Sometime after my mother’s 80th birthday, she decided to start ridding her home of the long cherished treasures she now considered to be clutter. This included rarely if ever worn clothes, seldom used utensils, table settings and flatware, decorations and an array of mementos from long ago travels with my father. This also included the family photo albums. She removed the prints she couldn’t bear to part with just yet and discarded the rest. Some of the photographs were taken as long ago as the 1920s, but most were from the 40s, a very momentous period in her life. Her older brothers were going off to serve in the Pacific during World War II. Two new sisters-in-law moved in with her and her mother. And it was also the point in time when she met my dad. They married before he shipped out to fight the war in Europe. And in very short order three babies were born to the three young brides left behind for the duration. Fortunately, all the men came home unharmed and filled in the few empty spaces in an already cramped household, until new careers opened up and the family dispersed to establish their own homes and enjoy the peace and prosperity that came with victory.
All of this and more is chronicled in those photographs. So when I lamented the demise of images I had looked at many, many times growing up and asking about the occasions on which the photos were taken, or about a person I had never met being an intimate member of a family photo op, my mother chose to box up those remaining prints and present them to me for safekeeping and (apparently) to clutter up my home in order to make her life easier.
I love history and with this new gained wealth of visual information I set out to document what I could about the lives of the people I love; at least the history on my mother’s side of the family tree. This prompted me to subscribe to the on-line Ancestry.com service, which took me back in time to the earliest days of the 19th century as I followed the linear trail of births, marriages and deaths back as far as I had the patience to endure. You do get tired of adding “greats” to an ever growing list of grandparents, aunts and uncles and attempting to decipher how many and when to apply the term “removed” to a cousin who inhabits the furthest branches of one’s familial tree.
My search did resolve a few mysteries but added others. I was able to substantiate the rumor that we are related to the Crocketts of Tennessee, as in that little boy who was born on a mountain top and killed him a bar when he was only three. (I only wish I still had that coonskin cap my mother bought for me when Fess Parker was the most popular celebrity on the planet.) Other family mysteries remain, however. I have yet to discover where my maternal grandmother was born. Her obituary listed as her birthplace a community in Missouri that never existed. More disconcerting is that we do not know her father’s name or whatever happened to him. All I have been able to document is that my great grandmother went from being a Sharp to a Fowler (my grandmother’s maiden name) and that she eventually married a Crawford, also of Missouri. The fact that my beloved grandmother apparently never talked about her father to any of her children makes me think that he must have committed some act of indiscretion that led to his early departure, whether on horseback or at the end of a rope remains to be determined.
Armed with pages of documents downloaded from the internet, I started troubling my mother with more questions about the people she knew, the aunts and uncles and near relatives of the small town in Oklahoma where she was born and raised. I use the word “trouble” in this instance because some stories are not always pleasant and one of the less gracious aspects of our family saga is how my grandmother was treated by her in-laws after she became a widow, with three young boys and a baby girl on the way. My grandfather’s family was part of the wealthy, Episcopal elite in town. My grandmother was a lowly Southern Baptist, whose status was made even more disreputable by the fact that she was a laundress; a common working girl. But her small stature and angelic beauty captivated the lanky eldest son of the prominent Barr family and he married her for love, which abided firmly between them until his death nine years later. My pregnant grandmother moved her young family in with her mother and younger half-sisters and went back to work in the laundry, where she stayed for the next twenty-five years, or so, without ever complaining about the misery of her circumstances.
No help was sought from or given by the in-laws who spurned my grandmother. But those were the people I wanted to know more about, even though our relationship to them was tainted by their sense of pride, which seems to come with wealth and community status, no matter how small the community.
Given that Okmulgee, Oklahoma is still a small town, my mother grew up in a close, nurturing environment surrounded by family and friends, which left her with the impression that she was related to half the people who lived there. It also meant that my mother, with her mother and brothers were intimately aware of and still had some contact with my grandfather’s parents, sisters and younger brother. I never met Edwin, or Uncle Ned as I sometimes heard him referred to. And when I asked my mother about him, her reply made me glad I never did. What she said stunned me, for even though my mother could be wonderfully, comically blunt when talking about people she liked, her statement about her father’s younger brother, the infamous Uncle Ned, was to me tragically out of character for her.
“I hope he burns in hell,” is what she said to me that day. The backstory for her outburst was truly unbelievable, when you consider that most of the stories I had ever heard about the family my mother was blessed to be part of were virtually always supportive. And these stories at some point always made reference to my widowed grandmother as the foundation for that happiness, citing her endurance through every trial and her gift for graciously sharing with everyone that kind of self-sacrificing love she read about in her Bible, which the Greeks called agape.
On a rare occasion when the family was visiting at the spacious Barr home, my teenage mother was directed by her Uncle Ned towards a room away from the rest of the family members. And in a place that should have represented a safe haven if not a truly loving one for her, with just a closed door separating the two of them from everyone else, Uncle Ned reached inside my mother’s blouse and fondled her breasts so roughly that he left her bruised and hurting; physically for a short time, emotionally for the rest of her life. She says she did not scream, she did not cry, and she did not tell, which seems to be the pattern to the experiences many women are now sharing by means of the #MeToo social media site.
Mom was not blessed with her mother’s beauty. Nor was she amply endowed in such a way that might attract an overt act of masculine lust. But she was vulnerable. So without provocation Uncle Ned simply exerted his power to achieve a quick and easy thrill. And he seems to have relied on the sanctuary of silence many men have enjoyed despite their despicable behavior, for he did not threatened my mother with any description of the dire consequences she would suffer if she told. He turned away from her to leave, but before he opened the door he spoke to her in a tone of pure erotic male arrogance and said how she should be pleased by having attracted his attention.
Mom told me this story when she was in her 90s. And the vehemence with which she expressed her un-forgiving attitude towards her uncle indicates how she never escaped the emotional clutches of his attack, even after nearly 80 years had contrived to separate her from that incident. She passed away, age 96, this past September (2017) before the #MeToo movement became popular. But if she were alive today, and with her permission, I would have helped her add her story to the many others, who are hopefully finding some release from the humiliation of being someone else’s susceptible target.
I have taken the liberty, as the good son, of sharing her story. I think she would approve as she cannot be hurt by it anymore.
And may Uncle Ned burn in hell.