Martha Rebecca Johnston, my grandmother, was born April 23, 1905. She died nine years ago, on May 6, 1998. This post originally included an anecdote about her dream of heaven, which she wasn’t too crazy about, and her funeral, and now you can read it at the end of “My Son Went to Heaven, and All I Got Was a No. 1 Best Seller,” my piece for the New York Times Magazine about Heaven Is For Real.
In the photo above, Martha is in her mid-forties. Below: her baby photo; young Martha saluting with a double-barrel shotgun at her shoulder (thanks for the gun tutorial, Will); Martha in what looks like a flapper-era suit and tie; Martha looking pensive in a dress; Martha standing with her toddler daughter (my mom); and Martha smiling in her older age.
Zone Johnston, my granny’s father, was always dragging his wife and kids to carpentry jobs throughout Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, and beyond, and then abandoning them in favor of a new pretty face. According to my mom, “[his wife’s] people would have to come to where they were and take them home until Zone finished his work and wandered back to find them.”
Maybe Zone mailed this postcard (above) from the scenic Imperial Sugar Co. offices to his younger daughter, Louise, while he was away gallivanting. The message reads:
Hello Louise when are you coming to see Dady? tell Mama to write to me very soon. when have you seen Pa Johnston. write me a little letter/from Dad
If it was sent in 1913 — and I think it was, but someone has enhanced the date by hand — Louise would have been five or six years old. Less than three decades later she died in the state mental hospital.
Gratuitous 1913 trivia: The world’s first crossword puzzle was published in The New York World in December of that year.
Meet Rindia Bruce, my mom’s paternal grandmother and a woman to whom I owe an apology. I mistakenly believedshe was the ancestor who killed her last baby by beating its head against the doorstep. My mother recently clarified:
You are mixed up with my grandmothers. Gran Rindia was a Pentecostal holy roller!!
It was Rebecca Johnston (“Mammy” Johnston), Zone’s mother and my great-grandmother, who killed her baby. Granny only told me about one — I don’t know if she killed more or not. Remember, she had umpteen children. As far as I know Mammy didn’t get in any trouble — don’t know if anyone missed the infant(s). The way they dressed back then, a woman could probably hide pregnancy pretty easily under all the clothes. She hit the baby’s head on the back door stoop.
She and most of her children (including Maud) dipped snuff. I remember each Johnston carried a can around to spit in and after a meal we all would sit in the living room and each one would spit from time to time and argue and fight. Zone’s family was a striving, hell-raising bunch!! I hated being there.
Mammy died when I was about 5-7, and then we didn’t visit anymore. I remember sneaking upstairs as Granny and all the other women around began undressing Mammy and cleaning her up after she had died. It was scary. No one knew I was there. I stood on the steps just high enough to barely see and listen to what they were saying.
Mammy was rather a fearsome lady. Of course, she was kind of grouchy and old, but I don’t recall she ever said a kind word to me, nor did she ever cuddle me or do any of the things grandmothers are supposed to do. It is not too hard to believe what she did — she was probably tired of all the children and probably couldn’t picture another mouth to feed and another baby to take care of and rear to adulthood. [Ed. note repressed.]
Rebecca Johnston is pictured in this photo (back row, second from left) with her husband and surviving children. Gratuitous literary link: Euripides’ Medea.
By far the most chilling passage in the old family paraphernalia I’ve been digging through is this one, from a letter sent by Terrell State Hospital — formerly, the North Texas Lunatic Asylum — to inform my grandmother’s mom that her daughter, Louise, died from tuberculosis-related complications:
We are sorry this girl could not have been mentally restored. We assure you we cared for her as far as she would allow us to do, and we wanted you to know the circumstances concerning her death.
Upon receiving this letter, Mrs. Z.H. Johnston jotted down an outline for a thank-you note.
To which she ultimately received this response. (Larger version here.)
Of course, even with a funeral looming, someone had to buy the groceries.
And then there was the sanity-neutral obituary to be written.
Here’s a portrait of Miss Louise Johnston, the deceased, at some unspecified, earlier time.
I don’t remember seeing pictures of my Great Aunt Louise until recently, but she has haunted me since I turned fourteen. That year (and I’ll just quote from my Loser anthology essay)
my grandmother pulled me aside to warn me I was old enough now to be vigilant about madness: my own, my sister’s, and my future children’s. She described the descent of her own little sister, Louise, a beautiful girl with hair exactly the same shade of auburn as mine was then, into early dementia.
