The Bessie I Knew
What I remember of Bessie is that she didn't have a middle name. She chewed tobacco. She adored and was extremely serious about WWF-style wrestling. She was superstitious to the extreme and was also very serious about that. She had long hair that she wore in a bun for as long as I can remember. She seemed ancient to me although she was only 78 when she died. She seemed rough toward the other great-grandkids but I always felt like I was her favorite and thought she was nicer to me than to the others. (Maybe all her great-grandkids felt this way, I don't know.) She always made handmade Christmas presents and I still have the last homemade Christmas gift I remember her giving me.
My most vivid memory of her had to have happened not long before her death when she lived with my grandparents. I was walking around my Mam's house with one shoe on and one shoe off and I walked in front of Bessie. She came unglued!! She yelled at me to get that shoe off my foot and didn't I know that bad things would happen to me if I walked with one shoe on and one shoe off?!?! Scared me to death. I wasn't really a superstitious person but neither did I want to tempt fate so I took off that shoe until I found the other one. A couple of days later I hit my head on the corner of a cabinet door I had left open and my head started bleeding and all I could think about was the bad luck she predicted because I walked with one shoe on and one shoe off.
The Bessie Others Knew
A young Bessie WILLIAMS LARKIN (with short hair!).
I felt like I really didn't know Bessie very well so I called on various people to tell me what they knew about her. This is what I learned about Bess as an individual and as a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and grandmother.
Bess was born just after the turn of the century in August of 1901. She grew up in an extremely poor family. When she was about four years old, her father- Samuel Williams- was killed by a train near Cabool, Missouri. Bess had 13 (possibly 14) siblings. I was told that there were such age differences in the siblings that it was almost like two different sets of siblings and some of the older and younger siblings really didn't grow up together or know each other well. The year prior to Bess's birth, twin boys were born to her mom and those babies died before Bess was born. When Bess was 16, she lost her brother, Bennie. At ages 36 and 37, she lost her sister Sarah and her brother Hosea (whom the family called “Hose”). In her 50's she would lose her sister “Ide” (Ida) and her brother Jahu. Eight years before her own death, she would lose her brother Mart (Martin). There were other siblings but I don't know when they died, except for Aunt Eule (Eula). To my knowledge, Aunt Eule was the last surviving sibling and she died in 1996. Before she died, my dad, Mam, Aunt Carol, and I took a trip to see Aunt Eule and we interviewed her. I will try to get that interview transcribed soon and post it. If I can, I will post some audio as well so everyone can hear Eule. She was quite a character. Many of the WILLIAMS siblings moved away to other parts of the country. Just this past week I spoke with two daughters of Bessie's brother, Mart. One lives in the Bakersfield, CA area and the other lives in the Sebring, FL area. With 13 siblings, it's no surprise the family is spread out from one coast to the other. Many of the siblings and their families spent time overseas due to being in the military.
Studies have shown that families in extreme poverty place a high value on being able to entertain others because sometimes the only form of entertainment they can afford is each other. True to this fact, Bessie was a person who could entertain. She was talkative, loud, boisterous, and outgoing. She could play the guitar and harmonica very well and taught all of her children that were interested in learning to play the guitar.
Here is Bessie's son, Uncle Carl, playing his guitar. I can remember Carl playing his guitar at my son's third birthday party. He played Hit the Road Jack. My son sang that song for years and “played” it on his toy guitar.) Bessie knew all the old Irish songs and played and sang them all the time. Bessie never met a stranger. I surely wish someone had a recording of her playing and singing because I don't ever remember hearing her sing or play.
Bess was always superstitious but my dad says so was everyone else at that time. She didn't let people open umbrellas in the house and if someone handed someone else an open knife, it was promptly refused and the person had to close it before handing it back again because it would bring bad luck if you accepted an open knife.
