The other side of the family, Uncategorized

Molsey Rhodes: The devil could not live with my people

This is Angeline Rhodes Bennett, whose mother wasn’t happy about her lot in life.

I’ve been going through my grandmother’s genealogy files. While looking at her research on her mother’s family, I came across some interesting letters.

Molsey – no idea what her maiden name was – married Willis Rhodes. They had at least five children: Arnold, Susan, Samuel, Newton and Martha Angeline. Samuel was my grandmother’s great-grandfather.

The Rhodes family lived in Texas and Louisiana. Angelina, for example, married a John Bennett and raised a family in Frierson, Louisiana. When Angelina’s husband died, she buried him in the back yard, put their surviving four children in a surrey and moved back to Texas.

The letters I found were written by Molsey and transcribed by Avis Eldridge Jones. I don’t know who Avis was, but a quick internet search told me she died a few years ago.

Here’s one from Molsey to Angeline (I’m going to add punctuation but leave the misspellings):

April 1871

Well Angeline I tak my pen in hand to let you know that I am well at this tim. Hopping thes few lins wil find you well. I am at John at this tim. I hav bin here ever sens September. I saved your letters. Was glad to hear that you was aliv. You hear that I was ded. I was mity sick in Jun. I had flux. I com back in Jully. I hav no hom. The devel cold not liv with my popl. I hant bin to Peter Martins sens Dan did. He did in October after he left you. Susan had a son born then I was with her. I hant bin to Matthew in too years. Molsa is marred to Len Smith has a daughter. I hant bin to Newton in monts. Arnold has not bin her. I hant heard from thim in a long tim. I expet to see her befor long. I wont to see you mity bad. If you will com I will go hom with you. Writ soon. Send your letter to Orthas and let me know when you will com so I may be redy to go with you. Thear is a grat many dethes. The new mony has him fatel. Bud Rees is ded. Doc Gorum. Ther is so many I cant writ them donn. I hey no mre at present but remans your loving Mother untel dath. So good by.

I don’t know who some of these people were, but I gather that Molsey was jumping from one child to the next. She didn’t seem too happy about it. I believe she died in 1871 so I hope Angeline came and got her before she died.

The other side of the family

Forget cherry pie. Can you make a roux?

The first five Stark girls. Tommie is wearing the plaid dress.

Yesterday, my grandmother and I were reminiscing about my grandfather, which inevitably led to memories of his mother, Tommie. Tommie was a force of nature. She either liked you or disliked you. There was no in-between. Fortunately for me, she liked me.

Tommie was a Stark. Her branch of the Stark family moved from Mississippi to Louisiana before settling in Texas. She was one of 12 children.

Her father desperately wanted a boy, and the Lord blessed him with exactly one. Baby Jack died at 6 months old. That left the family with 11 girls, the majority of whom lived into their 90s. My great-grandmother’s sister Velma lived to be 101. Apparently the Starks make sturdier girls than boys.

What was unique about my great-grandmother and her sisters is they were given the opportunity to go to college. Any of the girls who wanted to go went. My great grandmother became a teacher.

I love this picture of my great grandmother with her sister Lela. Lela is on the left.

The Stark girls also were marvelous cooks. My great grandmother would make several pies each week for my grandfather when he was in high school. That man loved anything sweet.

I have my great grandmother’s rolling pin, but I’m really bad at making pie crust. I’ve tried. I’ve watched videos. I just didn’t get the pie making gene. And my grandfather loved pie. At some point, he realized that I enjoy cooking and started suggesting that I try to recreate some of his mother’s desserts, including her pies.

He recommended I experiment with lard to make a flaky crust. It didn’t work. Then I thought of puff pastry. I’ve heard countless chefs admit to buying already made puff pastry so I did the same, filled it with cherries, baked it and brought it to him. He raved about my cherry pie.

