Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Great Grandmother

Flash non-fiction by Mary Ellen Gambutti 4-20-16

Marie Henriette

She piled and twisted her shiny, dark hair into a high bun, then tied on and pinned a crisp white apron to her long, calico dress.  Brown-eyed, tall, strong, and sturdy, my great grandmother, Marie, handled her household duties without hesitation. Her days were filled with children and chores.  She was born November 1, 1858, daughter of William Lenderman and Tabitha Tripp.  A prominent farmer of Greenville, South Carolina, and a Civil War soldier, William was four times a widower. Marie helped him run the household, and care for his large family. She would be a dutiful wife, and at 26, left her father’s home to marry John Q. Cox, who farmed a neighboring 70 acres.

Civil War Era
 Work Dress

We girls were abandoning our bras as a statement of emancipation. I was 18, brunette, tall, flat-chested, and fresh-faced.  The elasticized empire bodice of my Jersey calico-print dress was comfortable and unrestrictive. I wore no pinafore. It was the cusp of 1970, and the “Granny Dress” was in. I wore leather sandals, and my hair fell loose, if not messy.  Many of us longed for an idealized version of what Marie lived. The closer to nature, the more fulfilled we’d be. We hiked in the Rockies, spent time on a commune, and on reclaimed Pennsylvania farmland, in an off-the-grid 1800’s house. We lit oil lamps at nightfall, and gardened without pesticides. We eschewed disposable diapers, and used cloth. We wanted sweet air, and the reward of hard work’s good sleep.  It all felt true, until modern life encroached on our dreams.


Before light would stir the little ones, her bread was in the oven, and John was in the fields.  Marie might have mended or knitted by oil lamp; John read or dozed by the fire, once the children were asleep.  Electricity didn’t come to their country home until about 1940.  Between first and last light, Marie’s day was domesticity: childcare, gardening, washing in the laundry tub in the yard, cooking, marketing in Mauldin, canning for winter, and her church duties.  She was well known for her fruit pies.  For relaxation, neighbor women gathered to sew, quilt, crochet, and braid or hook rugs.  My great grandmother’s life was hard, but purposeful, in the post-Civil War years.


I was first named Ruth Ann Cox. By 20, I gave up conjuring my first kin, and the face of my natural mother. My ancestors would remain hidden behind the faint sadness of the unknowable.  The only parents I knew, collected me from the infant home in 1952 in Upcountry South Carolina.  My adoptive grandparents were raised on central Pennsylvania farms, and taught me, a suburban middle-class girl, about their industrious, simple upbringings.  For my 20th birthday, Nana gave me an oil lamp, a washboard, a hand-cranked ice cream maker, and her cottage dishware, to signify values she hoped I would continue to cherish. She left me several of her fine quilts. My passion for gardening and nature had been cultivated by Nana, and I studied horticulture.  My husband and I had a small farm, and grew flowers for my gardening business.  We raised chickens and goats. Together with a group of craftswomen, my passion for old-time, primitive rug-hooking was indulged.  I like to think some skills are innate.

Marie Henriette Lenderman and John Quincy Adams Cox
Circa 1922

I study a portrait taken at a son or daughter’s wedding. With dignity suiting her status as a proud, independent farmer’s wife, Marie wears a long, black wool serge, caped suit, over a high-necked, white, wrapped chemise.  In the early 1920’s, she was dressed stylishly, yet modest for church.  Her complexion is fair, her forehead and cheekbones are high, her chin angular.  Her strong left hand and long fingers are poised on John’s right shoulder, as he sits close to her. His left hand holds his four right fingers over his crossed legs.   Straightforward, unsmiling, but kind and serene, the couple must be comfortable in the hard life they share. I wonder if I would have the courage and strength to live the life of my great grandmother.

William and Tabitha Lenderman, their family; John Q. Cox, Marie Henriette, and several of their children, including my maternal grandfather and grandmother, are laid to rest in Antioch Churchyard, Fork Shoals, SC. One happy fall day, I connect with my birth mother and my ½ sister, after a lifetime apart. I have searched with intent for natural family for 2 years, denied by the State of South Carolina any but the barest information. I’m 40, before the internet, and DNA revelations. In this tiny brick church, this September Sunday, I sing among both close, and distant kin. With thanks, I swallow grape juice from a tiny plastic cup, and take a wafer, like my ancestors had done all their lives. I feel their work, their spirit, their hardship, and this heritage. I’m proud to know these people, especially the matriarch, Marie Henriette.

My sister, Karen, Cousins Lawrence Cox and Helen Cox (Garabedian),
 and Leila Grace Cox - Momma
at Antioch Cemetary Fall, 1993

 all content copyright Mary Ellen Gambutti 2016