My grandmother’s ancestry is a mystery. That’s because she was adopted as an infant. The story goes like this. My great grandfather, George Skinner, was the conductor of the K.D. Special, a train that ran between Joplin and Galveston. Right after the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the K.D. Special pulled into Galveston and my great grandfather went for a stroll to take in the damage. This was profound. The Galveston Hurricane was the deadliest in American history, and the second costliest. Between 6,000 and 12,000 people died. Just to put that in perspective, Hurricane Katrina claimed the lives of 1,800 people. On his stroll, George Skinner found two things – a beautiful oak ‘secretary’ or desk, which now inhabits a corner of our living room, and a newborn baby girl, my grandmother. He brought both home.
My great grandmother, George’s wife, was known by a number of names throughout her life. She had been christened ‘Melander Arnold’, which she thought sounded too much like a slave name. As a young woman she called herself Elizabeth; later she demanded that everyone call her Melissa. Both my Aunt Mary Elizabeth and I were named for different iterations of her. For the purposes of this post, I shall call her Maman, the name by which my mother and aunt knew her. The Arnolds were a well-to-do family in Louisiana, but when Maman’s father died in the Civil War, her mother, figuring that she had but one life to live, decamped with an itinerant preacher by the name of Norwood with whom she promptly produced what can only be described as a mess of oafish offspring. Thus did the aristocratic Maman find herself living in much reduced circumstances and in the company of Crackers. Understandably this made her cross.
What also made her cross was being presented with an infant of dubious origins and told to raise her.
Maman was a schoolteacher when she married George Skinner, a few years her junior, mustachioed and dashing. It was a good marriage in that it proved her re-entry into the middle class. Back then a train conductor, particularly of so eminent a train as the K.D. Special, was an important personage; when I finally saw photographs of the house in which my grandmother was brought up in Dennison, Texas, I was surprised by its size and relative grandeur. I had pictured it as a kind of ragged bungalow beside a railway track, weather vane listlessly churning in a hot, dull wind as tumbleweed blew down a dusty, deserted street. But no.
The Skinners had no children. Or, at least, Maman didn’t. What she did have was premature cataracts. Cataract surgery was available at the time, but it involved scalpels, suction cups and forceps and she was understandably squeamish. As the years went by, Maman’s world became fuzzier and fuzzier; purples and blues ceased to exist for her; increasingly she saw the world in shades of sepia. Then, one day, home comes George with a desk and a baby.
George treated my Grandmother as though she were his own child. In the days where orphans were more likely to be used as servants than treasured, my grandmother was treated like a princess. There are portraits of her at about age eight, wearing a sumptuous blue velvet dress and white kid gloves, her long auburn hair curled in ringlets. She was given piano lessons, at which she excelled, and sent off to study music at Texas A & M University, at a time when few women went to university. Every day my great grandfather’s train would chug past her dorm window and she would stand at her window blowing kisses to him as he waved at her from the little platform at the end of the caboose that was his office. When she married my grandfather, George gave her a Steinway baby grand piano. They were utterly devoted to one another.
Maman and she, not so much.
To deal with the baby, Maman summoned one of her lowly half-sisters – Nellie Sue Norwood – and entrusted her with the baby’s care. How could George expect a blind woman to take care of a child? My grandmother called Nellie Sue “Sweet Aunty” and “Sweet Aunty” went on not only to raise her, but to half raise my mother and aunt as well.
No one ever told my grandmother that she was adopted. Then, for some reason, George did. He came to Stillwater, where my grandparents were living, and told Grandmother the truth . . . or his preferred version of the truth, the Galveston version. My mother was very young at the time, but she remembered what happened next with great clarity. Grandmother locked herself in her bedroom and wouldn’t come out for three days. Afterwards she never spoke of it; no one spoke of it. It wasn’t permitted.
What compelled my great grandfather to tell my grandmother that she was adopted? We’ll never know.
What we do know is that, years later, when Maman succumbed to a stroke in the greenhouse out back, she was found clutching a yellowed article cut out of some small town newspaper – a society column that included this mention: “A Mr. George Skinner from Joplin called upon Miss ___ _____ last Tuesday. This makes the fifth time this year that Mr. Skinner has visited the lady. Could wedding bells be in their future?” One might conclude that this news of her husband’s philandering was what killed her, but, remember, Maman was blind. She couldn’t see to read; hadn’t been able to for years. She must have received the column long ago; it must have yellowed in her possession. She had not gotten rid of it, but kept it close for all those years, so close that she died with it.
You can’t make this stuff up. On second thought, maybe you can.