This shot of my mom’s father in front of Honolulu’s Ilikai Hotel is undated, but I tell myself it’s one of the last photos taken of him before his death in Phoenix, in 1970. I like to think he went out partying.
My grandmother always claimed he died of cirrhosis of the liver. My mom, as I recall, disputes this, saying that he had many health problems, partly as a result of being shot.
At one time my maternal grandfather was a garment cutter. Later he had an auto repair shop. It’s unclear what all happened during the intervening years of carousing and various jobs and one near-fatal shooting, but he wound up in Phoenix, Arizona, where he became — of course — a successful real estate agent.
According to my mom’s note, this is a photo of Robert Bruce with his last wife, Eleanore, “in front of Daddy’s realty co. He was the first industrial realtor in Phoenix.” So now you know who to blame…
For a woman who claimed to dislike drunks, my grandmother sure had a knack for attracting them.
Of course she wasn’t responsible for her gallivantingfather, Zone. And we have to give her a pass on the verycharming first husband, Robert Bruce, who, Granny claimed, squandered so much of her money on booze, she couldn’t even afford to buy my mother a toothbrush.
But years after kicking Robert out, she married again — to another alcoholic, an older man. Smith was at least doting, and had some money of his own, but he still stumbled home, raving, from the bar, whereupon he would have to be restrained and dragged to bed. My mother recalls him standing at the window, in his underwear, with a shotgun.
Granny even worked for a beer distributor. In this photo she stands outside Ben E. Keith, an Anheuser-Busch outlet where she worked as a secretary/office manager. I believe she started working there shortly after ridding herself of Robert in the early 1940s. This shot, according to my mother’s notes, was taken around 1960, when my grandmother was in her mid-fifties.
Periodically readers write in to ask if my maternal grandfather really married thirteen times. I never met the man; he died the year before I was born. So all I can say is, that’s what my mother tells me. My grandmother corroborated some of the wilder tales, and told a few of her own, but mostly she didn’t like to talk about him.
Not only did Robert Bruce tend to leave his women, he was constantly switchingjobs, and he moved around a lot. Supposedly he did a stint in Hollywood, courting actresses. I haven’t been able to track all the divorces and unions. I don’t even know how to go about finding a record of the woman who may have shot him near the SMU campus.
My mother believes that the “unidentified lady” walking with him in this photo (above) is his first wife. Mom was (amazingly) his only (known) surviving child, but according to Robert the first woman he married had a baby who died at birth.
The last time I visited my mother, she had sixteen or seventeen dogs. During my high school years, there were also birds. Hundreds of them. And before she met my father, she kept more than thirty cats in a small apartment. She was encouraged in these animal hoarding tendencies from a young age. Mom was five when my grandmother, who was a single parent and worked all day, started sending her alone on the bus into downtown Dallas on Saturdays to have lunch, see a movie, and buy a pet. She came home with puppies and kittens, naturally. And there were bunnies and hamsters and turtles and fish, and God knows what all else.
Granny said there was a monkey who didn’t like to come down out of the curtains. My favorite story was the one about the baby alligator that kept growing and growing until he finally got loose in the neighborhood and was carted off to the zoo. I am not making this up.
My grandmother liked to complain about Mom’s menagerie, but she was an animal-lover, too. In the top photo, she (at left) and her sisterLouise (at right) hold some puppies. Below she plays with her dog, “Bingo II,” presumably the replacement for the first Bingo, at Christmastime. And below that she’s the one in the foreground, crouching with some unnamed pooch, while her mother (who also loved puppies) holds the baby and her father waits for the photo to be over.
You know why this old photo of the Kinchens looks even more like a portrait to accompany a Poe story than previous installments? Because my mother was sent, and forwarded to me, a photocopy of the original photo.
Never mind print shops, don’t bother with scanners. No, in my family, we’ll just slap that baby down on the Xerox machine.
One of my maternal great-great grandmothers, Martha Caroline Kinchen, sits in the center of this photo, holding one of her grandbabies, Alma Honor Harris. Martha Caroline’s children stand around them. My great-grandmother, Alma Kinchen Johnston, is to her left. According to my mom’s notes, this photo dates to 1901 or ’02.
Prior Kinchen photos (not from photocopies) are here, here, and here.
I’d like to believe my Mississippi forebears were too poor to own anyone and too far down the Antebellum social ladder to oversee plantations. That’s not the way it’s been presented, but, as a Mississippian once told me, “Delta Aristocracy is redundant. Completely. They all think they’re aristocracy, even the trailer park occupants.” So I’ve got a lot of research left to do.
This summer I dragged my beloved Aunt L. through the Mississippi Delta. On the way we stopped in Memphis to visit my great aunt and uncle, both in their 80s, who told us which little church in Acona to stop at and where exactly we would find Four-Fifths plantation, which my great-grandfather managed in the ’40s and ’50s.
Great Aunt E. waved her hand magisterially around her apartment, which is filled with lovely things she’s picked up on her travels. Trees etched of jade. Delicate porcelain bunnies. Crystal and china, all perfectly arranged. “Well, you know,” she said, in an accent that makes Eudora Welty sound like a Yankee, “it’s not popular anymore to have a plantation in your background.”
A thousand sarcastic rejoinders leapt to mind, but I bit them back. The woman is 86 years old. She’s recovering from a mastectomy. What’s the point?
As we drove down into the Delta, Aunt L. helped me differentiate between the cotton crops and the soybeans. The corn, a newly viable crop down there with the advent of biofuel, was easier to pick out. Everywhere there were deteriorating shacks and rusted-out cars and overgrown lots. The slow gentrification of downtown Greenwood and blues hot spots of Clarksdale notwithstanding, the Delta remains shockingly poor. And man, it is hot. Hot and dusty and — despite the lush green of the fields and the trees beyond them — grim.
