A family history, Part 3

Family | A model of what it is to be a woman, a lady, a mother, a human being
by John R. Erickson
Posted 6/27/20, 12:00 pm

Author and rancher John R. Erickson’s 2005 book Prairie Gothic: The Story of a West Texas Family includes stories of his ancestors and those who played key roles in their lives. The author of the popular Hank the Cowdog series first introduced us to his mother’s family in May 2018, and in April, we learned more about the Shermans. Last month, Erickson gave us more details about his maternal grandfather, Buck Curry. In the excerpt below, the third of three parts, he recounts his maternal grandmother Mabel’s funeral.  —Mickey McLean

Grandmother’s Funeral

Kris and I drove down to Seminole the next day and joined some of the family at Grandmother’s house. Around six, we went to the funeral home and viewed the body. The gray metal casket had been placed in a small room, and I stayed for half an hour or more. I had not yet gotten a feeling of death about Grandmother. I looked into her face and marveled. After she had lived eighty-five years on the Llano Estacada, braving wind and blizzards and sand storms, her face showed hardly a wrinkle and was still as smooth and white as alabaster. This was no trick of the undertaker’s trade. Mrs. Curry had preserved her beauty through constant care … and some quality of the spirit that I don’t claim to understand. Only her hands showed the wear of years, and the undertaker had covered them with satin. I moved the fabric and looked at them. They reminded me of the gnarled shapes of cottonwood trees that have been sculpted by wind and storm. I touched her hands and face, and left the room, knowing that she was no longer with us. …

That night, the grandchildren spent the night at Grandmother’s house, while the aunts and uncles found quieter lodgings at the Raymond Motel. After brushing my teeth in the bathroom, I noticed a little note in Grandmother’s handwriting taped to the tank of the commode: “Please watch after you flush. Sometimes it hangs. The water will run until you shake the handle.” I had to laugh. Mrs. Curry had not quite given up her hold on the house she had occupied for sixty-two years. …

At nine-thirty the next morning, we loaded into cars and drove to the South Seminole Baptist Church, where Grandmother taught a Sunday school class for many years. … Black is the color we usually associate with funerals, but in Seminole the predominant color seemed to be yellow. The grass in the vacant lot across from Grandmother’s house had turned August yellow, the hearse and limousine were yellow, and so was the brick on the church, the austere yellow that seems to have some odd appeal to Baptists in West Texas. Inside the church, we saw more yellow in the pews and woodwork. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant color, but maybe appropriate for the drought-prone Llano Estacado. …

The church was only about one-quarter filled, less an indication of Grandmother’s prestige in the town than the fact that she had outlived most of her friends.

The inside of the church was plain and simple, almost stark, the walls white and adorned only with fluorescent light fixtures and plastic “stained glass” windows. The ceiling consisted of squares of fiberboard, some browned by water leaks. The baptistery at the front showed a large picture of a river flowing from a range of snow-capped mountains in the background. It didn’t much resemble the country Jesus walked or the Llano Estacado.

The church was only about one-quarter filled, less an indication of Grandmother’s prestige in the town than the fact that she had outlived most of her friends. The family filled three rows at the front, twenty­ seven of us in all. The minister, a short stocky man with dark eyes and a balding head, read from the Gospel of John, which he said was one of Grandmother’s favorite passages, and a duet rendered a creaky version of “How Great Thou Art.” Then the minister delivered a short sermon on heaven. Funeral services seldom do justice to the deceased, and this one proved no exception. I doubt that the preacher knew Mrs. Curry very well and his service gave no hint that we had gathered to say goodbye to a woman I had always regarded as truly extraordinary.

He might have mentioned that she was born in the first town to appear on the Llano Estacado, at a time when wild mustangs still galloped across an unfenced sea of prairie grass, and lived to see Braniff jets making their daily run from Midland to Dallas. He could have mentioned that she studied Shakespeare and Latin with nuns in a convent, matched wills against an overbearing father, and shepherded five daughters through the Great Depression.

He might have mentioned her lifelong struggle against the entropic forces of West Texas; her pride, beauty, and intelligence; that she and her husband had left behind the largest private library in Gaines County; that in spite of the corrosive effects of climate and disease and family strife, she remained loving, dignified and strong to the very end. He might have quoted this moving tribute to all Texas women, written by Celia Morris, the one-time wife of noted editor and author Willie Morris:

“[The] typical Texas woman brought up children and kept families together. She raised and cooked their food; made and maintained their clothes; worked to make their shelters life­ enhancing. She planted fruits and flowers and created much of what grace there has been in daily life. She moved from the farms and prairies and then to towns and to cities, weaving the fabric of community as she went.

“She taught in schools and tended the sick. She filled the churches, which have been the major institutional force in this state that has worked to make a gentler ethic prevail. She helped others live and helped them die.”

Or he might have set aside his sermon and turned to the two rows of grandchildren and said something simple. “You were very lucky to have known this woman. When you’re looking around for a model of what it is to be a woman, a lady, a mother, a human being, remember Mrs. B.B. Curry. There were many things he might have said, had he known her well but he didn’t. Preachers move in and out of a community, and they have to bury strangers with words they don’t feel. So Mrs. Curry was sent on her last journey in a drab little church, without poetry or grand music or even a sentence that might have told us who she was.

After the service, we loaded up in our cars and started the slow procession to the cemetery. At every intersection, a police car blocked traffic and a policeman stood at attention as we passed. On Main Street, cars pulled over to the side and let us pass. These are common gestures of respect in small towns, and I appreciated them. We drove south out of town until we reached the cemetery on the edge of Seminole Draw, the same dry streambed that cut through Buck Curry’s ranch some twenty miles northwest of town. As we approached the canopy over the gravesite, the pallbearers were coming up with the casket, struggling past tombstones and directed by a funeral home employee in blue overalls. As they approached the device on which the casket was to be placed, one of the pallbearers gasped, “You don’t reckon we’ll fall into the hole, do you?”

