Over the years I have had the privilege and the good fortune to count the powerful, the rich, the learned and the famous – Presidents, billionaires and Nobel Laureates – among my colleagues and acquaintances. Some found themselves successful via fortunate circumstances, some were extraordinarily hardworking, and some were extremely gifted. Each affected me in a different way.
Yet none of them has ever impressed me as much as two exceptional people whose names you've never heard. That's no surprise. Their words never filled the newspaper headlines, their actions never graced the history books, nor did their work dominate the scientific literature. Nevertheless, they are my true saints and heroes – my grandparents.
Like millions of others, they were the unhonored, the unsung backbone of America. Indeed, people like them are the backbone of civilization. They taught me almost everything that matters about character, about honor and respect, and about love. Their names were Lora Estella McHenry and Sidney Harrison Frazier, and they were married one hundred years ago this week. This is a bit of their story, though it does not begin to do them justice.
Sidney was born in 1889 on the wrong side of the tracks – about ten miles by wagon from the tracks, in fact, in South Fork, Arkansas. (That's about ten miles from Mammoth Spring, where I grew up.) With a third grade education, he could read and write, but not well. Truth be told, just about everyone in the clay hills of northern Arkansas was lacking in education and dirt poor; it was all just a matter of degree.
Lora was born in 1891 in Pleasanton, Kansas, and her family moved to Arkansas when she was a girl. It was a bad economic choice. Her mother (my great grandmother) cried when she learned the cabin had no windows. Nevertheless, the family managed to preserve some semblance of the education and niceties they once knew.
Mostly Scottish-Irish descendents of settlers, both families lived hardscrabble lives, trying to eke out a living by the sweat of their brow. They were sharecroppers and some landowners, but everyone struggled. In later years, Sidney often talked of working from "can to cain't" (first light until too dark to see) for two bits a day, six days a week. That didn't leave much time for socializing, for Sunday was the day of rest and religion.
Every Saturday night, Sidney would walk five miles to the "musical" – fiddle and banjo and square dancing – then he'd walk home again. There, he fell in love with Lora, and looking at her photograph, it's easy for me to see why. She was a better woman than he deserved, and he knew it, but that didn't stop him from trying.
Their courtship blossomed via the mail, penny postcards tracing their growing love and marriage.
How are you? This leaves me all okay. You may meet with briter (sic) faces and with boys you think more true, but remember little darling, no one loves you as I do.
How are you? I am all right, am going this evening to take another music lesson. I had an invitation to a party last night but did not go.
Think of me when far away.
Think of me when near.
Think of whose love for you is lasting and sincere.
It's a testament to that love that they both saved the cards, and there are many, for over seventy years. Today, they are among my most prized possessions.
Lora raised six children (seven if you count my grandfather, Sidney) through two World Wars and the Great Depression. He was a good time Charlie, always looking for a get rich scheme, none of which ever worked. He bid to carry the U.S. mail into the country and won, because nobody in their right mind would bid so low. He'd then drive along the route with a .22 across his lap, shooting squirrels for supper. He also sold Rawleigh products out of the back of his car, often selling alcohol-laced lemon extract by the case to old women who couldn't get moonshine.
It's a wonder they never starved, and they would have if it weren't for her. Through it all, she was the rock, the one absolute, on which the entire family depended.
Her daughters worshiped her, and her grandchildren adored her. Her sons would have beaten any man half to death who wronged her, and not a soul in town would have questioned the righteousness of such an act. My mother was the last the six, born a decade after the others, and I was her only child. (That's my mother in the middle between my grandparents in the photograph above.) That made me the youngest grandchild, the joy of their old age.
The last years of their lives together, my grandparents lived in a little three room house my grandfather and my grandmother's brother (my great uncle Jesse) built with their own hands. There was a barn and chicken coop, and a garden, always a garden. My parents and I lived diagonally across from them, and I could toddle and later walk down to see them. (The man I described in The Power of Plum Jelly lived just across the dirt road, and the vignette I related in A Taste of Sherbert took place just after this.)
Remembering My Grandparents
There are so many memories from those times: my grandfather sending me home staggering drunk (at age five) after he gave me a hot toddy to "cure" my cold; fetching a live chicken for Sunday dinner and fried chicken – unless you've seen a chicken with its head cut off, you will never truly understand the colloquialism; eating watermelon on the back porch and spitting the seeds into the backyard; marveling at the hole my grandfather shot in the living room linoleum while cleaning his gun; sitting between my grandparents in the '48 Ford pickup truck; and my grandmother working, always working, in the garden and in her beloved flower beds.
I cannot recall my grandmother ever owning more than three dresses, all handmade on her own sewing machine. Most of the time, she made them from the cloth from flour sacks. (She also made me a sheriff's vest, complete with white star, for me to be a wild west cowboy!) Two of the dresses were for every day, and the third was for Sunday church.