I’ll be honest: I went onthetrip partly to figure out my dad’s family. I didn’t find out much. Why I have this urge to know about my ancestors, I don’t know fully yet, but I guess I feel that it will explain something about my parents and me and my sister. Maybe that’s why, standing out in front of the Four-Fifths sign, I felt so implicated.
The man in the Firestone ad below is my great-grandfather, Daddy Joe. Below that are two buildings still on the plantation site; Aunt L. thinks the top one was Daddy Joe’s office, and the other was a convenience store.
When my dad’s father’s dad — we called him Granddaddy — closed down his cotton business, this article ran in the Drew, Mississippi newspaper.
Granddaddy probably really did grow up in a house without a ceiling, a house so cold that “when papa would talk through the hall to the other side of the house his mustache would freeze.” And he was sweet to me the few times I met him; I’m the “pixyish brown-haired great-granddaughter” he tells the reporter about.
But based on the stories I’ve heard, most of the platitudes ascribed to him here — apart from “save something out of every dollar you earn” and “I was always conservative” — are offered for posterity, not from the heart. He was, by all reports, incredibly racist; so it’s hard to know where to begin with lines like these: “I have touched the lives of many, both black and white during this span of years. Because I have done so, it has made me a better person.”
When my mother first met the Newton patriarch, he took the whole family to dinner at a local restaurant — and then he instructed everyone at the table what to order. (This did not sit well. You don’t tell a Texan woman what to do.)
She also claims that my grandpa told her that Granddaddy fairly often sent him get out into fields to pull a plow. While Grandpa was dragging it through the earth, in the sweltering heat, Granddaddy would sit under a tree, drinking lemonade and laughing at him.
Grandpa is in no condition now to confirm or deny this story, and he probably wouldn’t be inclined to talk about it with me anyway. But he does tell everyone in his Nashville assisted living facility that he grew up pulling a plow in the Mississippi Delta.
I’m coming down with a cold or something, so in lieu of the great-grandfather story I’d planned to tell, here’s a shot of Grandpa, my dad’s father, standing with the rest of the committee to welcome Mary Ann Mobley, Miss America 1959, home to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. (Larger version here.)
Grandpa stands to Ms. Mobley’s right, wearing sunglasses.
Of everyone in his family, my dad is said to be most like his grandfather (above, right). In personality, I mean. Not in appearance.
The elder Newton apparently was so severe and domineering that his wife, Louise (above, left; not to be confused with Great AuntLouise), rejoiced when her hearing started to go. No longer did she have to adjust her bathroom breaks to his schedule or listen to his lectures about household finances or how to buy cotton. She just turned down the volume on her hearing aid and moved through her days unmolested.
After they sold their house in the Delta, and moved down to live near my dad’s parents on the Gulf Coast, she swore she’d never speak to her husband again. And she stuck to it. She stayed in her apartment, reading romance novels and watching soap operas and talking walks alone on the beach. She never visited him in the nursing home. She even declined to attend his funeral.
I used to wonder why my mom stayed with my father for so long when they were so ferociously ill-matched, but she always said it was better to have an overbearing father than no father at all, and when I look at this photo, of her own dad, Robert, holding her as a baby, I think I understand the marriage better. Robert looks so shrunken and defeated to me here, and her own wave seems to match the sentiment. It wasn’t too long after this that my grandparents divorced.
As a child, Mom kept this picture glued in her scrapbook alongside almost all the other photos we have of him. I wonder how many times she leafed through it after he disappeared, when he was off marrying women and starting service stations and grocery stores and realty firms.
Robert Bruce must have executed the holographic will (below) leaving Mom all of his property around the time my grandmother decided to divorce him.
“Regardless of what Christine has done I blame her no more than the man. I am a great believer in the ‘Single Standard,'” she begins. She urges him to take Christine back, as she herself has decided to give Robert another chance. “I believe … all the misery and inconvenience C has been put to in trying to keep it hid from everyone has made her a better finer, person for the experience.”
In her old age, Martha claimed to be a lifelong atheist, but in this letter (after the jump) she invokes God several times. (Larger images here and here.) I don’t know whether she ever mailed the letter.
My grandmother kept letters documenting the fallout from my grandfather’s affair (with the woman who became his next wife). In this missive (below), he urges my grandmother to leave her parents’ place and come back to him. The language becomes increasingly unhinged and self-pitying; no doubt he was getting progressively shitfaced as he wrote. My favorite passages (typos reproduced from the original; emphasis added):
Tell Betty [my mother] Daddy loves her and will take her to the zoo if she comes home at once & if not she may never see me again. You took all her pictures & there are no sheets for the bed. The one on the bed now stinks.
I also want to find the S.B. that came down here or any other Person that keeps noseing into our Business. I may get gas & come down There. Then I am going to Bring Betty Back with me & slap the shit out of 2 or 3 C— then you can kiss asses until you are full.
Give Betty my love and you can have it to if you want me instead of shit.
I left for my Tennessee-Mississippi sojourn sans laptop (R.I.P.), cell phone (forgotten at work), and socks (oops), but I’ve got a camera, and just finished rereading As I Lay Dying, so I should at least get some photos and some Faulkner up. (Did you know the people of Oxford used to call him “Count No-Count“? I didn’t, or had forgotten, until my uncle mentioned it offhand tonight.)
The emaciated horse in the photo above pulls a covered wagon containing three passengers who are identified on the back as “Grandpa, Martha, and myself.” Martha is my grandmother. Grandpa is, I believe, Sylvester Kinchen (pictured below with his wife, Martha Caroline). And I’m guessing that “myself” is Martha’s sisterLouise. The horse-and-buggy shot must have been taken in or near Dallas in the 1920s.