For an $18 filing fee, homesteaders received 160 acres of free land, so long as they lived on it, built a home, made improvements, and farmed it for at least five years.
The Homestead Act afforded my great-grandfather, his father and his brother – along with millions of others who moved West seeking opportunity – the chance to acquire a tract of land large enough to sustain a family farm. The tremendous demand resulted in a series of land runs, most famously in Oklahoma in the 1880s and ’90s. During the homestead program’s first 70 years, about 40 percent of those who filed a claim succeeded in getting title to the land. Many of those who failed were unprepared for the isolation, blizzards, unrelenting wind and extremes of heat and cold on the Great Plains.
Lawson and Roxana Grice were among the survivors. Through hard work, determination and sheer grit, they raised their children and, for more than 30 years, farmed in an area that had previously been dubbed No Man’s Land by white men who had no idea how to find water on the Llano Estacado and considered it uninhabitable.
Grandma’s parents lived the first years of their married life in a dugout, where three of their first four children were born. Her grandfather, L.M. Grice, lived in a house in their yard, and after he died, in the fall of 1914, the young family moved into the house. Grandma was born there in 1916.
Fire displaces family for a year
The family lost the house in June 1924. Grandma was eight years old, and she and her mother had just finished baking bread when the burners flared on the kerosene stove, igniting the wallpaper. Her mother knew that she needed to put dirt on the fire, but there was no time to run outside and dig up the hard ground. A sack of flour was sitting nearby, and she threw it on the fire, hoping to suffocate it. Instead, it fed the flames, which climbed up the wall.
She and her two oldest children, May and Roaten, who were teenagers, rushed the younger kids outside and pushed the family’s Buick touring car away from the burning house. My grandma sat on the running board of the car holding her baby brother Gene while Roxana, May and Roaten ran in and out, saving what they could of the family’s possessions.
“They got precious little out of the house,” Grandma said. “Most everything burned.” Roxana’s sewing machine and a few quilts were all they could save.
Lawson Ross saw the smoke from the farm where he, Lawson and Ross were working, about three-quarters of a mile south. By the time they arrived, it was too late.
“None of us had any shoes, but it was summer,” Grandma said. Then she remembered: May did have one shoe but lost the other one in the fire.
The family slept on the ground that night. The next night, they stayed at the house of Tom Grice, her father’s older brother, and his wife and stepdaughter. The arrangement proved unworkable, and the family was back to sleeping on the ground the following night. Eventually they moved into a house in the country that had been vacant for some time. They slept on straw covered with quilts.
My great-grandfather wanted his children back in the Goodwell school district before the fall term started, so he rented a farm about three miles north of Goodwell and made a crop there that year. Then they rented a house southeast of town until summer.
In the meantime, he had acquired two old one-room houses, moved them onto his property and joined them together. One year after the fire, in June 1925, “we moved back onto the old home place,” Grandma said. “The house was open and windy, but we were back on the farm.”
In 1926, her father built a new house, where the family lived for the next decade. It has since been moved to Guymon, she said.
Daily life on the farm
Lawson Ross rented and later bought the quarter section across the road from theirs, bringing his total to 320 acres. The additional land was needed to make a living dryland farming in that cold, semi-arid climate, where precipitation averages about 18 inches a year.
The family’s main crops were winter wheat and grain sorghum, which they called maize, Grandma said. They sold the sorghum as livestock feed; it grew well in the Oklahoma Panhandle because it doesn’t require much water and can survive long, hot summers.
They harvested the winter wheat in the summer, usually June. Two horses pulled the header, which cut the wheat, and two horses pulled the barge, into which the heads of grain were discharged. Then they threshed the wheat and sold it. Her father bought a tractor when Grandma was 15, and she and Ernest, who was 11, drove it while the older boys were working for wages on other farms. It cut the wheat and threshed it.
The family also grew watermelons, and one year they grew barley. Occasionally they grew sorghum cane and sold it, probably when sugar was expensive, because it could be milled into molasses and sweetener.
Their livestock included horses for riding and for working, 12 to 24 head of milking cattle, and half a dozen hogs. Each spring they’d buy 500 baby chicks. When her father butchered the hogs, he shared the meat with their neighbors, Grandma said. They sold eggs and cream.
Grandma didn’t usually have chores before school, except to help her mom in the house. Her father and brothers did the morning milking. After school, she put on her overalls and milked cows, gathered eggs and pulled weeds for the hogs to eat. She carried in buckets of water from the windmill so they’d have enough in the house for that night and for breakfast. It was her job to fill the reservoir on the side of the stove so they’d have warm water for washing dishes and bathing. In the summer, she hoed weeds in the field. Once, after Roaten had sharpened all the hoes, she stepped on a blade and cut her bare foot badly, and still has the scar today. Blood soaked through the bandanna they used to wrap the wound, though it never became infected.
Their windmill pumped cold water into a trough inside the well house and into a nearby earth tank for the cattle. They refrigerated the milk in the trough. “One thing we had was good water,” Grandma said. One day the windmill quit pumping, so her dad pulled the rods out of the well, and started pulling the pipe, too. He lost his grip and it slipped back down into the well, far from the surface.
“They shined a mirror to reflect the sunlight down into the well, and they could see it, but they couldn’t get anything deep enough to catch it,” Grandma said. The situation created a hardship for months, requiring the family to haul water from another windmill on the land they rented across the road. Day after day Roaten and his brother Lawson tried to lasso the top of the pipe so they could pull it from the ground. Finally, at home for lunch one day during harvest, Lawson ran into the house, yelling, “We caught the pipe!” His father, who liked to take a little nap at lunch, jumped up, and “we were all celebrating,” Grandma said. They were able to repair the well and soon the cold water was flowing again.
