Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Let's hear it for newfound relatives!

My cousin Lance contacted me as a result of this blog!

Lance and I are second cousins, once removed (I love it that I know how to do that). We've been emailing and I decided to post my part on the blog. I think there are exactly 3 people who read it (Lance makes 4), so it's mostly for my entertainment anway.

My Grandmother, Audie Virginia Brown Tarkington Forthmon, had a pretty amazing story. It sounds like a movie (maybe a bad one).

Here goes:

Grannie's father, John, killed himself because of depression and drug use. Her mother, Alice, died in a typhoid epidemic, leaving John alone with all those kids. Polly's escapades (unwed pregnancy) didn't help, nor did Arnet's (same deal), but he died of a broken heart. He was a Laudanum addict. He told the children to stay in the house one day (no idea where Polly and Arnet, adults at the time, were), went out back and shot himself.

Uncle Albert just attached John's (adjoining) farm to his own. He never filed any deed work with the County, and no will was ever probated for John. Accordingly, to this day there is a cloud on the title of the land. I have heard that there were people who wanted to do a class action suit to regain the land or (more likely) extract some kind of settlement from the current owners, but I don't know what ever came of it. It's not their fault (although they bought land without a clear title!); it is the fault of Uncle Albert. In every family story I've heard, Albert is the villain. He took the kids in, but unwillingly. He sent his own children to the one room schoolhouse while making OUR crowd work in the fields. He, of course, was a good Baptist (I have many things to say about the Baptist church, having been raised in it; none of these things are complimentary...).

When Polly turned up preggers AGAIN, by the same MARRIED man, he put her on the road. He threw Audie (Grannie) into the mix, because she was too young to work productively and was another mouth to feed. Grannie was emotionally scarred for life from this treatment. We have her life story in her own hand (need to scan that too). She was unable to write it in first person, preferring instead to write it as the story of a little girl, Virginia. She hated the name Audie and I think always would have preferred "Virginia".

When Polly got to Buffalo with the kids, I don't exactly know where she went. I know that she placed Grannie with a local Judge and his wife, who were childless and raised her. When she was 15, she was at a barn dance and the fiddler was a young man from LittleLot, Roy Tarkington. Roy had, um, a voracious sexual appetite (which he retained apparently till he died) and swept the young "Virginia" off her feet, as it were. They were married in Centerville. Mother and I actually travelled to the Centerville courthouse and were sent down in the basement to look for the marriage record. It literally was like a scene out of a movie, dusty old books strewn everywhere, cobwebs, brick walls and little windows up at the ceiling, the works. We found the book with Grannie and Grandaddy's signatures on the marriage license, took it back upstairs and made a photocopy. It's a good thing, because the courthouse subsequently burned and that book burned with it.

Grannie moved to LittleLot with Roy, but his frequent girlfriends made life difficult. Roy's sister Elsie and her husband, Jim, went with a friend to Arkansas because they heard there was work there in the rice fields; everybody in LittleLot was basically starving. Elsie wired back to LittleLot that there was, in fact, plenty of work in Arkansas and that the whole clan should come on. Roy and Audie decided to make the trip. They took a buckboard to Nashville (I don't know why; they could have gotten the train in Dickson or Waverley) but that's what they did. Attached is a copy of a picture of Grannie in Centennial Park in Nashville (the trees are still there) on that trip. She made the dress herself. She was 16, and had already had a baby (my Aunt Paulie, or "Polly" as we called her).

So they moved to Arkansas and had 3 more children (Roy would visit long enough to leave her pregnant, then take off with this woman or that). At the end, they were living in Prescott, Arkansas. Roy told the family they needed to go see his brother Laurence, so they drove to Malvern (my hometown) and had Sunday dinner with Uncle Laurence and Aunt Lillie (I met them when I was a child and they were very old). After dinner, Roy told them he "had business downtown" and left. He never returned; they found the car deserted at the depot; he had ridden the train back to Prescott and run off with Judge Callicott's daughter, with whom he actually lived the rest of his life. None of us think they ever married, although they used his last name. He was a mean old man when I knew him and I have several stories about that too.

After it became apparent that Granddaddy was not coming back, Grannie divorced him (I just found the divorce decree the other day, going through all this stuff from Mother's). She had no job, no money, no home, no education, and had been abandoned again, with 4 kids: Pauline, age 16; Fred, age 13; Horace, age 8; and Martha, age 2. She had no choice but to appeal to relatives for help. Pauline stayed with Uncle Laurence and Aunt Lillie in Malvern; they ran a boarding house. Fred and Horace were sent to Stuttgart to live with Aunt Elsie Oliver (I dearly loved Aunt Elsie, she was a complete scream even into her 90's). Grannie kept Mother with her. She moved to Little Rock to get work. She scrubbed floors at the Worthen National Bank (largest bank in Arkansas till the 1990's) at night and took in laundry by day. They starved. She went back to Malvern and found work as a domestic for some wealthy people who could still afford a maid in the depression.

