While I wasn’t paying attention, my family slipped away. Family. I have lost the single most important value I was taught as a child. Blood kin. If we stick together, we will be fine, was our mantra. The realization of loss almost overwhelmed me. I suppose I was so distracted by events in my own life the obvious changes escaped my notice.
I come from a matriarchal way of life. Oh, the men were supposedly in charge – they always got to eat first at family gatherings, but the real power base was in the women, and everyone knew it even if it wasn’t openly acknowledged.
The Ozarks are an odd blend of cultures, but the primary flavor is that of the mid-south mountains and a smattering of the deep south for spice. Even more specific is the culture of McDonald County, Missouri. It is unique – geologically, hydrologically, culturally and has a strong belief in who belonged and who didn’t. Furriners were viewed with extreme suspicion. Possibly because during the Civil War, the few people who clung to their land learned early on not to inquire about which side was passing through. It was a lose-lose situation. Too much risk that if newcomers saw you as an “enemy”, they had the right to kill, rape and pillage. Located in the extreme SW corner of Missouri, it was the end of “civilization” for a very long time. Its western border was based on the termination of the extension of the Mason-Dixon Line. Beyond that lay Indian Territory, I.T. or “The Territory” as it was locally known. The location next to the end of the Mason-Dixon line, made it physically a part of the North, but the culture was inclined toward the South. This led to an especially horrific situation that sometimes split families apart. In 1860, the Presidential election showed an almost equal divide in sympathy. It is interesting to note that of the 541 votes cast for four candidates, Abraham Lincoln got only 3. The remaining votes were almost half and half for the North and South. It was a perfect setup for the trouble coming in 1861.
The center of our universe was my maternal grandmother, Mary Willie Watkins Bunch. We called her Granny in the English tradition. More specifically, she was Granny Bunch to differentiate her from my other grandmothers - the long-dead and somewhat saintly, Grandma Babe and her replacement, Grandma Annie who was tolerated, but no one really liked. To me, she was evil personified for the way she treated my Daddy when he was a child. I was always polite and well-behaved when Mom and I visited her (After all, she lived next door. We could hardly ignore her presence) but I was always leery. She was enormously fat, more than 300 pounds, I’m sure, moved very little, and wore her ebony black hair in braids pinned on the top of her head. Her dresses were shapeless calico that she made herself as nothing store-bought would have encompassed her vast size. She was also a bit pretentious and prone to make statements that stuck like “you must dress according to your station” or that dress is too Balmoral (pronounced BAL-more-Al) meaning it was too fussy and overdone. Where that expression came from, I will never know. She was an American Indian not English Royalty.
To say that my family was close-knit would be an understatement. One year when my brother-in-law Earl Spears was running for Sheriff, his opponent campaigned in Pineville. He started at the south end of town and met my mom visiting Aunt Etta. Six blocks north, he stopped at Mom and Daddy’s home. My Mom was there to greet him. He worked his way up the street and started back south. By this time, Mom was at Aunt Fannie’s house. I think he must have blanched a bit. While he stopped at the next house, my mom walked past and when he got to the next house, where my Daddy’s sister, Florence lived, Mom was there. I think he gave up the election at that point. Clearly, he was haunted. Earl won the election handily.
Granny Bunch was a constant part of my young life. As the youngest child of Granny’s youngest child, I was glued to my mother’s hip most of my early years. Mom and her sisters, Etta and Fanny gathered with Granny several times a week. Granny was a soft, doughy woman in my memory. The toughness that had held her together as a farm wife, mother of seven, and many tragedies had mellowed her into a plump cheery lady who was always game. If someone was going someplace, she was ready to go along. She occasionally chewed tobacco and once was a pipe smoker. I was shocked to see her smoke a cigarette when one of my older, more worldly cousins offered her one.
The women might meet at our house in the summer when they could sit on the porch and visit, but in the winter, they met at Granny’s, Aunt Etta’s, or Aunt Fanny’s. It was understood that my Daddy didn’t like a lot of chatter, so they stayed out of his way. He preferred to read or listen to the radio. They would spend the evening talking, sewing, or making candy. Activities that they shared with good humor. It wasn’t a duty; it was just understood that they wanted to be together. I was a fly on the wall. Sometimes they would forget I was there, and I would learn a juicy bit of information that I held tight. I knew not to tell. Some things just seep into your skin. I rarely made a mistake by failing to obey the unspoken family rules. The women, like their men, were good storytellers and especially relished “dirty” jokes. When I read Vance Randolph’s Pissin’ in the Snow years later, I had heard about half of the stories from my aunts years before.
Family history and current events were shared with equal fervor. I learned about the trials and strengths and how they survived by working together and sharing what they had. No one was going to starve in this family.
1) the family was a unit (we referred to ourselves as “the clan”) 2) you don’t share your dirty laundry to outsiders. 3) if something went amiss – a divorce, a baby born on the wrong side of the blanket, an early marriage, we hunkered down and made the best of it. Never discussed, but always in the undercurrent that ruled our behavior. Now that the generation before me and most of my peers are gone, it is a lonely and difficult time. In other eras, I would have become a matriarch, but today everyone spins in his own orbit with little connection. It makes me sad.