Make your own free website on Tripod.com

[Previous] [Next] [Index]

TRAGEDY

But the life, that seems to me, as I look back upon it, to have been so full of happiness, couldn't endure. My little mother began to show signs of not being able quite to carry her end of the load. I have no recollection of ever hearing her complain but it began to be apparent even to my childish mind that "Ma" was a little sick every once in a while and that gradually my grandmother, Aunt Kit and Lydia Devore were looming large in my life, whereas my mother had been everything for so long. The next thing I knew she was away; she was in Indianapolis and very sick. I didn't know then that it was for an operation but it seems to have been. Operations, even minor ones, were serious in the early eighties and the atmosphere of tense anxiety that pervaded the home was evident even to my baby consciousness. One morning I was awakened and told that my mother had come home but that she couldn't speak to me. I do not remember who it was who was thus trying to impress upon my mind the seriousness of death, without shocking me, but I vaguely recall that it was not one of the several women who were more or less intimate members of the family but some stranger; I remember how disgusted I was for her to think that I didn't know what the plain English words meant - my mother was dead. I was well prepared to see my mother in her casket but I was by no means prepared to see the look of heart-broken desolation on my father's tear-stained face, as he watched me come slowly down the stairs on the grief-laden Sunday morning.

It seems that the operation had been an entire success but that she had died (September 12, 1883) from the after effects of the ether - ether pneumonia they called it in those days, although we now know that my little mother simply died of pneumonia, contracted after the operation, due to a peculiar vulnerability to that disease on the part of ether-taking patients, a situation that seems to be well recognized now but was not suspected then.

As I look back upon it over the years, I can see quite clearly that the death of my mother was a shattering blow to the little world in which my early recollections are encompassed, but it didn't seem so then. While we boys of course missed our mother, our lives were more or less filled with women - Grandmother, Aunt Kit and Lydia Devore (she will get her paragraph in due course) - all concentrated upon holding the home together and, if possible, make it a place of happiness for us kids, despite our loss. For example, I have never had a Christmas tree, before or since, that equaled that of 1883. It is the only one in all my recollection of my childhood. Everything seems to have been done that could have been done to make that particular Christmas a happy one for us.

But the wounds of my father seem to have been more difficult to heal. He soon developed a restless dissatisfaction which rapidly crystallized into a determination to pull his life up by the roots and start anew in some other locality. Particularly, he had his eye on the (then) territory of Washington. In fact, he had his mind all made up to go there, when an old boyhood friend and college mate, John A. Hart, who had gone to Chattanooga, Tennessee, at the close of the war (in which he served), wrote to my father and suggested that, before he finally made up his mind, he ought to come to Chattanooga and look the situation over.

With my father's change in view, of which I of course knew nothing at the time, the Montpelier household was broken up and, in the spring of 1884, we boys were moved to Bluffton and established in the household of the Scotch grandmother whose brief reign over us has left such a lasting impression on my mind and perhaps my life. Of course, we visited Montpelier frequently - it was only fourteen miles away - and for a time there seemed little change in the situation there, until there came a shock in the form of the news that Pa had sold the store. After that the town never seemed the same again. Father had a little office down the street, where he was busy closing up his affairs, and I remember having a vague impression that such a little establishment was entirely unworthy of his great importance.

In February 1885, my father had liquidated his affairs in Montpelier pretty thoroughly; the store was gone; the saw-mill, etc. sold to Al Johnson; all his several farms were sold, except one; and he gathered together about $60,000 in cash and moved to the seemingly green pastures of Chattanooga, Tennessee.

There is a certain element of the irony of fate in the fact that, almost within a matter of weeks after my father had moved out of Montpelier, natural gas was discovered at Lima, Ohio - just a few miles away - and the famous but short lived Lima and Indiana Gas and Oil Field brought in. Montpelier turned out to be one of the heavy producing points, after the gas was gone and it became an oil field. It is generally conceded, by those in a position to know, that had Father not moved away, he would probably have become a millionaire. The other side of the picture is that he might have gone broke in the panic of 1893, which came about the time everyone was well spread out in that locality. An interesting detail is that he owned, at one time, several farms scattered around the vicinity of Montpelier but not a single one of them ever produced any oil. Most of his old contemporaries lived the rest of their lives on oil royalties and work was left for the younger generation to attend to. But Father was far away by then.

