Monday, May 16, 2011

The Red Billfold and Its Contents

Subtitle: Life with My Maternal Grandmother, Alta Mae Wilson DeLozier

Grandma Alta & Grandpa Robert circa 1962
To say my Grandmother Alta was like a Mother to me is an understatement. Grandma Alta, an enrolled Cherokee Indian from the Deer Clan on the Dawes Rolls, born January 14th, 1904 in Rogers County, Cherokee Nation West in Chelsea, Oklahoma. She died May 16, 1964, a mere sixty years later in the same town from complications due to a stroke. The stroke occurred the night of my (Mary Alta Phillips Buckingham) 9th grade junior high school graduation 3 days earlier. Something just didn’t feel right to me the evening after the graduation ceremony. There was a party to celebrate and I ended up going home early. My grandparents and I had cheese, crackers and green apple slices with hot tea in the kitchen. Afterwards we went to bed and a few hours later Grandma was taken away in an ambulance. She'd had recurrent headaches for days. She was to go the doctor the following Monday but instead she died 3 days later in St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa that May. Had she lived, she would have been completely paralyzed on one side of her body.

This all happened during my third extended stay living with Grandma Alta and Grandpa Robert. I arrived 9 months earlier by Greyhound bus after being released from 2 years of foster care in Los Angeles. Following Grandma Alta’s death, I continued to stay on with my Grandfather to complete high school and eventually study at Oklahoma State University with the financial assistance of National Defense Student Loan program, scholarships, and lots of part-time and summer jobs.

Now back to Grandma Alta. The first time I lived with my Grandparents I was a 2 or 3 month old baby. A neighbor in Chicago phoned my Grandmother Alta and said I needed care. My Grandmother who did not drive, took a train alone to Chicago from Chelsea, Oklahoma in the middle of winter. She brought me back home to Chelsea to live my first three years and it has been my home many times since. My mother was suffering from severe depression and was highly dysfunctional. Mom lost her first child to sudden infant death syndrome a couple of years earlier. After that loss Mom never had a baby without relapsing into overwhelming schizophrenic postpartum  depression complete with hospitalization. However, that did not slow my Mom and Dad from continuing to breed child after child much to my Grandparents dismay. Consequently I believe that one should be licensed to breed.

After my brother Matt was born in 1955 when I was 6 , Dad drove me from El Centro, California to live with Grandma Alta and Grandfather for the second time. This was during my first and second grade. I never bonded with my Mother and we were having a very difficult time then. I have the best of memories living with Grandma Alta upon my return to Chelsea . We would sit at the dining room table for hours on end cutting out paper dolls and having them play all sorts of different roles. She taught me to play checkers and Chinese checkers with marbles, my favorite. She introduced me to sewing and we even made rag dolls with button eyes. Though I’ve had my fair share of friends, Grandma Alta was my first and my very best one.

Alta was the third child of six children, 3 boys and 3 girls and grew up on a farm outside Chelsea. For a time she was the last family member allowed enrollment in the Cherokee nation. Her 3 younger siblings were known as “too lates” or “new horns” in regard to enrollment, because they were born after March 4, 1906. (In 1912 this law was reversed by the US Supreme Court and the “too lates” were allowed full enrollment.) Grandma Alta was also of Irish and English descent. She was slim built, about 5’3” and always hoped to gain weight to the point of having weight gain supplements in the frig. The most she ever weigh was 135 pounds. All her family tended to be thin and that was when thin wasn’t in. Unfortunately I did not inherit that problem.

Grandma Alta had black hair and the first year after she passed, when I was in 10th grade I dyed my hair black. However, she avoided the sun at all cost, wanting a pale complexion, in spite of the fact she had relatively olive color skin. She said, she did not want to look like she worked in the fields for a living. I, being a child of the sixties, wanted to look like a sun baked twiggy and would sun bathe in the yard for hours on end and refuse to eat anything but watermelon or apples. This sun bathing habit would pain Grandma to no end. She would tell me repeatedly that I was going to ruin my skin. Like all teenagers, I refused to listen and have sun spots today to prove it, despite living half my life in Alaska. However, I did hear the story that she and her sisters had once tried to bleach their skin to look whiter. Seems we all want what we don‘t have, be it skin, hair or fat.

