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Rebecca McClanahan

from The Tribal Knot

(Excerpted and adapted from Chapters 7 and 9 of The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change

TribalKnot1Caption.pngAuthor's Note: My great-grandfather Robert Mounts was a tenant farmer, trapper, and sometime carpenter. His wife Hattie was a midwife who supplemented their meager income by raising turkeys on the family’s three-acre homestead outside Lafayette, Indiana, from which she posted thousands of letters and postcards over more than fifty years. Hattie and Robert had three sons and two daughters. The younger daughter was Sylvia, my maternal grandmother. The elder daughter, Bessie Mounts Cosby (1880- 1979) lived with our family for many years during my childhood and adolescence, and I grew very close to her. The phrase “first great sorrow” appears in “The First Snow-Fall,” a poem by James Russell Lowell, which Bessie had memorized when she was a schoolgirl. During the timeline of these excerpts, Sylvia and Bessie had both left home for work and marriage, but they maintained close connections through the hundreds of letters they exchanged over many decades.

Though letters from the Mounts menfolk are rare, the men and boys make cameo appearances in the women’s letters. Usually the men are out somewhere—hauling fodder, making fence, tending to crops and livestock, trapping, hunting, fishing, or in the case of Dale, sitting up nights at the bedside of a friend or neighbor, prompting his mother to report that he looked like he had been through a mill. Hattie and Robert’s younger sons run in and out of her letters, too, and every now and then Hattie grabs Ivan or Babe by the back of their patched-up britches and sets them down with pencil and paper: All of the trees are out in leaf, they write in their childish, blocky handwriting. The birds sing. . . . I never had any eggs broke. . . . Paw caught a nice mess of fish today. 

Even those from whom we have no correspondence, most notably my great-grandfather Robert, emerge as fully developed characters thanks to the letters the women exchange. In one, Robert sneaks around the corner, nudging Hattie to take her chair and umbrella out to the rose arbor and sit a while. In later years, Robert will pine for a visit from the grandbabies, and once they’ve come and gone, he will startle from his chair during supper, certain he has heard one of them cry. In letter after letter he dreams of the grandchildren and tells Hattie his dreams, which she relates to her daughters. Paw said Baby Merrill was moast as big as Babe, he was so sad he moast cried to think he had not got to see him anymore before he got so big in long pants. And one dark Christmas, with no money to buy gifts, Robert searches for a way to mark the occasion: 

. . . Babe says we got along very well if we didn’t have any Christmas. But Paw thought he would have to make some kind of a change so we would know it was Xmas so he shaved his mustach off and if he isn’t a great looking old Christmas gift. He is moast as good looking as John Henery. Will have to quit now and go to bed. Up again—trying to get strait so can start the new year square. Hope you have a pleasant and prosperous year.

Trying to get straight, to reconcile myself, was a fulltime job for my great-grandmother, especially in winter. December was Hattie’s birthday month, but she rarely got a chance to celebrate, what with endless treks to the wood pile, endless stoking of fires, endless trips to the sand bunk to bury yet another piglet or chick. Seems the good things are just not for me, she wrote again and again. Hattie, the motherless daughter, the full grown woman with a child’s heart, who by the end of this decade will mourn the loss of her childhood Ohio River house as the only home I’ve ever known.

No matter that she and Robert have made a welcoming home out of a briar patch. No matter that Briarwood, though the most modest house in the township, was where everyone wanted to be, its tiny rooms “fairly rocking” with laughter, as her granddaughters would remember. Still, reading the letters and hearing the stories passed down, it is hard not to agree with Hattie’s bleak assessment that the good things just weren’t for her:

. . . You wanted to know when I was coming to eat onions with you but you know how it is if I leve for a minute the bottom falls out of everything. I went down to Mrs. A’s the other day first time for about three weeks when I went I had 21 awfully nice little turks growing fine. When I came back 9 of them were gone, was only gone a few hours either. . . .

. . . we carried water till we were blue trying to keep it from dying things are rather trying no fruit no garden just nothing; but one can die trying anyway. . . .

. . . and the rats got 3 of my ducks and the pretty gosling it made me moast sick but we went after them and about tore up the place got one big old fat rascal and a small one. Ivan has put the ducks in a box and brings them in the room every since . . .

