Family Stories, Reruns and Leftovers


This month, my maternal grandmother would have been 109 years old.  She died in 1938 when my mother was only 4-years old, about the same age my son Sean is now .  In honor of her birthday, I am re-posting this essay I wrote about her in August of 2006.

* * * * *

The day was November 7, 1938. She had turned 39 in August and was in her twelfth year of marriage to an uneducated but hard working farmer who adored her. It was never clear if she really loved him or if at the advanced age of 26, she had just given in to the fear of becoming a spinster and finally agreed to marry him when he asked her for the sixth or seventh time.

She was a tall, pretty woman with hazel eyes, a thick head of wavy auburn hair and perfect white teeth. She loved jewelry and china and books and beautiful things.  Her own mother ran off and left the family Hester_1
when she was ten-years-old, leaving her to help her father raise her three younger siblings.

At an early age, she had made the unconventional decision to forego marriage and children in favor of working as a housekeeper for a wealthy doctor in order to have the nice things she loved so much. Marrying Allen Rhodes had put an end to her life of pretty things and was the beginning of a life of hard work and worry that was the lot of the farmer’s wife. Together they had five children ages 11, 8, 6, 4 and 5-weeks.

She had been suffering since the birth of the baby with severe abdominal pain and after more than a month she could bear it no more. Her father, Hiram, who had come to live with the family several years earlier, begged Allen to get help for his daughter and so the decision was made to take her to town to see a doctor. In those days, few things were more terrifying to country folk than doctors. Such a radical decision says everything about the degree of desperation and pain she was suffering.

As she stood to leave for the hospital that November afternoon, her feet must have felt as though they were made of lead. She kissed her infant daughter over and over cradling her downy soft head up to her cheek, closing her eyes and listening for the sweet purr of baby’s breath circling in her ear. She placed the baby into Hiram’s waiting arms and then kissed each of her other four children taking a long time to look into the face of each one. If there was any question of her love for Allen there was no question she loved her children more than anything in the world. In spite of the crippling pain, she couldn’t bring herself to turn away. Allen gently pulled her away and lead her to the door.

Three separate times she made it as far as the car only to return to kiss her children good-bye one more time, kissing them and weeping over them at the same time. When she turned away for the last time, she knew that she would never return.

Allen settled his sick wife in to the car for the long journey into town and waved feebly at his father-in-law as he put the car in drive. Hiram stood at the door of the farmhouse with the baby in his arms and tried to nod reassuringly. He watched the car carrying his daughter pull away, then dip and disappear into the rolling hills of corn. When there was nothing more to see but endless rows of corn, he clutched the baby tight to his chest, hung his head and shook and shivered, silently releasing all the tears he had been holding back his entire life.

As the car bumped down the country road, perhaps she bore the unbearable in silence, wordless and brave. Perhaps she gave in and beat her breast and howled long and bitter and helpless as an injured animal does when caught in a trap and left to die. Allen never spoke of it.

She never returned to the farmhouse again. She died in the hospital 12 days later. Her name was Hester. She was my grandmother.

39 thoughts on “Hester

  1. What a heart-breaking legacy of love. It brought tears to my eyes to visualize that excrutiating good-bye to those she loved so much. Thank you for sharing her story.


  2. It is so awesome to read such a beautifully written story that is heart-breakingly true. You show us the best of blogging. I would like to think “who needs books- this is better!” But indeed both are treasures.

  3. You have no idea how close this post hits home. My father-in-law was left motherless when he was only 4 months old. The circumstances, however, were quite different.

    After having 3 children within the space of 3 years, Blanche’s mother was very concerned. All these children must stop. She persuaded her daughter to have a medical procedure done that would prevent babies forever. We are still unsure what exactly it was, though it might have been a complete hysterectomy. It was botched. I young, healthy girl died, leaving behind 3 young children and a devastated husband. So devastated that he ended up placing his kids in the local children’s home. From which my dear father-in-law ran away when he was 16 or so and joined the army. It breaks my hear to think of him never having know the love of a mother. Never. So tragic.


