8/25/2014

Family history - Pt 1



Letter to my children and grandchildren.....To understand my own life, and yours, you have to start with my parents and their parents.

Papaw was born in a small Kansas farm town where German was as commonly spoken as English, in 1932. From everything he ever told me about his childhood, his parents were fairly poor. His father, Grandpa Sigmund "Siggi" was a mechanic or machinist - he repaired farm equipment, tractors and stuff. His mother was Bertha ("Berta") or Granny Bert, as we called her. All her life she spoke with a heavy German accent. At some point Siggi and Berta divorced, and Papaw and his older sister "Nell" (Eleanor) went to live with their mother Bertha in Greenville, Tx. I don't know how old my dad was when this happened, but I think he was very young. I have a photo of Papaw , about 6, standing in overalls with no shoes. He is tall and skinny. Bertha ran a boarding house in Greenville for a while - I don't know when she ended up in Temple, Tx - but by the time I can remember, she lived there in a tiny wooden house with only 4 rooms, all in a row - front to back: living, dining, kitchen, bedroom. No hall- you had to pass from one room to get to the next. Nell lived nearby with her husband Benny (Benjamin) and their child, my cousin Brenda. (You guys went to her wedding in 1997 but probably don't remember it.) Siggi remarried at some pt, a woman named Tillie (Matilda) - I met them when I was 3 ( there are pictures) but I don't remember any of it. They lived the rest of their lives in Kansas and I only saw them once. Papaw went to UT on a basketball or ROTC scholarship (I've heard various versions over the years) and majored in civil engineering.

Grammy, aka Martha , had a very different childhood. She was born in Sulphur Springs, Tx in 1933 to Ruby  age 37 and "L.L" Lawrence Lee (when someone from the South has "Lee" as part of their name, you know their political and cultural affiliations right away!) age 53. Some story there, which I've never been able to get from anyone - why were these 2 so old when they married and had a kid? Why only 1 kid? Why did Ruby marry a much older man, who had been a bachelor all his life?

My grandmother Ruby, whom I was very close to as a child and spent a lot of time with, once told me she had been married before, to a man last name Miller, who had died. She would never talk about it - many of that generation wouldn't - but given that she was born sometime in the 1890's ( no one knows for sure - she frequently fibbed about her age, shaving years off ) , this first husband could have died in WWI, from the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919..... Who knows. I do know that Ruby had a hard childhood - her mother died when she was little, and her father remarried, had a bunch more kids, and the step-mother treated Ruby and her little brother Bob , also from the first mother, badly. Not only Ruby told me this, but several other old relatives, cousins and stuff, told me this as well. Lots of tales of Christmases with no gifts, doing all the chores, tending all the little step-children siblings,  not enough food or clothes, that sort of thing. Various versions of her life have her born and raised on a farm somewhere along the Texas-Louisiana border. (I've heard diff things from diff sources.) At one pt when about 6 years old, Ruby had some kind of tumor on her jaw, and her family put her on a train to New Orleans, all by herself, with an envelope containing money that had written instructions on it to take this child to the hospital, remove the tumor, and return her when she was healed. Can you imagine? Why New Orleans? At the time, it was one of the oldest, largest cities in America, certainly in the south, with major hospitals. I don't know if the tumor was cancerous or not, but Ruby had dentures most of her life as well as a slightly mis-shaped jaw, and I'm thinking the tumor was the cause. The surgery went well, and Ruby made it back home - after several weeks away, all by herself.

I know a lot about Ruby bc I spent time with her as a child, and Grammy spoke frequently of Ruby, too. Ruby was probably the relative who showed me the most love and attention in my life. As a young woman, she came to Dallas and went to secretarial college, and at one pt worked as a nanny for several wealthy Dallas area Jewish families. To me, this suggests a brave young woman seeking adventure, someone not afraid to go off away from home and try new things, support herself, meet people . It was in these nanny jobs that she developed a taste for the finer things in life - clothing especially, and of shopping at Neiman-Marcus. I gather she was given a lot of hand-me-down designer clothing from her employers. In spite of her slight facial deformity (not that noticeable) Ruby was pretty as a young woman, slim, with thick curly auburn hair and deep bright blue eyes. I have a photo of her as a young woman- beautiful dark curly hair, cut in a 1920's bob, and a flapper dress. The photo is in black and white, and you would never know from it that Ruby had the most beautiful deep blue eyes.

I don't know as much about L.L. , because he died before I was born. (He would have been 80 years old in 1960 when I was born.... He died in the 1950's, from cancer of the mouth-throat-larynx, bc he chewed tobacco all his life. ) Grammy idolized him and often spoke about what a sharp dresser he was. He came from a large family - was the youngest of about a dozen kids - which means he had a dad, uncles, and much older brothers who served in the Civil War. Imagine that - bc my family lived so long and had kids so late in life, the number of generations going back is fewer, and historical events are more immediate. My grandfather had brothers who served in the Civil War.....that would be like your grandpa and his brothers, for you. L.L also had a mother who was half Cherokee; her parents lived on the Rez in Oklahoma. It is L.L.'s family, the Crabtrees, that goes all the ways back to the American Revolution (making you SAR and me DAR) , the period in Texas history before Texas joined the USA ( making me DRT and you SRT), the colonial period in America (we are also Colonial Dames) and into England during the Middle Ages - we are also Magna Carta society. Here's what I do know - in every war that came along (bc it is through these records that we trace ancestry), through the generations, the Crabtree men were always : 1)Methodist or Episcopal, 2) middle class craftsmen - carpenters, leather workers, builders, businessmen, etc and small farmers , 3) Masons (which is why I am also OES), and 4)served in each and every war in a non-violent non-combat capacity - as scouts, chaplains, messengers, guides, etc. I just find that interesting ......

I don't know anything else about L.L.'s life. As I said, he was 53 when Grammy was born, never previously married. Relatives say he was a confirmed old bachelor - what does that mean, really? Does it mean he was gay, had asperger's, was shy, a nerd, what? I do know he owned a very prosperous furniture- making business that manufactured church fixtures (baptismal fonts, communion rails, etc) and furniture (pews, altars, etc.) Even during the Great Depression, he was well off financially. He and my grandmother lived in a pleasant spacious roomy 1920s style bungalow in Sulphur Springs, filled with luxuries for the time : Grammy always bragged how they were among the first in town to have electricity, a telephone, a radio, a car, a clothes washing machine, two bathrooms. Grammy had a bedroom with hand-painted wall paper brought in from France, a piano, orthodontia, trips to Dallas to shop at Neiman Marcus - all while growing up.

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