Louise stepped out of her clothes one hot Texas afternoon, and went dancing down the street, naked, with a scarf. Institutionalized for a time, Louise came home, only to pull a butcher knife from her bathwater and brandish it against her mother. She was returned to the sanitarium, where she died of tuberculosis.
“Always remember,” my grandmother said, “insanity skips generations.” It’s the kind of warning that tends to stay on your mind.
While worrying all those years about whether madness would descend, I conjured up a particular image of Louise. And here she is, more or less as I’ve imagined her: scowling in high heels. Not so much deranged as defiant.
I knew my grandmother dropped out of high school so Louise could stay in. That she got a job and bought clothes for her sister, and shoes, and other things to help her blend with wealthier people than the very poor family she came from. I knew she was thrilled that I was born with dark hair and that my middle name was Louise. I knew she had watched her sister deteriorate over the years in the mental hospital.
But somehow I never pictured them together — not until my mom’s boxes arrived, and I uncovered photo after photo of the two of them joking around, holding puppies, balancing on tree logs, playing instruments. I wonder now if my grandmother thought I looked like her sister, although I don’t see any resemblance between us, myself.
In the shot at the top of this page, Martha (grandmother) smiles at left while baby Louise sits in a wicker pram. In the portrait below, Louise sits at right, her mouth open; Martha stands next to her, looking serious.
And in this last photo, they’re older — maybe 15 and 11? Martha, at left, smiles off into the distance, while Louise looks at the camera. Louise was considered the beauty of the two of them, but I of course think my grandmother is prettier.
I’ve been delving into family history recently, and my mom has been answering questions about her fascinating lothario father (above, right), who died the year before I was born. From recent email:
Daddy was married 13 times, I think: once before he married Granny, then 2-3 times to Christine…. I have a letter here from Gran [from] when Daddy was running around with her when I was a baby. Perhaps it has a last name on it. Next (I think) he married a woman named Evelyn…. She may be the one he was married to when he was shot in the gut and nearly died. I think she shot him but don’t know for sure.
Oh, sure. Back when he was shot in the gut and nearly died. . . . I’m sorry, what? Every time I think we’ve exhausted all the homicidal events my family was messed up in, my mother trots out something like this.
Earlier this week she supplemented her stories with two boxes and a large padded envelope full of family photos, letters, assorted official documents, and other genealogical paraphernalia. I’ve spent the last few nights digging through all of it. I feel like a kid snooping through drawers, except I’m finding all the good stuff, and no one’s going to round a corner, flick on the light, and ask me what the hell I think I’m doing.
In lieu of the old Friday sign-offs, which I’ve been missing, I’ll post favorite pictures and whatnot for the next few months. As with all my personal ramblings, just skip ’em if you’re not interested.
The picture at the top of this post is of Mom’s parents. (Larger version here. According to the decorative cover, the photo was taken at Dallas’ “Italian Village,” 3211 Oak Lawn. Rooting around online, I found a postcard ad that says the place was “famous for spaghetti and big steaks with Idaho baked potato.”) Looks like a real rip-snorter of an evening, huh?
I spent last weekend getting sucked into Ancestry.com, in search of information about ancestors like my mom’s dad, whom she claims was married thirteen times, and his hay-hook-wielding father and infant-murderess mother.* You’d think the census takers would’ve been moved to jot a few observations about these people in the margin, but no.
I did find out where my grandmother’s only sister was locked up, though. “Supper for 2000 Patients” is a postcard picturing the place, the Terrell State Hospital, formerly known as the North Texas Lunatic Asylum. Here’s a journalist’s report on what it was like to spend the night there in 1896.
All but one of the ancestors I’ve traced back beyond my great-grandparents are monotonously English or Scottish, and Protestant. The Mayflower, colonial Virginia, the whole thing. One of my Puritan forebears sported the carefree name of “Fear Brewster.” So far my closest brush with ethnic diversity is the Frenchman who impregnanted an ancestor and ran off.
But I did find out that I’m (maybe possibly) related to my beloved Mark Twain two different ways, through each of my parents.
We’re not kissing cousins. We’re not even kicking cousins. But still.
* Amended to add: I had the wrong great-grandmother in mind here. This one was “a Pentecostal holy-roller,” I am informed. It was my mother’s mother’s father’s mother who was reputed to be the baby killer.