Oh sure, the Irish have a certain gift for dragging the best out of a bad situation. A happy, go-lucky spirit that leads to dancing, singing and imbibing, but let’s face it: the Irish tend to get themselves into bad situations in the first place.
Yes, I’m from an Irish family. I’m a Kennedy now, though that’s adoptive. Before that I come from the McGees, the Lamberts and the McCoys. And St. Patrick’s day always makes me think of my grandfather, Pat McGee.
It’s ironic, because at the memorial I went to this week, I ended up in the kitchen with my cousin, Jane, and the newest addition to our family by marriage, Louise. We were screened from other conversations by an enormous spray of a Sympathy Arrangement. We filled Louise in on the family gossip, which is somewhat involved, goes back over 100 years now and includes complicated explanations of who is really whose half- or full-sibling. Jane declared that we were “behind the plant,” so all restrictions were off.
Most of those stories center around Pat McGee. And his father, Ray McGee. For starters, I’ll mention Ray had five wives. The McGees pretty much invented serial monogamy – and also weren’t so good at the “serial” part. Oops. My grandmother’s family wasn’t much better.
Yes, I’ve outlined the book to tell this story, but I haven’t written it yet.
But, just for fun, to honor my ancestors on this day, here’s the first chapter.
Papa: Elegy for a Rapscallion
The story begins, as many American ones do, with the Irish coming over the sea. One by one, the players assembled in America. And though this is a story about a family in the Rocky Mountain West, their roots were in the South and Midwest. The last to arrive, John McCoy, came from County Cork in 1855 and found a bride in Elkhart, Indiana. It’s rumored Tom McGee came from County Wexford and certain he married an Irish bride in Texas. Where, coincidentally, also lived the ancestors of the woman his grandson would marry almost sixty years later in Oklahoma City. We can reach back further, catalog the arrivals of the Jones, the Hendricks, the Sanders, the Fergusons, Andersons and Richardsons. But one image stands out in the family history that seems as good a place as any to begin a story.
A confederate soldier is walking down the road.
His uniform is worn through. His name is John Anderson Ratliff and it’s the spring of 1865. Besides that, I know little about his life before this moment, returning home from the war. The Anderson is for his mother’s family. She in turn bears Hull as a middle name, for her grandmother’s family. His father is half Scot from his Ferguson mother, but otherwise, they’ve become a firmly English Methodist family, living in the northwest corner of Georgia. The farm is near Subligna. In Chattooga County. Not far from Chattanooga, almost Tennessee, almost Alabama.
But he fought for Georgia and now makes his way home along the road, his uniform so thin and worn as to being ready to drop off of him, his thoughts full of a girl. Martha Catherine Sanders. Born seven years after him on the neighboring farm, she is now nineteen. She may well have felt like his birthright. After all, two of his brothers have married Sanders girls. He could have been twenty-one when he left home, if he joined up when the war broke out and Martha only fourteen. But he knew she was for him. We know this because as he arrives home, his mother begins spinning and weaving to make him a new suit. A non-fighting suit. A courting suit.
He’s able to see Martha here and there, in glancing moments. John’s friendly with her brothers and they talk about the war while they play with the dogs. Naturally Martha’s family visits with their married daughters. And the crops can always be discussed with Mr. Sanders. But he can’t make his formal call, announce his intentions, until his suit is done. His mother hurried. Making enough cloth for a man’s suit takes time. She finally finished and boiled walnuts and herbs for the dye.
“Butternut yellow,” John called it all his life.
But he donned the ugly suit straight away — there was no waiting to correct the error — and headed for the Sanders farm to Call. He walked down the lane to the house, a path he’d walked nearly as often as the one to his own house. As he approached, the Sanders dogs sent up full cry. The pack charged. John was on his back, dogs standing on him and growling. Until Martha’s brother saved him. After that, Martha tied up the dogs so John could call on her in his Butternut Yellow Suit.
But my grandmother, as a small child, knew the joke. One of the aunties or uncles — Martha and John produced eleven children — would say “better tie the dogs!” And she would look out the window to see someone brightly overdressed, coming to call.
All eleven Ratliff children were born in Georgia, though the first boy died of the summer complaint — diptheria — just before his second birthday, while John was stranded away from home by floods in Arkansas. The last child was born in 1890. By 1894, John and Martha had relocated the entire family to Rogers, Texas, not far from Waco.
John, not content with farming his fields, also loved flowers. The flowers rampant in my Grandmother’s garden and mine might come from him. Their porch swam under honeysuckle, hid behind Bouncing Betty. He even — an extravagance — “sent off” for tuberose bulbs, which he planted on the south side of the house. They grew, bountiful and fragrant, perfuming the whole yard on summer evenings the first year. The next year, a dear friend died. With no florist for the community, John cut his tuberoses for the funeral. They regrew the following summer, but another funeral demanded they be cut. After a few years of tuberose funerals, one morning John shouldered his shovel and headed out to the garden. Martha, the young twin boys and Baby Jessie Mae came out to watch. John glanced up.
“They are sad flowers,” he said.
And no one questioned him.
