A Woman Apart

There is a story told of my great-grandmother, a story of the time she shot at a man. Like many such family stories, there probably is an element of truth to it which was embellished over time. Yet, for reasons I will explain later, I suspect there is more fact than fancy in this particular story. During the Depression, my great-grandmother used to feed hobos in exchange for their doing chores for her. This was a fairly common practice for the time and one, I think, which my great-grandmother found it to her advantage to continue. As the story goes, a hobo appeared at her kitchen door looking for a hand out. She explained the arrangement to the gentleman and listed some chores she needed done. He commented that he had not come to work, just to get something to eat and was told, in return, that if he didn’t work, he didn’t eat. At that point, the hobo, who was standing at the foot of the stairs leading to the kitchen door landing, started up the stairs. That was a mistake. She picked up the rifle she kept near the door. The hobo did not stop but said to her, “now, little lady, you know you don’t know how to use that.” That was an even greater mistake. Without pause, she brought the rifle up to her shoulder and fired through the screen door, taking off the hobo’s hat. As the story goes, the hobo quickly retreated and disappeared, not even attempting to retrieve his hat.

I barely remember my great-grandmother. While she was invariably kind and patient with me, giving me picture post cards and Christmas cards to play with, I also knew that she was used to getting her way, in everything. Just topping 5 feet, she commanded a presence out of all proportion to that height. My favorite photo of her was taken on the day of my grandmother’s 5th birthday. She stood on the back porch of the house where they were living at the time and a group of children, little girls between 5 and 7 or so years of age, were lined up in the yard in front of the porch. Two things in the picture catch your attention; my grandmother is holding a doll, my great-aunt’s I am told, that is every bit as big as she, and; my great-grandmother has struck a pose most uncharacteristic for the time. She is standing facing the camera, smiling broadly with her right hand on her hip, which juts ever so slightly to the right. It is a far cry from the stern, unsmiling portraits common to the 19th century. In fact, I don’t recollect any pictures from the period in which the subjects are actually smiling.

As far as I can determine, my great-grandmother had at least four husbands. Her first husband died about 10 years into their marriage. The cause of his death is not recorded. She then seems to have married her husband’s brother, since subsequent children carry the same last name, Lowe. It is not recorded how long that marriage lasted, but family history relates that she was married to two other men, one of whom she divorced and remarried. The singular thing about those subsequent marriages is that she kept her first (and second) husband’s name. She remained Grandma Lowe until her death. While possible, it is unlikely that, after the second husband, the subsequent successors also carried the family name Lowe. What husbands three and four thought of this arrangement also is unknown. Another action uncharacteristic to the time.

Much of her life is lost in shadow. I know that she did not like nail polish and witnessed her stopping a young woman, taking her hand and asking why her fingers were bleeding. Confused, the woman told her that her fingers weren’t bleeding, she was wearing nail polish. “You don’t have to paint yourself up for any man,” my great-grandmother retorted in a rather gruff voice and off she went with me in tow. The incident had its effect on me and I still have a prejudice against red nail polish.

Other aspects of her independence were also the subject of family talk. The most exasperating, in the opinion of those who cared to comment about it, was her tendency to take off without notice. She owned a circa 1923 Hupmobile and apparently travelled considerable distances in it – alone. She would mention that she was going into to town for something or other and drive off and disappear. News of her whereabouts would remain a mystery to the family until the arrival of a card telling them that she was in California or Arizona or some other location west of the Mississippi. Such a drive from her Indiana home was quite a trek for the ’20s and, I suspect, one rarely attempted by an unaccompanied woman in her 50s. This was not a one-time occurrence, but happened several times before the Depression apparently put an end to her ramblings.

I hesitate to call my great-grandmother unique but certainly, women of her temperament were the exception, not the rule. When family members talked about her after her death, they did so with a mixture of humor, awe, and fear. From my brief acquaintance with her, I am convinced that if she were going the wrong way on a one-way street, she would have everyone turned around and going in her direction at the end of the discussion. She became quite frail towards her end and relied more and more on someone’s arm to help her get around, something that must have galled her. There was a rumor which circulated in the family for a time that her oldest daughter, my great-aunt, helped her along to her final end. There is, of course, no proof for such an allegation, yet I heard it repeated, sotto voce of course, long after my great-grandmother and her children were in their graves. I was not told when she died and learned of her passing only by paying attention to a conversation between my mother and grandmother in which they talked about her death. In an attempt to shield me from unpleasant news, they used to spell key words when I was within hearing, words such as cancer, death, funeral, etc., not realizing that I understood the words being spelled at an early age, a secret I was to keep for a time before an incautious comment on my part gave them to understand that I had broken their code. That indiscretion saw me banished from the house when “adult” matters were to be discussed.

Finally, she was a quilter, turning out a number of different designs on a large quilting frame. Some of these we have. They are finely made and they speak of another aspect of her personality, one I am not certain she allowed to show very often.

I also have her rifle, by the way.