KitchenScraps – My Mother Was an Okie by Beth Proudfoot

by Matilda Butler on October 7, 2010

catnav-scrapmoir-active-3Post #58 – Women’s Memoirs, ScrapMoir – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

Kendra and I are especially pleased to publish Beth Proudfoot’s beautiful story of her mother’s life. We’ve wanted to publish it for a long time as Beth gave us this story as part of a memoir cooking class I taught in 2008. We weren’t ready to start publishing at that time so I carefully stored the story and a copy of the only picture Beth has of her mother. Then the story got caught in that all-too-familiar limbo of a crashed computer and my move to a MacBook. I now have restored the original hard drive and brought its contents over to my current computer. So, finally, we’re able to share this touching story with you.

If Beth had submitted her story to one of our contests, we think you’ll agree with us that it would have been an award winner.

Congratulations Beth on a well-told memory.

By Beth Proudfoot

My mother was an Okie.

I didn’t know this, actually, until I was thirteen years old. That would have been 1970. I’d brought home The Grapes of Wrath to read for my freshman English class. My mother spotted it in the pile of books I’d taken out of my backpack. She stroked the creased paperback cover gently. “I’ve been told I should read this book,” she said. “Do you mind if I take a look at it while you’re doing your math?”

I shrugged, my mind on other things.

Three days later, she sat next to me on the piano bench while I was practicing my scales. She placed the book next to my music, then patted my knee. “This book is the story of my family,” she said. “Come talk to me about it when you’re done.”

I was a voracious, under-the-covers-all-night-long reader in those days. Being thirteen, I skipped guiltlessly over Steinbeck’s long descriptions of the landscape and the political situation to zero in on all of the juicy parts dealing with the Joad family and finished the book in 24 hours. It wasn’t until the end that I finally figured out who was whom: my mother, born in 1931, was Roseoshannon’s baby.

Not literally, of course. John Steinbeck did interview many Okie families, and he was well known for stealing people’s stories in their entirety, but my mother’s family was not the Joads. Her father, Millard, was the black sheep of the Robertson clan back in Indiana, an alcoholic who’d married a paranoid schizophrenic. Ruby, my grandmother, drank almost as much as Millard did, and proceeded to birth out one little boy after another with no livelihood to feed them on.

So, when the drought came and the banks collapsed, Millard and Ruby were among the first to pack up all of their belongings and their four boys in an old truck and head to the promised land of California. Along the way, my mother, Mary Rosellen, was born. She was the lucky one.

Her oldest brother, John, cared for little Mary, kept her fed and clothed and loved her as much as an eleven-year-old could. One by one, the younger brothers died of neglect and the diseases of poverty: diphtheria, typhoid, and cholera. John and Mary survived, though, as the family followed the harvest from California through Oregon and Washington. There, when my mother was four years old, the children were sent to “the poor house.” Their father had vanished, and their mother was in jail.

Thirty-five years later, Mary couldn’t talk about John without weeping. “I watched him die of tuberculosis,” she said. “He coughed and coughed up red blood, and there was nothing I could do.”

The next part of the story I didn’t hear until my mother’s funeral, six years later. My “Uncle Beno,” Mary’s distant cousin, described the trip he and his dad made, in 1936, to rescue the little girl.

“We drove up to this old shack where Ruby lived when she wasn’t in jail or in the nuthouse, and Mary was nowhere to be seen. We looked and looked and called and called. Then, coming up through the scrub came this old scraggly horse. And on top of it, riding bareback, was a wild child. She was completely naked, dirty as hell, her black hair was all tangled with burrs in it. We had to talk her off that horse. I’ll tell you what, it took a while.”

For the next year or so, Mary lived with Ben’s elderly parents. Ben’s father, “Gampydaddy,” took the little girl under his wing and showered her with the love she’d been sorely missing. He was a country doctor, and she’d ride along happily as he did his housecalls in his Model T.

Unfortunately, Gampydaddy’s wife was not happy with the special relationship between her husband and this orphan girl. In the end, she issued an ultimatum, and Mary was sent to live with one of their grown children, the sweet, generous woman I knew through my childhood as “Grandma Ruth.”

So, Mary, Roseoshannon’s baby, was the only child of that blacksheep Okie family to survive to have children of her own. And, despite all of the separations, the neglect, the poverty of her early life, she was a wonderful mother who established a deep bond with all of her four children.

As we sat at the kitchen table, The Grapes of Wrath between us, my mother pulled back a tendril of my long hair and tucked it behind my ear.

“You came a long way, baby,” I said, quoting a popular cigarette commercial in an effort to lighten the tone.

“Yes,” she said softly. “I’ll tell you a story about that, though. When I was little and living with Gampydaddy, I said to him one day that I wanted to be a doctor, just like him. He said, ‘Oh, honey, girls can’t be doctors. You’ll have to be a nurse.’ And so that’s what I did. I studied hard and got a scholarship, became a nurse, married a doctor.”

She took my hand. “I shouldn’t have listened to Gampydaddy, though. I should have been a doctor. Don’t you make that mistake, Beth. You follow your heart. Don’t let anybody tell you what you have to be.”

My mother had spent the Sixties with four little kids in tow. In the Seventies, though, she started getting involved in local politics and taking classes at the Junior College in pottery and oil painting and French. She loved her French teacher, a cosmopolitan woman who knew five languages and had traveled the world. One Christmas, the French teacher passed out a green mimeographed handout with several of her old family recipes. My mother loved the whole idea of having a family that had lived in one stone farmhouse for six generations and collected a list of recipes that were a hundred and more years old. She loved every recipe, but this one, for Pierettes (Little Rocks), is the one we adopted into our family like it was our own.

I still make these little cookies every Christmas, even though my children don’t care for them. And when I eat them, I think of my mother, little Mary Rosellen all grown up and finally being who she really was instead of what others told her she had to be.

Beth Proudfoot's mother Little Rocks

Cream together:
1 cup butter
½ cup sugar
3 eggs
3½ cup flour
1 tsp. soda in 2T warm water
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp allspice

Fold in:
2½ cups coarsely chopped dates
6 cups coarsely chopped walnuts

Bake on greased cookie sheets at 325°, about ten minutes, until slightly brown.

Beth Proudfoot can be reached through

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