Sunday, October 09, 2011

Remembering Anna B

On this day, 120 years ago, my grandmother, Anna Barthel Adams, was born in Muskogee, Indian Territory to Frank Barthel and Mary Elizabeth "Molly" Kerr.  

Molly died when Anna was only 10 years old.

Anna grew up to be a beautiful and very capable young woman.  After a properly chaperoned trip to New York City to visit relatives, she announced her intention to move there and support herself by working as a secretary.  Her father forbade her to do so, declaring that no daughter of his would work as some man's secretary!

Young Anna married Nathan Adams and, after their first child was stillborn, they had a son whom they named Hollis Fannin Adams.  Shortly before his second birthday, he became very ill, and when the doctor came to the house and told the young parents that the child would most likely die, Nathan had to be restrained by several men as he threatened to kill the bearer of such bad news.  Young Hollis died.

Hollis Fannin Adams

Soon Nathan left to serve as a medic on the battlefields of France in World War I.  His letters home told of the horrors he saw there, which disturbed him deeply.  Meanwhile, back at home, Anna gave birth to a daughter, my mother Esther.  Anna waited until Nathan returned to officially name her daughter, so for 5 decades, her birth certificate listed her only as "Baby Girl Adams."

When Nathan did return from France, he was a changed man.  Today we would say he had PTSD, but back then the condition was known as being "shell-shocked."  After several years of trying to deal with his rages and drinking, Anna finally had to have him committed to a VA hospital psychiatric ward, where he lived the rest of his life.  My grandmother applied for his veterans' benefits, but, much like the situation today, the VA denied that his condition was a result of his combat experiences.

Virtually a single parent, Anna had to support her two daughters in a time when opportunities were scarce for women.  She began teaching in a little two-room country school, Sally Brown School, when she didn't even have a high school diploma, but she went on to earn not only her diploma, but a BA and a Masters, all while working full-time as a teacher.  And I mean working!  She drove the dark country roads long before dawn to get to school early, so she could build a fire in the wood stove so the school room would be warm when her students arrived.  During the Depression, she gave the kids haircuts and ran a clothes closet out of the storeroom.  She got farmers in the area to donate a small part of their crops and created a veggie burger made out of blackeyed peas and ground pecans.  (The county extension agent did a survey of the nutritional status of students in the area, and the kids at my grandmother's school had the best nutrition out of all the schools.)  That little school was the center of that rural community, and Anna B, as she was affectionately known by friends and family, was the backbone of that school for over 40 years.

Anna B with her class at Sally Brown School

Anna tried to get work as a bookkeeper, too, but no one would hire a woman for that position.  Ironically the local business school hired her to teach bookkeeping to men however.

My brother and I went to Muskogee OK to stay with her for a week every summer, and how well I remember those times.  We pulled into her driveway after the sun went down, and we rushed to the porch to ring the doorbell with the crescent moon glowing on it.  She would come to the door, making a sort of cooing sound of pleasure at our arrival, and give us a kiss and hug, enveloping us in the smell of face powder and Sweetheart soap.  We spent our week driving from house to house, visiting friends and family.  I explored the books on my grandmother's book shelves, and she always gave me a few out-of-adoption textbooks discarded by the school.  She had an old treadle sewing machine and I liked to give my dolls rides, up and down, on the treadle.  As hard as I tried, I couldn't follow the adult conversation about relatives I couldn't keep straight, so I amused myself.  (Now I wish I had absorbed all those family stories!) 

Anna B passed away in 1974.  On her gravestone her life is described in one word:

These are the strong women in my life who taught me by example to be capable and independent.

My mother Esther, my grandmother Anna B, my Aunt Jing
Happy Birthday, Anna B!