Mrs. Curry was sent on her last journey in a drab little church, without poetry or grand music or even a sentence that might have told us who she was.

Grandmother was laid to rest beside Buck Curry’s grave and just a short distance from the Sherman family plot. Joe and Lina Sherman rested there, beside the grave of their little girl, Mary. … When the casket had been set in place, the immediate family moved under the canopy and took the chairs in front of the grave. …

The graveside service was brief and the crowd broke up into small knots. Then we all drove back to Grandmother’s house, which was now packed with friends and family. At eleven, we lined up and filled our paper plates with the food that had been brought by the ladies of the church: fresh black-eyed peas, okra, green beans, squash, roast beef, meatloaf, fried chicken, Jell-O salads, and enough pies, cakes, and cobblers to founder an army. …

In the afternoon, some of my male cousins and I decided to drive out to the Curry ranch, hoping we might find something left of the old ranch house where Buck used to stay during the summer months. There, comfortable in his bastion of male squalor, he was able to escape the noise and strain of a house that contained six women. Until winter drove him back to town, he could read his books, build his spurs, and pet his dogs. Cousin Jim Harter led us to the spot, northwest of town, and we were disappointed to find that nothing remained of the house, or anything else that resembled a ranch. Sometime in the fifties, Grandmother had leased out the eight thousand acres to a farmer … who had bulldozed the mesquite and shinnery, plowed the sod, drilled irrigation wells, and planted it all to cotton, potatoes, and peaches.

For better or worse, the farmers had won Gaines County and the ranching community had vanished like a flash of lightning in the night sky. By 1973 almost every square inch of the county had come under the plow, and one of the few patches of native vegetation lay on the Sherman ranch east of town. That piece of ground would never feel the scrape of a plow as long as the Shermans were still alive.

We walked down to Seminole Draw and began to notice the oppressive heat. The temperature was 105 that afternoon, and every living thing wilted under the glare of the sun. It reminded me of what a hard and stingy country this was, and though the Shermans and Buck Curry had claimed to love it, I couldn’t help feeling some relief that I would probably never inherit any of Buck’s land. With five daughters as heirs, and nobody in the family inclined toward farming, the land would be sold. I had always felt nostalgic about the Curry land, but after seeing it in the middle of August, I left with fewer illusions than I’d had before I got there.

Back at the house in Seminole, we found the five Curry girls sitting at the dining table, discussing in somber tones the task they had all been dreading, dividing up Grandmother’s possessions and clearing out the house. They had dreaded it because of its awful finality. This house, where we had gathered so many times for weddings and funerals and family reunions, had held us together for as long as any of us could remember. It had been a place that never changed. Since 1911 it had held the unmistakable stamp of Mable Curry’s will, and it seemed almost unthinkable that, within a few weeks’ time, it would be stripped bare, put on the market for sale, and occupied by strangers.

This house, where we had gathered so many times for weddings and funerals and family reunions, had held us together for as long as any of us could remember.

But it had to be done, and done quickly, so the sisters devised a lottery system for dividing up the silver, china, and furniture, and sent the grandchildren into the library to divide up the books. This would be a formidable task, disposing of a library that covered three entire walls. The Harter brothers and I had to make a quick trip to Hobbs, New Mexico, to gather a supply of sturdy liquor boxes from trash receptacles. (Seminole was in a dry county and offered an inferior grade of cardboard boxes, those intended for lettuce, grapefruit, and canned soup.)

That night, the grandchildren gathered in the library and made the division, keeping all the various collections intact: Civil War, Founding Fathers, New Mexico History, Texana, and so forth. My cousins were generous enough to give me the entire Texana collection, recognizing that I had aspirations of one day becoming a Texas author and would put the collection to good use. This I have done, dear cousins. At some point in this exercise, Mike Harter commented on the irony of thirteen grandchildren, all with high school diplomas and some with college degrees, doing hard labor to disperse a library accumulated by a man with four grades of formal schooling.

West Texas was settled by people who found their own way to books and fashioned their own education out of the materials at hand. In the towns they erected on the prairie, they left behind twelve-grade schools made of brick and mortar. I would like to believe that those of us who attended those schools are better and smarter than the ones who built them, but I doubt that we are.

The next morning, we all said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. Before leaving, I went back into the house and took one last look around. It seemed terribly empty and barren now. There was Grandmother’s wheelchair in the hall and her empty chair at the dining table, and a great void that had once been filled with her presence. She wasn’t there anymore. The place had become just another house.

From Prairie Gothic: The Story of a West Texas Family by John R. Erickson. Copyright © 2005 by John R. Erickson. Published by University of North Texas Press. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

John R. Erickson

John is the author of the Hank the Cowdog book series. He and his wife, Kris, live on their cattle ranch near Perryton, Texas.

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  •  Cousin in Noah's picture
    Cousin in Noah
    Posted: Sat, 06/27/2020 03:44 pm

    Artfully put observations about education, life, family relationships, history, community change, and many large things people think as they gather to reflect, grieve, and heal.

    I guess the pastor might get some points if he admits publicly that he did not well know the deceased.

    My pastor asks the family to lend him the Bible of the person he is about to do a funeral for.  Fetching the Bible can prompt the family to speak about the beliefs that the deceased and they maintain.  The book itself with any underlining, dedicatory inscription, and treasures tucked within can testify something about the individual's faith and provide a basis on which the pastor can personalize what he will present at the service even for someone he doesn't know well.   

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