I spent the weekend in Egan, and while I was there, I went through a lot of old photos. One of the ones I found just had to come home with me. It’s a photograph of my mother, her mother, and her sister.
What’s so wonderful about it? Well, they’re all together, and smiling, and it’s at my grandmother’s house in Beaumont. So much about this photograph is so familiar.
The table always sat just where it is, underneath the air conditioner and by the door to the garage. It was the heart of the kitchen, where we always sat. There was a larger table (my mother and dad’s formal dining room table) in the left of the kitchen, where it’s not visible in this photograph. We didn’t use it much, though — only for really large family gatherings. I do have a photograph somewhere of one of these dinners — with my great-grandparents and others.
This table, though, was the everyday one. It was very 1950s. I think it had an extension leaf, but don’t remember if we ever really used it. I sat there as a child and as an adult. My first teaching job was in Beaumont, at Lamar University, from 1975-1978, and I spent a lot of time then at that table. I’d drop over a lot; I didn’t live too far from her.
But in this photo, there are only the three women, a mother and her two daughters. Here are the women who were the family.
My mother, Irene, is one on the left. She’s tanned — and like her, I tan easily. My sister Kay doesn’t. Mother’s smiling — and that smile is not the fake “take my picture” kind, but the real one. She’s about to laugh, I think. When she was growing up, Mother was a tomboy; her nickname was “Butch.” She loved baseball and basketball.
Her sister, my Aunt Dottie, is on the right. She’s also smiling and happy, which is good to see. Aunt Dottie lived in Georgia for years, and even after moving back to Texas that Georgia accent emerged at times. My aunt was not a tomboy — she was very feminine.
And in the middle is my grandmother, Ella, their mother. Ella had auburn hair, but by the time of this photo the actual color tended to vary from month to month. I always loved the rather dramatic silver streak she left. This woman liked style, and she had style. This is the face of a woman at ease with herself, and with the world. She’s confident and in control. Here she’s probably in her late 60s. Yet her skin is soft and not lined. She always took great care to remove her makeup every night, to use night cream to keep her face soft. She needed glasses, but she wore contact lenses before I did — she had a set of blue ones and a set of green ones. She liked to change it up, she said — and her eyes were always strikingly blue (or greenish blue). With that red hair, those eyes were amazing. And she knew it!
There’s a diet Dr. Pepper on the table, and ashtrays. All of them were smokers. Most of the grandchildren weren’t and aren’t, probably as a result. Part of my memory of Ella’s house, though, is tied to her smoking — and to her face powder. Even now I can close my eyes and that blend of sharp cigarette smoke and sweet powder is still there.
This is probably an accidental pose, but revealing nevertheless. Ella, you see, was the central figure, and not just because she was their mother. Mom, as I called Ella, had both girls by the time she was 18 — and she was on her own by then. For a short while, she lived with her parents, but remarried by the time the girls were 2 and 4, and then was on her own again by the time they started school. Basically, Mom was a single mother long before that was common. She remarried in 1941, when Mother was in middle school and Dottie was in high school.
What doesn’t show is the fragility that lies behind my mother’s face, and my Aunt Dottie’s face. Both suffered depression and anxiety among other problems, and growing up with that meant that their daughters had to learn to cope with those issues. It’s a bond that isn’t visible here, but a strong one that still exists. Mother and Dottie were close, all of their lives. My cousin Carolyn is, I tell her and everyone, my “big sister.” Carolyn lived with us the summer after my sister Kay was born, when Mother was very ill. When we were in Beaumont, I spent time not only at Mom’s but also with Aunt Dottie and her family, and with my dad’s brother, Uncle James, and his family, who also lived in Beaumont.
To care for her daughters, Ella worked hard. She was a waitress in a cafe, and worked her way up to manager. While she was managing the cafe, she was once robbed by Bonnie and Clyde — it was at night, as the cafe had closed. When the much-glamorized movie “Bonnie and Clyde” came out in the 1960s (with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway), she told me about it — she’d never been so scared, she said. And they weren’t pretty, as the movie portrayed them. Plus they were dirty, she said, wrinkling her nose.
For several years, she ran a boarding house on Pine Street in Beaumont. The house had a turret, and a winding staircase with a bannister. Mother used to tell me about sliding down the bannister, and I always thought that sounded neat. The house was a historic home, built in the 19th century. Somewhere I still have a Beaumont Enterprise story about the house; Mom gave that to me in a scrapbook of other things she’d saved. Somehow I guess that she deemed me a family historian. That house is now an attorney’s office, but I’ve never been inside it.
Even after she married Poppa in 1941, she kept working. During WWII, Mom worked in one of the plants in the area, though I don’t remember which one. She drove a forklift and other heavy equipment. One of the news photos and stories in that scrapbook is from WWII — and shows her in a story about food rationing and meatless meals.
That’s pretty significant, at least for me. In the 1950s, when she and Poppa moved back to Beaumont after a stint in New Jersey, Mom went to work at Fehl Elementary School, as the cafeteria manager. She was efficient and clever, and her cafeteria food was really good. I know. I used to eat there! We used the same recipes at her house a lot.
Mom worked, and saved. She enjoyed dressing up. She loved getting her hair done. And she loved to dance and sing.
That kitchen saw a lot of laughter while we watched Ella cook. Even though you can’t see it, there’s a corner sink that I remember washing dishes in, and the refrigerator that was there still works — it’s at the Ware farm in San Augustine.
The women here were close — and both of Ella’s daughters were dependent on her. She was the dominant figure, always. And when I was growing up, she could push my buttons quickly. I think in many ways I’m a lot like her. So many times, I’d be doing something and Mom would take over — “I can do this better/faster.” She was used to doing it all. I pushed back. I wanted to do it for myself. But she also taught me to dance, to embroider, to cook a lot of things. She loved to read. She loved to travel. She took Kay and me to Europe in 1974 after Poppa died and when I was going to attend summer school in England for six weeks.
During WWII, my Aunt Dottie’s husband was in the service, so Aunt Dottie and my cousin Carolyn lived with Mom, Poppa, and Mother. Carolyn’s earliest memories are of a different house, not the one with this kitchen. I remember that first house too, but my memories are much vaguer than Carolyn’s. It was a duplex, near Railroad Avenue. That was the house where Mother and Dad had their wedding reception.
This is in many ways an ordinary photograph. No special occasion. No particular event. Just family getting together.
That’s what is so extraordinary, though. The happiness on these three faces makes me smile, and the photograph makes me tear up as well.
My sister and I found this picture and just smiled.
And I’m still smiling.
It’s a wonderful image to have tonight. Mother and Mom and Dottie, all happy, all smiling, leaning in and on each other. A unit, safe and happy together.