Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Family Story

A picture of Mertie Jones
Most of us have family stories passed down from our parents and/or grandparents. I’ve heard many, but one in particular has always resonated with me: a tragic story about a great-aunt of mine I never met. I wrote her story when I was a teenager, but I have no idea what happened to that story. Still it remains in my memory.

My great-grandparents, Homer and Ruth Jones, lived to be in their nineties and only had two children – at least to my knowledge that’s all. Maybe some babies died at birth or Great-grandma miscarried some. Those tales were not passed down. My Grandfather Edward was their oldest child, a handsome young man and maybe a little spoiled by his parents. He was known to have the fanciest buggy and the fastest horse around. I’ve seen pictures of him and he was quite attractive with his dark hair. His sister, Mertie, was two years younger than he was. Mertie’s picture hangs at the bottom of my stairs. I see some resemblance to one of my nieces in her face.

Mertie was sixteen years old that spring when the apple trees bloomed and a group of young boys and girls were enjoying the spring weather. The boys were bouncing the girls who sat on a low hanging branch of an apple tree. I can imagine the squeals and laughter that day. However, Mertie fell off and hit her head. I don’t know if she was knocked unconscious or not, I only know that from that day on she suffered from severe headaches. They were so severe that one night she left her family’s farmhouse and was only caught just in time before she leaped over the edge of a cliff to the bottom of a ravine close by.

Mertie was sent to a health facility near Cleveland. This was in the late 1800s so I’m not sure what kind of treatment she would have gotten. She wrote letters to her mother begging to come home. Eventually, they brought her home, but that didn’t end the problems. When she came at her mother with a large knife, she was sent to an insane asylum in Massillon, Ohio. It was some distance from their home so visits from the family weren’t often.

However, my great-grandmother never gave up hope that she would be able to bring Mertie home. When my great-grandfather got too old to drive, my grandfather would take them to visit her at least twice a year. For many of those years Mertie didn’t recognize them. One has to wonder what kind of treatments they were giving her; sedatives of some sort? Shock treatments? I never got to see her, but my brother – the favorite grandchild of my grandfather – went more than once with Grandpa to see her.

After my great-grandpa died at age 96, great-grandma, who always felt her husband kept her from bringing her daughter home, finally faced the fact that she was too old at 92 to bring her daughter home. The week after great-grandpa’s funeral, I spent the night at my great-grandma’s house with one of my cousins. In the morning she opened a trunk to show us everything of Mertie’s she’d kept all those years. There were Mertie’s clothes as well as all the art work Mertie had done and I realized Mertie had artistic talent.  I’d never seen her work before.

A few years later my great-grandmother died, too. Eventually, there was an auction, but I was working that day and couldn’t go. I always wondered what had happened to Mertie’s stuff.
I imagine when the house was cleared, only the antiques were brought to my grandparents farm for the auction. Probably her sketches and watercolors weren’t deemed important and tossed. Some of the family members picked a few mementos. My mother must have chosen Mertie’s picture. Otherwise I wouldn’t have it today.

The Jones family plot dating back to the 1800's

Great-aunt Mertie lived until she was in her late eighties. A life that would have been different if they knew then what doctors know today on how to treat concussion or whatever else happened to her brain that day. Maybe a blood clot? And one has to wonder if her treatments there made it even worse. She was buried at the graveyard connected to the asylum which is no longer in operation. I wish shed been buried at the family plot where her brother and parents are buried. My parents, an aunt and uncle as well as my son and a granddaughter are buried in this cemetery.

What family stories do you remember? 

Do they ever find their way into your work in some way?


Jim Jackson said...

I have a rich family history. Just this month my short story, "Last Composition" was published in the anthology, Mystery & History, Oh My!.

I included as characters my great-great-great grandfather James Caleb Jackson (a noted abolitionist and hydropathy physician) and his adopted daughter Harriet Austin (one of the first female physicians in the United States).

Because of the direct family link, I decided to use a pen name Giles Elderkin for that story.

~ Jim

Gloria Alden said...

Interesting, Jim. Those are family members you can be very proud of. I'd like to read that story.

My sister and her husband tried to trace the Jones family as far back as they could, but were stymied when they got as far as Connecticut because Jones was such a common name among the Welsh who came to America.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

what a sad story, Gloria. I'm wondering what a current and correct diagnosis would reveal.

Warren Bull said...

For most of my life my father refused to talk about his experiences in combat during WWII. Late is his life he asked if I would help him write a memoir. I did and I learned many things about him I had only glimpsed before.

Kait said...

Coming from a long-lived family I've heard many wonderful stories. My mother's grandparents (on her mother's side) lived into their 100s so I heard many stories first hand - although I don't claim to remember a lot of them except as family history. My favorite story comes from my mother's father's side. I never met him, but he was accidentally born in the US. His mother was visiting her sister in New York City and had no idea she was as far along as she was. Yep, US born. As a young man he came back to this country from his native France and was surprised that he was considered a citizen already when he applied for his naturalization. He arrived before WWI, I guess passports were not required, or didn't concern themselves with such details as place of birth.

Gloria Alden said...