Maybe the fact that I can’t make a pie crust has to do with growing up in Louisiana. I can make a roux. Roux is the base for gumbo. You make it by using equal portions flour and oil. Stir, stir, stir over low heat until it’s the color of chocolate.

I refuse to use jarred roux, but I have embraced making roux in the oven. It’s really boring standing at the stove for 30 minutes stirring.

Here’s the recipe if you want to give it a try. And, please, send pie crust tips if you have them.

DIRECTIONS

  1. Distribute 3 cups of flour evenly over the dry bottom of a large iron skillet or heavy Dutch oven.
  2. Place skillet in a 400 degree oven for an hour to an hour-and-a-half. Stir well every 15 minutes so that the flour will brown evenly. Note: toward the end of the cook time (maybe the last 20 minutes or so), you will need to stir more frequently. Let your nose dictate the time. The kitchen will be filled with the wonderful nutty fragrance of roux… but you don’t want it to burn.
  3. Once it has reached the color of peanut butter, remove the skillet from the oven and let it cool.
The other side of the family

The family farm

The family farm in Snyder, Texas. I don’t have a clue what the tower is, but the front of the house – from the left – consists of a living room and a bedroom. The back of the house – starting with the side door – consists of a kitchen and hallway leading to a bathroom and a second bedroom.

My family is facing an issue that a lot of families grapple with: What the heck do we do with the family farm? We’re certainly not going to farm it.

The farm – in Texas – was where my grandfather was born 89 years ago this past May 1. His parents – who we always called Tommie and Edd because Tommie wasn’t old enough to be a grandmother much less a great grandmother, thank you very much – lived on the farm nearly their entire married lives. When my grandfather went off to junior college, they tore down the tumbledown home where he was raised, used the lumber to build a barn and ordered the prefab home pictured above.

Tommie and Edd on the front porch of the farmhouse. I noticed recently that Tommie never looked at the camera – something I tend to do myself.

As far as I know, they didn’t actually farm anything except maybe fruit trees. I believe the only thing that thrived on that farm was cattle, and even they tended to get sick and die far too often.

Tommie died at the farm when I was in high school. Edd lived on for a number of years but moved to town, where he kept company with a widow and discovered the Golden Corral. He never looked back.

Still, Tommie and Edd were dead set on the farm staying in the family. So here we are, long after their deaths wondering what to do with the old homestead.

My grandfather talked before his death of putting the farm into a trust for the three amigos (his nickname for his three kids). He never got around to it. Now there’s talk of creating an LLC, but then what?

Don’t get me wrong. The farm is a wondrous place with a huge sky, deer, coyotes and even a dugout that buffalo hunters once sheltered in. There are no neighbors for miles since the one neighbor across the highway moved to town in search of cable television.

Tommie in her farmhouse kitchen. She was a wonderful cook. And she’s looking at the camera in one of these shots so she just proved me wrong.

Season in, season out, the farm just sits there.

My grandfather used to spend weeks packing up the minivan once a year for his annual trek to the farm “to check on things.” We later found out this meant cutting weeds, installing plumbing, dismantling a huge beehive and relocating nests of rattlesnakes. The man was in his 80s so we had a firm talk with him. He ignored us and made another trip to Sam’s for supplies. Farm boys are born with a work ethic.

He cut weeds for a financial reason. The federal government paid him a subsidy to keep the farm available for food production. The deal was he didn’t have to grow a single vegetable, but he also couldn’t let it turn into a jungle unsuitable for growing vegetables. This makes sense. Farmland is disappearing. American farming is a fading way of life.

Tommie, my grandmother and my cousins at the farm in the 1980s. My grandmother retired before my grandfather did so she’d throw my cousins in the car and drive to Texas for visits to the family farm. No doubt, Tommie cooked for weeks in anticipation of these visits.

In 18 years, the U.S. lost 31 million acres of farmland. Where did it all go? Subdivisions, shopping centers, big box stores.

