April 16th, 2010

Grandma Alice

Her name was Dora Alice from her English ancestors and if you say it quickly it sounds like the Mexican pronunciation of dos reales. Grandma said that according to her name she was worth two bits (25 cents) for that was the value of dos reales in the South West. She said it laughingly and although I was only seven, I knew that her worth couldn’t be counted like that. She wasn’t just my Grandma; everybody called her “Grandma,” even old lady Sattersby who was older than anyone. One day she received a letter addressed only to “Grandma, Yava, Arizona.”

Yava was a small cluster of houses around a post office and a two-roomed school.  A creek ran through the rocky hills, the beginnings of the distant mountains that surrounded the little valley which was like an oasis after climbing out of the dessert. The post office was the center for sharing local news as well as for picking up the Phoenix paper. The postman knew everyone in the area and there were other women whose grandchildren had moved away and might be writing. The fact that a letter addressed to “Grandma” had been delivered to her by the Postal Department of the United States Government was an official confirmation of her title of “Grandma.” Although I never knew who sent the letter or what it said, I heard the story many times of how it had actually been delivered.

At times when relatives or neighbors would come to call they would sit in the cool of the late afternoon on the porch of Grandma’s little gray stone house. My brother, John, and I would linger nearby, whittling on sticks or playing with hollyhock dolls, to listen to the grown-ups talk of happenings in Washington, about which water hole on the range was drying up, and would we have an early winter. They relived and shared memories, recent or long past.

Many times I heard people ask Grandma if it were true that she had only weighed a pound and a quarter at birth. She would bring out the little red sunbonnet she had worn when she was a year old and tell of how her first bed had been a cotton padded cigar box. We would each measure the little hat with a fist and try to imagine such a such a small little toddler. She was considered an unusual person first of all, because of her survival; and as she was then well past sixty it seemed to be even more amazing. Now-a-days we are unimpressed by such for we have been insulated from the brutality of nature’s sorting out the fit.

Tenacity, then, set the pattern for her life which began in Illinois on January 20, 1861. The family moved to Texas, because her father thought his wife’s health would benefit from a warmer climate. Alice was seven when her mother died of tuberculosis. Grandma told me she cared for her two younger brothers and that her mother had already taught her to knit, crochet and cook. She described the little stool she stood on to reach the work table. She was always small, under five feet tall, but her vitality reached far beyond her tiny form. Her hazel-grey eyes were sharp and friendly, her hair dark and very curly, her skin soft, her face small and round with a gentle chin, but clearly sculptured with the high cheek bones of her Cherokee ancestry. She liked bright colors and wore a full-length gingham apron over her long dresses. When we went Sunday visiting, she put a crocheted lace color on her dress and wore a long double strand of jet black beads. She was deliberately a lady and she knew who she was and was proud of all she was. She had a strong will and determination to control her own life.

When they would talk of the early days it seemed to me to be full of adventure, but after living a share of life myself I sense the struggle and the storm that must have characterized some of those years. Her father had remarried when she was fourteen and she couldn’t get along with her stepmother. She went to work for a neighboring family, caring for their children and tending the garden. When she worked in the fields she wore long stocking gloves and a sun-bonnet so her skin would stay white, so she would appear delicate and fragile – the fashion for young ladies.

She and Grandpa were childhood sweethearts, both strong willed and holding two different attitudes to life: that of the herdsman and that of the cultivator. He had been working for the same family as a cowboy during vacations from school. She was sixteen when they married, and in the next few years two sons were born, Ned and Bill. The Arizona Territory was opening up and they decided to settle there. Grandpa was a cattleman and his main concern was to find range for his stock. She told of being left alone for months at a time to care for their growing family while Grandpa was off on the range.

For twenty years, the herds flourished; then after an extended drought Grandpa drove many thousand cattle and hundreds of horses to Dodge City. Grandma went with him on the drive. She and the two youngest children, Bernice and Bess (five and ten years old) rode with the wagons at the rear of the caravan. Their job was to find, pick up and care for the new calves born in the course of the trip. The youngest son, Jim, was thirteen and he rode a horse with the men. The two older boys, Ned and Bill, were cowhands. The stock was sold and they bought land near Lakon where my mother was born. For several years, Grandpa worked for meat packers, buying cattle and fattening them on his land. Heavy blizzards for two successive winters put him out of business again.

