Posts Tagged With: mother

Monday Memories of a Kitchen Table

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.



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Monday: Mother and Family History

Tonight I was watching a new show on PBS — Genealogy Roadshow.  There were several short segments with people seeking to find something out about their respective families.  Then came a young woman who’d never known her father; apparently he and her mother had not married, and he died shortly after her mother had become pregnant.  This story stopped me from looking at my email or from thumbing through various craft books on precious metal clay.

It was so close to the story about my mother — up to a point.  But I couldn’t stop watching, and listening, and imagining my mother as this young woman related her story.  I’ve been thinking of Mother ever since.

When I was 7, when my younger sister was born, Mother had some allergic reaction to a medication she was given.  She nearly died.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the hospital “lost” the records, or whatever — but never could anyone find out what Mother was so dangerously allergic to.

Shortly afterwards, within months, Mother began having panic attacks, severe ones.  In the terminology of the 1950s, she suffered “a nervous breakdown” within the year.  A psychologist became part of our weekly routine; she went to her psychologist, came home, and Dad would take me for a long truck ride to try to explain to me what was going on.  The psychologist worked in tandem with a psychiatrist, and he prescribed a tranquilizer that Mother took without fail for nearly eighteen years.  There were years, though, when I didn’t trust her or her “moods”; I was much closer to Dad, who kept the family together when many men would have left her and the three of us children.  He explained to me, at age 8 and 9 and 10, what I could barely really understand, but he wanted me to know that she didn’t hate me.  I grew up in a lot of ways, and had to be a little adult.  I resented that she was different, that I had a different mother from the one I’d known before the breakdown.  I loved her too, but I was too young to really understand or comprehend my own emotions, much less hers.

She improved over time, functioned, and never had to be committed.  Our relationship through this is another story altogether.  By the time I left home to go to college, we were both glad, and our relationship improved greatly.  We became closer, and talked more.  We were friends.  In my 30s, I was old enough finally to let all my negative emotions about her go, to just love her and see her as a person.

Why do I bring this up?  Well, when I was 21, my mother’s step-father died.  She went through another near-breakdown and I learned the truth about her own background.  My perception of her changed and over time, I’ve come to see her so differently.  This is where tonight’s Genealogy Roadshow connects.

Until I was 21, I believed that my mother and aunt were both daughters of my grandmother Ella and my Grampa Charlie, a Swedish immigrant.  He and my grandmother divorced and she later remarried Glenn, my mother’s step-father.  When Glenn died in December 1972, the story I’d grown up with changed.

My grandmother Ella had been married not twice but four times.  Her first marriage, at the age of barely 15.  This marriage produced my aunt.  My grandmother Ella left her husband when, we were told, he’d thrown battery acid at her.  She was maybe 16 1/2 by then.  Young and striking, with dark auburn hair, she remarried soon.  This second husband disappeared when she was pregnant with my mother, who was born a few months after Ella turned 18. Ella was pregnant when his car was found by the Neches River, abandoned, with his lunch still on the seat.  The story went that he was in trouble over gambling.  Or perhaps had been the victim of union problems.  The mystery shaped my mother’s entire life.  Thus my mother never knew her biological father.  

When Mother and my aunt were still toddlers, Ella married a third time — she was perhaps 21 by then.  This was Charles Steele, the man I knew as Grampa Charlie and thought was my biological grandfather.   So the family story went, Charlie didn’t want to settle down in one place and by then both the girls were ready for school.  My grandmother moved home to Beaumont, and Charlie didn’t.  They divorced but remained friends.  Ella remarried when Mother was in junior high school; this was Glenn, her fourth and last husband.  They were married until Glenn died in December 1972.  

Glenn’s death apparently meant that for whatever reasons (and I don’t know and can’t ask Dad now because he’s dead) Mother had to pull out her adoption papers.  This is when I learned that when she was 18, Mother had her name changed and had Grampa Charlie legally adopt her.  Since my grandmother was apparently the black sheep of the family because of her four marriages, Mother was always afraid of people knowing “the truth.”  Yet we’d moved to Egan when I was 5 1/2, and Egan was where my grandmother’s family was from.  I’m sure that moving there in 1957 had been difficult because Mother was moving into a very small town, one where everyone knew Ella and her history.  

Mother was afraid of my reactions; she knew that Dad had told me so that I’d understand why Mother was having the most difficult time I’d seen in over a decade.  I didn’t care — in fact, I told her, I thought her biological father was just a son-of-a-bitch.  My words without embellishment.  It made no difference to me in how I thought of her or Ella.  I didn’t think less of them.  In fact, I thought much more of my grandmother than ever before.  (Oh, she could make me angry, too, don’t get me wrong.  But maybe that’s because, as my sister often says, I’m a lot like Ella.)