Bess's first marriage was at age 13. She married Otis STEELEY. They were only married for a day or two and then they managed to get the marriage annulled. My great-grandpa, Ralph LARKIN, was working for Bessie's dad around that time. He one day announced to everyone that he would be marrying Bessie and when she turned 16, they married. Ralph was an ultra-religious Pentecostal Holiness. Bessie was “rough”, talked “like a sailor”, and didn't go to church. Ralph managed to get her turned around but even then she was an “irreverant Christian” as described by one of her grandsons. Ralph and Bessie had 10 children. Ralph was very strict and several of his children didn't like that. When their children were old enough several moved away from home and didn't go back. After Ralph's death, Bess married several more times. She married a man from Joplin, Missouri; a man named Jim who lived in Grove, Delaware County, Oklahoma; Palmer LANCASTER; and Bill FORDEN.
Bessie lived in several places throughout her life. As a child and living with her family in extreme poverty, they lived on the river in Kansas City- a very rough area of the city. Also in her childhood she lived in Texas County, Missouri in the towns of Success and Roubidoux. After her dad died and her mom remarried, she lived in Enid, Garfield County, Oklahoma. At age 14 she lived in Iola, Allen County, Kansas. The following year the family was living in the Picher-Cardin, Ottawa County, Oklahoma area where Ralph found work in the lead and zinc mines. In the late 1910's and throughout the 1920's they bounced back and forth between Roubidoux, Missouri, and the Miami-Picher, Oklahoma area. In the 1930's they bounced back and forth between Upton, Texas County, Missouri and Miami, Ottawa, Oklahoma. By 1940 they were living in Beaty, Delaware County, Oklahoma. Since I don't have census records available to me after 1940, I can't tell you all the places she lived after that but I know she lived in Delaware County when she died. Her doctor was in Gravette, Benton County, Arkansas and that is where her official place of death is. My dad told me that after Ralph got sick with black lung disease from working in the mines, his doctor told him to move to Arizona where the climate was drier. This was a common recommendation from doctors at that time. So Ralph and Bessie moved to Arizona for a year or two but both of them hated it and they moved back to the Delaware County, Oklahoma/McDonald County, Missouri area before Ralph died.
When my dad was young, he and his 3 siblings were four out of eight grandchildren that lived close to Bessie and were able to visit her frequently. (The others lived too far away to visit often.) He felt that Bessie doted on them and loved them and was very affectionate with them. She always wanted them to come over. They would walk a half mile down the road (the Poynor School road for those of you familiar with that area) from their house to her house after school. They would visit her, eat some of her good cooking, and then make another half mile trek west to their Grandma DRAKE's home and visit her. I love knowing they were able to do that. It brought back fond memories of when we lived close enough to my husband's parents that our then-3-year-old son could walk through the back yard and to his grandparents' home for snacks or meals or visits and hugs. Dad said when they went to Bess's house she always had food or cooked them food and she was a good cook. Breakfast was always pancakes and if anyone got eggs it was only for grandpa. For other meals, she cooked cornbread and beans; soup; anything she could use her garden vegetables in; she fixed turnips although he didn't much care for those; fried cabbage; salads with wild greens including sour dock, lamb's quarters, chickweed and dandelion leaves; poke greens fried in bacon grease; and lots of wild edibles. She had to know how to use wild edibles because the family was so poor. Bess and my grandma Audrey always had the pressure cooker going all summer long canning whatever they could from wild edibles to garden harvests to whatever they were given or could find. On Friday nights before grandpa Ralph got sick, he would come home from work and he and Bess would make dough balls for bait, pack up, and go to Grand Lake for the weekend and fish from Friday night to Monday morning. Grandpa would get up Monday morning and go straight to work and grandma Bess would come home. They fished for what my dad considered to be “trash fish” including carp, buffalo fish, and drum fish. Whatever they caught, Bess would pressure can (bones and all) during the week. Grandpa Mark DRAKE would always tell dad to be sure to tell Grandma Bess to can some fish for him and Grandma Bess would can him some fish and send them over. Dad said the canned fish tasted really good. She also pressure canned mixed