Nettie, the eighth child, always Nanette to me when I knew her as my great-grandmother, was already a teenager by then. Her siblings gradually married off and farmed neighboring property.
Like her mother before her, she married at nineteen. Luther Hendrick, only a year older, also a farmer would not create with her the large, intimate family the Ratliffs enjoyed. And perhaps Nettie didn’t pick him for that. She was by all accounts ribald. In her wedding picture, she stands swathed in lace, her lips carefully smoothed over the buck teeth she passed down to all her generations of daughters, though we had orthodontia to save us. Or perhaps she’s sealing her lips upon some smart remark — she seems about to speak, her eyes slightly contemptuous. Maybe it’s the fur rug at her feet. Or Luther’s stiff pose, where he sits beside her. His hand dangles, a massive gold pinky ring catching the light. He is handsome, sharp, clean-lined features, dark hair, fine eyebrows. Nettie has our face, oval and soft, a mouth that tends to look sad in repose, cheekbones high but pillowed, eyes bright with passion.
Georgia is born a year later and Marie three years after that. They played with their many cousins, who all gathered at the Ratliff house where they climbed the chinaberry tree and, once, scaled to the widow’s walk on the roof. The sisters returned from their shopping tour in town to see even the smallest cousin, Veleria, no more than a baby atop the atop the house. Marie became known as the “the pretty cousin,” having inherited her father’s dark good looks, her mother’s eyes and complexion — and someone else’s teeth. Georgia was the “sweet one.”
Luther then introduced divorce into that branch of the family. He split with Nettie in 1913, taking custody of the girls and leaving the Ratliff bosom for Ralls, Texas, up in the panhandle, up the road from Lubbock. The family lore is that Nettie didn’t fight it. She said goodbye to her daughters and lit out for Oklahoma City, where some of her sisters had moved “to become millionaires,” in the words of a cousin left behind. Another cousin only notes about the divorce that “around that time, Aunt Nettie experienced a great tragedy in her life.”
Georgia and Marie were sent alone on the train to live with their father and meet their new stepmother, Clara — the second in a chain of five wives for Luther. I love the string of Texas farmgirl names: Nettie, Clara, Jewel, Siders and Flossie.
“He kept the children and ran the wives out of town,” my mother and aunts agree, though they barely knew their grandfather Luther.
“It was those bloodhounds,” my Aunt Carole said when I asked her how one runs a woman out of town. “He had all those great big, slobbery bloodhounds.”
On that last day at home, Nettie long gone, Luther awaiting them in Ralls to start a new life, a new farm, the aunties carefully bathed Georgia and Marie and set them in bed in their slips, their traveling dresses kept by, them and the dresses kept clean for the journey. As they lay under the sheet, all of their cousins, aunties, uncles, other relatives streamed past, saying their goodbyes. An image I grew up with — at nine and five, they were slight, all eyes and dark hair. White slips, white sheets, Texas dust creeping in around the edges. And then they step onto the train, hand in hand.
They came back to visit, of course. The farm in Ralls was grim, barren. None of Grandfather Ratliff’s Bouncing Betty graced that yard. Family who visited Luther in later years reported the yard around the house was hard-packed dirt, relieved only by the quantities of broken glass scattered about. In contrast, the farmhouse in Rogers took on an even sweeter memory. It became the place where Grandmother climbed Chinaberry trees, spent endless summer evenings on the porch with Georgia and her many cousins. A picture of it hangs on my office wall, as Grandmother had it on her office wall.
Off-center in the photo, the house is small with clapboard and gingerbreading. We can see the white picket fence, the Chinaberry trees, and the backs of two people in the doorway. They both face inside, as if talking to a room overflowing with people. The woman’s light skirt covered with a white apron blows in the breeze, pinned on one side by the baby on her hip. The man wears a white shirt and crossed suspenders hold up his black pants. The small railing of the widow’s walk stands outlined against the blank Texas sky.
By the time Marie was eleven — and Clara, run out of town in favor of Jewel — she and Georgia began to also visit Nettie in glamorous Oklahoma City.
It had long been the source of silk stockings, jewelry and other pretty, city things. Nettie had made a business woman of herself; later she become the Deputy Court Clerk. A 1925 photo of the sisters at the Leono River, just before they moved from Texas forever, shows Georgia and Marie posing in calf deep water. They’re wearing the latest thing, gifts from Oklahoma City. The matching bathing costumes stretch from shoulder to knee. Arms are flirtatiously bare. The silk clings to their slender bodies, Marie’s hands tucked in the front pockets, her bright smile tilted with her head. They both wear floppy-brimmed hats with fluttering scarves. It’s clear they feel frisky and fashionable, even not-the-pretty-one Georgia coyly flutters her hand towards the brim, carefully closing her lips over her teeth.
Georgia raised Marie. Grandmother talked of her all my life. How Georgia took her by the hand on that train and never let it go. How she was her real mother. A high school photo shows them, leaning back to back, gleaming heads pressed together. But Georgia married a farmer and stayed in Texas with Luther and with the Ratliffs.
When Marie graduated from high school, she decided to leave Georgia and Texas behind. She moved to the city, to the center of the universe, the source of all pretty things.
And where she would meet Pat McGee.