Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Live Your Fortune

For-tune n. 6. fate; lot; destiny; whatever my fortune may be.

I listen intently as my two sisters and oldest niece talk with Mom. They ask about her early memories and family history. Mom, then 78, did her best to answer all their questions, although the conversation was far-ranging and complicated. She said that around 1912, when she was 6 or 7 years old, a gypsy woman came to her house offering to tell her mother’s fortune - in exchange for some food, of course. Her mother said, “No. I live my fortune, whatever it’s gonna be.” She then took the woman out to her barn, gave her several chickens (alive, no doubt), some eggs, and a pound of homemade butter. Mom insisted those gypsies “...robbed the neighborhood blind”, but never touched her house because her mother always gave them something to eat.

I switch off the small Walkman and contemplate what I’ve just heard. The conversation took place 26 years ago, thankfully recorded by my niece. I had not known of its existence until a time when we discussed the family research I’ve been doing and she offered to send me the tape.

I try to look beyond the stereotypes of the era to catch a glimpse of the women one and two generations ago. Mom has been gone for 22 years and I knew very little of my Grandma. We lived far apart and I only remember visiting her once or twice - she never came to see us. My dim memories of her are not pleasant ones and she died when I was 7.

But with the passing of years, and older family members, I became curious about a number of people and events in the past. Bit by bit, my efforts have slowly divulged birth dates, places of origin, occupations, migrations and offspring. It’s been a tangled web, to put it mildly.

Grandma was born in Illinois in 1878, followed by one sister two years later. In 1880, her family traveled by train to a coal mining camp in Montana, where her father could work. He later died of pneumonia, leaving his widow alone to raise the children. Her mother stayed on in the camp, ran a boarding house, worked as a cook. I can only imagine how rough it was there - winter snows blocked the doorways; Liver-eatin’ Johnson and Calamity Jane frequented the area.

Grandma had her first child at 14 or 15 (probably out of wedlock), married, had a second child at 18. Her husband was abusive and, although they lived on an isolated ranch, she somehow found the strength to leave him. By 1900 her family had moved to Helena, where she supported herself and two small children by working as a cook and housekeeper. She was all of 21. She divorced her abusive husband, met and married my Grandpa. They had a baby boy who died at two weeks of age; he had been named after Grandma's father and her then husband, my Grandpa. Four more children followed, the oldest of whom was my mother. Sadly, this marriage also ended and she continued to help support her large family by raising chickens and running a dairy. She later raised at least one grandchild. Surely, Grandma knew what it was to be ostracized, poor, and hungry.

But there was something else - Grandma was a devoted Christian. Her children were baptized and my mother attended a catholic school. I believe she also knew God and I’m sure He saw her through a lot. I’ve heard the stories - she always found something to give.

 Crusty and tough as she was, I wish I’d known my Grandma better. I now think I have at least some understanding of her and the legacy she left. Thanks to you, Grandma, and Mom who followed - I live my fortune, whatever it’s gonna be.

The Lord will keep you from all harm -
he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.
Psalm 121:7-8

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for pulling together several family stories into a cohesive whole. Told this way, it's a very powerful story.