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Family pictures, for Memorial Day
Sasha Blaze
Behind the cut, because it's long.

My father's people were respectable, on both sides: stonemasons and farmers and railroad engineers. The old family pictures of the Vogels and Pattons were taken in professional studios, in town, with ferns and fancy backdrops to prove that the family had good taste as well as some money to spare. The daughters wore crisp white shirtwaists and tied their hair back with wide satin ribbons. The sons wore dark buttoned-up Sunday suits, and their hair was sleeked back within an inch of its life. The worst family scandal in several generations was that my grandfather ran away to Arkansas in a brief and futile attempt to avoid having to marry my grandmother. The children were grown before a word was breathed of any of this, and apparently my uncle, the reason for the whole situation, took the news so badly that he joined the Air Force.

Well, all right, there was Cousin Benny, who regularly sat at the kitchen table and said "KILL 'EM" to no one in particular. But he was only half-Vogel.

My mother's people were, as she always put it, outlaws. The one photograph I have of her mother's family was taken against the peeling side of a barn, by a traveling man with a camera. There are too many children for prosperity, and everyone down to the baby is work-worn and grimy. No, I take that back: grown sisters Evvie and Mabel washed their faces and combed their hair for the picture man, and made their husbands do the same. But their parents, and the young ones, didn't have the time or take the time or see any reason to make such a fuss. The Robinson boys worked in the mines--Ozark foothills strip mines, not deep-shaft, but deadly all the same. Ten years later, during the Depression, their widowed father would wind up in the county poor farm for a while.

Brother Buck Robinson went off to the War--the first one--but cried so hard every night in the barracks at Fort Leonard Wood that the army sent him the hundred miles home again. (His headstone lists him as a veteran, even so, and the Legion or the Vee or whoever does these things faithfully puts a flag on his grave every Memorial Day.) Either before or after the enlistment episode, Buck married Mattie Lively, who was always called Bird, and who already had a boy Jimmie by some man named Holt, to whom presumably she had been married, though no one ever seemed quite sure about that. Jimmie Holt was a star football player at the high school. One afternoon in 1931, during football practice, a bad storm blew up, fast; the coach told the boys to lie down at the edge of the field, because there was no time to run for shelter. The small tornado picked up the scoreboard and slammed it down on the football team where they lay shielding their heads with their arms. Jimmie was killed instantly, the only death from that freak storm. He is buried at the north end of the Lively plot, in a tiny overgrown cemetery that you have to know already if you mean to find it. Bird and Buck are off to the side, not in with the Livelys and Huddlestons; I have the impression that the clan washed their hands of her when she took on Buck. But the Livelys are long gone, and the Huddlestons too, and it's the tail-end of Buck's niece's family who puts flowers on their graves. Bird and Buck's son Clayton, who went off to Chicago and never looked back, didn't even come home for his mother's funeral. He let her be buried in a pine box, by the county, and he never did admit that he stole the clock that rightfully belonged to his aunt Vina's only daughter.

The third-youngest Robinson sister, Ethel, ran a filling station with one of the men she lived with. When he went back to his wife, Ethel ran the station by herself with some help from her sisters, and after quite a bit of effort and good cooking she managed to marry a Dutchy-talking but reliable man named Astor Greenzweig. (Astor had come to town from God-knows-where to work at the sawmill, and he roomed across the highway from the filling station.) The two youngest Robinson sisters, Edith and Vina, were inseparable--they drank and danced and picked up men together, married and separated and worked at the ammunition plant during the war (the second one), and died much younger than they should have from hard living and harder lives. They are buried side by side in the most intensely respectable part of the respectable town cemetery, where no one else in the family was ever laid. Vina's daughter saw to that.

There aren't any pictures at all of Vina's husband's people. Even the dirt-poor Robinsons had their picture taken, but not the drifting Cumleys who came from "over in Missouri." All I have of the Cumleys are stories.

Sam, my grandfather, married Vina in the Twenties; he would sing to her, after the baby was born:

Just Viney and me,
And baby makes three,
We're happy in
my blue heaven

His name was really Levies Lyon, though his headstone just says "Lyon Cumley." He refused to use the Levies part, because that was his father's name, and the two of them brawled as long as they both lived. Sam was a little banty rooster of a man--like Jimmy Cagney--and he had a banty rooster's flash-fire temper. (He loved pie and the news, just about equally well. He would sit in the kitchen eating pie and listening to the radio and reading a book, all at the same time.) His mother, Lucy Ellen (born Lyon), was kind and patient and self-effacing; she dropped dead at her granddaughter's bedside while feeding her an orange, as the little girl recovered from pneumonia. After Lucy Ellen died, the old man took up with a woman named Nora Dameron, who had poisoned at least one husband already. With arsenic, in the coffee. (She was gotten off by a smart lawyer named Payne Ratner, who would go on to be governor of Kansas, and who built the big white mansion on the edge of Parsons, but that's another set of stories.) When Sam found out that his father was carrying on with Nora Dameron, he threw the old man's mattress and all his clothes out the second-story window of the house they were rooming in. Right onto the street. The old man went with Nora Dameron anyway, but was smart enough to leave her when the coffee started tasting funny. His third wife, Minnie, was a decent soul, and managed to outlive him; he is buried between Lucy Ellen and Minnie, with Sam on the other side, right next to the road in a tidy little country cemetery in the middle of nowhere. Years later, Nora Dameron had herself buried--under the name of Cumley; the nerve!--catty-cornered across from the cluster of them. Keeping an eye on the one who got away.

