Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Long Line of Sass

It occurred to me that I frequently mention that if you spent time with my family you would understand me more completely, but I also realize that this is not necessarily a feasible thing for everyone. So, in keeping with my whole November=family thing started yesterday with my book review, I thought I would share some information about my family. But where to begin?

I come by many of my personality characteristics quite honestly. The competitiveness, the smart-ass wit, the stubbornness, the sweet tooth, the dramatic flair, the slightly skewed sense of humor, the independent thinking, and yes, the temper, have all been thoroughly documented on both sides of my family tree. In both the men and the women. (Really, there was no hope at all for me to be a sweet, demure little thing). But it is the women I'm going to talk about today.

The first recorded example of the long line of sassy women is with Eleanor of Aquitaine. I know that it is very popular to claim royal connections, and it is quite possible that I am not descended from her, but as it cannot also be disproved I'm going with it. Eleanor of Aquitaine was a formidable woman who went on Crusade, was highly educated, managed to get her first marriage to the King of France annulled, remarried a man eleven years her junior, became queen of England, owned more of France than the king did, and gave birth to ten children, two of which became kings of England.

Moving right along to her great-granddaughter, Joan of Acre. Joan of Acre was the daughter of Edward I and was married twice, the second time in defiance of her father's wishes, and to a man not of noble rank. Considering that Edward I's nickname was the Hammer of the Scots I would say that was pretty nervy. But what do you expect of a child born while her parents were both on Crusade in Palestine? Supposedly I am descended from a child from each of her marriages. Best not to dwell on that too much.

Of more concrete proof is my descent on my mother's side from Priscilla Mullins, the wife of John Alden. Both John and Priscilla arrived in New England on the Mayflower, and after the first winter both of Priscilla's parents and her brother were dead. Young, alone and in a very foreign country, Priscilla withstood it all. And when John Alden came to speak on behalf of his friend Miles Standish for her hand in marriage, Priscilla told him to speak for himself. A smart man, John did and the two were married and had "many children."

I'm sure that over the years there were more sassy women on my family tree, but the record does not show it. However, once we get into living memory the tree is jam packed.

On my father's side we have:
Charlotte Cope (my fourth great-grandmother) who was a member of the landed gentry in England and married a shoemaker. Considering the time period this was just scandalous. How did they meet? Upper class women were very sheltered and protected at that time, and strange men didn't just start chatting them up.

Her daughter in-law was Anna-Maria Higgins, a woman who was born just shortly after her parents landed in New York from Ireland. She married an English Episcopalian shoemaker and went on to have seventeen (yes, that's right seventeen) children. Imagine telling your Irish father that you not only wished to marry a Protestant but an Englishman to boot? She outlived her husband and eight of her children, and wasn't disowned by her father.

Her oldest child was Marcella Agnes Collinson. Nana, as we call her, was born in 1857 and died in 1953. She outlived all three of her husbands, all but three of her brothers and sisters, and one of her grandchildren. She lived through the Civil War, the outbreak of the Spanish Influenza, World War I and II, the flu epidemic of 1918, the assassination of two presidents, the Great Depression, and the Great Blizzard of 1888. Her first husband died sometime in the 1880s, and she remarried in 1891 to Charles Conover, a man who was almost thirteen years her junior, and they had one daughter, my great grandmother, Isabelle Katherine Conover. Then in around 1901 she divorced Charles, retained custody of their daughter, and stayed on speaking terms with his entire family. I can only imagine that Charles had done something horrid, and perhaps one day I will get up the nerve to write New Jersey and get the divorce papers.

Isabelle (aka Gam) and her daughter Barbara (aka Meme) were less overtly sassy. Gam loved dirty jokes, had hands that could span an entire octave on a piano, and was married twice, both times to a man named Frank. My memories of her are few as I was slightly intimated by her regal bearing and posture, even more so because of her penchant for flashy jewelery (un-beknownst to me it was mostly paste) and fur coats. Gam broke her hip when I was in the third grade, and upon learning, when she came round after surgery, that she had had to have a blood transfusion she quipped "God I hope they didn't give me AIDS." Sadly, she suffered a stroke while still in the hospital.
Meme told me once when I was in the fourth grade that "sometimes you just have to say damn it, it makes you feel better." She loved scary movies and got a bit of a perverse pleasure out of telling me the plot synopsis of each one. It took a lot to make Meme mad, but look out if you did. One of my favorite stories is how she retaliated against her oldest son when he was an intractable teenager. Dennis did not want to be awakened in the morning and one time he swatted his mother in a groggy and grumpy state. The next morning when he didn't wake up when she called his name she slapped his rump with her hand, a hand that had a straight pin between two fingers. Dennis never had to be called twice to wake up in the morning again.

On my mother's side:

Amanda Jane Covington, my great-great grandmother, was widowed and remarried. She spent a week with her new husband, found him not to her liking, packed up her belongings and went home.

Sarah Elsie Gold (aka Mammy), my great grandmother, and Amanda's daughter in law, gave my mother a cast-iron skillet when she graduated from college. She told my mother, and I quote "that if a man ever hits you he has to go to sleep sometime." One time her husband had over indulged in alcohol and as he laid in the bed groaning she presented all four of their children to him and said "see what happens when you drink?" Mammy could spin a story better than anyone I have ever met, and loved telling her grandchildren and great grandchildren scary ones. "Riger, riger marow! I want my big toe!"

Margaret Falls (aka Grandma Warlick) my other great grandmother, survived a car accident in the 1930s that broke her pelvis and killed her husband. The doctors had told her there was a chance she wouldn't walk again. However, when the time came to leave the hospital she laced up her corset and went out under her own power. I never met Grandma, but all of the pictures and stories make me think of a girded iron vessel. She also married outside of her religion (Baptist and Methodist in this case-hey it was a big deal to her!) on the condition that any girls they had would go with her to church, while the boys would go with their father. Perhaps my favorite of all the Grandma stories is the night the chimney caught fire because it features two other sassy women in my family. Grandma was in bed nursing her youngest child, and sent my grandmother, the second youngest to fetch their father who was upstairs. She warned Gammy not to tell her father why she wanted him because Grandma knew that it would cause panic. Being only about four, Gammy held out for as long as she could and blurted out that the house was on fire. Grandpa yelled out "Lordy the house is on fire!" causing all sorts of turmoil. Grandpa sent his son Lester to fetch the neighbors but Lester didn't want to run through the woods at night by himself so Gammy, little four year old Gammy, went with him. By the time they had returned the fire was out because the oldest child, Vera, had done the smartest and simplest thing, which was to pour the water from her washstand through the grate of the upstairs fireplace, dousing the flames that had ignited the chimney column.

Another sassy woman, who I'm not descended from was my great Aunt Edna. One day she was watching a basketball game that her brother, my grandfather, was refereeing. Some woman in the crowd disliked the way he was calling the game and was heckling him. Edna stood if for as long as she could and then got in the woman's face. "My brother's a gentleman and he won't hit you, but I will!"

So as you can see, the women in my family tree didn't put up with a lot of crap.

1 comment:

Mockingbird said...

I love these women! Can I be the long-lost second cousin?