Robert & Alta DeLozier circa 1939
Grandma Alta was known for her lemon meringue pie throughout NE Oklahoma’s Rogers County. There was nothing like it before or since. The legend was that once in the 1930s Pretty Boy Floyd, a gangster of that era, was passing through Chelsea and came on a pie supper auction at a social function in nearby Bushyhead. He is said to have paid $25 for one of Grandma Alta’s lemon meringue pies. My grandfather Robert preferred her vinegar pie to the lemon, something I never understood. I’m quite sure Pretty Boy Floyd would have never given an Indian nickel for a vinegar pie, but then maybe he would as the money he was spending wasn’t his, but stolen from who remembers what.

During the 1950s Grandma Alta, Grandpa Robert and I attended Black gospel spiritual music concerts in the summer in Chelsea’s Black part of town, a couple of blocks from where we lived. One summer night in 1956 my Grandparents and I went to one such event in what was then known as “Colored Town” and I had the time of my young life. Till this day I can still hear those gospel spirituals being sung such as We Shall Overcome, Amazing Grace, Shall We Gather at the River?

In those days the rural town of Chelsea, Oklahoma had a population 2,000 and sported a small movie theater on Main Street, the business district. Grandma Alta and I went to movies there on a regular basis. Movies I remember seeing with Grandma in particular were those staring Elvis Presley, her favorite star who happened to also be part Cherokee. It must have cost no more than 25 to 35 cents each to see and hear Elvis, the pelvis, (as he was fondly nicknamed by those of that generation) perform his tunes that included You Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog and Love Me Tender. The expense was worth every cent. Grandpa stayed at home and waited for it to play on TV. Grandma probably would have liked Grandpa to go too, just like she at one time wanted to move to Montana. She talked to Grandpa about giving Montana a try, but that was the one thing my Grandparents differed on and that was living anywhere else or traveling. Grandpa Robert was a stay at home man and Grandma Alta had a bit of wander lust in her. She did travel throughout the Southwest and into the upper Midwest but not with Grandpa, but her daughters.

Grandma Alta went to the one room elementary school house called Sunnyside. The land had been donated by her Dad, my Great Grandfather Claude Wilson. She went on to complete 10th grade and was the brains of the family, since Grandpa Robert only got to go to school through 3rd grade. She did all his truck hauling bookkeeping and when she passed I stepped in to do it.

Grandma was fun to be with, whether attending the Church or Christ, a family picnic, playing paper dolls at the dining room table or having a beer out on the tree swing in summer. She crocheted, cooked southern soul food, including fried okra and squaw bread out of fried cornmeal and onions. One of the last things I learned from my Grandmother Alta was how to can fruits and vegetables. It was my first and only canning experience in the fall of 1963. However, she was a worrier and she did worry about my Mom, Bobbie Jean and her endless herd of kids. This worry probably contributed to the stroke.

When Grandma’s youngest daughter, my Aunt Bootsie passed in 1993, my cousin Judy, her daughter inherited much of what was left behind. What she didn’t want she passed on to my sister, Angie. One of those items my sister Angie sent on to me. It was my Grandmother Alta’s red billfold (sent June 1995) 31 years after Grandma’s passing. My sister was so young when Grandma passed Angie felt she hardly knew her and wanted me to have it. Today 46 (2010) years later this is what I found inside in the billfold:

- pictures of her 2 grandkids that lived near by, Judy and Junior, Aunt Bootsie‘s kids;
- her social security card although she only worked at home;
- 3 Vaccine Immunization Record Forms for Sabin Oral Polio vaccine, two dated 1/20/1963 & one 4/28/1963
- Grandma’s Voter’s Identification Card, Political Party: Dem. dating from Nov. 1959;
- 23 Chelsea First National Bank deposit slips from March 27, 1958 to December 1962 with deposits in amounts of $10 to $60, and one big $3,583 deposit, probably from the estate property sale of Grandpa Wilson‘s home. Most of the deposits appear to be from her father Claude Wilson that lived with them prior to my arrival and his death December 18, 1962 at 90.
- “Female” help wanted ads from the Tulsa Tribune in April 1964 requesting “Lady to work in hamburger stand”. I wonder if she was looking for a job for me who turned 15?
- a slip of paper which had written “3rd Chapter, 11 Timothy, 13th verse: “But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, Avoid such men as these“.
- Last, but not least was her appointment note to see Dr. Day at the Springer Clinic in Tulsa at 2 p.m. Monday, May 16th,, 1964, the day she died.

Afterthought: While I have many photos of my Grandmother, I have none with just her in it. Most are with my Grandfather Robert, one of their three daughters or other family members. I do have one special one of Grandma and Grandpa (taken circa 1962) in a gold frame sent to me by sister Angie, Christmas of 1994. Angie said in an attached note, “I hope you like this gold wood frame. I chose it because in a sense they (my Grandparents) were your pot of gold as a child.”

