In the following, some of the dates and details may be inexact. Consider this account first and foremost a personal recollection from the inside of my own damn head. If my family is reading this, feel free to fill in the fiddly bits in the comments.
A few nights ago, a crash on my porch signaled the Postal Service’s delicate ministrations, and I opened the door to find a cardboard box marked “fragile” on my porch. It was from my aunt, my mother’s big sister. When my brother and I were kids, my aunt would be the one who gave us squirt guns and candy cigarettes, and other naughty-but-not-explicitly-bad things. So, I was curious to see what my aunt could have sent me now. “This is the strangest wedding gift anyone every got,” she said in her letter. It was a box of my great-great grandmother, Eula Stanbro’s things: post cards, “head of class” awards for spelling and reading from elementary school, Bible trading cards, old ads from magazines, and some needlework. My aunt described it all as “remnants of a short and rather colorless life but one filled with the optimism of the young.”
It’s funny looking at stuff from a century or more ago. Eula Stanbro was born in 1900 and died in 1921; the year on the postcards signifies about how old she was, which I cannot help but think about in terms of years left to live with such a brief life as hers. Her postcards feel like a puzzle for me to unravel—I go through one piece at a time, trying to work out the people and places in her short life. She was an excellent reader and speller in grade school. She went to school at least through age 11, and most have excelled enough for a friend to ask her on one of the postcards if she was planning on teaching at the Prairieview School, the one-room schoolhouse where my granddaddy was educated, or at least educated at, and where he met my grandmother. He reputedly flirted with her in grad school by sticking a snake in front of her face as she was grinding a pencil.
My grandparents were married on December 25th, Christmas Day in the morning in the early 1940s while my grandfather was home from the Navy. My grandmother was a court clerk, having been one of the first in her family to seek any kind of post-secondary education, since she went to a little bit of secretarial school. Anyway, legend has it that he asked her to marry him and she went down to the courthouse and wrote out her own marriage license. ‘Course legend also has it that they were married in the living room of the Methodist minister, despite them being Baptist—my mother thinks maybe he was available on Christmas Day. And my grandmother has reported directly that she wore a little blue Pendleton suit to her wedding—some of her fancy court clerk cloths. This came up because my mother sent her some pictures of my wedding, and warned her that I wasn’t gonna be in a white dress. Who knew I was actually mimicking my grandmother by getting married in a practical piece of nice, non-white clothing that I can use again.
Eula was married at age fifteen to a seventeen-year-old named Charlie Spears, a hillbilly of inconsistent behavior and ill repute that she apparently had a big crush on. I recall reading one of her letters a few years ago when a different cache of her things was unearthed. You can tell she was really in love. I do not miss an era in which it was perfectly reasonable to marry your teenage sweetheart while you were still a teenager. It’s interesting trying to figure out Eula’s social life from her postcards. I only have a couple of dozen; some are from her, some are written to her. She corresponds with her grandmother a lot. I have things ranging from when she was in first grade to when she was a teenager. There doesn’t seem to be much from after 1917 or so. There are vaguely flirty postcards from a man named Robert Bell. Who was he? Was he less of a loser than Charlie Spears? Did my great-grandmother have many suitors? How much of a choice did one even get to make in a place like Prairieview, New Mexico? West Texas and Southeast New Mexico are still bleak country—all short-grass prairie, but now with the Ogalala Aquifer mostly drained. Desperate people, clinging on like topsoil. I have a photo my mother sent me of the founding of Prairieview, New Mexico that I look at when I’m feeling sorry for myself and thinking things are hard: eight or so wagons. Some horses. Maybe a hundred people. No discernible topography to the landscape—no river, no mountains, just the flat dryness of the Llano Estacado.
Eula died when she was 21 years old, a few weeks after giving birth to my granddaddy, Charles Hickman Spears. She died because of a secondary infection that would have been easily treatable with a course of antibiotics. After Eula died, a motley assortment of relations took care of baby Charles. There was an uncle, who my granddaddy credited with his survival as a young child. There’s a dramatic story of his appendicitis as a little boy, barely older than a baby: he was ridden across West Texas in a horse-drawn cart with a burst appendix. Somehow, my granddaddy survived—he was always a fighter, and matched the dry harshness of the country with equal parts stubborn force of will and humor. He used to tell a story about when his father was taking care of him (his father whirled in from wherever he’d been off cowboying and took Baby Charles when he was about 18 months old). His father would often leave him home alone for the day with a bottle of warm milk. Once his father forgot to poke a hold in the end of the bottle’s nipple before leaving for the day. When he came home that evening, Little Charles held up the bottle and proudly announced: “I bit the titty off!” That was my grandfather in a nutshell: fierce self-reliance, humorous vulgarity, and good nature in the face of harsh circumstances.
Here’s one of Eula’s postcards that makes me wonder:
Postmark: Quanah, Texas, Sep 20 9PM
Picture: Potter County Court House, Amarillo, Texas.
Writing on back (translated as best I could):
“9-17-15 [could be ’18]
Dear girl: Honey I know you think I’ve treated you mean but I still love you & think of you sweet girls. I spent most of the Summer in Ft. Worth and Denton visiting. Had a splendid trip. What are you girls doing will you go off this Fall? I hope not. Susie entered the C.I.A. college of Denton Sept. 13—Hope she’ll do good in school. Wish you could go to the C.I.A. it’s a fine school. Ruth”
Addressed to: Miss Eula Stanbro, N Mex. Chaver Co.
Writing on front, over sky in picture:
“I will write you all a long letter soon—if you go off this Fall, write me so I know where to write you. I think of you all so often. Wish I could see you. I get homesick for New Mexico sometime. –Write–”