Sunday, December 19, 2010


© Kathy Duncan, 201o

In 1918 and 1919 a few of my great and great-great grandmothers died, coincidentally. I say coincidentally because not all of them had influenza, as one might expect.

My great grandmother, Louise (Davis) Dendy, however, did die of the flu. I am writing about her first because it is her laughing face that I see every morning. In her portrait, her eyes twinkle, and she is stifling a laugh. There is a gayness to her expression that always makes me smile back. Her portrait hangs in my powder room, so I can’t miss it. I’m sure she would be horrified. Her portrait, you see, is huge, and because I have too many bookcases, I have limited wall space in my house. I will move her and great-grandpa as soon as I can. I promise. Anyway, recently, I looked into Louise’s face and felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and horror, worse yet, I saw my own emotions mirrored in great-grandpa Buford Watts Dendy’s face. And no wonder.

Louise Davis was Buford Watts Dendy’s second wife. His first wife Lucy Addison died young at the age of 17. Lucy left behind an eight month old son, Walter. Buford and Walter moved in with Buford’s mother. “Grandma Dendy” [Lydia Pugh Dendy] was a force to be reckoned with. When Buford married Louise and moved with her into their own home, Grandma Dendy convinced him to leave little Walter with her. She used the old "this-is-the-only-home-he-has-ever-known" ploy, and it worked. Walter was left to be raised by his grandmother instead of his father and step-mother. Forever after, he would consider himself an “orphan,” and view his Uncle Obe and Aunt Jeffalona (Dendy) Chasteen as his surrogate parents.

Louise and Buford left Texas and moved to Oklahoma. They had a house full of children and lived in poverty. In talking to my grandmother and great-aunt Arlene (Dendy) Deaton, I have been able to pull together a picture of Louise. She is remembered as someone who laughed easily and loved to tease. She is described as having “snapping black eyes.” The same eyes that twinkle out of her portrait. She made small animals out of the red Oklahoma clay, dried them in the sun, and gave them to her children as toys. Above all else she was a quilter. She made several dozen quilts in her lifetime, stitching at night by the light of a kerosene lamp after her children were in bed. My great-grandfather had to build two cabinets in which to store them.

Bettie Reba was the first child of Louise and Buford’s. She must have been the apple of her parents’ eye. At the age of three she was stricken by illness. When the doctor advised them that she would not live, they had Christmas early for her. Santa brought her a little wooden cook stove and a little blonde china doll. She died the day after Christmas in 1906. Her toys were packed away in a trunk and never played with again. Years later, her younger siblings were allowed to look at her toys if they were very, very good, but they were never, ever allowed to play with them.

In 1918, Louise and Buford were living in Corrine, Oklahoma. When the flu struck that year, Louise and several of the children caught it. My grandmother, who was only five, was expected to die. The way she told it, a Choctaw Indian saved her life by putting an onion poultice on her chest and then wrapping her in red flannel. Oddly, she always gave more credit to the red flannel than the onion poultice. Louise had given birth to a baby girl just a couple of weeks before. That child was either stillborn or died within a few hours. Weakened by childbirth, Louise was no match for the flu. At one point, she asked Buford to take her for walk in the meadow beside the house. Out there, she told him that she knew she was not going to live. Remembering little Walter, she made Buford promise to keep her children with him. The following day, she got out of bed and dropped dead. She was 38 years old. The mother of eight children, six living. The maker of two or three dozen finished quilts. The maker of Christmas.

I asked my grandmother once what happened to her toys from her childhood. Her answer was that she never had any toys. I persisted, asking about the gifts Santa brought her…what happened to them? The jaw dropping answer was that after her mother’s death, her family never celebrated Christmas again. According to my grandmother, mother’s make Christmas happen, and she did not have a mother, so she did not have Christmas. Did she figure that out for herself or did Buford tell her that? I never thought to ask. Why wasn’t Buford able to pull off even a simple Christmas for his children? He was the same man who made Christmas come early for a dying child. Or maybe that was Louise. In any event, he never managed to make Christmas happen again. Why? Too tired? Too poor? Did something in him break?

Looking into Louise’s smiling face the other morning, I was struck suddenly by the horror Buford must have felt when she dropped dead right there beside their bed. His best efforts could not save her life. It’s the sort of thing that breaks a person.