Today is a celebration of a life.
My grandmother, Beulah Ethel (Garrard) Browning, died 8 years ago yesterday. If she were living she would be almost 110 years old.
My thoughts today have been all about her and I wanted to spend this day with her, in thought and spirit if not in body, so I've spent the day scanning in photos of her from the vast collection of old photos she bequeathed me upon her death. During the scanning I was struck by the thought that she was literally growing up in front of my eyes even though she did that growing up 100 years ago.
I don't know if I've ever shared how I got started in genealogy. In 1988/early 1989 my grandfather Virgil Joseph Browning was diagnosed with leukemia and my father quit his job and moved to the small town my grandparents were living in (the same town, it so happens, that I was also living in.) At that time I was in my early 20's and had just begun to date the man who was to become my (now ex-) husband. I was in college and had a social life and a job and things to do and the last thing in the world I wanted was to spend time with my grandparents, who were both in their late 80's. In my youthful naivety that sixty year difference was a vast chasm.
My grandpa passed away in December 1989. My dad stayed on for a few months to make sure his mother was all right and went back home (a city an hour away.) His mother -- my grandma Beulah -- had just turned 89 and would now live alone in a little apartment. My parents made it clear that I was responsible for checking on her daily because I only lived a short drive away. I balked at this but I had always been a dutiful daughter so I did as I was told, though I admit I scheduled our visits early in the morning so I could spend as little time as possible there before I could claim I had things to do. Thinking upon this selfishness from my current perspective, I am ashamed. I never once thought how my grandmother felt, being alone in that small apartment she'd shared without the man who had been with her for nearly 60 years. The loneliness she must have endured I can only imagine, but she never shared any of it with me when I visited. Instead she would fix me breakfast -- one fried egg, a piece of toast, a cup of coffee with cream. We would sit at the small two-seat dinette in her tiny kitchen.
I'd watch her putter around making the meal and I would be casting my eyes around the room into the small closet in the corner. I would always see an interesting metal cooler with a Coca-Cola emblem and my natural curiosity would kick in. She'd serve the meal and we'd stare at each other and search for things to talk about. I think that search (and my questions about the contents of the metal cooler -- family pictures) was what spurred my grandmother into telling me stories of her parents, her grandparents, the people she'd known, the places she'd seen. Her life. And because she told those stories and shared her life, she showed me that she wasn't just some old lady on the periphery of my life. She was real, and interesting, and she had lived. We were family. It didn't take long before I didn't come to visit her and sit there thinking about how fast I could politely leave. I came because I enjoyed her and my time with her.
She was 89 then. She lived until she was 101 and only the last six months of her life were not quality ones. At her 100th birthday party she was laughing and enjoying herself. A stroke soon thereafter took her away from us and it was downhill from there. She died today, eight years ago.
I cannot express how lucky I feel that I was able to have my grandmother for those years. If those years were given to her in part so that she and I could have the chance to become as close as we did then I can only be humbled in gratitude for them. I wouldn't be the genealogist I am today without her. I wouldn't be the woman I am today without her.
I have regrets concerning her. Of course I do. I regret that I didn't ask her to write her life story for me when she was living with my parents and had the time to do it. She told me many stories but I didn't write all of them down and my memory is good but not nearly as sharp as hers was. I don't think I can celebrate her life and what she meant and means to me still if I don't get those stories down. Her stories -- all the stories I know -- are coming up.
We begin at the beginning. My grandmother, Beulah Ethel Garrard, was born on 9 December 1900 in Robinson Twn. in Crawford County, Illinois, the 6th and youngest child born to Robert Elbert Garrard (1853-1938) and Louisa Adaline Eagleton (1860-1944.) When grandma was born her dad put her in a shoebox in the bottom drawer of a bureau and moved it closer to the fire so the reflection of the heat would keep her warm. She was only two and a half pounds at birth and he could cradle her in the palm of his hand. They didn't expect she'd even live.
Grandma was the youngest and according to her stories, she was rather spoiled and unruly, always wanting her way. All her older siblings said she was that way, anyway, she'd say with a crackling laugh. She was a special favorite of her oldest brother Ralph, who was nine years older than she was. The picture above left -- the one where she's looking mighty unhappy -- was taken one day after school around 1910 (I suspect soon after the picture that follows of she and her schoolmates was taken, since her dresses look very similar and she looks about the same age.) Her older brother Ralph had informed her that she was to come over and get her picture taken and she was distinctly unwilling to do what she'd been told. She said she remembered standing there and pouting while Ralph held her tight around her waist.
Grandma's rememberences of her family were many. She said her sister Julia -- the oldest, born in 1887 - told her once that their mother Louisa had given birth to a stillborn baby of unknown sex about the year 1895. This baby had been as tiny as grandma had but had not lived and Grandpa Robert had went outside and fashioned a box of wood to bury the poor body. It was buried in the backyard or out in the woods and that was that. Julia also told grandma about their little brother Eldridge Garrison Garrard. Eldridge had been born in 1888 with a cleft palate. At the age of two he hit his head on the fireplace and died about two days later in January of 1890. Grandma said her mother Louisa said the family buried him in the Haskins Cemetery but there is no stone for him. Grandma took me out there one day in 1995 and led me to where he was buried. I could find it if I was standing there but I can't describe it to you here.
Her father, Robert, was never a milk drinking man. Grandma said the why of it was never explained to her until she was a young woman. Apparently in November of 1864 the cows that he and his family raised got into milkweed and the entire family unknowingly drank of the poisoned milk. Everyone became ill but Robert's father, William Garrard, was the only one to die. Robert remembered how it felt to be so sick and the idea of milk never set well with him again. Grandma said as long as he lived he never had another glass of milk.
Grandma's mother, Louisa, was raised up in a Christian faith (one that for the life of me I cannot remember) but when a young woman of 18 Louisa took up housekeeping work in the house of a local Quaker family (another whose name I cannot recall) and soon began to practice the faith. Grandma was fond of telling me that her mother was a Quaker.
The earliest couple of pictures I have of my grandmother Beulah are either her school pictures or pictures that were taken after school. She told me what school she went to but it is one of those names that I didn't write down and it has escaped my memory. The pictures I have don't list the school's name either. When she began school, she would walk in good weather and ride a horse in bad weather. I remember her telling me that she was only able to attend school until the 8th grade, which was about 1915 or so. The picture to the right (click to expand) was taken around 1910 and is likely one of the earliest pictures I have of her.
Grandma told me once that she remembers seeing and hearing her first plane when she was a teenager. She said she saw it go overhead when she was out watching some boys play a rough and tumble field baseball game.
I have another picture of her that is associated with her school years and it was this picture that I've featured at the head of my blog entry. That one was taken the last year she was attending school by a friend of hers as she walked down the road home, her round metal lunchpail swinging in her hand. It was fall 1915 and she was 14, almost 15. That picture -- the look in her eyes, the angularity but softness to her face, her small lips -- reminds me so much of my own daughter. Genetics are amazing. I can picture it in my head now, her friend stopping and calling her name...."Beulah!"....and when she stopped, she got her picture taken against the slowly setting Illinois sun. Isn't my grandma beautiful?
My grandmother's stories are many and this week will be hers. Tomorrow, her years after school.
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