The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl
The family didn’t have electricity or a phone, and the area had no surface water to speak of. The Ogallala Aquifer, a vast, shallow water table beneath the Great Plains, was their only lifeline. It provided all the water they needed for their consumption and for their animals, but with no electricity, they couldn’t irrigate their crops, which failed during dry years.
The Ogallala was first tapped for irrigation in 1911, but large-scale pumping of the aquifer didn’t start until the 1930s, when Roosevelt’s Rural Electric Administration brought electricity to family farms. The number of irrigated acres increased dramatically after World War II thanks to cheap, efficient electric turbine pumps. The aquifer, one of the largest in the world, stretching from South Dakota to Texas, took millions of years to fill. It has been depleted in less than 100 years in some areas, including the Texas Panhandle.
But that is a current-day problem, and one that my great-grandparents didn’t create. The problem they faced, after 25 years of farming the prairie, was two-fold: a worldwide economic depression that started in 1930, coinciding with a prolonged drought after decades of farmers plowing the virgin topsoil across the Great Plains. The deep-rooted native grasses that had kept the soil and moisture in place for eons during drought and high winds were gone. The ground dried up and blew away on the prevailing southwest winds. The roiling, black clouds of dirt reached as far as New York City and Washington, D.C., and much of the soil wound up in the Atlantic Ocean. “We had dirt storms that, by the time you’d swept to the door, you had to start again,” Grandma said. “Sometimes you needed a shovel. Farmhouses weren’t real tight like houses are now.” The years 1934 to 1936 were the worst.
April 14, 1935, a Sunday, dawned clear and beautiful. Grateful for the sunshine after weeks of dust storms, Grandma and her parents and siblings had driven northwest of Guymon in the truck to see her older sister May’s new baby, Roxetta. The temperature dropped around mid-afternoon. My great-grandfather noticed a huge black cloud on the horizon to the north. He hurriedly got the family into the truck, and they tried to make it home before the storm arrived. Grandma was in the back of the truck with her little brothers Bill and Gene, and the storm caught them as they drove east on a country road.
“It was dark as night,” Grandma said. “You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Papa had to stop the truck on the road, and we sat there until it lightened up enough that he could see to drive.” They saw a farmhouse and were about to stop for shelter, but the storm had finally passed and they continued home instead. It came to be known as Black Sunday, the most famous and severe of the many “black blizzards” of the Dust Bowl.
The years of blowing dirt took a mental, physical and financial toll on the families of the plains. Many simply abandoned their land, and others were foreclosed. By 1940, 2.5 million people had moved out of the plains states, the largest migration in American history. About 200,000 of them moved to California, the genesis of the term “Okies” and the subject of John Steinbeck’s masterpiece “Grapes of Wrath.”
My great-grandfather sold his farm in 1936 to a man named Jess Jones, but he continued to farm at a place he rented about 40 to 50 miles away, east of Hardesty, Okla. Grandma said she wasn’t sure exactly why he sold the farm. By this time she had been married for a year and was living in Goodwell — her farming days were over. She guessed that her father probably needed the money; perhaps his debts had become insurmountable by that point of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. He and Roxana eventually moved to a house in Guymon, where my Dad remembers him keeping a cow and selling the milk to people in town. My great-grandfather “Moose” would walk the cow to a vacant lot and stake it there to graze while he went to town and argued politics at the coffee shop, my Dad told me. “He loved a good argument,” he said.
“I need to leave knowledge of what happened”
I will be 50 years old in June, and I’m thankful to have the benefit of my grandmother’s wisdom at an age when I can appreciate it. Only in the last decade have I talked to her at length about her life and about times of trouble in my own.
“Each little problem that we have, it shapes our character,” she told me last week. “It makes us who we really are.”
When her brother Bill died in 2007, she explained that he had been the last of her siblings. Most of her old friends were gone too, she said. I think she was telling me of a particular loneliness she felt. We have talked about the death of her little brother Ernest, who was killed during World War II when Grandma was 28. Last week she told me another story about Ernest, who was four years younger than she.
“Papa gave all of us nicknames,” she said, “and I was Deweldy.” Like Jewel-dee, except with a “D.”
I asked why her father called her that. “He came in from the field one day where Ernest and I were playing,” she said. They were pretending the rocks and sticks were cars, driving them in the dirt.
Her father said, “Ernest, you shouldn’t be playing with a girl.”
Ernest, who was very young, said, “Papa, Deweldy’s not a girl.”
Afterward, her Papa called her Deweldy. Until April 1945. “He never called me that after Ernest died,” she said.
After my wife Nancy’s sister took her own life in 2002, I told Grandma about the unbearable anguish and guilt Nancy and I felt. I still remember what she said: “Some things you never get over. You just have to learn to live with them.”
Five years later, my sister Misti died. I was in the hospital room with my Mom, Grandma and other family members when the life-support machines were removed. Misti’s heart fought stubbornly for 45 minutes, beating more and more slowly until finally giving up. Having my parents and Grandma as examples at such times has helped me to understand the way forward.
So I talk to Grandma as often as I can about her life, her parents and grandparents and siblings, the things she has seen and done. I think at heart I’m asking her to teach me the lessons she has learned. She graciously endures my questions and answers them thoughtfully.
“I need to leave the knowledge of what happened in our lifetime,” she said, “because I wish I knew more about my parents, particularly Mama’s family. It’s too late now. That’s one reason I don’t mind telling you. Whenever we leave this world, our stories and what we did with this life leave with us. Unless somebody tells what happens, there’s no history of it. It’s just gone.”