Land in Arizona had become available for homesteading, so they returned to Springerville, Arizona where they had settled before. Grandma used to tell with a tone of self-satisfaction, how she decided to go into business herself. Grandpa did not approve and went on with his plan to build a new herd of cattle. She borrowed money from a distant relative, and, being a person who loved to have people around, she established a hotel.  She wanted to live in town where there was a school; above all she wanted her children to be educated. My mother has always spoken a little wistfully of “when we had the hotel” and says it was a great success until one tragic night when it burned completely. All she saved were feather pillows, which she combined into a mattress; she slept on it all the rest of her life.

Grandma was not to be defeated and began another venture, a restaurant, which she built on the same spot. It was during those years that my mother was growing up. She was helping in the restaurant when my father arrived from Boston thinking that the Arizona climate would heal his lungs; they had been damaged by mustard gas. After my mother and father were married and settled in Phoenix, Grandma and Grandpa moved to Yava. Perhaps it was to find a milder climate or perhaps it was to be near her youngest daughter.

They were already in their late sixties when my brother Joe, and I went to stay with them for a while. The little stone house was cool in summer and warm in winter and near it was a huge old tree. Several trees had grown together and there was a hollow place in the middle. The shadow of its branches covered an area with a radius of twenty feet and a bench was built under it making a cool work center for hot summer days. There, Grandpa would repair or sharpen his tools and there, Grandma would set her tubs of soapy water on washing day.

I would climb up the center of the tree where there was a stump of a sawed off branch. It was like a throne from which I could watch everything beneath the tree or in the far fields and no one would know I was there. When my cousins visited we all played a game of “pretend” in which we were black birds, each one having a special place to perch. Our chirping and giggling would become very quiet when Grandma would come to get milk out of the cooler, which was nearby in the shade or to gather her clothes and fold them on the bench.

“I wonder where the children are?” she would say. “I always know they are all right when they’re noisy. It’s when they’re quiet that I worry about them.” We would be so quiet that we would almost burst, until finally my cousin, Gwendolyn would let out a thin airy giggle, and then we would all begin to roar. “My goodness those blackbirds are making a clatter in the tree today, they probably have their eyes on my radishes. I’ll have Dad get out the shot gun when he comes home tonight.” At that we would become fearful and confess right away that it was just us.

I think that Grandma and that tree both represented security to me; remembering one brings up a picture of the other. She was always busy but never hurried; I think of her as a center of peace which she seemed able to give to others. People often dropped by to seek her advice or help. Strangers, even, traveling through, would stop, explaining that her flower garden had been such a welcome sight after miles of dry barren desert and god-forsaken rocky hills that they just couldn’t pass by without stopping. Water, freshly pumped by the windmill, was cool; and Grandma’s friendly welcoming chatter was refreshing. I would listen from my hiding place in the tree and wonder where they were going and where they had come from. Sometimes candidates for public office would stop, as they wanted her endorsement. Then for several days the issues of the coming election would be the topic of conversation whenever neighbors stopped to visit.

In the evening, we would sit at the round table in the kitchen and read or do our homework. The lamplight was a warm yellow color and made a flickering circle we all could share. Grandma was always willing to help us because she set a high value on education. It was through her efforts that there was a school in the little settlement. As a girl, geography was her favorite subject. She would trace her fingers on the shape of a country on the map and dream that she was traveling there. Such traveling was an unfulfilled fantasy but when she talked about it I thought that some time it would really happen.

There was little time for fantasy. Her life was ordered by nature and her day began with as much regularity as if she had to punch a time clock. There were animals to be fed, crops to be planted or tended or harvested. In the early dawn, Grandpa went to milk the cows while she fed the hens and fixed a hearty breakfast. He then left for the hills on his horse. Her daily activities were decided by the seasons. Rich fertile ground was wealth to her.  She explained to me the mistake that the cities like Phoenix were making by spreading across the fertile river valleys. If they woul build in the surrounding hills, there would be room for people and for crops. She tended her garden but was concerned about the broader issues.

Grandma, Dora Alice Wilkerson Reagan, lived to be ninety-four. She was living with her youngest daughter, Winnie, my mother. Wherever she was, she made new friends and continued her interest in world affairs. New inventions were exciting to her. When television was introduced she could listen to all the political speeches and see the candidates. She thought that television would make it possible for everyone to know the issues and vote wisely. She eagerly watched the travelogues of the lands she had never visited. She loved to watch wrestling; Gorgeous George was her favorite. Each day she was busy sewing for her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She asked me to bring her my mending to keep her fingers busy. She was occupied thus, working for others, the day before she died.


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