Saturday, May 12, 2018

My Mother-in-Law Frances, On Mother's Day

My mother-in-law, Frances Russell, came into my life when I was twenty-four years old, and for the next twenty years she was a strong influence in my life. I was here in Colorado where Frances lived, married to her younger son, while my own mother was two thousand miles away in Illinois. No cell phones then and long distance calls were expensive so my mother and I communicated with handwritten letters and saved phone calls for emergencies. Once a year Mom and my step-father came out to visit us, and then, with no warning, my mother died when I was twenty-nine. I was heart broken.

No one can replace your mother. Frances knew that. She lost her own mother when she was just six weeks old and lived with her grandparents until her grandpa was murdered out in the harsh, desolate country of northwestern Colorado where her family was desperately trying to homestead and prove up on their claim. After that tragedy Frances’s grandmother was in no shape to raise a little granddaughter. Fortunately, at three years of age Frances was blessed with a step-mother, Cloe Callender Jones, a gentle, kind woman who married Tom Smith and stepped in to mother his four high-spirited children, while bringing into the marriage a son of her own. With the patience of Job, Cloe mothered those children, taught them, fed them, and loved them. Her influence on Frances was life-changing.

Frances Russell was very different from my own mother. Whereas Mom was quiet and passive Frances was theatrical and lively. She was already fifty-three years old when I met her but I’ve read several of her diaries written in the 40s and 50s and know Frances has always been full of energy, accomplishing more each day than I get done in a week. She was a dryland farmer’s wife with four children, living in a drafty house with no electricity or running water. She worked in the fields, cooked three meals each day, sewed clothes for her children, and helped raise the livestock.  Late in life she went back to school to get her GED diploma because she regretted not graduating from high school. She also enrolled in beauty school and became a licensed beautician.

By the time I came on the scene Frances was quilting, gardening, giving hair cuts and permanents in her kitchen, raising chickens, baking wedding cakes for brides in the Wellington area, and so much more. For every holiday and birthday she invited us all up to her small home and graced us with large, delicious meals and sent us home with extra pie. When a local family experienced a hardship or tragedy Frances took them a batch of homemade donuts and shared their sorrow. When I married her son Bobby in 1972 she made my wedding dress. Frances belonged to the Rebekah’s Lodge, worked as a cook at the Y-Knot CafĂ© in Wellington, and traveled back to Boston once a year to spend time with her older son and his two boys. She wrote her autobiography by hand, and when her older son complained that she “left out the good stuff”, she sat down and wrote it again! She never slowed down.

One thing Frances and I had in common was our love of family photographs. She had a little box camera most of her married life and because film and developing were expensive she mostly photographed special occasions, grouping as many people into a photo as possible. I treasure her photographs.

We both loved quilts and quilting too. She kept a quilting frame set up in her living room most of the time and made dozens of lovely, full-sized quilts which she generously gave away to each member of her family and many of her friends too.

Frances’s heart started to fail her in 1989 when she was the age I am now, seventy-one. We didn’t realize what was happening to her. On a trip back east, visiting her older son, she had an attack of angina but blamed it on the onions she had eaten with dinner. And when she returned home and experienced congestion in her lungs she blamed it on the soot in the house caused by they wood-burning stove in the living room. Her fatal heart attack occurred in the hospital but it was severe and they couldn’t save her.

Frances was the heart of our family. She was the energy that encouraged our gathering together to celebrate birthdays and holidays. She was the glue that kept us communicating with one another. Her loss was dramatic and frightful. Doyle seemed smaller, like a balloon that has lost most of its air. Her home was too quiet. There were no warm smells of chicken and noodles coming from the kitchen. Only after she left us did each of us realize how much she meant to us.

