I took advantage of the inclement weather during my visit to my daughter’s farm as the reason to stay indoors away from the outside work of clearing more pasture land on which her horses can graze. Inside is something of a euphemism as it includes being inside a car for a reasonably short drive to the small Oklahoma town where my family resided in the early 1900s. The balance of my inside time was in the Genealogy Room of the Okmulgee Public Library, my interest being the discovery of information about my maternal grandmother in order to resolve some of the mysteries about her quiet life.
Everyone who knew her loved her. Sher was a major player in my young life as she would stay with us during the school year in order to help my mother, her only daughter, manage three young school-aged boys. We were a trial, but not an ordeal. From oldest to youngest there was an eleven year span of time, which means our interests and activities were as unique to us individually as they were varied when taken as a whole. My scholarly older brother excelled in school activities while my childish younger brother was too small to do anything without adult supervision. Me, I majored in play, which included every sport and every juvenile game as long as it took place outside despite the weather.
These memories are of a time when we lived in Southern California, the Promised Land of the continental U.S. My grandmother’s heart, however, was in her small town, Oklahoma home. Summers she would take the train “back east” to my young way of thinking, and live with her oldest son and be accessible to her female grandchildren of much gentler pursuits.
All of us, regardless of the location of our homestead, remember our grandmother as a kind, caring, quietly helping and supportive soul. We loved her then and love her memory still. It is her quiet nature, though, that causes me keen displeasure in my own old age. She did not talk much about her young life, which has created many a mystery about her. Before my mom’s passing I asked her what I regarded to be simple questions about her mother, but was amazed that she often answered “I don’t know. I never asked.” It seems we all took grandma’s compassionate qualities for granted. We absorbed her love like a gathering of sponges and rested secure in her ability to leave us satiated with the joy of her presence.
Grandma, I have since come to appreciate, was something of an illusion. Her life with us was real enough. Her past, however, was left where she once lived it, seemingly content with the knowledge that she did her best to handle the pain of life’s challenges and willing to leave it all behind, where it could no longer hurt anyone she loved. There were some good times, no doubt, but what we know based on family lore and legend is that the pain was likely greater than the joy one associates with one’s childhood. It seems that Grandma intentionally forged for her children and her grandchildren the kind of life she did not know when she was young.
Grandma never spoke about her father. He disappeared from the family records without a trace other than leaving behind a wife, a daughter and two dead infant sons. This part of her history is so shrouded in mystery that we do not even know where grandma was born. She always claimed Missouri as her state of origin, but the specific location remains unknown. I have a copy of her obituary (an answer of sorts), but the community named as her birthplace never existed (leaving me with further questions). We know Grandma’s birthday and the year, 1888, but the U.S. census for 1890 (a potential source of answers) was destroyed in a fire (leaving me with questions once again).
My great grandmother remarried. Her second husband was a widower with seven children and their own union contributed three more daughters to the expansive household. Family legend (a source of answers) says that Grandma pleaded with her mom not to marry the man. But women alone in that day were bound for hardship. And my guess is that great grandmother Mollie was not well educated and therefore not very well suited for any other life than that of being a wife and mother (a guess and therefore an unresolved question).
During my trip to that small Oklahoma town where Grandma spent most of her adult life and where my own mother was born, uncovered some good documentary evidence about her life (answers). She worked as a checker in Cowden’s Laundry and lived with her Aunt Lizzie and Uncle Bart. Their obituaries disclosed that they made the trip from Missouri to Oklahoma with their two daughters in 1901. Did Grandma make the journey with them or arrive at a later date (a question)? I know from an ad in an old directory that the laundry was founded in 1906 (an answer), but the earliest edition of that directory listing all the residence of the town and their occupations was 1909. That is where I learned that Grandma was one of their employees. It would be nice to think that she was an original employee of Cowden’s, but that is just a guess (another question).
I asked my mother once if Grandma ever talked about her wedding to my grandfather. She said no. All she knew is that his family, a prominent one in that small Oklahoma town, opposed his marriage to a lowly laundress. I found a copy of their marriage license (an answer). It was issued on the same day their wedding ceremony took place before a justice of the peace and not the church wedding one would anticipate Grandma desired. But then the young couple disappeared from all documentary evidence until grandfather’s death just eight and a half years later. The cause of his death is unknown (a question).
Family lore says it was due to typhoid fever, but his death occurred at a time when the Spanish influenza carried away many. He left Grandma with three young sons, a daughter to be born five months later, and me with a lot of questions about their life together during the brief time they had. From his death on the story is pretty clear. Grandma went back to working at the laundry and remained there until she retired in the late 1940s. Photos and personal memories abound, all of them good and well cherished by those of us who knew her. I could only wish my own children had the opportunity to experience the love, which pervaded my childhood home due to her wonderful presence.
I am committed to finding out more about her as the opportunity arises to visit places where the evidence might linger. Grandma was born into a time and place that did not easily submit itself to paper. There is no birth certificate for her and no death certificate for her father. They were not prominent enough to make the news reported in the short-lived newspapers of those days. Then, as now, politics dominated the press coverage. Murders made the grade as did the chicanery of those in the east, who connived to keep prices for crops and livestock sales low. Widows and their children were of little concern. They were too plentiful and lacked the voting power sufficient to be anything other than a nuisance.
My hope is to do Lula’s story justice, even if its publication remains confined to family members, even though questions arise from every answer I find. Love wills out. And I have the time in my retirement days to pursue my investigations, when not helping my children cope with their own challenges in life like expanding pasture land. Grandma would be pleased with my attempts and would have a wonderful dinner waiting for us, when our labors were through. It is what I know about her life that suggests this would be true.