When we were teenagers we were subjected to the most boring and long-winded recitations; we would roll our eyes at each other and sigh, not believing that we had to listen, again, to what it was like for my grandmother when she was our age.
It couldnít possibly have any relevance to our lives and didnít hold any interest for us, but there we were, prisoners at the dinner table, and we had to listen again to what it was like for a sixteen-year-old bride on the prairie who had to keep house in a sod hut. She told us what it was like to have to feed her family on only black-eyed peas and sparse game because the first crop to go in after the sod was busted had to be a legume to fix nitrogen in the soil. (Hence, you must eat black-eyed peas on New Yearís Day to ensure good crops in the future.) She described her struggles to keep herself, her clothes, and her kitchen clean in a house made of dirt when she had to haul water a half mile, and it was more sensible to hang the frying pan on the wash line and let the maddening and ubiquitous wind scour it than to waste water on it.
She told of the Indians who would stop in and demand that she cook for them. Sometimes it took all the food she had in the house to feed them, but she was afraid, with her husband in the fields or in town, to refuse them anything. After all, she represented those who took their lands, killed the buffalo, and left them unable to feed themselves or their children. They left her without a word, never harming her, but always in fear.
After two years of isolation, plowing, (which is a tame word for breaking the virgin sod), building a shelter, performing incredible toil in the fields, hauling water, burning dried buffalo dung for fuel, starving, broiling in the sun, freezing in the winter, and living with the ever-present and infuriating wind, it did not rain, of course, when it had to and the wheat failed. With no other choice, my pregnant grandmother and her husband--not my grandfather, for he came later, moved to Oklahoma City, where he could hope his dreams of fortune would not be so subject to the vagaries of fortune.
For he was a dreamer, with big dreams, first, of a homestead that would bring him fortune as a wheat farmer, then, in the city, with various schemes that would bring him vast wealth. Instead of wealth, he had a wife who was just a child but who could sew dresses for ladies as fine as anything they could buy back East. She became the seamstress for those who had made their fortunes.
She worked out of her home and became as much of a success as a woman could then, in the 1890s, with all of the rich ladies in town as her customers. He was known all over the city for his charm; everyone liked him and thought him a great guy. It was just too bad that he couldnít seem to find a way to support his wife and, by now, their three children. And, you know, sotto voce, he did drink too much. My grandmother, who was raised in Kentucky with all the baggage of the Southern belle--and with all the strength of the true Southern lady--kept her head up and her shoulder to the wheel, paid the rent, and kept up appearances. She didnít have any other choice. That is, until one day he simply pushed her too far and found the steel underneath the ladylike exterior.
He took her last $10 to town to buy groceries--when he didnít return in a reasonable amount of time, she knew he taken the money she had given him for food for the children and gone on a bender. That sweet Southern belle snapped. She knew just where to find him. She went to the Hotel Black--the nicest hotel in Oklahoma City, where members of the territorial legislature were ensconced. She found him with three members of the legislature finishing a steak dinner, which he had bought with her hard-earned dollars. She proceeded to give those hail-fellows-well-met a piece of her mind, telling them that they knew what kind of a man he was, that they knew they were eating food bought with her money, that her children would now go hungry because of them. Furthermore, she expected them to file a bill of divorce in the territorial legislature and to get it passed for her. They did. Which is how my grandmother became the first woman to get a divorce in Oklahoma territory. This was a scandal and put her even further outside respectable society than her status as a working woman had done. Afterwards, she supported her children by herself, probably much better now that she didnít have to support her husband, too.
Later she married my grandfather, who was a widower with three children. So she had six children to care for, then finally bore my father. Still she had stories to tell of this time, of a tyrannical second husband who had a strange hatred of Catholicism; she was forced to practice her religion in secret and to baptize my father in the dead of night at a strangerís home. A husband who was so abused as a child that he was denied education and was illiterate, but so proud that no one but her was allowed to know, so she read him every word of the newspaper daily and every paper he needed to sign. Of a husband who periodically disappeared without warning, only to return months later, bearing diamonds as peace offerings. Meanwhile she raised seven children and kept the home fires burning, sewing to keep food on the table while he was gone. All of those children, both her own and her stepchildren alike, adored her. She later bound her daughters-in-law and sons-in-law as closely to her as her children. She died at ninety-three. There were fifty grandchildren and great-grandchildren at her funeral and a half-page obituary in the newspaper; she was one of the best-known ladies in the city.
Well, you can see how her stories just nearly bored us to tears; after all, how would these experiences have anything at all in common with what we might face in our lives? We would never make any of the mistakes she made or face any of the hardships she did or wind up alone supporting ourselves.
Proud, now, that I was given her name. Wish Iíd had a tape recorder then.