Mabel and Buck
Essay | Remembering my imperfect but remarkable grandparents
by John R. Erickson
Posted 5/19/18, 03:07 pm
Mother’s Day in May and Father’s Day in June are major card-selling and gift-giving holidays, but National Grandparents Day in September is virtually ignored. That’s too bad, because without grandparents we wouldn’t have those holidays to celebrate.
Here’s a humble proposal: Why not move Grandparents Day to April so the commemorations would be in proper genealogical order? Here’s WORLD’s contribution to that effort: John R. Erickson, author of 70 beloved Hank the Cowdog books, writes here about his grandparents Mabel and Buck. —Marvin Olasky
My grandmother, Mabel Sherman Curry, was one of seven children raised on a ranch, 25 miles east of Seminole, Texas. Her father, Joe Sherman, had been orphaned as a child and raised by cowboys on a ranch northwest of Fort Worth. Comanches murdered his mother and his father died of disease in the Confederate States Army.
As a young man, Joe lived an adventurous frontier life, drifted to West Texas in 1882, married Lina Underhill, a strong Quaker woman, and settled into the ranching business near what is now the city of Lubbock.
Growing up, he had never known a stable family, and when he had one of his own, he responded in odd ways. When the children were young, he seemed distant inside the house, almost a stranger, but when they grew into adults and were ready to fly away, he did everything in his power to hold them in the nest.
Mabel was the oldest and the first to clash with him. In 1910 she was 22 and restless. After receiving eight years of education at one-room Sawyer Flat School, she stayed at home to help raise her brothers and sisters. If a young man came to visit her at the ranch, Joe found ways of sending him down the road.
One day she announced that she wanted to spend a year at Our Lady of Mercy Academy, a boarding school in Stanton, run by an order of nuns. If ranch people in West Texas wanted their children to receive some polish and education beyond a little country school, this was the only place within 300 miles.
Her father said no. The Shermans were Presbyterians, not Catholics, and she was needed at home. Sparks flew between them, angry scenes that sent the younger children fleeing to their rooms and caused Lina to wonder if there would ever be peace in a house that contained a daughter who was just as stubborn as her father.
Joe Sherman wasn’t a compromiser, but he’d met his match with this girl, so he worked out a plan for her future. After a year of study, she would return to the ranch and become the teacher at Sawyer Flat School. Joe hitched up the buggy and delivered her to Mercy Academy, a hundred miles south of Seminole.
If she was an example of students they produced at the school, it must have been an impressive place. She studied Bible, grammar, literature, Latin, manners, quilting, sewing, and dancing, tutored by nuns who came from Ireland, Germany, Poland, England, and Mexico. It was a happy time for her, a period of expansion when she caught glimpses of a world beyond West Texas.
But it came to an end when Joe Sherman returned in the buggy to take her back to the ranch. A young woman in those days had few choices, and she must have looked toward the future with a sense of dread. She went back home and waited for a chance to escape.
The opportunity came when a handsome bachelor in his 30s paid a call at the ranch. He was running for county clerk and stopped to solicit votes. He had the dark features of a Cherokee grandmother and came dressed in a snappy white linen suit. Buck Curry was a man of substance, and it showed in his eyes.
Joe Sherman liked him right away. When he found out that Buck was a reader, they went out on the porch and talked for hours. Joe wanted to hear the latest news of the world and what books Curry had been reading. Joe must have been impressed that with only four years of formal schooling, this fellow had managed to give himself a broad education in history, geography, current events, and law.
Joe had followed a similar pattern himself and had become an avid reader. He subscribed to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and always kept a book of Shakespeare’s plays beside his bed.
Joe was having such a good time, he paid no mind when Mabel came out with tea and cookies, and didn’t notice the way Buck’s gaze lingered on her before she went back inside.
The next time Buck showed up at the ranch, he didn’t come to discuss world events with the old man but to spend time with Mabel. Joe Sherman’s opinion of him plunged. Now he couldn’t find a good word to say. Curry didn’t belong to a land-owning family. He was an outsider, a newcomer. What did he have to offer a woman? Nothing.
Furthermore, Curry had a flamboyant air that grated on the modest sensibilities of the Shermans. He talked in a loud voice and seemed a bit too sure of himself. And his manner of dressing was too conspicuous, gaudy. The white linen suit was bad enough, but in the winter he went around town wearing a coyote skin coat!
Mabel saw something else. Here was a man with ambition, and enough courage to defy the will of her father.
Buck won the election, and he and Mabel began exchanging letters. They found ways to meet in secret. One day in 1911, Mabel faced her father and announced that she and Buck were going to marry. The old man flew into a rage, sputtering about ungrateful children, and stormed out of the house. As always, Lina was left to sweep up the pieces and put things back together.
