My Gramma Beth was, of course, not just mine...she was a lot of other people's Gramma Beth, too. Most of them came before me! I was rather at the end of the line of cousins in that family, the next to the youngest. But I can tell you what I know.
And I can tell you why I am thinking about this today: My Kleenex box. Yes, you read that right.
The pattern on this box, I chose because it reminds me of Gramma Beth. I don't know why. But it's sitting on my desk today, asking me to tell the story.
Her name was Henrietta Elizabeth Swarthout Butler. One of my two names is a gift from her...the other is from my maternal grandmother, Mary. There are, by my count, five other people in our family who carry some variant of her name. (It's all so Southern, isn't it?)
She was born in 1888, and whe was on the Illinois State Champion Basketball Team in 1905. (She was tall! Another gift she gave me.) She married my grandfather Butler, whom she had known in high school, in 1912. She went to college, and she also worked in the Sears, Roebuck & Co. offices in Chicago, taking mail orders from the Catalogue. Doing this gave her a facility for deciphering handwriting that was useful to her all her life.
Her mother, Henrietta Swarthout, was born in England, to John Dawson, a man who emigrated to the US to avoid going to debtors' prison. He had sent money home to his cousin in England for many years, so that the debt would be paid off. Guess what...the cousin did not pay a penny of it toward the debt. It troubled Great-great-grandfather John VERY greatly. He wrote a 12-page letter (longhand of course) to his relatives and associates back home, explaining what had (and had not) happened. He copied it out in longhand to all of them. I have a copy of it. It's his testament...he was a man of honor and he did the right thing.
The letter, along with many letters from the dishonest English cousin, are preserved in a black metal box that I received when we closed the house where Gramma Beth had lived with her oldest daughter, after Aunt Etta Jane died. They were bundled together with a note on top from Gramma Beth that said, "Mother always set great store by these." I bet she did!
Gramma Beth had one sibling, a brother named Orville. He was killed in a sawmill accident in Washington State in 1914. So tragic. He had a fiancee and their father later helped her finish her college education.
Gramma Etta (Gramma Beth's mother) lived with her daughter's family in Texas for forty-one years following her husband's death. I never knew her, but she was, by all accounts, formidable. One of the specific rules of that family was, "Always obey Gramma Etta." I have heard that more times than I can count...even though she died eight years before my birth, at the age of 89.
Gramma Beth and her unmarried oldest daughter, Aunt Etta Jane, lived in a brick two-story duplex, in a far-away part of Houston called Montrose. It had once been a very nice part of town, and by the time I remember it, it was a very BAD part of town, and getting worse. One of the most terrible things I remember was when a bad man (men?) broke into their house and beat them up for money. Aunt Etta Jane had two broken arms. Gramma Beth had a black eye. I was really little (6?) and I was not told much about it, but I date a large loss of innocence from that experience. Who beats up old ladies!? It still makes me cry to remember it.
Gramma Beth had a gumdrop jar in her house. You could have "one for each hand," that is, two gumdrops. Her house had wonderful push-button light switches! When we moved into our 1924 house here in Denton, my delight was that we had some of those switches!
Sadly, they had to be replaced; the wiring to them was Romex, old and a fire hazard. (We still have one in a rarely used closet, tee hee!)
Gramma Beth was an amazing knitter. She knit all of us wonderful Christmas stockings of different patterns and with our names worked into the cuff. Mine has Santa Claus coming out of a chimney and his beard is all fluffy! When I knit, I think of her. Another thing that I was given after her death was a fantastic hand-knit coat (full-length and lined) and hat (picture a Gramma-type hat like a pillbox!) of a blue-green wool. I never wore it...but you may be sure that I would be wearing it now if I still had it. It was lost in a house fire in 1999. That makes me so sad.
One time when we were at Gramma's house the news was on and the reporter said how many rapes there had been in Houston that month. I was about 7. So of course, I said, "Gramma Beth, what's rape?" She suggested that I ask my mother. That would be about the essence of that family...a great deal of love and caring, the fiercest of loyalty, but all in a very reserved and proper way. I got the impression that she was not unhappy about me asking something that was clearly awkward for her, but more that she was angry that I had been exposed to it at that age.
I was only 11 when she died. She'd had a broken hip and lingered; she was ready, ready to go on...the last few years of her life were NOT of a high quality. I feel sorry that I did not get to know her as an adult. I think we would have been friends and liked each other. But I am grateful for what I know and imagine of her. For the values and principles she instilled in my father, her younger son, and in his family. For having her be part of me.