greens- meaning any wild edibles she could find growing. Basically, anything that was wild and edible they would eat or can to eat later. Grandpa Ralph and Grandma Bess also always kept a barrel of brine pickles on hand. My dad loved them because they were crisp and salty. He said he could take a fork and fork one out any time he wanted one but if grandma caught him sticking his bare hands in to get one he got in trouble.My dad said Bessie and Ralph had the worst luck with houses Several homes they lived in burned. In one four year period they had two houses in a row burn. The houses were across the road from each other. Because of this they seemed to be constantly starting over from scratch and it was very difficult for them. He remembers the interior of the house that burned down. He said it had no ceiling, just bare rafters and once when Uncle Mart came to visit Bess, he was taking medication and put the medication up on top of the rafters by the roof. He said he was told Mart had Tuberculosis and that he was taking medication for that. Another thing he remembers is that grandma Bess loved Hollyhocks and had huge ones growing all around her house. He doesn't know why but says he didn't like the Hollyhocks at all. He could not remember if there was a particular color that was her favorite. She had a huge variety of colors of Hollyhocks. He remembers Bess and Audrey washing laundry in the back yard of one of the burned houses. They had a tub and an old wringer washer. They would wash out the clothes in a tub and then put them through the wringer. They would then turn around and make lye soap in the same tub they washed clothes in. They lye soap was used to wash everything- clothes, skin, etc. The lye soap was made using beef tallow and ashes and he said it was very good for their skin.
After grandma Bess came to live with my grandparents Gene and Audrey, she never complained about being sick. She and my grandpa Gene had ongoing rivalries over wrestling being fake and overrated. Bess was pretty healthy until she slipped and fell in the bathtub. She twisted her colon and got gangrene. The doctor didn't realize she had gangrene and by the time he figured it out it was too late and she died. My dad described her overall disposition as being a happy one. He remembers her being a very fun and loving grandmother and very smart. She had a linoleum floor in one of her houses and when it was waxed, it had to also be buffed. After waxing, the linoleum was very slick. So when it was time to buff the floor, grandma Bess threw rags down on the floor and told the kids to get on them and slide. Grandma got her floor buffed and the kids had a great time doing it and didn't realize they were doing grandma's work for her. (I seriously can't imagine my dad buffing the floor like this as a child. lol)
My conversations with others about Bessie WILLIAMS LARKIN were very enlightening. I learned about a Bess that I never knew. The more people talked about her, the more I realized that some apples really do fall close to the tree- even if they don't know how close they stay. I may not chew twist tobacco and while I might find it fun to go see luchadors wrestle once just for fun with my brother Jared, it's definitely not something I'm into. I am not THAT superstitious (never mind that just this week I picked up a penny on heads in the parking lot and recited to myself, “Find a penny, pick it up. All the day you'll have good luck.”). For the past few years I've been learning what I can about wild edibles and I started canning when I was in my late 20's/early 30's. And nevermind my long hair that just today I wore in a bun...now what was I saying about apples and how far they fall from trees? Yeah...
The Bess my dad knew doesn't seem like the Bess I knew and I'm so glad I got a chance to hear these stories and get to know her from a grandchild's perspective. Because don't we all love grandma's and their fabulous cooking? This post has really presented her to me as a real person and I love that. I wish I had known then what I know now. I could have learned all my wild edibles knowledge from her and been so much better at it by now. It's probably a good thing there aren't time machines. I hope you've enjoyed getting to know Bess. The next time you're tempted to think you are totally opposite from an ancestor, try to remember that “the apple” really doesn't fall that far from the tree. You may be more like them than you know.
Don't forget to click on over to my sister-in-law's blog post this week about the old country doctor that cared for her family at http://downintherootcellar.blogspot.com/2015/03/last-weeks-52-ancestors-blog-prompt-was.html. You can also check out blogs of friends at https://recipesfromlena.wordpress.com/…/100-years-ago-today/ and https://theologyformom.wordpress.com/.
Until next week,
Lisa @ Days of Our Lives