It was at this point that Jim Forthmon came to the door selling Fuller Brushes (I'm not making this up). They married. Jim couldn't make a go of Fuller Brushes during the Depression and they did all sorts of things trying to get by. Jim built them a homemade trailer and they went all over the midwest, selling gun racks and curio shelves they made. (There are many lurid stories about this period. Two quick ones: they had no food and no money, and Mother had a pet chicken. Fried chicken was on the table and Mother was never able to eat chicken again, literally to this day. Another time, Grandaddy tracked them down and swiped Mother. No idea why he and Ethel wanted her; he never wanted children---but anyway, they kidnapped her and there was a chase scene right out of Bonnie and Clyde, with Jim shooting at the car and Granddaddy shooting back. Mother remembers it, or she did until this last stroke.

They wound up back in Malvern with Jim selling something or other. Mother hated him. She was 16 and working at "The Bright Spot", a local ice cream store. She went out on a date with Houston Jones, local bad-boy-from-good-family, because she loved to dance the jitterbug. They were at a local roadhouse; Houston was drunk and disorderly as usual. My dad, Houston's brother, was sitting in the corner with his buds. "Who's the cutie with my shithead brother?" is the exact quote. "Martha Tarkington". He went over, said, "Miss Tarkington, I see that my brother is making an ass of himself, can I drive you home?" She said, "Sure", hopped on the back of his Harley, and he took her home.

Two weeks later, on Valentine's Day, they got Dad's best friend to break into his father (County Clerk)'s office, forge a marraige license, went out to a country baptist preacher, got married, came back, walked into his folks house at 2:00 am, flipped on the light and announced their marraige. My grandparents Jones were the President of the Bank and Local Dragonlady, respectively (she was Pres of Garden Club, Sunday School, Ladies' Missionary Society, etc). They screamed.

Mother ran out to the getaway car and told the friends to take her home. Little did she realize the trouble she herself was in, until they turned the corner and every light in the house was on. She tried to sneak in but was caught. Mayhem ensued.

Next morning, Dad came to get her on his Harley. Jim met him on the front door with a shotgun, but Mother walked past him with her suitcase and they left. If Mother lives till Valentine's Day (doubtful but possible), it will have been 67 years.

Meanwhile, two more things happened to Grannie.

About a year after Mother and Dad got married, Jim was on his way back from a sales call in the middle of the night; he was sleepy. Larry Fitzhugh, distant relative of my Dad's, was driving a load of steel pipe in the same direction, north on US 67 south of Malvern. Larry went to sleep and just stopped in the middle of the road. No lights. Jim hit the back of that load of steel doing around 80 mph; they found the V8 engine of Jim's Ford in the trunk.

Grannie went to live with Uncle Laurence and Aunt Lillie, working as a maid again.

She developed a sty on her eye. These are painful, so she finally had to go to the doctor. Drunk old Dr. Barrier (only one who would treat her on credit) was going to wash it out with saline; instead washed it out with SULPHURIC ACID. So Grannie was blind in her right eye from 1942 till she died. She wore a patch for years, then finally they came up with a prosthesis she could comfortably wear. She never drove again.

World War II occurred. She and Mother lived together in Little Rock, mother working at the bomb factory (!), Grannie working as a laundress at University Hospital. Mother became pregnant on one of Dad's leaves, so they had an infant to care for as well. My sister became ill, finally dying of hydrocephalus at age 3, while Grannie was living with Mother. Dad barely made it home in time to see her. Dad and Mother were devastated, and moved to Dallas to escape the memories.

Grannie moved in with Pauline and her husband Robert. They had 3 kids. She lived with them, taking care of the kids while they worked.

In 1956, the oldest daughter, Neda, was having a torrid romance with an undesireable sort named Jimmy (he really was a creep, her parents were right about him, as she later found out). Neda and Pauline got into a knock-down drag-out fight over it, Grannie taking Neda's side. The result was Pauline throwing both of them out of the house. They walked with their suitcases to the train station and placed a collect call to my Mother, asking her to wire them tickets to Dallas. Mother was having a difficult pregnancy (I always was a problem child...) and Grannie was glad to help. She and Neda lived with Mother and Dad in Dallas until Neda, against all advice, married Jimmy and moved out.

Grannie lived with us the rest of her life. She never owned a home. She was thrown out (through no fault of hers) by her own uncle, deserted by her first husband, widowed by her second; blinded; thrown out by her own daughter, and finally taken care of for the last 26 years of her life. She died the day after Christmas, 1983, during a blinding snowstorm, at age 88. We had to delay the funeral 3 days so they could get the digger up into the cemetery. She's buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, Malvern, next to Jim Forthmon. She really didn't want to be there, but those were the plots she owned.

I have her Bible, her Parker pen, and her alarm clock. My sister has her rocking chair. Those were the only possessions she owned.

She was a very sweet person, loving and giving. She held no animosity toward those who wronged her. She could sit at table and eat with Roy and Ethel Tarkington with us (Mother wanting to see her Daddy), and be civil and swap recipes with Ethel (I'd have murdered them both). She and Pauline were very close in later years, writing each other letters every day. I wish I had her loving kindness, but I'm afraid I inherited a pretty solid dose of Tarkington.


  1. One thing that I can always say for you Nick, you are NEVER dull!

  2. Great stories. Glad to see you getting them in writing.

  3. Nick-

    Thanks again for sharing the family stories. You'll have to tell me more about Arnett and his exploits some time.




  4. I only just discovered your blog and I have to be honest, I cant get enough. My family is made up of old Arkansas folks too (malvern, bismark, nashville) and I've heard several stories similar to yours. thanks for sharing. Judy