At home, she always wore an apron, not just to protect her dress, but as a basket to fill and carry with garden produce. Her knees were bad after years of work, so she'd stoop rather than squat to work in the garden. She'd fill it with green beans, tomatoes, okra, cucumbers and corn, then sit on the back porch to work, breaking beans, making dill pickles, slicing okra and cutting corn. After fifty years of use, her paring knife was worn and curved from the number of times my grandfather had sharpened it on the whetstone.
Then there were the "musicals." The little house would be filled to overflowing with family and friends, the windows thrown open, with people standing on the porch and in the yard. Between my grandfather's fiddle playing and the five string banjo, the story telling and the laughter, I would watch my grandmother fixing ice water and soft drinks in the kitchen. I saw a beautific smile on her face, and I knew she was happy.
I was seven years old when she died, felled by a second heart attack while making a pan of cornbread for my grandfather. It was fitting in a way, for she died as she lived, always working.
My mother fetched me from school that day and told me grandma was gone. When we got to the little house on the corner, I sat down on the rolling footstool he and she had made from an old wooden box. He'd put legs and rollers on it, and she had uphostered it in green and white vinyl.
I sat there looking up at him and saw something extraordinary, something that is burned into my memory to this day. My grandfather, this story telling, fun loving man, looked down at me with big sad eyes. It was then that I saw the dried tears on the inside of his bifocals, and I knew life would never be the same again.
The funeral was on a cold Sunday afternoon, and the small town church was packed, filled with more flowers and more people than I'd ever seen before, both ones I knew and ones who rarely darkened any church door. In the years to follow, I watched many a small town preacher struggle to say something good and uplifting about some of the less beloved of their congregations, but in her case, the preacher never hesitated. He talked about all the good things she had done, her love of family and how much she had sacrificed.
With a seven year old's theological certainty, I knew she was in heaven, and the preacher did too. The only question in his mind and mine was whether the rest of us were good enough to get there with her. With the bar set this high, the preacher and I both had some serious doubts, and he took some time to remind us that we'd best be walking the straight and narrow or it would be warm, powerful warm, in the hereafter.
Saint, it's not a word I use lightly, but she surely was in all the practical senses that really matter. It's not just the gauzy memory of age, but a word I saw in action every day of my young life, and one hundreds of people used unbidden when they talked about her. She asked for nothing, and gave all she could in return. Everyone wanted to be better around her.
My grandfather lived almost twenty years after my grandmother died. We spent many a day together, him too old for anyone to take seriously and me too young. He'd regale me with stories about people and places, many of them gone before I was born.
There was the Devil's Backbone, a hill so steep one had to back a Model T up it because the gravity feed could not keep the engine running driving forward. There on the Myatt was the place where my father was born. There was the old Kinchelow place, which burned down in '08.
Often, we'd go fishing, using crawdads, worms and even corn as bait, fishing for bream, sunfish and trout. (To this day, I cannot order étouffée without hearing my grandfather's voice saying, "Boy, that is bait, not dinner.") We fished the Myatt, English Creek, Warm Fork, and Spring River, and sometimes we'ed even catch fish, though that wasn't the purpose, and neither of us cared if we came home with a filled stringer or not.
Sitting deep in the country on the riverbank of places he'd known as a boy, my grandfather would talk and I would listen as he told tales of 80-plus years of living, the good times and the bad. He gave me bad advice about how to meet girls and good advice about marriage. (He was a small town Justice of the Peace after all, and he'd learned that if you'd been drinking since sundown Saturday night and getting married seemed like a good idea at 2 am Sunday morning – it really wasn't.)
As the years went by, our roles slowly and subtlely shifted. I spent more time driving and doing, but always, I listened. Years later, when I was a young man and he was almost gone, I reminded him of the day my grandmother died, and the tears I'd seen on his glasses. I asked him what he'd been thinking. He simply said, "I haven't been happy a single day in my life since then. There's never been anyone else like her." Then he started to cry. He didn't need to say anything else.
Looking back on it now, I also understand why my grandmother stoically endured so much hardship. My grandfather made her laugh, and for all his faults, he loved her with a deep and abiding passion. That was enough for her.
Lora and Sidney; they lived in a world now gone. Yet that which was precious remains. They had a love that lasted, one that has crossed and touched generations.
I can still close my eyes and feel the gentle touch on my face as my grandmother kissed me and called me her "little sweet meat." I can hear my grandfather tell a story and punctuate it with an uproarious, "I laughed till I cried."
Make no mistake; there are saints and heroes among us. In my case, their names were Lora and Sidney. Yes, the Ph.D. is worth something, but this is what really matters.