Storytelling is an art that has always been a way to share personal or meaningful experiences, motivate action, entertain, inspire ideas and inform listeners.
I have personally witnessed the power of forgiveness that came from sharing my Granny's story with my father. With pain and heart ache there is often judgment and we are usually quick to condemn without fully knowing the circumstances.
My mother was abandon by her mother (my Granny) when she was only six years old. After she married my father, my Granny would often call and ask my mother for help in various forms. Even though my father was a generous and loving man, he did not have these feelings toward Granny. He was angry at the pain my mother had experienced from being abandoned and wanted to protect her. I remember my mother saying she would visit and help Granny but there were limits on what my father felt Granny deserved. Granny eventually took her own life when I was still a child. I felt compassion for her and believed there was more to her story.
As a child I was always fascinated as I would sit at the feet of my elders and listen intently to their stories. Being naturally inquisitive I wanted to know more details and background about Granny. As an adult in my thirties, I ventured to Pocatello, Idaho to locate Granny’s older sister Gene to ask if she could tell me more about this heartbreaking story.
Granny’s name was Sally. She left my grandfather and my mother when my mother was just six years old and moved to California searching for a better life. My mother didn’t see her much while growing up. Sally would occasionally visit in the summertime and my mother said she was always struck by how beautiful her mother was. It’s true; Sally was a beautiful woman who was always searching for love.
Sally was the ninth child born to her parents in 1912. They lived on a ranch near Lava Hot Springs, Idaho that was owned by my great grandfather’s brother. They helped to farm the land and in return they had food and a place to live. My great grandparents never did own their own land or even a home of their own.
"It was a cold February day in 1919, just one week before Sally’s seventh birthday when her mother went into labor with their thirteenth child. It had snowed the night before and Sally’s mother had gone outside to try to clear a path to the barn when she started to bleed. Because of the deep snow, they couldn’t reach a doctor to get help. Not that it would have made any difference. Sally’s mother had had one baby after another; sixteen pregnancies in all. The first baby when she was only fourteen years old. She had been torn from the deliveries and now at 39 years old her body was worn out. As she lay in bed with several patch work quilts on top of her, she shivered with the cold. Her eyes were half closed and she moaned with each contraction as it came.
Sally’s big brown eyes filled with tears as she walked next to the casket with her older brothers and sisters. As the pine casket was placed on the ground beside the open grave, Sally slowly raised her hands up on the casket and gently brushed the snow off a corner of her mother’s casket. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She felt afraid and confused. Sally didn’t understand all that had happened to her mother – only that she was gone.
Even though it was early May, a light snow had fallen on the ground outside. Sally sat at the wooden table eating a bowl of cold lumpy mush that was leftover from dinner the night before. Gene, the oldest daughter still living at home, had prepared the mush with the few ingredients they had left in the house. The chair creaked as it skidded across the wooden floor as Sally tried to push herself away from the table.
“I can’t eat this anymore, it tastes like the paste we use at the old school house!” cried Sally.
I don’t have nothin’ else to feed ya, now eat a few more bites so ya don’t get too hungry later on today!” retorted Gene.
Gene wiped her hands on her apron and grunted as she lifted baby Phillip from the high chair.
“You’re getting to be a big boy Phillip, you’re almost two years old and you already eat more than your sister Marci.”
Marci smiled shyly as she pushed her bowl away after taking only a few bites.
“I not eat it cause it tastes yucky!” said Marci.
“Now see what you’ve done,” said Gene to Sally.
“Marci won’t eat her breakfast either!”
Gene sat down on one of the mismatched chairs that were arranged around the kitchen table. She put her head in her hands and started to cry. She could feel the children’s eyes on her. They seldom saw her cry. Gene tried to be strong for the little ones, but watching them go hungry was more than she could stand.
Gene had thoughts of despair, “I don’t know how we’re gonna have enough food to eat. Daddy is gone all day and only comes home late at night to go to bed. He doesn’t say two words to us, let alone bring home somethin’ for us to eat. What am I gonna do for food?”
In between her sobs she told the younger children how worried she was about their Daddy.