. . . had another frackas with a weasel this morning he grabbed a chicken and run off. there was a nest of little baby rabbits in the garden. He got all of them. Seems like you have to watch everything night and day . . .

. . . the creek is up we had to move chickens sitting hens and one old hens coop washed her out and took some of her eggs, she would soon have hatched too, and the old Turkey hen left her nest the other day with her eggs all pipped they were cold when I found them but I mussed and fussed around with till I got 20. Then something got in and killed 20 of my biggest chicks so you see I am having a sweet time but a good deal of bitter with it. . .

Across the county line, Hattie’s elder daughter was also having a good deal of bitter with her sweet. Reading the letters Bessie wrote during the early years of her marriage, I hear her trying to talk herself out of the darkness, though she casts a veil over specifics, claiming it has always been hard for me to put my thoughts on paper and then it would not always be safe anyway. I’ve no desire to start a conflagration of any sort . . . Well I must close now, as the ‘blue devils’ are closing in again.

Blue devils. Small eruptions of sadness? Or full-blown depression, like the depression that had plagued Bessie’s grandmother Lucippa and perhaps Hattie as well? What did Bessie mean by “blue devils”? Was she borrowing from canto XV of Byron’s “Don Juan,” one of her favorite works? Or had Bessie read the scathing tirade by one of another favorite poet, James Russell Lowell, blasting the sentimentalist’s enjoyment of his own suffering, the man who walks his “pet sorrow, a blue-devil familiar, that goes with him everywhere, like Paracelsus’ black dog”?

Even as a child, Bessie had leaned toward skepticism, and as the years passed, her skepticism threatened to grow into full-scale fatalism if she did not keep a tight hold on her emotions. As her mother, Hattie, would have phrased it, Fate had not arranged things as the young diarist of 1897 had imagined it should. Bessie had not had the chance to study astronomy, algebra, and music composition; had not made it to the Tennessee exposition; had not sung before appreciative audiences in high-ceilinged drawing rooms; had not gone on to high school or teachers’ training; had not written books of “flora and fauna.” The closest she got to the book world was the year she worked in Hammond. In 1904, at age twenty-four, Bessie had finally married, and Sant was a good man, though to Bessie’s mind O so confining in his goodness!

And what of Bessie’s most tender wish, what I believe to be Bessie’s First Great Sorrow? Because she rarely spoke of the event, family accounts stop short of suggesting her emotional landscape during this time. “They were badly shaken, they never tried again,” is what I heard growing up. And “Sant said he would never put her through that again.” To never try again? What were those early years like for this not-so-young wife whose life was crowded with children—younger siblings, cousins, Sant’s nephews and nieces, the children of friends and neighbors? Did Bessie wait expectantly, patiently, for her turn to come? Wait month after month for her body’s rhythms, as regular as the moon, to shift? I see her hurrying to the bedroom closet, afraid to look but not being able to stop herself, afraid the stain would appear as it did every month. Month by month, year by year, the world refusing to grant what every woman should be granted. Even her own mother; after forty-four years of service, Hattie’s body had still not let her be. Mere weeks after Bessie’s wedding, one son still at her knee, Hattie held a squalling infant in her arms, a son that, had Fate arranged things differently, might have been Bessie’s.

So, when after years of waiting and watching, the first heaviness finally came, the warmth and the heaviness in breast and belly, I imagine that Bessie was afraid to hope. Night passed to day and back into night and she kept her silence, lying beside her sleeping husband on the starched white sheets spread over the mattress stuffed with the feathers of geese whose carcasses she had plucked herself, as Hattie had taught her. Bessie lay in the dark, touching the almost imperceptible swell beneath her gown. As still as she could be. Not wanting to wake Sant, which was wrong, she knew, for the child was his too.

But she was not ready. This moment was her own, her hand resting on her belly, her mind playing out names: James, for Sant’s father. Robert, for hers. Or one of the uncles? She scrolled down the list: Thomas, Benjamin, Lafayette, Harve, Harrison, Jeremiah, William. Or Charles. They could call him Charlie, after Uncle Charlie. Yes, she liked that. Charlie Cosby. Charlie Dale? Charlie Dale Cosby? And if it was a girl? O so many lovely names: Adeline. Aurora. Lady Aurora from Bryon’s “Don Juan.” Anna. An alphabet of possibilities. Sant would have his own favorites, of course. And she would tell him, she was almost ready. Soon.