Why is that a problem? Because our population continues to grow. We’ve got a lot of mouths to feed. Food gets more expensive when we’re growing less of it.

But back to the family farm. A few years ago, one of my cousins mused aloud about moving to the farm and seeing what he could make of it. We all perked up, but it turned out to be a stray thought he quickly lost.

Think about it: When’s the last time you heard someone say they planned to buy a big spread of land and do some farming? Raise a family, get a cow, wake up before sunrise, mend some fences and then mend some more fences?

Every once in a while, I think about how nice it would be to live on the farm and focus on writing. I could write so many books! Then I think about how hard life is on a farm. With hundreds of acres of land, the work never ends. There’s always problems with the well, critters and the rural methheads who now are a bigger threat than the rattlesnakes.

Any suggestions?

Genealogy tools

Hot Water Cake

I don’t know how old this recipe is – or even if it’s any good. I found it in some family files. Since we all seem to be baking more these days, I thought I’d share it. Maybe you’re ready for a switch from sourdough bread?

Apologies for the crookedness. The paper must have slipped when I put it on the scanner. Also, sweet milk is simply whole milk. Don’t grab a can of condensed milk unless you want to experiment.

Happy baking!

The other side of the family

A life well lived

My grandparents embarking on married life in 1952. No doubt my great grandmother made the dress my grandmother is wearing. Store-bought clothes were a luxury.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with my grandmother since my grandfather’s sudden death. While at her house, I stumbled across one of those grandparent memory books. The pages were blank so I grabbed a pen and started asking questions.

In talking to her, it amazes me how much she and my grandfather accomplished during nearly 70 years of marriage considering where they started.

Here’s the story of Rex and Paula.

My grandmother Paula Creekmore began working at age 12 every Saturday at a store in Snyder, Texas. It was on what she calls the square. Next door was a grocery store, where a young boy named Rex Millhollon lasted about a month as a bag boy. He didn’t like the tediousness of the job and quit.

It’s hard for me to imagine a 12-year-old girl waiting on customers. The most I did at that age was babysit. But my grandmother didn’t just work an 11-hour shift every Saturday. She walked a mile to get there and a mile back home. It was the only way she could earn spending money. Her parents were too poor to give her an allowance.

My grandfather didn’t get a pass by quitting his grocery job. He still worked the family farm outside Snyder.

It was in Snyder that a spark ignited between my grandparents although it didn’t happen on the square. They didn’t bump into each other and fall in love during that month when my grandfather bagged groceries next door to the Ben Franklin where my grandmother worked – although that would be a great story!

What got them together was that my grandfather got use of the family truck once a week. His friend Glen didn’t have access to transportation. Glen’s girlfriend just happened to know a sweet girl named Paula. A double date was planned. They double dated a few times before Paula’s family moved from Snyder.

It would be five years before Rex and Paula met again. They wrote to each other, but they didn’t see one another until Rex drove to Tucson and proposed in the back yard of Paula’s parents’ house. She immediately said yes They married two months later.

Rex told Paula that any church would do for a wedding – as long as it had a steeple on it. She chose her former church in Snyder. Rex finished up basic training in Virginia and drove to Snyder for the wedding. He had exactly seven days to get to Snyder, marry and return to Virginia. The Army doesn’t play.

Their honeymoon consisted of driving from Snyder to Virginia in the Mercury his parents gave him when he graduated from college. They also gave him the huge note on the car. Between rent and the car note, the young people didn’t have much money to spare.

The Korean War ended Rex’s time in the Army. He was furloughed. By this point, Rex and Paula had their first child. They took the baby and visited Paula’s parents in Tucson for a few weeks. Then they headed east to Snyder, where they lived in a two-bedroom farmhouse with Rex’s parents for a few weeks.

Eventually, Rex became a county agent in Arizona and got his ph.d. Paula wanted to become a doctor, but that was too much of a mountain to climb as a young mother. She settled for a teaching degree, which she obtained by going to night school. She would take care of four children during the day, hand them off to Rex at night and head to school. They were always a team.

