“Della wanted to marry Pink, but she was only seventeen, and her father, Dr. J.E. McElroy, thought she was too young. She was physically slight, and because she was stubborn and he knew better than to cross her outright, Dr. McElroy told his daughter she could have his blessing when she weighed a hundred pounds — calculating, as a father and a physician, that she had already reached full size. Della saw the dare for what it was, and she got on her horse and rode it through the creek until her long skirts were drenched to her waist. Then she went home and climbed on the scales, and Dr. McElroy had to keep his word.”
— A Strong West Wind, a memoir by Gail Caldwell
The stories of so many of the women who came before us have always left me wondering how in the world women ever became termed the softer sex.
Gail Caldwell writes of her Texan grandmother’s “headstrong guile” which fills her with gladness. Della married at 17, and gave birth to six sons and four daughters, and died in 1936, when she was 59.
“I knew her only through the legends she left and through the farm at Reilly Springs, a rambling old white house with no indoor plumbing, each of its rooms bearing whispers of the past. There was the front bedroom where as a boy my father had found a copperhead coiled beneath his pillow, instilling his lifelong fear of snakes.
“There was the long farm table, occupied for hours each day, where Della had fed her hungry brood in shifts; the ones who showed up late generally got the least to eat. And there was the outhouse — humble, enduring edifice — where a bullying cousin once tried to spy on me and my sister, until my dad got wise to the boy and sent him on a mysterious snipe hunt,” Caldwell writes.
I related to this memoir so strongly because of all the many stories I have heard over the years of strong grandmothers I never knew. There is the story of the tiny little grandmother who could chase down a chicken — she always knew which one was the one required, depending on how many would turn up at her table for that particular meal — and she made quick work of every step that needed to be accomplished from the moment she caught it.
My father grew up in the shadow of this tiny whirlwind of a woman, his paternal grandmother, a woman whose stern manner he respected, and with a smile he always added, “and you learned to stay out of her way!”
His stories of his grandmother’s meals stayed with us all. Dad always said his grandmother put the heaping dishes of food on the table and it seemed the clock started ticking the moment everyone was seated and grace was given.
“She was always in an all-fired hurry to get that table cleaned up again,” Dad said many times over.
“You sort of protected your plate, or else she might think you were done eating long before you were really done, and she would swipe that plate away and have it washed and dried and put away before you could even protest a single word!”
We all laughed many times over that story because it paints a picture of a woman on a mission. She likely had a million things to do after the meal, and felt there was no time to waste.
I never knew this woman, nor did I ever get to know my father’s maternal grandmother. Both were gone long before I arrived in the world, but my father’s vibrant stories remain.
He always found it ironic that both of his grandmothers’ maiden names was Fry, though they were not related to one another. They were, however, very similar in temperament and drive.
Dad’s maternal grandmother kept laying hens, selling eggs to make a bit of spending money. Dad remembered that she could gather those eggs like a whirling dervish.
If she asked him to come along to the coop to help, he would just be putting his first egg in his basket when she would say, “OK, Sonny, we’re done.”
Both grandmothers were all business; both grandmothers came across as very stern, prompting my father to acknowledge the similarities between the two.
“Life was so hard for them, though, and the work was never done. It’s no wonder they were grouchy!” he often said.
Saving a herd
One story that has stayed with me for all these years is the tale of my dad’s paternal grandmother saving the herd of cattle. All of the men were away on this spring night.
After the dinner dishes were cleaned and put away, this 90-pound woman took a walk to the far pasture of the farm to check on the cattle. She found them lying down, groaning in misery, their bellies showing obvious sign of bloat after a long day of enjoying the newly lush pasture.
She ran back to the house, grabbed her largest knife from her kitchen and rushed back to the pasture. She palpated the swollen bellies of each cow, and figured exactly where to stab the knife in the hollow of the back hock, releasing the gas. She methodically did this with each of those suffering beasts and managed to save every single one.
All business, she wiped the knife off on her apron, headed back to the house, finished a pillowcase she was sewing, then headed back to the pasture to check on the cattle before heading for bed.
Satisfied that she had done what she could, she had no trouble drifting off to sleep.
We are enriched by these stories, for they are all that remain of the strong women who came before us.
Gail Caldwell writes of the grandmother she never knew, “I can still and forever see Della riding through that stream, defying and outwitting her father. It was a splendid lesson for a girl in rough-hewn Texas to possess — my very own ‘Pride and Prejudice’ — and a story my father, in the years that followed, may have regretted passing on with such unabashed pride.”
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