“I suppose it would have been better if I’d never been born at all.” – George Bailey, “It’s a Wonderful Life”
Seeing the footage, videos and photos of splintered trees, the rubble of homes, first responders and devastated people and hearing of the rising tolls of the injured, missing and dead and imagining the immense pain of all the fractured families — especially in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and in Joplin, Missouri — it is all the more remarkable to me that my great grandmother, Mable Agnes Brantley, then just one day shy of her 18th birthday, and her soon-to-be husband, Harry T. Ruble, survived the 1925 “Tri-State” tornado that devastated the town of Murphysboro in Jackson County in southern Illinois. It was the WORST tornado in U.S. history to date an F5 on the Fujita Scale — nearly 700 people died — but it is also infamous for its duration, sustained speed and breadth!
Mable Brantley would go on to have a full life, to raise children during the Great Depression, to work outside the home before and during the War Effort and for decades after, and to help to raise her grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great, great grandchildren.
My great grandma lived the rest of her life with “souvenirs” of the tornado – fine shards of car window glass embedded deep in her chest, back and upper arms. The car she was riding in had been tossed around near the Murphysboro Ice Factory right near a railroad track crossing (likely a car from nineteen-teens). She would remain forever nervous and frightened during storms – down to the basement we went at the first sign of one, and those were only times, aside from the loss of her own daughters, including my maternal grandmother, that I ever remember her revealing any fragility.
As a girl, I saw my great grandma nearly every day after school and also spent a good many Sunday nights sleeping over at her house, on the loveseat in her living room, watching 60-Minutes, Lawrence Welk, Bobby Vinton – the Polish Prince, and Hee-Haw (“Pfffft, you was gone!”) with her. But, I always wanted to watch the Wonderful World of Disney. She’d make me breakfast and then drive me to school on Monday mornings. My, how she hated missing her “story” which was the soap opera, “Days of Our Lives”; its music and intro to this day, remind of me of her, of summer afternoons and her trusty old wall clock.
There wasn’t anything she didn’t know how to do or make. She made a divine pineapple upside-down cake; lovingly and well-crafted, and cozy crocheted afghans and slippers; tasty plum butter and jelly and piccalilli; matching sewn summer tops, as well as denim and crocheted purses for my mother and me; Southern Illinois style peanut rolls; rum cake and fruitcake at Christmas; and amazing country chicken and dumplings (as a side dish of all things!) on special occasions; she kept a vegetable and flower garden and a dog for nearly her whole life. One of her favorite rituals was buying flats of impatiens or petunias for all her female family members on Mother’s Day. She commissioned a quilt for me when I was married, because she could no longer make one herself.
My mother adored her unusually open-minded, unprejudiced, and forward-thinking Southern Illinois grandmother, and my African American [step]dad befriended her right away. He never once called her by her name, instead, he nicknamed her “Miss Beautiful” from the get. Throughout their special friendship, they teasingly planned to run away to Hong Kong together (they were both afraid to fly and neither had passports); they never failed to mention their travel plans at our regular Monday dinners.
She kept her beautifully simple “up ‘do” dyed Clairol Black until her last year of life; I recall my mom gently “fixing” her hair for her a few times every week for years on end; she was self-proclaimed as “tender-headed” — in fact, I am pretty sure we still have her favorite comb.
We believe that she was more than one-fourth Cherokee Indian – from her father, Edgar Brantley [Strickland, Rose], who had spent part of his childhood on a reservation in Oklahoma. He and I bookended five living generations in our family for one short year. A large, original black and white photograph of her mother, Jenny Mac Dowell, with beautifully colorized accents, mounted in its original frame with a lock of braided hair, is one of my most treasured possessions and hangs on my bedroom wall.
My great grandma and I made several trips to Murphysboro together over consecutive summers to see my grandma, Jennie Rose (her daughter) and my grandpa, who had relocated there when they tired of the city. The trips were a two-fer: my great grandma would visit with her remaining siblings, her brother, Elza, and her sister, Hattie and all her extended family and also visit the family plots in order to ritually lay flowers atop the graves for Memorial Day.
She was extraordinarily devoted and loyal to her two daughters; her eldest did not inherit her mother’s character – and fell painfully, awfully short; while her youngest, my grandmother never quite got her life together and died at 59 years old from lifelong complications of Type 1 diabetes.
It was just the two of us on those mini road trips, traveling at first, by car and later, when the 6-hour drive was just too much for her leg, foot and eyes, by Amtrak train. She’d leave and return to Chicago after a week or so, but I’d stay – spending my childhood summers in her very hometown. She lived a long, simple and good life. She tried very hard to live her life with integrity and honesty, and for the most part, I think she did – family members served as her albatross, and she was often unwittingly and unwillingly aiding or rescuing them from their schemes.
She made my and son’s existence possible – and she lived long enough to meet him and to know him as a toddler and little boy. She adored all babies and young children but especially hers – and her eyes sparkled at the sight of them.
She continued working into her early 80s, she had outlived her husband by nearly 25 years and also outlived both of her daughters.
On the day before she died, I went to see her in her home in the LakeView area of Chicago. She asked me if I could attend to her face; I also soaked and cleaned her baby soft hands – her pale skin was paper thin; I manicured her still-pretty finger nails. I realized later that in some way, I had anointed her physical body just before her death. She moved on from this world the next day, just before her 92nd birthday, in March of 1999.