Late in the spring of 1885, we all visited in Chattanooga. I can identify the year because one day I asked my father how old he was and he told me he was forty-one. I said, "Gee, that's awful old; how much longer do you expect to live?" He estimated his expectancy at about forty more and I remember with what disgusted scorn my old grandmother treated that boast, when I relayed it to her. He made good, however, with something to spare - Missing ninety by only a few days - while she, poor old girl, passed away at sixty-seven.

I was dazed by the size of Chattanooga - 21,000 population, 11,000 of whom were negros - and all the wonders of the big city. I recall that my father's office was in an enormous unpainted frame building at Third and Market Streets, which, my father somewhat pridefully explained, had been built as government ware-house during the civil war. That gave it an atmosphere of hoary antiquity to me - twenty years, Gosh!

This part of my story being my father's biography and not mine, I will skip rather hastily over the three years we spent with my grandmother in Bluffton. I do remember, however, that we were thrilled by the news that came up from Tennessee; the terrible flood on the river; the murder of a street-car driver on Market Street, which my father witnessed, and the subsequent lynching of the negro murderer, which he did not see. It seemed a sort of wonderland to me.

Father returned to Indiana occasionally. We children thought that he was visiting us but later developments have lead me to think that he had a somewhat more compelling attraction than his three boys. I recall that I was somewhat stunned when he showed up without his black beard. He said he wanted to be "one of the boys" but I am afraid that the other attraction I mentioned may have had something to do with it. I worked him for a new velocipede on one of his trips - its price was seven dollars but, being thrifty he bought it for six. On one of his trips, Henry and I played what we thought was a grand good joke on him: we had him put a piece of tooth-pick, about half or three-quarters of an inch long, between his teeth and then try to say "Ash Pole". It was highly successful, from our point of view, but, as I recall, it didn't appeal to him as being exactly the kind of thing he wanted his kids to spring on him. Try it some time.

The real bomb-shell of astonishment for us came along in the early summer of 1886, when it was announced to us that Pa was going to get married again. We were naturally a little disturbed but all might have gone well, had it not been for our old (I say OLD but she was then only sixty) grandmother. Her character ran more to blood and iron than it did to sweetness and light and, with it all, she was a good hater. Early in the program, she developed a distinct dislike for Lettie Cleveland - I think that she may have had some lingering recollection of Mollie in her mind - and without really intending to prejudice us, she sewed seeds of suspicion in our young minds and, all unintentionally, had a great deal to do with the fact that, while my father's second venture into matrimony turned out to be eminently satisfactory as a marriage, Lettie didn't make a howling success as a step-mother, at least not for Henry and me.

We all went to the wedding, July 14, 1886, at the home of Frank Leonard, in North Manchester, Indiana; Frank's wife was Allie Cleveland, sister of Lettie and Mollie, etc. Henry and I were a suspicious pair of brats and, while we melted a little in the glow of Lettie's charm, we had our finger crossed. My chief recollection of the wedding is the enormous bustle that the bride wore. For years I used to kid her about it; I often told her that I was tempted to try to climb up on it and take a ride; she didn't consider my remark particularly funny.

The remaining months were spent in Bluffton and, I suppose, this was the period in which most of the unintentional mind poisoning was done. We always referred to our prospective step-mother as Lettie and so addressed her, until my father announced, rather emphatically, that when we were established in Chattanooga, he expected us to begin to call her "Ma". This appealed to us vaguely as a violation of something sacred but we didn't rebel - rebellion against my father just wasn't within the frame of our comprehension. "Mother" wouldn't have meant very much to us one way or the other and "Mamma" would have been regarded by us as sissy, but "Ma" just didn't appeal. I often think that, this matter of "Ma" was the most devastating. As I look back upon it, I am surprised that my father didn't sense it; perhaps he did and just ignored it as kid stuff; I really think I could have loved the woman whole-heartedly as Lettie but as Ma it just couldn't be. We were obedient and always called here "Ma" but the word stuck in my throat many a time.

[Previous] [Next] [Index]