And Soon became Now, the glorious Now, Sant beaming, scurrying around her, beaming, and her flat belly rounding and Hattie sewing cotton wrappers with yokes and shirring. Days, Bessie filled jars with peaches and pears and sealed them with paraffin, lining the jars on the sill where the sun could pierce through them—”Like jewels!” Sant would say—and at night when the flutter kicks began, Bessie placed her hand on her belly and then Sant’s hand, too, so he could feel what he could now claim as his.

Then one night, late summer perhaps, the windows open and across the white bed the white curtains billowing in, out, in, a stillness that stopped Bessie’s breath. Even before her hand went to her belly, she knew. The curtains fluttered in, out, in, and Now became Then, and Then, Gone. Lying beneath the breathing curtains, she watched the weeks stretch out before her, white and silent. Nameless. She should have named her, marked her: Aurora. Anna. Not even a headstone—and why, she wondered now, all these years later, had she not insisted? Stillborn. Still born. Still.

***

Some things we know only by their rustle. A small bird in a branch above our head, or a tiny animal moving through the woods, would be lost to us if it did not stir something up. Or leave tracks to mark its passing. Some trails, like the ghost scale signs that experienced trackers know to follow, dissipate within hours. The shine on the grass, dulling. The bent grass slowly, imperceptibly, recovering its spring.

Other tracks last a long time: blades of grass packed down, feathers snagged on a fallen limb, gnawed roots, leaf depressions, a broken twig. There is nothing easy about burying an infant. My mother knows this, as did my grandmother Sylvia. If you are lucky, you get to hold the child one last time, memorizing details: the slight indentation on her chin, the swirl of hair on the nape of his neck. You name the child: Sylvia Sue, William Hayes. You purchase a headstone. Someone says a few words. In a few days you receive a sympathy card, another, a letter, a phone call. They are sorry for your loss, sorry you have to bear this.

To mourn a life lost to stillbirth or miscarriage is to mourn a life that was blown away like seed before it could be planted. You mourn not the child herself—the heart that had barely begun to tick, the blossoming petal of lung. What you mourn is what might have been. Unregistered grief, psychologists call what you are feeling. You know only that it hurts. “Better now than later,” a well-meaning friend says, hoping to mitigate the loss. “Before you became attached.” “You’re young. You can try again,” says another. “These things happen for a reason.”

***

October 18, 1910
Mrs. Bessie Cosby
Clarks Hill, Indiana
Dear Mrs. C.
        You will be glad to hear we number 512 here, 300 paid up. You must have more confidence in yourself, then you will win others to have confidence, in Mr. L our Pres. Have you heard they are to give Mrs. L. a present on her return from Europe? Each member gives 5 cents.
        Love from Your friend. Isabella Hurlburt

Bessie didn’t save all her postcards—good heavens, she thought, who needed that clutter? But she saved the ones from Isabella, the first cards Bessie had ever received from Boston. This latest one was splendid, with a photo of the State House, New House of Representatives. The organization that Isabella Hurlburt was referring to was the American Woman’s League, which Bessie had joined a few months before, during her June trip to the newly founded University City in St. Louis. She’d traveled alone on the train, mailing postcards to her mother and husband describing the splendid time she was having at the League’s first national convention. Over one thousand delegates and guests, mostly suffragettes and Progressives, had gathered from all over the United States. Some had even brought their husbands. Among other amenities, University City boasted a postal library, the Woman’s Magazine Building, Art Academy, an Egyptian-style temple, and the People’s University, which provided on-site classes as well as correspondence courses including the piano lessons Bessie would take advantage of once she returned home. There were parades, streetcar tours, dinners, speeches, exhibitions of pottery and ceramics, and a series of floats designed by young students of the Art Academy.

Of course there was a catch. Isn’t there always? The American Woman’s League founder and president was a man—E. G. Lewis, the publisher of the Woman’s Magazine and the Woman’s Farm Journal—and his membership plan dictated that each woman pay dues of fifty-two dollars or sell fifty-two dollars’ worth of magazine subscriptions. This subscription business was what Bessie was avoiding during the months her Boston friend was writing to her, for Lewis’s agenda was not at all what Bessie had imagined when she boarded the train for St. Louis.

