My grandmother and her three siblings grew up in an orphanage in Dallas during the Great Depression. Their father died of meningitis when my grandmother was only five years old and her sister was still in utereo. Their story is the story of Sally Field and her children in the movie Places in the Heart.
My great-grandmother, Viola, went through a similar painful process of trying to keep her family together and paying her mortgage on time. In the end, though, she could not keep the family together.
In my childhood I knew very little of Granny’s time in the orphanage except for her to say that it was the best experience of their childhood. Besides picking cotton after school it was about their only experience. As I got older more details came to the surface. Granny left the orphanage at sixteen years. She found her mother living nearby with a man and a newborn baby. According to family lore my grandmother beat up my great-grandmother’s lover with her big man-hands and kicked him out of the house.
Tales of my granny and her temper and giant fists abound. I have even seen them in action. But nothing prepared me for what I found when I visited the Fowler Home almost eighty years after my grandmother left the orphanage.
Earlier this summer while Mom visited Dallas she wanted to go to the orphanage. A cousin had volunteered there and was shown a file that contained family documents and photographs.
When we arrived we said something like, “Hey! Our cousin saw some family docs here and we thought we might be able to see them too.”
Soon a woman with a pen and paper showed up asking us questions and taking notes. Out of the blue Mom told her, “My mother was a board member in the 1950’s if that helps.” I had never heard that my grandmother was on the board of anything and thought for a moment she might be making this up.
“No really,” Mom said. She was a board member. Nineteen fifty-seven, I think.”
“Hold on,” the woman said, “I think I’ve got something!”
“You’re not gonna believe this!” She said returning after a few minutes with a program from a 1957 dedication service for a new building on campus.
“I don’t see an Imogene Cowart listed here as a board member,” she said.
“May I see it?” I asked as I reached for the program. My eyes followed the name of each board member. At the very end, third to the last I found her, not as Imogene Cowart but under her married name, Mrs. Sterlin Thompson.
One of the women called me into her office to go through a series of portraits they had placed on poster board. We found this image of Granny at about age sixteen, just before she left the orphanage to find her mother.
Yet the most touching were the letters and documents we found that tell the story of a young mother with four little babies who desperately searched for a safe and comfortable place for her children to live when she could not provide for them. Pieces of paper that documented her detailed care even though she was not with them, receipts for money that she sent to help with clothing, textbooks and Christmas gifts.
That day I saw a bigger picture of my great-grandmother as I imagined the pain she must have felt leaving her children, promising in early letters that she would return for them. Then, she met man, got pregnant and life got more complicated. Finding out these details of my forebears gave me perspective on my grandmother and what she felt was missing in her life. As a result it left me feeling more whole.