May Alta Mae rest in peace next to my Grandpa Robert high on the hill at Chelsea‘s Dawes Cemetery in Rogers County Oklahoma.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

My Mom, Bobbie Jean

Who would I least likely trust to pilot a plane I was traveling in? Probably my Mom, Bobbie Jean. Why? To begin with Mom didn’t drive and never had a driver’s license to my knowledge, but she almost had a pilot’s license. When I was about five years old in the early 1950s, Dad landed a job in Southern California as a welder and with some of the big bucks, Mom took flying lessons at the Compton airport. She even flew a small plane solo! I would never believe it unless I saw it myself.

Now this is puzzling because only a few years before in the mid 1940s, Mom was diagnosed as schizophrenic in Vinita, Oklahoma. Actually she was probably just an eccentric individual suffering postpartum depression.  She had lost her first child to sudden infant death syndrome.  After that loss every time she had a child (five living of which I am the oldest) she would also lose her mind.   In Oklahoma, being a woman in the 1940s and wanting to fly a plane was probably grounds for a schizoid diagnosis. During those days schizophrenia was the most popular mental diagnosis, much like bipolar was 25 years ago up to today. Oklahoma is a state that frequently seems to have a low level of tolerance and Mom did march to a different drummer.

Mom dropped out of school during junior high school in Chelsea, Oklahoma when her 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Franklin, told Mom she had to play the part of a monkey in the school play. Perhaps it was a play based on the Darwin Scopes trial, but whatever it was my Mom refused. Years later when living with my grandparents, I too was appalled at Mrs. Franklin‘s insensitivity and harsh treatment of shy students. Eventually I avoided the same teacher’s classes, not by dropping out of school, but by taking Senior English when a Junior and Speech for Junior English. Mom was right on Ms. Franklin.

Mom so wanted to be special she reinvented her birth date. She told everyone that her birthday was January lst, 1924. She was a New Year’s Eve baby by choice. No one ever contradicted her. Years later when I got involved in doing genealogy to enroll my niece and nephews in the Cherokee Nation, I found out after receiving my Mom’s birth certificate that she was actually born on January 2nd. I never mentioned it to her, nor did anyone else in the family. Mom was the middle of three girls and it is said by psychologists that it is always difficult for the middle child. This theory certainly proved to be true in my Mom’s case.

Mom, although poorer than a church mouse was generous. She frequently sent clothes to me in Alaska that she bought at sales in Southern Illinois. Some of the things she sent I remember taking to the Anchorage Sullivan Area Fleas Markets in the 1980s to resell. Many of the items were sold to strippers at the now defunct PJ’s (Poppa Joe’s) in Spenard, things I would never wear, even if I could. As my middle sister Angie likes to say, Mom was not boring. I still have tucked away a pair of blue denim cowboys boots and a red purse Mom sent me back in the 1980s…mementos.

When we got our third Alaska Permanent Fund dividend from the state in 1985, I decided to fly my folks up from Southern Illinois in the summer of 1986. We had a great time. It wasn’t a typical tourist vacation. Mom wasn’t much into sight seeing, mostly she wanted to play Bingo, saying it “is good for your mind”, although not one’s pocket book, and we haven’t played since then.

For the trip Mom brought a fancy long dress she wanted to have her picture taken in in front of our house with Dad, not in front of Denali or any other famous Alaska tourist attraction, but our house. Mom said I was very fortunate to live in such a place and although I consider our home modest, I guess I am fortunate in that respect. 
We took my folks to Portage Glacier, Indian, Palmer to see the big veggies, to take a look at my land in Rabbit Creek Heights, but we didn’t make it to our other land in Talkeetna or Seldovia. Perhaps the days of living in Chicago, California and in a card board house on the Colorado River in Parker, Arizona had made Mom and Dad into jaded tourists. They didn’t do as much as most normal tourists do, but they weren‘t the norm, especially my Mom.

Bobbie, Mary & Bob - Palmer, Alaska Summer 1986
Before my folks bored the plane back to Southern Illinois, we had our farewell party at Dunkin Donuts after first taking Mom‘s picture next to a small plane at Lake Hood near our house. The plane was similar to the one she had flown years before. Like the Anchorage Dunkin Donuts, my parents have passed on but not the memories. May Mom and Dad rest in peace high on the wind blown hill at the Chelsea, Oklahoma Dawes Cemetery.
2/2/1924  -  2/8/1998

Written  for Memoir Writing Group -
December 29, 2007 in memory of Mom’s birthdayS,
short version May 10, 2011-Anchorage Genealogy Society Mother's Day Remembrance