In The Albuquerque Years, I write of visits to Aunt Phoebe. She wasn't a biological aunt, but she and Uncle Wayne more or less adopted my mother's father, giving him a job and a place to live when he was a vagabond (aka homeless) teenager in southern New Mexico. My grandfather worked for Uncle Wayne for many years, and even after he and my grandmother were married, they lived on the Crowder's property for a few years. So, in truth, they were more family than most of the relatives.
Anyway, as a small child, I wasn't terribly aware of ages, except for Aunt Phoebe's mother, Ma Plowman, who lived with them. To me as a preschooler, Ma was a scary old hag who chewed tobacco and used a spittoon, wobbled on her cane when she walked, only had a few teeth, and ... you get the picture. I did not want to be around Ma!
As I wrote The Albuquerque Years and began thinking more deeply about the Crowder family's relationship to mine, I realized that Aunt Phoebe was probably old enough to be my mother's grandmother, and my perception that Ma was “about a hundred years old” may not be too far from the truth.
Given all of today's instant research tools that live at my very fingertips, I checked it out. I quickly found Aunt Phoebe's genealogy data, and learned that she was, in fact, seventeen years older than my grandmother, so she was around sixty when I knew her (my maternal generations were quite short). Although she didn't smoke a pipe, she did generally have a cigarette hanging from her lip, and the cartoon character of Mammy Yokum (are you old enough to remember Al Capp's L'il Abner comic strip?) comes to mind. Aunt Phoebe was tough, wiry, sort of feisty, and always busy doing something.
Ma was not quite as old as I thought. She was only in her mid-eighties. She ultimately lived to be ninety-six. I also learned another stunning fact: Ma had a name! Her name was Alice. What a difference that makes in my mind. Alice is a name I can relate to. It's real. People named Alice have minds, and personalities, and stories to tell. I had never, even until now, thought about that.
Names and stories. How important they are. I don't think Ma ever told her story, and if she did, I never heard it. If my mother had known Ma's story and told it to me, she could have turned Ma into a genuine person for me (perhaps even for herself), and I might have appreciated the old crone. I might have learned something. Even a name would have helped.
We must tell our own stories, and we must tell the stories of others. If you don't tell your own story, who will? Of course you know I advocate writing your story, but if you can't write it, or won't, then for sure tell it. Tell it often, so people don't forget. It could matter.
Sharon Lippincott, aka Ritergal