A few years later when I moved to Beaumont, where my grandmother lived, she was very careful to sit me down and tell me “the truth,” expecting me to be shocked.  She was surprised, to say the least, that I knew already.  Why was she so careful to tell me?  She was afraid that someone in Beaumont would spill the beans, would be cruel.  She was also quick to assure me that she and Mother’s father had been married; she brought the marriage certificate with her to prove it.  Once more, I told her just what I thought of him, and told her that I loved her and was proud of her.  

Only after that did I begin to hear just how cruel some of Mother’s family had been to her.  Some of Ella’s brothers, and other cousins, had ridiculed Mother and her sister over and over.  They were made to feel ashamed.  When they went to school — a parochial school — they were further ridiculed by nuns.  

So by 1978, I’d come to understand my mother on a very different level.  The deeply rooted anxiety disorder that plagued her for her entire life, that could shake her to a nervous breakdown, had a context now that made sense.  

And then in the fall of 1979 or spring of 1980, her world and Ella’s changed once more.  And not in a good way.

That’s when Ella decided to write to get my mother’s father’s service records.  He’d been a Marine in World War I.  In a very typical fashion (for our family, at least), Ella wrote the letter pretending to be Mother.  The response shook her and broke her heart — and, I am convinced, made her give up on some level.  Ella became an old woman in ways I’d never thought possible.

My biological grandfather had not died in 1926, but in 1956, in Oregon, where he had a heart attack while working for the railroad.  My grandmother had the service records, with the facts, and also learned that he’d remarried.  Since he’d been married once before he married Ella, this was his third wife.  Yet on his service records, he claimed only two wives, not three, and claimed no children. 

My parents came to see me in College Station, where I was in graduate school at the time, and told me what had happened.  Mother was very disturbed, and I was angry.

For years, Mother knew that her biological father’s family lived in the Beaumont area.  They’d in fact given my grandmother $1000, I’d been told, for the baby.  They perpetuated the belief that he was dead.

In truth, he’d left a pregnant wife who was barely 18.  He was somewhere in Texas for a while.  I have found him listed in the 1930 census as living in Houston.  At some point he moved to California.  At all times, though, his family knew he was alive and they kept in touch.  Apparently he even returned to Beaumont at times for visits.

Tonight’s story of the young woman brought all this back to me.  Here she was, talking about a father who’d not married her mother, who’d died before she was born.  Yet at no time did she show any sense of being ashamed — and she shouldn’t have.  Whether she’d experienced anyone who ridiculed her or her mother, or made them feel ashamed, I don’t know — this wasn’t part of the short segment.  That in itself was striking.

What a contrast to my mother and grandmother.  Both had been made to feel ashamed of something that was not their doing, or their fault in any fashion.  Ella had survived being abandoned, pregnant; she had less success at 70 or 71.  I wish I’d been able to talk to her more about this, but that wasn’t possible.  What I could and did do, though, was — for the rest of my mother’s life — let her know I was neither ashamed nor embarrassed by her history.  

In fact, as I have said, I found even deeper love and greater pride in my grandmother’s ability to take care of herself and two small girls, to make a living, to work and be a smart businesswoman.  She was a waitress; then she was a manager of the diner; she was once held up by Bonnie and Clyde.  She then ran a boarding house.  When she married Glenn, she continued to work.  During World War II, she worked in a munitions plant and drove a forklift and heavy equipment.  By the time I was 10, she was the manager of an elementary school cafeteria.  This was no weak sister, believe me.  And her advice to me, all my life:  be able to take care of yourself, even if you marry.  

As for my relationship for Mother, this only made me see her quite differently yet again.  I think our relationship deepened, and I could talk to her about her father as I couldn’t bring myself to talk to my grandmother.  

I’m curious about him, about his family and background.  I’ve done some research; I know, thanks to the internet and genealogical databases, far more than I did ten years ago.

And frankly, my opinion of him hasn’t changed.  He was a son-of-a-bitch.

The young woman tonight didn’t have quite the same story.  Time and culture had changed so much between her birth and my mother’s.  During her segment in the show, there were photographs of her father.  Near the end of the segment, she was told that the photographs had come from her cousin, who then was brought out and introduced to her.  A family connection was made.

That I was in tears by the end of that young woman’s segment might not surprise you.  It surprised me, though.  Why, I’ve since wondered, did it move me so?

Because my mother never got the kind of recognition that she needed and deserved from her own father’s family.  She had to live her entire life in the aftermath of abandonment and denial.  And in her forties, having adapted to what she had believed for her entire life was one reality, she had to deal with a heartbreakingly different one.

All families have stories.  Many also have secrets.  And family stories are important.  They might get changed or embellished or kept secret for many reasons.  But at some point, they need to be told.  Secrets can be devastating.  The aftermath can resonate for generations.

So this is for you, Mother.  Your story is nothing to be ashamed of.  I am proud of you and Ella.  And thankful to be your daughter.

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