My family knew very little about the courtship of Buck and Mabel. It was a subject that seldom got reported in West Texas, especially when a tight-lipped Sherman was involved. Maybe their courting was stiff and stylized: Buck saw her as his last chance to escape permanent bachelorhood, and she saw him as a ticket off her father’s ranch.
Or maybe there was more. They were young, intelligent, attractive, and full of life. Both were fond of books and reading. Buck was a good dancer and so was Mabel. He played the guitar and maybe they sang old cowboy songs together. They had qualities that made them loveable and maybe they fell in love. That happened sometimes on the frontier.
They held the wedding at the Sherman ranch, with Lina and the children attending. Joe wasn’t there to give his daughter away. As my mother put it, “He had to ride pastures that day.” And just in case Mabel didn’t get the point, he disinherited her. For two years he shunned Buck and Mabel, while Lina maintained contact through letters and occasional visits in town.
The Currys’ first child, Anna Beth, arrived in 1912. She was a beautiful girl with her daddy’s dark features and a pair of luminous eyes that were almost eerie in their depth. One Sunday after church, Joe caught a distant glimpse of Anna Beth in her mother’s arms and was so smitten by those big brown eyes, he told Lina, “Why don’t you ask Mabel to come visit us some time.”
Lina opened a new round of diplomacy that finally healed the wound, and Mabel returned to the good graces of the family. Anna Beth, the little girl with the luminous eyes, was my mother.
MY COUSINS AND I OFTEN JOKED that when Grandmother reached the Pearly Gates, St. Peter would say, “Welcome to Heaven, Mrs. Curry,” and she would reply, “Thank you, young man.”
Very few people dared to slip into chummy first-name conversations with her. She wasn’t chummy. She was “Grandmother” to her grandchildren, “Mother” to her daughters, and “Mrs. Curry” to the people of Seminole, Texas. Only her husband and siblings had license to call her Mabel.
We kids viewed her as a kind but distant figure, a mountain whose summit was hidden in clouds. Even Mother felt some uneasiness about visiting her, as our visits brought noise and chaos and the constant threat of broken vases. She never made us feel unwelcome, but Mother suspected that she heaved a sigh of relief when she saw us backing out of her driveway.
In August of 1966, I was in Austin, finishing up a few courses at the University of Texas. Old memories and family stories had begun to stir my curiosity about that formidable lady in Seminole. On impulse, I wrote and asked if I could spend a weekend with her. It was something I had never done.
I typed my letter on good stationery and took special care to make it neat and proper. Her reply came a week later. She wrote in a precise hand, straight lines of blue-ink cursive, and pages that contained no misspellings, ink smudges, or cross-outs.
She said she would be delighted for me to visit and had instructed Mrs. Tennel, her housekeeper, to make a special trip to Piggly Wiggly to stock up on groceries. She ended by saying that the grass at the ranch needed a rain, hardly a surprise. The grass in Gaines County always needed a rain.
I didn’t require much in the way of clothing for the visit but decided to take my banjo. Grandmother and I had never spent two days together, just the two of us, and I didn’t know what to expect. I was 22 and she was 78, and we were separated by an enormous gulf of time and experience. She had spent her entire childhood without ever seeing an automobile, airplane, electric light, or telephone.
Two days in her big echoing house might become an eternity of minutes, and I might spend a lot of time on the porch playing my banjo.
I made the long drive to West Texas and coasted into Seminole around 6 o’clock in the evening. I turned east on Avenue E and drove several blocks past drab houses and vacant lots grown up in weeds. Then … there it was, just as I remembered it, a rambling white clapboard house surrounded by a green lawn shaded by tall Chinese elms, an oasis amid a landscape of red sand and scrubby mesquite.
Flowers bloomed below the porch, and the whole compound, which took up half a city block, was enclosed inside a cinder block fence that had recently been painted sparkling white. White and green were not natural colors in Gaines County, but they dominated here.
Buck and Mabel moved into this house as newlyweds in 1911. They read at night by kerosene lamps, heated the house with coal, kept a milk cow and raised chickens, and drew their water from a windmill behind the house. It was smaller then, and they added rooms as the family grew.
Grandmother had lived here for 55 years, a remarkable achievement in a society as restless as ours. She raised five daughters and buried her husband in 1947, and now occupied the house in an orderly solitude that suited her well.
I parked in the driveway, beneath a big juniper tree I had climbed as a boy, and rang the doorbell. She appeared, showing a smile of pearly white teeth, all her own, and a pair of light blue eyes behind rimless glasses. Depending on the circumstance, those eyes could glow with mirth and intelligence, or scorch the paint off a wall 10 feet away.