Margaret, whatever the diagnosis was, I'm quite sure today they could have released the pressure on the brain or something.

Warren, my uncles never talked about their experiences, at least I never heard about them until after their deaths. One had parachuted into Normandy on D Day and the other fought in Northern Africa and Italy. His best friend was killed next to him in Italy during a battle. One of my clients for Mobile Meals told me about how he tricked the Navy on his third try to volunteer and when he was again sent to the line of those not accepted - he'd lost his front teeth playing football as a kid - when no one was looking he slipped into the line of those who'd been accepted.

Gloria Alden said...

Kait, what wonderful stories you must have. Interesting about the one born in U.S. Did he end up staying here when he came back? I assume he did. I wish we could go back further. My grandfather on my father's side came over when he was 8 years old. My sister went to Slovakia and found a cemetery with family names - totally spelled differently than ours, but she didn't find anyone who was even distantly related. Of course, language was a barrier, too.

KM Rockwood said...

My family is full of story-tellers, and it's hard to know what is true, what is imagined and what is pure fiction.

We do know that my grandfather on my father's side was a coal miner and a Molly Maquire in and changed his name, probably to avoid arrest. He became an organizer in the early Teamsters Union, back when they actually drove teams. I'm a Teamsters Union member, although I've been on "withdrawn" status for years. I could re-activate for a small fee, but I don't anticipate working a Teamster job again.

A story about my great grandmother on the my mother's side is probably riddled with speculations, but there is some basis in fact. As it's told, she and her brothers disembarked in Boston, emigrating from Germany. An elderly widower was meeting the incoming ship, looking for a wife. He chose my great grandmother (there was over 50 years difference in their ages.) He set her brothers up with a lobster boat and built her a wonderful house, which I can remember visiting in my childhood. They had five children quickly, and he promptly died, in his early 80's.

KB Inglee said...

Warren, my father seldom talked about WWII either. He had some photos he took in Iceland and he told us about the farmers who were his friends. He loved Iceland. But the rest of the war was sealed away somewhere.
There is a family secret that my mother was told when she was 40 and considered old enough to stand it. She came right home and told the rest of us. We laughed for days, in fact we still laugh about it. No I am not going to tell you what it is, out of respect for my grandmother. Just imagine something that was shocking in 1860 and would be public knowledge today.

Kara Cerise said...

There are a number of family stories that I remember. My mother's father, who I never met, made alcohol in the bathtub during Prohibition. I don't think he was a bootlegger but enjoyed sharing it with friends and neighbors. My mom kept his little brown jug and displayed it in the living room.

My father told a story about his unconventional great-aunt who was a dentist in the early 1900s in Massachusetts. When she turned ninety, the family threw her a birthday party. The story goes that she drank too much, ate too much, and danced the Charleston. That night she died peacefully in her sleep.

Gloria Alden said...

KM, you have a good basis for some good historical mysteries there. Have you thought of that?

Oh, KB. Now you have us all wondering about that. I'm assuming she got pregnant out of wedlock. That would have been a secret to hide. Actually, it was even when I was a teenager. Girls went to the Florence Critteron Home where they had their babies and gave them up for adoption and came back saying they'd been staying with a sick aunt to help out or some such story.

Gloria Alden said...

Kara, I love your family stories. I thought of Margaret Maron when I read about your mother's father. You could write a historical mystery along those lines. Even more delightful is the story of the great-aunt. I love it - well, not the part about her dying, but you have to admit, that would be a nice way to die.

Chris Wilkinson said...

Such a sad story, Gloria. And you're right, the ending could have been so different had it happened recently. I often think that about my aunt, who was in a car accident when I was a little girl. Today they know how to treat trauma and I'm sure she would have survived in far better shape. Coincidentally, my short story, "The Decoy", appears along with Jim's in History and Mystery, Oh My! and is based on the adventures of my mother and aunt during WWII, so yes,in answer to your question, I draw from family memories and stories for my writing. It's a wonderful source of material.

Gloria Alden said...

Chris, that is wonderful. I hope the book will be for sale at Malice. Will you by any chance be going to Malice Domestic this year? I buy most of my mysteries there.

B.K. Stevens said...

That's a haunting story, Gloria. I don't have anything to equal it. I did once use an incident from my family's history--heavily fictionalized, of course, with a murder added--in a story that was published in an anthology. I'm not going to mention either the story or the anthology by name here, though. I never told my family about that story, and I still wouldn't want them to find out.

E. B. Davis said...

We have a similar story, Gloria. In the 1920's when my father was born, his cousin was also born--with special needs. His intelligence never rose above a two-year-olds. After his parents died, he was put in a state institution. He lived into his sixties.

A more sordid story--my grandparents met at a funeral. The deceased was my grandfather's brother and my grandmother's fiance. The man, Jesse, was a tomcat. Speculation was that a woman's father/brother killed him after he dallied with her. So--my grandparents met at his funeral.

Gloria Alden said...

B.K. interesting. You have me wondering and, of course, you wouldn't want your family to find out, especially those who are the characters or close to them.

E.B. What a great story that second one is - not the first one, of course. Things have changed a lot over the years for those with special needs, although we still hear of them not being properly cared for by their families.