Nor had she imagined the first sight that would greet her when she stepped off the train car. A sight she could not escape no matter which building she entered, which convention pamphlet she bought, which dinner she attended, which parade float passed before her eyes: the League’s emblem, a visual representation of everything Bessie had failed to accomplish. What she had traveled three hundred miles, alone, to escape. Forget the vote, the workplace, cultural and educational opportunities for all. Even here, in the feminist-infused air of University City, the message was clear. Woman’s Mission? A woman cradling a girl-child in one arm and a boy-child in the other.

Bessie’s last postcard to her husband announced that she planned to head home early. I hope she decided to stay after all, to witness the final event of the convention—the launching of a huge gas balloon, suggesting the heights to which all women, mothers and others, would soon ascend. 

*** 

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Clark’s Hill, Indiana
April 6th, 1913
Mrs. Arthur Sanders
Oxford, Indiana
Dear Sylvia,
       And so you are a “mother.” I have been trying to get used to the idea ever since the day you were married but it doesn’t seem to come easy. Somehow it sounds very queer. It is also queer that your son should resemble me, I thought those very young people were usually possessed of a florid complexion or does that merely refer to his nose? We are having a most exasperating time here waiting on babies, just as soon as one job is off hands, there is another to attend to with others expected momentarily and so much other work to be done until with it all I’m about tired and sick of everything. Lambs are coming three at a clip and there is a colt this morning and it is a pill.
       As ever, Your sister (and, in case Sylvia has forgotten her only sister’s name)
       Bessie D. Cosby

Even when writing to family, Bessie kept her distance, often drafting letters on a slip of paper or a used envelope before mailing off a final copy, which usually began with an apology: Though I think of you every day I know that is not enough. What you want is evidence isn’t it? . . . It is perfectly scandalous that I haven’t got word to you sooner but I’ve been trying to get myself properly composed and collected to write a rational letter but it is worse and worse this morning. Bessie prized rationality and tried her best to collect herself before composing her letters. But when she was under stress, overly tired, or in the midst of tasks that threatened to overwhelm her, when she was unable to get my wits together sufficiently, Bessie was once again her mother’s daughter, streaming thoughts together hurriedly, employing the equal opportunity conjunction “and” to link disparate ideas and events with no regard for a scale of mattering, though she occasionally caught herself—and this sentence consists mostly of ands. In these rare but highly emotional letters, Bessie is no longer stepping carefully outside herself to place her life’s events in context. She is overflowing her banks, letting loose the torrent raging inside and out:

. . . such a mess of happenings I don’t know where to begin telling . . . the hogs got the blind staggers and three of the best shoats drowned in the creek then I tried to raise two nice little sow pigs at the house and they both died and I didn’t get a single chicken out of the incubator and the lambs began coming and the hogs got one and one ewe had an extra nice lamb and no milk for him, we worked with them both, did all we could fed the lamb on the bottle a week and then he died . . . and Mon. morning Sant went to hunt the little spotted cow and found her with a little calf but it was dead . . . 

Reading these letters, I can almost hear her stamping her little foot for emphasis. And I am happy to hear the stamping. When Bessie is stamping, she is most herself—I pranced around here yesterday holding my jaw and wanting to bite anyone that looked at me but I soon got over it—that is, the toothache part. . . . I’ll come over sometime maybe, though I may have to run away, but you know I’m very likely to do that anyway. . . . Sant sold our “Bet” all right so I’ll have to walk for sure now. Ha! Don’t care!. It’s when Bessie’s stamping ceases that I begin to worry. When she is silent, when she appears only as a brief mention in the letters of others, I know that the blue devils are closing in again. In the spring of 1913, shortly after she posted the So you are a mother letter to Sylvia, Bessie’s letters suddenly stop, and her husband picks up the pen to write his first letter ever to his young sister-in-law. On the thin parchment paper, Sant’s careful, brown- inked lettering stands out clearly, decorated now and then with a swirly flourish:

Hello Sis Sylvia—Excuse haste, I mean MaMa.
       How is Dad Arthur? Any gray hairs yet . . . Well I know you think we could surely come out, but I have engaged half a dozen since the first of Feb and not one has ever come yet so I just do every inch I am worth. Worked all day and half the night with our little colt and then lost it just the same. But if Bessie only felt real well I would be awful glad. She is practicing her music while I write. I love to hear her for I think she gets more enjoyment out of it than anything she has.
       I hear you are in the Bull business. I thought you would be a Bull Moose yet. Well if you cant make out this scribbling, just come over and I will show you a Mooser can read if he can’t write. Now Sylvia be careful and don’t get up too soon. Take good care of yourself and the little one and tell Arthur he must let his beard grow so people can tell which is the boy when he takes him uptown.
       GoodNight To All, Sant
       P.S. Bessie is pounding the piano, makes one feel like living any way.

If Bessie only felt well? Yet she is practicing her music while Sant writes. Is she really too busy to visit her only sister and her newborn nephew, or has Sylvia’s motherhood thrown Bessie into another bout with the blue devils? Fate will buffet you about if you don’t fight back, she often writes. So maybe that’s exactly what Bessie is doing, fighting back with one hand while pounding out a new plan with the other. Almonds, avocados, groves of lemon and lime trees, imagine! If all goes well, in a few years the three-acre plot in California will be theirs, thanks to the newly formed American Woman’s Republic. Built on the ruins of the defunct American Woman’s League, the Republic is, finally, an organization that Bessie can fully support. Last year a woman was sworn in as Republic president, and more than four hundred members signed the ratified Declaration of Equal Rights. Members are also joining the Woman’s Peace Army, some even planning to attend the Peace Conference in Budapest. Budapest!

Of course such a trip is out of the question for Bessie, but she has done what she can, and now Sant is not only an official member of Roosevelt’s Progressive Party but also onboard the Republic’s Atascadero plan. Three acres isn’t much, especially in comparison to the farm Bessie and Sant are working every inch they are worth to keep alive. But these three acres are in California, The Land of Sunshine. And who wouldn’t want to be part of an agrarian utopia? Which is exactly what the Atascadero Colony will become, according to the “Option Fund Agreement” Bessie signed and mailed off just last week.

If the agreement’s clause describing “an exclusive colony of desirable persons of the white or Caucasian race” registered with either of the Cosbys, no mention was made in Bessie’s letters. Who wouldn’t want to be considered desirable? And if California was anything like Indiana, it went without saying that their neighbors would be of the Caucasian race. In 1913, Indiana was strikingly homogeneous not only racially but also in terms of religion and culture. Despite rapid population growth in cities like Gary, Terre Haute, Fort Wayne, Hammond, and especially Indianapolis, the percentage of Indiana blacks, like the percentage of Jews, Catholics, and immigrants, remained extremely small, especially in small towns and rural areas. 

A decade will pass before the KKK arrives full force in Indiana, attracted in part by the Interurban, a sophisticated rail system linking Indianapolis to dozens of small towns within a sixty-mile radius. The same Interurban Bessie and her family used, the Interurban Arthur rode while courting Sylvia. By the mid-1920s, ordinary Hoosiers will be sharing Interurban cars with Klan recruiters looking to pull scores of like-minded men and women into their ranks, their efforts culminating in, among other events, a celebration on Mother’s Day 1925 where Klan leaders call upon all men to honor our “glorious mothers as the only reliable source of counsel, sympathy, and courage in a man’s life.” 

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Like many phrases in the KKK lexicon, “glorious mother” will be lifted from popular culture in an attempt to appeal to ordinary citizens. Among my grandparents’ possessions is an illustrated book entitled The Glorious Mother, which Arthur presented to Hattie the year he married Sylvia. A perfect gift from one motherless child to another. “Each of us have now, or hold in loving remembrance, a glorious Mother,” the preface begins, followed by poem after poem with titles like “Rock Me to Sleep,” “A Man’s Mother,” and “The Song of the Old Mother.” Eighteen months later, in May 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a declaration for the nation’s first official Mother’s Day, and soon thousands of Americans were cranking up their newly purchased Victrolas to hear a tinny piano accompany 1915’s most popular song, whose lyrics spelled out the word m-o-t-h-e-r.


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