This last week, I was out of town. The first part of my trip took me to West Plains, MO, which is almost impossible to get to from here. I was there for the Missouri State Poetry Society annual convention. As a member of the state board, I was expected to show up, and I was glad that I did since I was able to reconnect with some good friends in and out of state who also happen to be exceptional poets.
Since West Plains is almost on the Arkansas border, I decided that this would be a good time to go on down to visit my sister and check up on my cousin, Mary, as well. I wound up spending big chunks of time with some of the important women in my life and reconnecting to the stories of others. I have not always appreciated the terms steel magnolias or iron butterflies that are applied to southern women in the same way that the term iron fist in a velvet glove implies a hidden hardness. The women I knew and still know tend to have an inner strength that is tensile rather than rigid as those names imply. My children have accused me of being one of those women who can be unfailingly polite even when I am extremely irritated with someone or something. In fact, they referred to me as Julia Sugarbaker when such situations arose. You may remember her character in Designing Women, a sit-com set in Atlanta. Julia had a strong social conscience; and when someone riled her up, she could deliver a scathing speech that cut straight to the heart of the matter without raising her voice or losing her polite tone. In those speeches, she would outline the full nature of the offence and exactly what she thought about anyone who committed such a breach of good manners. The women I visited this week are just as polite and just as sure of proper decorum. They are also confident and capable and steeped in the family traditions that support those qualities.
My sister has a granddaughter who is a young mother who now wants to hear family stories. Since I seem to be the keeper of the lore of our family for this generation, I told her of our great-grandmother’s unconventional marriage and our grandmother’s vagabond life that brought her to her soul mate and her true home. So many young people think that their generation invented love and passion. It is always amusing to see the light dawn as they come to the universal truth that these things have been going on for centuries.
My father’s paternal grandmother, Frances Jane Roberts, was born on the eve of the War Between the States. (There was nothing civil about that war.) She was the first child of James Calhoun Kellam and Melissa LeFevre Kellam, and she was born on the LeFevre plantation just north of the Arkansas River. Her mother had an uncle who was not much older than she was. His name was Leon LeFevre; but for some reason, everyone called him Uncle Mimi. He never married, but he adored his niece and nearly worshiped the great-niece who became his sole heir. When she was three, Frances Jane’s father died in the Battle of Jenkin’s Ferry south of Little Rock, and Uncle Mimi sent the rest of the family to Texas to wait out the war. On the way, her mother lost the baby she was pregnant with; and one of Frances Jane’s earliest memories was of burying that tiny body beside a rutted dirt trail somewhere in north Texas. After the war, the family returned to the plantation. Since schools were crude in that area, Uncle Mimi sent Frances Jane to a fine girl’s boarding school in Memphis. Like many southern river towns and cities, Memphis was regularly plagued with yellow fever epidemics. The 1870’s, in Memphis had a series of yellow fever outbreaks that culminated in the horrific 1878 epidemic. When the first one occurred, Uncle Mimi didn’t wait. He hired a Captain Ward who sewed the girl into a gunnysack, smuggled her onto his cargo ship, and took her south to the mouth of the Arkansas River and north to the dock at the LeFevre plantation. After a short visit at home, Frances Jane was sent to a girl’s seminary at Cane Hill, Arkansas. Her mother had married a Carnahan in that same area so the little family was back together.
Many people may be surprised to learn that there was a girl’s school in the Ozark Mountains near Fayetteville before there was a college in the area. These settlers were almost all Scots who had come through the Cumberland Gap to claim land grants for service during the American Revolution. What many people do not realize about the Scots is that they have a long history of supporting public education. Seventy to eighty percent of Scots were literate several centuries before any other European nation even considered educating the general population. This is why Scots were at the forefront of the Protestant Reformation. About the only book that was available was a Bible. They read it, saw discrepancies in what was there, and what the church was teaching.
Frances Jane completed her education and became a schoolteacher. She returned to Uncle Mimi’s home and taught in a small school there. She also met the overseer of the plantation. This was still a class-conscious society, and she was far above this young man who was considered the hired help. In fact, he was a wild boy out of Georgia with a rudimentary education and a history of reckless adventures. Good girl meets bad boy and the sparks flew. Of course, her family put their foot down. Like that ever works! The two of them ran away leaving her uncle swearing oaths of murder and her mother wringing her hands. They were gone for a week when early one morning, Uncle Mimi spotted a campfire on an island in the middle of the Arkansas River. Taking two of his farm hands with him, he rowed to the island and brought back the disgraced couple. She was banished to the house; and he, to the barn. They couldn’t hang him right off in case they had to save her reputation. The young people were devastated by the separation, but it didn’t last long. Within a few weeks, the family gathered the minister and marched those two unrepentant sinners up the aisle. They stayed married for 63 years. She could make him smile just by walking into the room. Someone once told us that our great-grandfather was the meanest old man in Pulaski County. We heard many stories about his tough nature and his hard bargaining. What I remember is that anytime he began to get cantankerous around her, Frances Jane would look him right in the eye and say in her soft southern drawl, “Now, Charlie, that’s enough.” And he would smile sheepishly at her and behave himself for the rest of the day.
When I first told my sister this tale, she was shocked. After all Grandmother Roberts, as we called her, was the epitome of southern, lady-like behavior. Well, she was right about that, but Frances Jane was also a girl who knew what she wanted and she knew how to find a practical solution to an otherwise insurmountable problem. That’s what southern women do. While the neighbors may whisper and even look down their noses at some behavior, a true lady holds her head up, makes her plans and carries them forward. She doesn’t raise her voice, and she smiles sweetly as she gets her way.