“It‘s been two months now since mamma died and I’ve never seen Daddy so beside himself.”
Gene decided she would talk to Daddy tonight.
Getting up at five in the morning with Phillip, grinding the last of the wheat to make bread, stoking the fire in the wood stove, caring for the younger children, scrubbing soiled diapers, milking the neighbor’s cow, mending the holes in her dress, chipping more wood for the stove, cooking the mush, scrubbing the floors, beating the rugs, was a full day for a grown woman and yet at twelve years old, Gene had taken over the household responsibilities almost without a second thought.
Gene’s head fell forward as she collapsed into a deep sleep in the rocking chair while waiting for her Daddy to come home that night. She had tried to stay awake, but she was exhausted. It was very late that night when Daddy came into the house. He hadn’t seen Gene asleep in the rocking chair. He quietly stepped into the bedroom where the children were sleeping, picked up a blanket and wrapped it around Marci. Next, he got another blanket and wrapped it around Phillip. Then he walked over and opened the front door. The cold night air chilled the room and brought Gene out of a deep sleep. She reluctantly opened her eyes to see her Daddy carrying out something wrapped in a dark blanket. Gene thought that she must be dreaming at first, and then she saw her Daddy come back into the house and carry out another bundle wrapped in a blanket.
With all of the courage Gene could muster, she got up out of the rocking chair and followed Daddy outside. Gene couldn’t remember the last time she really had a talk with her Daddy. Mamma always worked things out with Daddy on behalf of the children. Now she felt nervous as she stepped outside onto the front porch of their two room farm house. Daddy seemed to be in a hurry as he situated the two bundles on some hay in the back of the wagon. He didn’t even notice Gene standing there. The wind was whistling and howling as it blew the shudders on the house back and forth. It was then that Gene heard a faint cry that sounded like Phillips voice. She turned back to go inside the house to check on Phillip when she heard the same cry a second time. She then realized the sound was coming from the wagon. Gene spun around on her heels just in time to see a little head peek out from underneath the blankets in the back of the wagon.
“Daddy, where we goin’?” a little voice asked. It was Marci!
What was she doing in the wagon? Gene started to run toward the wagon.
“Daddy, wait!” called Gene.
“Marci is in the wagon!”
Daddy climbed into the wagon and picked up the reins. He mumbled something about Phillip and Marci, but Gene didn’t understand what he was saying.
“Wait Daddy, I can’t hear you!” Gene franticly screamed.
Gene heard the cracking of a whip and the horsed hooves pick up speed as she ran toward the wagon. Breathless, Gene cried out,
“Wait, Daddy, why are you doing this?”
Gene helplessly watched as the wagon disappeared out of sight. Tears streamed down her face. What was happening? She shivered as she walked back into the house, bewildered at what had just taken place. She was cold and numb.
“Why would Daddy take Marci and Phillip out in the middle of the night?” Gene asked herself.
She didn’t have the answers. She slowly walked into the house, closed the door behind her, threw herself down onto the bed and cried herself to sleep.
Seventy-six years later Gene reluctantly shared the details with me of this heart breaking night when her daddy took Marci and Phillip away and gave them up for adoption; the wounds were still fresh in her heart. It was fourteen years later before Gene saw Marci again. Twenty-two years before she saw Phillip.
Their daddy moved away shortly after that night and left Sally and Gene on their own. Gene was twelve and Sally only seven years old.
“Once in a while daddy would stop by to see us,” Gene told me, “but he never did bring us food or money or nothin’.”
Eventually, Sally and Gene were placed into foster homes. Back then, it meant you did mostly housework to earn your keep with the foster family. Sally married my grandfather George when she was sixteen years old.
Three months after I met with Gene to learn more of these details, she passed away. I am very grateful I was able to meet with her when I did. Even though she was reluctant to share the painful details of this story it shed light on more about Granny and helped us to better understand her. When I wrote this story and shared it with my father he said through his tears, “If I would have known this I wouldn’t have been so hard on her.”
My father’s heart was softened when he knew more about Sally’s childhood. Knowing more about her pain and her story allowed us to forgive and feel compassion towards her. This often happens when we come to understand the details of a life’s journey.
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