  4. That was beautiful and heart breaking.
    Of all the pictures I have seen of war, famine, carnage and despair, the one that makes me cry is of my grandmother at 4 looking at her mother’s coffin. It was 1920 and she was wearing a white dress. I didn’t help that her father soon married a woman that made Cinderella’s step mother look like Mother Theresa. But somehow she pulled through, graduated from nursing scool and married a wonderful doctor.
    She is what keeps me going eventhough she is no longer with us.
    Sorry to make this all about me, it wasn’t supposed to be!

  5. Beautifully written. When I read it I think, “those days are over.” And then I click down my blogroll to Matt. His beautiful wife had an embolism the day after their first daughter was born in March. She never held her daughter. Matt lost his best friend. He writes beautifully and honestly about his new life.

  6. So sad. I’m so sorry for you and your mom. Do you know what exactly was wrong with her? If she’d received medical treatment earlier was there anything that could have saved her? Just tragic that someone who obviously loved her children SO much was taken from them.

  7. I was not going to cry today. My daughter has been gone for two days with family friends for a mini vacation and I have been missing her desperately. And now this beautiful and heart breaking story. Am going to have to stop crying.

  8. Oh I don’t know Corey, as a writer, I think it is all about you, the reader. If you have found a bit of yourself in something I’ve written, then I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.

  9. Kate, Of course, that was a long time ago, so we don’t really know for sure. My mom, who is a geneaologist, says the medical records show that she had a cyst on her ovary that had ruptured, but there is also some indication that her appendix ruptured. She had just had a baby 5-weeks-earlier, so they were afraid to operate on her. Ironically, my appendix ruptured when I was about the same age.

  10. Thank you, AM, for sharing your story again. That is a heart-wrenching tale, and I am sure it runs deep in the lives of your family.

  11. It’s so hard to hear a story like this one when you know that it could easily have been prevented these days! What a heartbreaking story.

  12. What a preciously preserved family story. I would love to hear the story of your mother and her siblings growing up. How did your mother do in childhood? Is there an archived blog on her?

  13. k&c, there are definitely some stories to tell, that I want to tell, that are not on the blog (yet). My grandfather remarried several years later and his second wife was not kind to my mom and her siblings, they all left home as soon as they could to escape her abuse. My mom’s baby sister who was an infant when my grandmother died was raised by family friends, a loving family who adored her, but unfortunately my mom didn’t get that. Because of her unpleasant home life, my mom left home and was on her own at 16, already graduated from high school. Her life was hard. Being motherless definitely shaped her and me as well, and if she has made any mistakes in mothering me, it’s easy to overlook since she did not have a mother herself.

  14. I quickly logged on to check my two favorite blogs, knowing I didn’t have a lot of time. Seeing you had a new entry I thought I’d quickly scan it and read it more closely when I had more time. Well, A.M., that’s just next to impossible! You have such a gift! You captured me quickly and I hung onto every word until the very last sentence.
    Reading you is NEVER a squander of my time.

    What a sad story. I, like your grandmother, have 5 children. I can’t imagine the pain she endured. The physical pain wouldn’t even closely compare to the emotional pain of knowing you were leaving your children forever. Thank God for modern medicine. Whenever someone scoffs at todays advances and says, “Well, in MY day, we never needed any of ‘this or that’.” My response is, “Well, in YOUR day, many people died.”

  15. Beautiful written and so sad. 🙁

    That kind of love for your child last a lifetime. From your mother to you then to Sean. That kind of love never dies.