My mother-in-law, Jennie Frances Smith Russell, was an authentic Colorado woman…colorful, irreverent, energetic and theatrical. She was my son’s grandmother, the only one he really remembers. I am very fortunate that she took me under her wing, like a setting hen who finds a stray chick and pulls it close. I love you, Frances, and I wish I had told you so.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Memories of Muddy for Johnnie Jo

There is a little town in Southern Illinois, just a remnant of a town nowadays, named Muddy. It doesn’t take much imagination to conclude it probably wasn’t named for a Mr. Muddy. Back in the 1930s it was a coal mining town, one of several along a stretch of road in Saline County, just outside of Harrisburg on U. S. Highway 45… first Muddy, then Wasson, Eldorado, Raleigh. I suppose the mines came first, then the road, and soon the railroad, needed to haul the coal away. Today Muddy is mostly gone, a few small houses, grassy fields, and broken concrete, bordered on the east by the highway and railroad. A person can google this town and learn about its past but I’d like to tell you how it was from the eyes of a child in the 1950s.

My mother’s parents lived in Muddy in the early 1950s even though Grandpa no longer worked in the mines. Their seven children were grown and gone, but just a few houses away lived Grandpa’s mother and his old maid aunt, Mammie and Til. And one row over lived a cousin, Vol Rich, with his family, and closer to the mine, another of Grandpa’s sisters, Mary Adeline, nicknamed Mice. It was a Smith family community. I believe the mine shut down about 1937 so this must have been a place where housing was affordable and available, once company housing now little houses for rent.

In my four-year-old mind, Muddy was a summer vacation world with soft green grass, pretty yellow dandelions, and cousins! The little wood framed house Grandma and Grandpa lived in was big enough for two people but when our family of five dropped in, and some of our aunts, uncles, and cousins arrived we spilled out into the yard and beyond. Walking barefoot along a dusty road, avoiding cinders and clinkers, kicking up powdery dirt, us kids explored the area as children will, always warned “don’t go near the mine.” 

We walked up to the little grocery store, the post office, past the church, down the next row of houses, looking for adventure. The air was humid and hot, with bees and flies everywhere. But wait. That’s my seventy-one year old self describing Muddy. My four-year-old self would be taking it in through all senses, simultaneously! Yes, I remember…the droning of the flies and bees attracted to the sweat on my face and hair, the slippery feel of the powdery dirt on the soles of my feet, squirting between my toes, the smell of the mine tailings, a sulphurous, swampy smell, not offensive for I associated it with my grandparents and their clothing. And there was more. The taste of well water sipped from a metal dipper, the talk of adults in the house with their Kentucky accents and southern cadence, a comforting presence. As night came on there were lightning bugs and mosquitoes, the sweet smell of DDT sprayed through a hand-held pump, a change in the adult voices inside the house as my Grandpa got drunk and argumentative while his adult daughters conspired to pour out his whiskey and replace it with water. And night brought on another sense, too, that unnamed danger of the nearby mine with its spooky tipple, dark against the fading light in the sky. Then the sound of the train rumbling and shaking the ground as it approached, accompanied by the whistle, mournful and fading as the train continued on its way, never stopping in Muddy.

I don’t remember if the house had electricity in 1951…probably not. There was no running water, no indoor plumbing. But Grandma kept a chamber pot inside at night so we didn’t have to venture out to the outhouse, and that had its own unique odor. Grandpa smoked and chewed and Grandma dipped snuff. They were Kentuckians, after all. They drank coffee too. Their home was soaked with the odors of living, heating with coal, cleaning with lye soap, cooking great northern beans, frying bacon, drinking coffee and whiskey, and smoking cigarettes. If I could capture those smells and save them in a bottle to be uncorked for a quick sniff when I am feeling low or homesick I would do it. I know my sense of smell is connected to a primeval, visceral place in my brain where emotions live and wait to be awakened. For me an unexpected whiff of the smell of cigarette smoke, once so common but now rare in my life, takes me back to a time and place when life was simpler, when I was four. And when I talk on the phone with one of my cousins who still carries that southern lilt in her voice I feel a clenching in my chest and tears come to my eyes.

Muddy, Illinois. Just a spot along the road….and a spot in my heart where my mother is still alive, my grandmother laughs and her belly shakes, and me and my cousins are young and skinny and starting our lives. Dear cousin, Johnnie Jo, this story is for you, thirteen years old that summer I was four. Happy 80th birthday, love, Peemo.