I never knew my grandfather. He died within a year of my birth, and I think, after having spoken to many who knew him, not knowing him was a real loss. He was, by all accounts, an interesting, intelligent, kind, giving, loving man. For instance, in my baby book, I have a letter he took the time to write – directly to me, his newborn granddaughter. He writes as if I’m twenty years old, telling me the news of the day, and about all kinds of relatives I would never know. His letter is funny and charming.
Later, when I was doing research to support some family genealogy, I asked around for some family stories. I love genealogy, but I hate just the dry factual stuff. Birth, birthplace, death, death place, names of children, name(s) of spouse(s). Boring. What makes genealogy interesting are the family stories that invigorate the dead bones and bring those dry facts to life. I had known a few things about my grandpa. As an example, he was a very successful businessman. He died in 1962, but by that point, had made and invested well enough to support my grandmother, who lived on until 1991. When she passed, she still had close to three quarters of a million dollars to pass on to her children. (Never fear – my spendthrift father made sure that not one cent ever made it to his children.) But my granddad was ambitious, sensible, and wise. So much so, that his friends and neighbors elected him to serve in the State Senate for a while, back in the 50s. He was, by turns, a livestock buyer, an auctioneer, a salesman, and the owner/operator of a grain elevator company.
But here’s what surprised me. Turns out, Grandpa had a musical gift. When he was a young man, he, his father, and four brothers all settled on homesteads in North Valley County in Montana, around the turn of the 20th century. They were primarily farmers, and farmers simply didn’t have a lot to do during achingly cold, long winters. So, these five young men ordered musical instruments from the Montgomery Wards catalog – a violin, an accordion, some rattlebones, a harmonica, and an autoharp. Every one of them eventually learned to play all the instruments. And they were entirely self-taught. They often played for the local dances, a prime entertainment, an outlet, and a social gathering for the entire community.
My grandmother’s story is less poetic and more harsh. She was the second daughter, born just before the turn of the twentieth century, in the middle of what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They were hardscrabble, but surrounded by extended family. However, at some point, my Grandma’s young family travelled to find a new start and found themselves in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake. That experience sent them scuttling back home to Tennessee. Within a year of their return, my great-grandfather, Samuel, was bereft; alone with four small children, aged 8, 6, 4, and 2. My great-grandmother, Maude, and the baby inside her had both died in childbirth. The days were very different then. There were no social nets to protect young families from harsh reality. Sam had difficult decisions to make. Today, I can’t imagine the agony he must have gone through – terrible, heartbreaking decisions.
The three eldest children were placed in an orphanage. The youngest boy was given to a cousin whose wife was barren. Samuel left Tennessee for the promise of land in Montana. There, he worked to settle up on a homestead. When that day drew near, he returned to Tennessee to claim a mail-order bride who’d been widowed and left with two children of her own. He also reclaimed his three children and brought them to Montana to live. Grandma never talked about her time in the orphanage, but there was a distinct impression that it was far, far from happy.
When she came to Montana, life with a new stepmother was like Chapter Two of the orphanage. Soon, she found ways to be out of the house, earning a little money. She farmed out to families who needed an extra hand in the kitchen. She was always an excellent cook and housekeeper and was much in demand.
As you can imagine, a farmstead with a father and five sons needed her help. It wasn’t long before this pretty and capable girl with grit and an unvarnished view of the world caught the eye of one of the five. They soon married. A happy marriage, by all accounts.
When they celebrated their fortieth anniversary at my Aunt Pat’s home, Grandpa seated himself on the floor in front of the piano. Remember that he taught himself the accordion? Well, he learned it upside down and backwards. He played the keys on the left hand, and the chord buttons on the right. Seated there in front of the piano, he reached up and played a tune, upside down and backwards – just as he did on the accordion, with great skill and verve. He loved a joke, even when it was on him!