She had a dignified presence: erect in posture, direct of gaze. She spoke flawless grammatical English and had a special set of frown wrinkles for anyone who didn’t.
She wore a dress that reached to mid-calf and a pair of black shoes with a raised heel, and as always, she was perfectly groomed. If she had ever worn pants, shorts, or casual shoes in her whole life, nobody in my family had a record of it, and I couldn’t recall ever seeing her hair in disarray.
She had waged a lifelong battle against the West Texas wind, and she had won. The skin on her face had the sheen of alabaster, with few wrinkles or lines. She was still a beautiful woman, though smaller than I remembered, maybe only 5-feet-4. When we embraced, I recognized her scent, a pleasant blend of soap, perfume, and smells from the kitchen.
I had arrived just in time for supper, and Mrs. Tennel had set two places at Grandmother’s big rectangular dining table, which looked out on the green expanse of the backyard. My parents exchanged their wedding vows there in 1938.
Grandmother said the blessing and Mrs. Tennel brought out the feast: fried steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, fried okra, boiled squash, and homemade chowchow relish. The ladies watched as I devoured my food.
Grandmother smiled and said, “It’s good to see a man eat.” Mrs. Tennel nodded her agreement.
After supper, Mrs. Tennel cleaned up the kitchen and went home, leaving Grandmother and me alone in the big house. We moved to more comfortable chairs in the living room. She saw my banjo case beside the door and asked me to play, so I sang several folk songs I had learned from records by Pete Seeger and the Weavers.
I was surprised when she joined me on the chorus of “Irene, Good Night,” singing in a creaky alto voice. She asked me to do some old cowboy songs and she sang on those too. They must have brought back pleasant memories. She was smiling and her eyes sparkled. Maybe they reminded her of good times when she and Buck were courting.
We sang and talked until 9:30, then she said good night and went off to her room. One topic we didn’t discuss that evening was the death of her father, Joe Sherman. When he died in 1917, they held his funeral service in this very room.
A neighboring landowner killed him in an argument over a waterhole. Both men were armed and Doc Billingsley shot first. He was acquitted of the charge of murder, and the Shermans were very bitter about it. Mother had only recently told me that story. Growing up, I never heard it, and knew it was one of those things I couldn’t talk about with Grandmother.
There were others. Buck and Mabel didn’t enjoy a storybook marriage. Both were headstrong and more human than they might have wished. People of their generation never talked about marriage problems, but Mother was old enough to remember the arguments.
Grandmother had a difficult delivery with her second child, Aunt Mary, and didn’t want any more children. It chilled the marriage. Buck found another woman and wanted a divorce, which, in those times, was almost unheard of, scandalous.
Grandmother was too proud to crawl back to her parents, so she wrote to Mother Superior at Mercy Academy, pleading for a job, any kind of job, and a place to stay with her two small daughters. Mother Superior wrote back: “No, Mabel, your place is with your family.”
Mabel and Buck worked out their problems and stayed together. She told my mother it was the hardest thing she ever did in her life.
They had three more children—again, daughters. Buck Curry, a man’s man who loved horses and leather and guns and his coyote skin coat, drove to church every Sunday in an open-top Ford that was loaded with feminine beauty. Grandmother always dressed the girls in their finest clothes, curled their hair, and fixed them up with ribbons and bows. Buck had received a stern warning not to chew tobacco when the girls were in the car.
I drifted into the library on the west side of the house. Grandmother had kept it just as it was in 1947 when Grampy Buck died. A framed photograph of him hung on one of the shelves. This wasn’t the dashing young man in the white linen suit, but an old gentleman with thinning hair and a faraway look in his eyes.
He died when I was 4 and I had only faint memories of him—feeding cattle at the ranch, sitting on his knee and eating an ice cream cone as it dissolved in the heat.
As children, my cousins and I often played in the Curry library, but we gave little thought to the three walls that were filled, floor to ceiling, with books that revealed an astonishing range of interests: American history, Texas history, New Mexico history, the history of Greece and Israel, geology, banking, Texas law, range management, ethnology, archeology, gardening, Biblical studies, poetry, china painting, and needlework.
I went to a shelf that held 12 leather-bound volumes, the complete writings of George Washington, edited by Jarred Sparks. You would expect to find that set of books in the library at Texas Tech, but not here. This was surely one of the largest private collections in West Texas, and two individuals who, combined, had received only 12 years of formal education had assembled it.
Fifty years have come and gone since that night when I was alone in the Curry library, thinking about Mabel and Buck. I am swept by a profound sense of gratitude for the heritage they left my family. I still think of them. They were remarkable people—not perfect, but truly remarkable. I wish I had known them when they were young and full of life and in love.