Their children were 7, 5, 3 and 1 when they left everyone they knew and moved to Louisiana. Complicating matters, the 1-year-old was profoundly disabled. Once again, my grandparents pulled together as a team to raise those children on their own in a strange town in a strange state.

They never made huge salaries, but they were smart with their money. Vacations were nonexistent. Eating out was rare. Cars were driven until they were turned in for scrap. A big treat was a bucket of fried chicken from a local place. Rex later frequented McDonald’s for the senior citizen cup of coffee but only because the restaurant was in his portfolio. He drank Dr. Pepper for the same reason.

Their thriftiness didn’t extend to their kids’ or their grandkids’ educations. They produced a doctor, an agronomist, a lawyer, a respiratory therapist, a teacher and a journalist. They paid nearly every dime of those educations without complaint.

They also set up investment accounts for us, eventually handing over the reins for the annual contributions after planting the seeds for our financial stability.

In other words, they gave us everything they had. Family was everything to them. They didn’t want us to work while we attended college. They wanted our focus to be on our studies . Somehow, we all seem to recognize the value of a dollar. They instilled that in us while still cushioning us from many of life’s hardships.

When I look at this picture, I think of how it all comes down to this: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

Genealogy tools, The other side of the family

Not much going on in India … apparently

My grandfather was not someone who read novels. He read the newspaper, the writings of Watchman Nee, the Bible and the financial news. I got him a Larry McMurtry book for Christmas one year, thinking he might relate to books written about his native Texas. I doubt he ever cracked it open.

He was a letter writer, as evidenced by the beautiful letters he wrote my grandmother when they were courting. A postcard writer? Not so much.

At some point, he went to India and mailed a postcard to his folks back home outside Snyder, Texas. Here’s what he had to say:

I laughed when I read this. India seems like a long way to go for a boy from Snyder. His parents visited Mexico but never crossed an ocean. Yet, he didn’t have a word to spare about the sights he experienced. Maybe they were just dazzled by the photograph.

But it also reminded me how important postcards and letters used to be. I still go the post office before trips and buy postcard stamps. However, I often have trouble finding postcards to buy. We’re so busy texting and posting on social media that we forget those things aren’t as permanent as a postcard that can be displayed among the family photos in an album.

If you go through family photos and see a postcard, admire the pretty picture but flip it over and read the back. Maybe your relatives had a little more to say than mine did.

Riddles

Here comes the bride …

If you’ve lived in Louisiana most of your life (like I have), you’ve probably heard of Fonville Winans. He took gorgeous black-and-white photographs of Louisiana’s swamps and people while working construction.

What I didn’t know is that he took bridal portraits from the 1940s to the 1980s. The Louisiana State Museum has the collection, and they’ve been posting these beautiful photos online in hopes of identifying the brides (always label your photos). A number of them have been identified (it’s a small state), but three still don’t have names. Anyone recognize these beautiful brides?

The other side of the family

The funeral of Bobbie Joe Herrington

Here’s Bobbie Joe – who died at 17. His girlfriend is next to him.

We were going through photographs for my grandfather’s funeral, when I came across a set of photos I forgot even existed.

Suddenly I was transported back to my 15-year-old self sitting in my great grandparents’ farmhouse living room outside Snyder, Texas. Bored – and perplexed at the fact that their TV had exactly three channels (and two of those were fuzzy) – I picked up a photo album, flipped through the pages of people looking very stiff and stern, and halted at black-and-white snapshots of a funeral. These were almost paparazzi-style shots, and I couldn’t quite understand why they even existed. Who takes photos at a funeral and puts them in the family photo album?

The story I was told was a sad one, although it doesn’t answer who took the photos or why.

My grandfather’s Aunt Maud married James Monroe Herrington at 17. Their only child was born two years later. Bobbie Joe was handsome, boasted a slim waist and rocked a cowboy hat. Sadly, he died of blocked bowels at age 17 in 1936. My grandfather would’ve been 5 at the time.