    My mother-in-law suffered the same kind of fate with her mother except that she died in childbirth. Her dad remarried Atilla the Hun’s mother and I don’t have to tell you how her and her siblings suffered. 🙁

  16. Gods gift to you is how to put thoughts in to words. It was so sad to think of your great Grandpa having to watch his little girl go off as he stood there holding that wee baby. Trying to be strong for the older children knowing in his heart she was so sick.Thank you for making me think of ours at this time who hurting from broken hearts.jj

  17. I remember this one so well. It touches me how well you describe how hard it must have been for her to leave her kids knowing she wouldn’t see them again. I don’t think I could’ve done it.

  18. Tears are stinging my eyes. My own dear Grandma Nita nearly died after giving birth to her only son, my father, at home. He weighed 13 pounds, and she nearly bled to death. I am forever grateful that she lived because she meant the world to me. I’m sorry that your beloved Hester did not.

    Girl, you can sure turn a phrase. I admire you.~~Dee

  19. Oh… I often skim over your first paragraph of your posts … but don’t read it all — because you choose not to publish it on the readers… so I often miss out… no ones fault but my own.

    But when I choose to actually come and visit your blog — I’m always so richly rewarded. Thank you for blogging… I feel enriched today.

  20. PLEASE write a book. PLEASE.

    You’re writing makes me want to start reading books again… in addition to blogs, of course. 🙂

  21. This is so heartbreaking.
    I am deeply grateful for modern medicine – I would have died having my first child, if I didn’t live now.

  22. This touched me on many, many levels. It made me think of my own heritage. It also made me think of how many people glamorize the past. I am amused when people want to go back to the ” good ol’ days.” Family values in the past were extremely harsh in reality.

    I find it so interesting that both of my grandmother’s had tragic lives,and yet their response to tragedy was so different. One was bitter and strange, and afraid to love because it might spoil you, or worse, she might grow attached to you. The other was such a beacon of joy and love. As an adult, I admire her more and more for her faith, wit and strength.

    This is a post that I will think about for awhile. Well done.

  23. This story is definitely worth repeating, and I’m glad you did that. It would be a good idea to keep it up for her birthday or Mother’s Day postings. I am curious how you know so much about that day (for instance, her coming back 3 times to kiss her children good-bye) – did her father pass down that info, or did one of your mother’s siblings remember that day?
    I am so blessed to still have my saintly mother.

  24. Oh my goodness. I didn’t realize that I needed a kleenex for this post. I can’t even imagine being her and leaving and deep down somehow knowing that I would not come back. So very touching!!!

  25. Sue, the part about Hester coming back three separate times to kiss her children was in some notes in a file that my mom had that she gave to me. It was that scene that spurred me to write the story. It probably was my mom’s oldest sister who was eleven at the time who remembered it and someone along the way, thankfully, wrote it down.

  26. My father’s mother died when he was ten and the youngest was four. There were eight. Your grandmother looks like mine; tall, thick hair, strong. She was married to a “poor” farmer as well.

    The way you described her kissing her children repeatedly – made me cry.

    How beautifully written.

  27. That is the OTHER story you’ve written that haunts me to this day. So many women who worked hard and and raised babies and helped their husbands and would love the fact that we–their daughters and grandaughters and great grandaughters have medical care they could not imagine, immeasurably comfortable homes,education and jobs and priviledges. Thank you for sharing Hester again.

  28. You have a powerful way with words, Ma’am.

    My own grandmother, Rose Eva, had a similar story. Perhaps next May, I’ll tell it. You have reminded me how important it is to keep the legacy alive.

    Thank you!

  29. Thank you for this moving story. It is so important to capture the lives of our loved ones. I just completed a book on my 90 year-old mother’s life and your story resonates with me. My mother’s father, Jesse Weeks, was only thirty-two when he died and my mother was two. To this day she misses a father she never knew and I long to know something of the young fireman who was cut down in the prime of his life.

    I know, in part, that because I never new either of my grandfathers that I now spend my professional life as a personal historian. I truly believe that preserving memories is an act of love.

  30. Beautifully written.
    My grandmother also passed away in 1938, when my Dad was only 13. She had dental work done and died from an infection in her tooth. Something like that would probably not happen in this day and age.

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