Before Sam was thirty, he left Vina and little Edith Ellen for good, and went over the state line to Joplin, and got himself into a poker game one night. He won, too. Only when he was found hanging in the hotel room, and the Joplin police called it suicide, none of the money was anywhere to be found.

Vina always said Sam didn't have the guts to kill himself, anyway.

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I really, really loved reading this, Cynthia. Thank you so much for posting it.

*teary hugs*

*hugs back*

And I'm barely even warmed up. The beauty of being a late-surprise only child is that you get to sit in the corner and color with Crayolas while the grownups tell stories. ^_^

This feels as though you are leading us into Sherwood Anderson territory ... or perhaps, even better, Alan Gurganis territory (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All - one of my all-time favourite books). I'm ready to settle in. I love stories in which there are people of ambiguous moral constitution.

It's good to put this down, and I'm really glad you shared it with us.

I much preferred eaves-dropping on grown-ups to playing with other munchkins.

Well, of course the wonderful thing about families is that the respectable side isn't, really--they just keep up appearances a little more efficiently. There's a reason why my great-grandparents on the Patton side are buried eighty miles apart . . .

But first I have to tell the postscript to the Nora Dameron story. About a year before my mother died, she got a letter out of the blue from a woman who wrote to say, "Nora Cumley [sic] was my great-grandmother, and after a long genealogy search, I've learned that you are her granddaughter, so you must be my mother. I can't wait to meet you and learn all about my real family, and find out why you gave me up when I was a baby!" Mom absolutely freaked out; it took me an entire evening on the phone to calm her down. In the end, she sent a very curt, stiffly-worded reply, explaining the complete absence of blood relationship, and wishing the woman luck in finding her real mother . . . but leaving out all the fun arsenic and mattress-throwing stuff, darn it. And then Mom spent the next few months twitching every time the phone or doorbell rang, because she was convinced that the woman was some kind of crazy stalker.

Of course neither of us ever heard from the woman again, but how weird was that?

I can't help myself, because it's hard me keeping all the proper relationships in my head (this is a big reason why, love 'em though I do, I tend to avoid Victorian-era Russian novels), but my reading would benefit from one of those flow-charty type genealogical trees. You've got time for that, right?

Sometime I will! And I do want to scan and upload the old pictures sometime, too, just because they're so cool--the contrast between the two prosperous families and the poor one is wonderful.

Somewhere I have a blurry early-1920s snapshot of The Girls, Edith and Vina, in cloche hats and short dresses; their faces don't show, but the attitude is all there.

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I do so love the mental picture of this furious little man heaving the mattress onto the windowsill and out, yelling the whole time. Just throwing the old man's clothes wouldn't have made enough of a point, now would it?

Actually, now that I've written it down, I have a qualm: was it out the window, or down the stairs? The mattress and clothes wound up outside on the street, that I'm sure of (because Mom vividly remembered seeing them scattered on the concrete). And I suppose the story works just as well either way.

Well, all right, there was Cousin Benny, who regularly sat at the kitchen table and said "KILL 'EM" to no one in particular. But he was only half-Vogel.

this part made me LOL

Oh cynthia I wish you'd turn this into a book - this is awesome in every sense of the word. What a HISTORY!! I have to come back later today and read this again.

I'm kinda thinking I should, too . . . but I need to wait until after the last cousins of my parents' generation are gone. They wouldn't like having some of the stories told, especially if I didn't get the details absolutely letter-perfect from THEIR point of view, you know?

Poor Benny. He scared one of my uncle Jerry's high-school buddies so much that the kid ran out of the house and never came back. And yet, despite whatever was wrong with him (schizophrenia? I kinda think so), he managed to marry a very pretty woman from Kansas City, who took care of him until he died. I could never understand why; Mom always said flatly, "Dde came down here and saw money," but Benny certainly didn't have any of it.

Yes, she went by "Dde." I never understood that, either.

how does one say "Dde"...? dee-dee? or more like d-duh


"Deed." No kidding. Sometimes I heard people say "Deedee," but not very often--she was always "Deed," and called herself that, too. Tall, black-haired, good-looking woman. It never made any sense to me at all.

okay so why didn't she spell it Deed then? if she didn't want people calling her dee-dee...

yeah i'm beating a dead horse, but I have a pet peeve on "regular" names spelled an odd way. I knew a girl named Lisa who spelled it Leeza and spent a lifetime correcting people.

It's a mystery. Dde never minded being called Deedee, as far as I could tell, but it just wasn't her default. Now I wonder what her real name was--I mean, it couldn't possibly have been Dde--but was it Deborah, or Doris, or . . . ?? There's nobody left who would know.

Maybe Deirdre...that has the deed sound in it, plus two d's and an e.

This was really cool, Cynthia...thanks for sharing it!

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