Happy Bobbie Joe as a baby with a cousin.

It’s tough to lose a child. It’s not the way things are supposed to go, and this was Aunt Maud’s only child. There would be no grandchildren or great-grandchildren for her to enjoy. Have I mentioned that she lived to be 97? That just seems cruel.

My grandmother said Aunt Maud remained a happy person despite her heartache. She ended up in Fort Worth, where she offered a guest room to any family member passing through town.

Bobbie Joe was buried in Stephens County, Texas. The inscription on his headstone is “He was the sunshine of our home.”

Cemeteries

Visiting the dead

Bailey greatly enjoyed her visit to the Plattenville cemetery.

Among the odder things I’ve learned during endless amounts of time at home during the pandemic: There’s a travel forum discussion about whether it’s taboo to drink martinis in cemeteries.

When I saw the thread, I instantly knew what the inspiration was. It’s been years since I read “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” but I vividly remember the scene in which an old woman mixes up a silver shaker of martinis and heads to the cemetery for an afternoon sit. It’s one of the few things I do remember about the book. Long-term memory has never been my strength.

This marker is leaning for some reason.

However, I can understand the desire to spend a lazy afternoon wandering a cemetery. I don’t bring a martini shaker with me, but I always enjoy looking at the markers and wondering about the people buried there. Those markers tell a lot of stories, from women who died with their babies in childbirth to young men who went off to war and returned home in a wooden box.

This tomb looks like a little house. Some tombs actually have doors.

Quite often, I bring the dog with me. And I do wonder if that’s taboo. She trots down the rows and gazes longingly at the woods or the cane fields (depending on which cemetery I’ve chosen). I let her run around to her heart’s content until she forgets herself and jumps onto a whitewashed vault. Then the leash goes back on and we go home.

It’s a good idea to visit cemeteries. A virtual visit to findagrave is useful but not the same.

Cemeteries are like little villages, especially in Louisiana, which is famed for burying the dead above the ground (we’re slowly sinking into the Gulf of Mexico). To me, our above ground tombs look like little houses. They’re fascinating.

This family clearly was very loved.

My husband comes from a farming family. Because land was in abundance, they have a family cemetery on part of the farm. He used to wander the cemetery as a child and developed a fascination with a grave decorated with marbles.

In New Orleans, you can take tours to visit the more famous cemeteries. A tour is actually a good idea. People have been robbed in these cemeteries. Welcome to New Orleans.

Bailey lost her head a bit looking at the cane fields behind this grave.

I tend to visit cemeteries in Plattenville and Gibson, where family members are buried. One of these days, if I ever win the lottery, I’ll fix the crumbling family tomb in Plattenville and put a marker that lists everyone interred in it.

For now, I just wander the aisles and put flowers on my grandparents’ graves while the dog dreams of chasing field mice.

Cemeteries don’t have to be a sad place, even if you forget your martini shaker at home.

Uncategorized

Keep in touch – even if it’s through Zoom

The picture above is from the last Zoom call we had with my 89-year-old grandfather. He collapsed a few minutes later and died that night of an aneurysm.

We were joking about my background, which is of the journalism building at LSU. Granddaddy joked that we’d upgraded our house to a mansion. Hours later, he was gone.

Granddaddy had lymphoma, although that’s not what killed him. One of my frustrations with the stay-at-home order is I knew we needed to stay away from my elderly grandparents. That’s a tough restriction when a doctor’s just given your loved one two years – at best – to live.

Fortunately, we thought of Zoom. Soon, we had the entire family chatting from Louisiana, Arizona, Virginia and Texas. We got to do two calls, and I cherish them.

My point is: Don’t let this virus keep you from talking to your relatives and seeing their faces. In today’s age of Zoom calls and FaceTime, social distancing doesn’t mean distancing yourself from communication.