Edythe Eloise: the Early Years
I haven't been to Kansas for years. But I remember the last time I was there, traveling to the cemetery to visit my grandmother, Edythe Eloise. As I knelt to leave the small pink azalea on the dusty grave in that flat, nearly grassless, godforsaken site, I looked around. She was buried next to three of her sisters, her mother and father -- that family nearly reunited.
You'd never be able to say that about the family she created.
My grandfather Orville is buried with his family about five miles away, in a plot within a tree-shaded glade. His grandfather and great grandfather have markers designating them as Union soldiers, veterans of the Civil War (one had run away to enlist when he was only 14). His grave is a pretty place, apparently chosen for him by my great grandmother, who seemed to have done a lot of the choosing in that family.
But my grandfather's mother didn't choose my grandmother. Oh, no.
My grandmother and grandfather were born on adjacent farms in Independence, Kansas, near Coffeyville and Cherryvale (that helped you get your bearings, didn't it?). And my grandmother apparently decided early on that Orville was going to be hers. Never mind that his mother had set her sights much higher than that angular, leggy farmgirl next door.
Sure enough, Edythe Eloise snagged Orville using that time-proven method: she got pregnant at age 17 with my mother, Constance. What a name for my mother, considering my grandmother's subsequent life story.
Now understand: my family doesn't talk. It hints. It alludes. It lays verbal breadcrumbs to be followed down a path. But nothing is ever outright admitted. That wouldn't be prudent.
I have done higher math and used dates in a Bible to figure out that my mother was conceived out of wedlock. That, and I frequently noticed that whenever my grandmother was mentioned in front of my mother, her lips would tighten and she would literally or figuratively leave the room. My mother didn't like her mother. At all. To the extent that she refused to attend her own mother's funeral.
Because Grandmother was a free spirit. And Mother was not.
With a few startling exceptions, my mother always insisted that a solid public image be upheld -- and, boy, if you'd known my grandmother, you'd understand why decorum was so important to my mother.
Apparently my grandmother littered the Great Plains with her conquests. Sexual conquests when she was young ... and then victims of her charm as she got older and smarter.
After giving birth to my mother and soon deciding that she wasn't going to waste the rest of her youth tending a baby on an isolated farm -- with the Depression also helping her conspire to need a job in town -- she became one of the earliest working mothers. Although it seems my great-grandmothers did most of the nurturance of my mother in her earliest years as Grandmother stayed in town all during the week.
Grandmother worked in a shop during the day, leaving her weeknights free for bathtub gin, cigarettes and meeting new acquaintances, more sophisticated and more fun than my grandfather-on-the-farm.
Still, she managed to get home on the weekends and during the next five years became pregnant with her next three children, a daughter and two sons who all, fortunately, looked a lot like Grandfather.
Then the trouble really started. (to be continued)