Wednesday, February 20, 2013

My grandpa has a voice – Day 20 of the Family History Writing Challenge

We have been blessed this week with a second cousin in Tennessee who found a treasure trove of documents. A big thank you goes to Sheldon Livesay for his time and willingness to join in our search. I now have copies of deeds for property bought and sold in the 1800’s. This is interesting because although I don’t have any clue about plot lines and boundaries, I can find out. For instance, Sheldon found the deed where John Carter Rhea bought 75 acres on April 19, 1883.

However, the most exciting find was the letter my grandparents wrote to Victor Rhea on May 30, 1929. What tugged at my heart was the reference to Martha’s death on March 22, 1929.

My grandparents (as far as I know) never went back to Missouri or Tennessee. They were unhappy places for her. We wondered if my grandfather had even been back to see his mother. He left in 1914 so it would have been 14 years. We still don’t know the answer. What we do know is Grandpa traveled without my grandmother. When we were children, we used to visit him in Mesa, Arizona while Granny stayed home to tend to business. Grandpa had tuberculosis and the desert air was better for him than the long cold Montana winters.

In discussing my grandfather with my cousin Patty, we discovered we don’t know much about him. She has a few memories and I have some but it doesn’t tell us who he was. He was a very quiet man, not given to long speeches or idle chat. He was very tall and very trim, hence his nickname “Slim”. My grandmother was the driving force. She was an astute businesswoman and had several business interests.

The letter is the first we’ve seen in his handwriting. My grandmother wrote all the letters to my parents. This is the first time that Patty and I have heard from him in his own words.

He starts his portion of the letter talking about the farm. While we visited them in the house they built in 1932, in 1929, they were still living on the farm away from downtown Billings. Grandpa was employed full time by the railroad so the workload he carried would be staggering today.

He had just planted 600 pounds of potatoes, over an acre with Bantam Sweet Corn, and still had an acre to plant with miscellaneous vegetables like carrots and onions. He talks about taking care of the chickens. Then he writes,

“It was very depressing news of Mother being dead. Yet, we all must answer the Summons when it comes.”
We were shocked that of all the letters that must have been written, this is the one that survived. It answers some questions and provides very real emotions, which can’t be gleaned from the drier facts.

William goes on to ask,

“What did they do with Dow Arnold for killing James Willis?”

I have no idea what that’s about but because my grandfather wanted to know, so do I. It will not make any difference in my family history but it just adds flavor and texture to the story.

My grandmother wrote the second half of the letter. Her handwriting is instantly recognizable. She starts with the pleasantries and then says,

“It made us sad to hear of Mother’s death and what hurt most was that Wm had neglected to go to see her. I often urged him to go but he always said it hurt his mother so to have him leave her again. He would have gone if he had knew she would lived as long after Leona wrote him but it is always like that. Something to regret.”
Apparently, they, (Victor and Cornie) offered her the robe she had sent. She writes,

“No I don’t want the bathrobe. You do what you want to with it. I think Victor is entitled to the corn and what ever else they give him. He has been faithful to his mother.”

She then goes on to talk about the chickens she is raising and working in the garden. That is something else to research. If they were planting acres, what was in the garden?

The best thing about the letter is that for the first time, we know the emotions behind the facts. Grandpa was sad. Grandpa had regrets. Grandpa believed that everyone’s time on this earth was limited and accepted the death as a larger part of the universe. It was nice to hear from Grandpa. It was nice to hear Grandpa’s voice.

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