In the story of Martha Jane McCollum, there is the conflict between her and my grandmother, Mellie Farris. Martha wanted her son to come home. William and Mellie never went back to Tennessee, not even to visit. I think anything that had to do with the past were places that she didn’t want to go. She created the life she wanted and Tennessee was not part of it.
It was Christmas Day in 1964 when my grandmother announced her mother had died in 1952. Twelve years seems like a long time to wait before telling them but they had never seen their grandmother and she had not been a part of their lives. Still, it was odd. I remember the look on my father’s face. He looked shocked.
I was fifteen that year and old enough to understand there was something amiss. Granny had always said that her mother was dead so it wasn’t a surprise to me. I would have been three when she passed away and not really old enough to have remembered her. Still, it was the look on not only my dad’s face but my Uncle Ralph and Uncle Howard’s too.
Matilda Jane Pitchford, my grandma’s mother, was born on December 12, 1863 to Alpheus Alpha Pitchford and Mary Ellen Shikle in Burris Fork, Missouri. Alpheus had done well for himself and in addition to the farm; he was also the town miller. Matilda and her two siblings grew up with the things they wanted.
On October 14, 1880, 16-yr-old Matilda married 20-yr-old, Oliver Valentine Farris. Oliver was also a farmer so she was no stranger to that lifestyle. However, he was not a wealthy as her father but he was a good-looking young man.
They had three children. Mellie was born in 1883, Eugene in 1885, and Bertie in 1887. In 1889, when Mellie was 6-yrs-old, Matilda disappeared. It was difficult for Oliver to raise the three children but he didn’t lack company for long. In 1891, when he was 31, he married 17-yr-old Luella Campbell. On the marriage certificate, it says her father gave written approval.
Mellie was nine when Luella and Oliver had their first child. Charles was born in 1892. Then there were Lillian, Emil, Emma, Raymond, Freda, John, and the last one, Opal, born in 1908. According to Mellie, they went from an indifferent mother to the evil stepmother in Cinderella.
My grandmother was a tiny woman and barely topped 4’7”. She tells how they pulled a crate up to the sink when she was a child so she could wash all the dishes. She did their laundry and all the cleaning. Eugene was sent out to work the farm and at the neighboring farms if they needed help. Bertie was small enough to get out of most of the work. On the 1900 census, it list Mellie and Eugene as stepchildren. Someone came through and crossed off the “step.” Both Mellie and Eugene are listed as servants. The family has debated whether that means they lived at home and worked somewhere else or if they were considered servants in their own home. The consensus is they were servants in their own homes. Regardless, Granny says her childhood was miserable.
In 1910, Mellie was living in Greer, Oklahoma with her brother and his wife. Two years later, she had moved to Bagnell, Mo.
It was not long after that she met William Ogden Rhea somewhere in Missouri. None of us thought to ask how they met so it remains a mystery. They married on October 24, 1914 when she was 31 and he was 32. They stayed in Missouri until 1917 when they packed up baby Ralph, born in 1915, and headed north, landing in Billings, Montana.
They had a farm on the outskirts of town. Howard was born in 1919 and Ernest in 1921. The Rhea boys were trouble. They had a lot of freedom once their chores and schoolwork was done. However, with all the stunts they pulled, none of them dared cross their mother.
They eventually moved to downtown Billings where they built a two-story Victorian home. Not content to live without making money, the upstairs rooms were rented. William worked for the railroad eventually running the depot. Mellie continued to accumulate property and had several rentals, For a long time, she held onto the farm until they had enough income to let it go. I think she may have been a little like Scarlet O’Hara. She was never going to be a servant again.
Politics were her passion and she was very involved in the Democratic Party. She went to all the state conventions and worked on all the boards but her biggest passion was her kids. . Mellie’s goal was to have her three boys graduate from college and they did. All three were overachievers with successful careers.
My grandmother controlled those around her. She was a dynamo in a small package. No one knows why she decided to share that information on Christmas Day but it was a shock to her kids. From the day they were born, they were told their grandmother was dead.
It was probably the only time the veneer slipped. She talked about how she and her siblings were abandoned. She talked about her evil stepmother. She knew her mother had remarried and had four more children she would never acknowledge. To my knowledge, it was never mentioned again. No amount of prying would get answers. She went back to being our loving Granny but none us dared cross her either