I am a bit hesitant about this post as it is personal… then I realized that any post about your family is going to get personal – what’s more personal than family? It’s not so much personal in the way of sharing anything intimate or anything…I thought that word would get your attention! But, this story is near and dear to my heart. In my series Why in the World Would You Do Genealogy, which you can read here and here – I discussed Reason 1,“It Gives me a Sense of Belonging” and Reason 2, “It gives me a sense of purpose and a feeling that I can do it.” Which brings me now to Reason 3: “Genealogy Gives me Perspective and Wisdom”. My grandmother was Mertice Beatrice Beck and she was born in 1919 in rural northwestern Alabama.
Mertice was tall and thin with delicate bone structure, traits that somehow missed me. She was soft-spoken, gentle, shy and tender-heated. When Mertice was 20, she married a local boy named Samuel Thomas Brown, son of Herbert and Anna Mae Atteberry Brown (I wrote about them here). Sam, who at the time they got married went by Thomas (according to his marriage certificate and census record), later in life he was known as Buddy and Sam. But for now, to Mertice he was probably Thomas or Tommy, the dashing and dapper young man with the jet black hair, the soulful brown eyes and quick wit. I knew my grandfather as Sam, so I will stick with that for the rest of the story.
Sam loved music and probably played Mertice songs on his guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin or harmonica. Mostly likely the bluegrass gospel music that was Mertice’s favorite and was prominent in the area. Maybe singing her a song from one of her favorites, The Cater Family. Mertice’s older brother John Erwin Beck, married Sam’s older sister Sulla Margaret Brown 5 years before Sam and Mertice got married, further tying the Beck and Brown families together.
Not long after they got married, Mertice was expecting her first child. Undoubtedly Sam and Mertice were anxiously awaiting this great event. Sometimes, things turn horribly wrong – despite our best intentions. Mertice and Sam were out hunting rabbits for dinner, while the next events are not entirely clear from that day, this much we do know – Sam’s gun misfired or he somehow accidentally shot his pregnant wife in the back. In the rush, panic and hurry of getting her to the hospital, the car was reportedly crashed. Miraculously, Mertice and the baby boy lived though he was born with a broken clavicle at birth. That miracle baby was my father, James Daniel Brown.
Mertice survived the shooting, the subsequent car accident and the traumatic birth, though she lived with seizures, a limp and her right hand frozen in a claw-like position for the rest of her life. She was never able to have other children, drive, work or do much on her own. Stress and emotional duress would trigger the seizures that had her writhing uncontrollably often damaging herself further.
Sam’s guilt I think must of been immense. He took Mertice to the Mayo Clinic and anywhere he could, trying to find a cure. Eventually, they had to come to the realization that this was life for them now. When WWII started, Sam enlisted and took out extra insurance on himself, probably hoping that he would be killed and with the money they would receive, Mertice and his son Jimmy would be taken care of. Sometimes our suffering doesn’t end when and how we want. Sam was not to face combat as he was stationed stateside and made an instructor at boot camp. He would survive the war.
There are lots of pictures like these, they must have had taken when Sam was on leave and before he went back to base. Mertice’s health surely affected their marriage, and Sam’s guilt must have as well – not to mention the pressure from extended family problems. Mertice’s and Sam’s brother and sister got divorced – family choosing sides. Then you have Mertice’s parents blaming Sam for Mertice’s accident and Sam’s parents feeling sorry for their son been ‘saddled’ with a crippled wife – this must have made life unbearable at times. Since the accident, they had lived with either Sam’s or Mertice’s parents and there was no respite from the drama. My dad once said that his mother had been very overprotective and fearful of him getting hurt as a child.
As a mother, I can only imagine the fear and worry I would have at being not being able to protect my child from the dangers common in childhood. What if she had a seizure and was unconscious leaving the baby in danger or alone? What if during her thrashing she injured the child? What if he was hurt and she could not help him? These must have been her daily fears and worries. As Jimmy got older, he often had to nurse and care for his mother. Humiliating for her and frustrating for a young child I would imagine.
Sam began to find solace at the Baptist church through performing in the choir. There he met a beautiful woman, Anne who knew suffering too as she was married to an abusive alcoholic husband. Sam stayed with Mertice until Jim graduated from high school and then divorced Mertice and married Anne, who had a young daughter Becky. Anne later would leave Sam for someone else. Sam would never really find marital happiness – even though he tried 3 more times.
Jimmy grew up, and married his high school sweetheart Sandy while he was serving in the Air Force in Washington state. Mertice remained alone in her little house on Little Street in Napa, California next door to her parents. I remember her as a child. I especially remember a visit she made to visit us in Washington. She brought me boy’s pj’s, one pair with fire trucks on it and another with cowboy hats and boots. Being the tomboy that I was, I was ecstatic. I don’t remember the crippled hand or the limp. Years later, when I learned of these I was surprised. Looking back in her picture, I discovered that she always hid her right hand behind someone else or held her hand self-consciously.
I also didn’t recognize the tremendous courage it must of taken to fly from California to Washington to visit her grandchildren until much later. Her family told her she couldn’t do it, but she was determined and managed to make the trip. As a young child, I didn’t know there was anything wrong with her. I only knew that she loved me and I loved her.
In early January 1966, her nephew Donald was driving her on some errand, when they had a head-on collision and Mertice hit the windshield. Jim flew down to his mother’s bedside to be told by the doctor, that there was no hope and he would have to make the decision to remove her from life support. Mercifully, he never had to make that choice as Mertice died at the age of 47 before ever regaining consciousness. I remember the funeral and unbearable grief. I was so traumatized by it, that funerals still freak me out. I was only 6 and since we did not attend any church at that time, my understanding of God, death and heaven were none existent. Gratefully, I now have the peace that comes from understanding God’s plan for His children and what happens to us after we die…but that childhood experience still haunts me.
So dear readers, if you stuck with me through this rather long tale, this is the perspective and wisdom that I learned from Mertice and Sam. Sometimes life is unfair. Sometimes it is difficult and we have to do hard things. We have to deal with life’s challenges and find a way to overcome the guilt when we mess up – so we don’t make things worse. I realize that love is so powerful that things like disabilities don’t matter. Life is short, some of us have an easier ride than others. But, life is a gift and a miracle and one that should be cherished always. Thank you Mertice for your love and grace. Thank you Sam for being the only Grandparent I ever really knew. I have greater perspective on my own hardships and trials when I look at both of yours. May that wisdom be passed to future generations and gather strength from it as well is my heartfelt prayer.