23 August 2011


That was the name by which my mother and uncle called their maternal grandmother. Her real name was Mamie Ross, and she married Frank Charles Smith. Sometime around the turn of the 20th Century, they were living with their two toddlers in Kernville, CA, where Frank had found work in a mine. As my mother tells the story, Frank came home one night and, quite drunk, said "Mamie, we have to move out of the house. I gambled it away tonight."

Mamie (Gragga to most everyone) said to him what at that time was a pretty bad word: "Frank, you are an old piss-ant."

With that she grabbed the two toddlers, what clothing she could, and dragged them all the way down to the Kern River. With rope she tied the two children so they wouldn't wander into the river (which to this day drowns up to 7 people a year). She returned to the now-forsaken house and dragged everything she thought she would need: pots and pans, blankets, etc. With that crucial step completed, she built a lean-to for shelter, all before the Sun rose in the east.

For the next several months, Mamie would feed the children in the morning, tie them with ropes to a tree, and walk into Kernville. There she would load her arms with the dirty clothes of the miners and return to the river, where she would wash them in the shallows with stones and sand, and lay them out to dry on rocks. With her meager earnings from this labor, she carefully saved up a nickle at a time and kept it in an old coffee-can buried in the dirt floor of the lean-to. Such was life for my great-grandmother at the turn of the 20th Century.

One day a mine owner approached her and said that he had noticed her industrious character, and had a deal for her: if she would cook and run a boarding house for miners that he had just built, she could have free room and board and a small profit after that. She agreed.

Several months later a delegation of the righteous ladies of Kernville approached the boarding house on a Sunday morning and knocked at the door. Mamie answered. The leading lady told her that they had decided, as upright ladies of the town, that the circumstances of Mamie's two children were unacceptable: that their mother was unmarried and living in a boarding house with miners - an unacceptably immoral life. They were there to take the two toddlers and raise them in a God-fearing manner.

"Is that so," said Mamie? "Just a moment, I'll be right back."

She returned with the largest meat-cleaver in her kitchen and said, "The last one of you ladies to get out of this yard will have the back of her bodice chopped open."

She reported years later, with some amusement, that you would never believe that women in full hoop skirts could clear a picket fence so fast.

Long after that Mamie married a man I vaguely remember as "Uncle Joe." Frank Smith by this time was a cowboy working on the huge Walker Ranch east of Kernville. He came down with cancer, and Mamie and Joe took him into their home in Bakersfield and cared for him until he died. That says even more about her than the experience surviving beside the Kern River.

In my genealogy I count Conan Prince of Wales, Humphrey de Bohun who signed the Magna Carta, and Charlemagne, among others.

I'm proudest, however, of Gragga, and have made sure that all my kids know her story.


No comments:

Post a Comment