My father’s family came from Georgia to Texas when he was a boy. There is a hush-hush rumor in the family that my grandfather, Gordon Jackson Dodd, left Georgia because he was implicated in a lynching or some such thing. To the best of my knowledge, he had been in the Ku Klux Klan and was rabidly racist in the fine Southern Baptist tradition. The lynching story, on the other hand, may be an invention to make an otherwise boring story interesting. Or perhaps fleeing because you had been part of a lynch mob was considered more honorable than admitting that you left because of financial difficulties. At any rate, he is the handsome fellow in that photograph.
The Georgian-turned-Texan Dodds were farmers, neither very impoverished nor very prosperous. My mother pointed out that although the Mitchums, her family, and the Dodds were essentially of the same social class, the Dodds never went hungry during the depression because they had a farm. My father and his oldest brother went to high school on alternating years so that one could stay home and help on the farm.
There were four boys and two girls, but the household was often larger. My crusty old grandfather and his wife, who had been Myrtle Morgan, quietly took in teenage boys who were from troubled homes, usually sons of alcoholic, abusive fathers. They worked alongside my father, aunts and uncles. I admire the homely charity of this, largely because it was not until I was an adult that anyone ever mentioned how often this had happened.
I had always thought my father’s wide circle of friends was due to his own friendliness. I did not realize how some of those friendships had been forged and under what sad circumstances. Sometimes in the summer, my father said, the house would be so full of Dodds, foster sons and seasonal help that some of them had to sleep in the trucks in the barnyard. Given the summer heat in Texas, sleeping outside in a truck bed may have been more comfortable than being closed up in the house.
Gordon worked his farm near Troup, Texas until he was too old to carry on, by which time I was already in college. Towards the end, the work was mostly tending a peach orchard and growing crops for his own table. I worked in that peach orchard for a month or so the summer before I entered high school. I stayed with an aunt and uncle in Tyler. One of their sons, six months older than me, and I picked peaches, moved irrigation rigs, and sold peaches out of the back of an army surplus jeep. As I recall we were paid a quarter for every bushel of peaches we picked, dodging wasps and sweating like crazy. At the end of the summer, our grandfather gave each of us a five dollar bill.
The most important thing about that summer was that my cousin taught me to drive in that old jeep, double shifting through what passed for second gear and bouncing over old plowed fields and dusty farm roads. I was fourteen and felt like I was finally growing up. I thought that for the first time I would have something interesting to write in the “How I Spent My Summer” essay at school. I was disappointed to learn that such essays were for children and not for high school students, not even freshmen.
Albert Joseph Mitchum was a carpenter in Whitehouse, Texas. He married my grandmother, Muggie Minerva Jane Hedricks, when he was 32 and she was 14. This was a tiny east Texas town in 1915. Today I suspect he would have been thrown into jail. Whitehouse was so small that some of Albert’s brothers married some of Muggie’s sisters. It sounds strange now, but in a town so small back then, how many options were there for young men and women of marriageable age? I mean, they considered 14 a marriageable age.
My grandmother had her first child, a daughter, three years later, and went on to have two more girls and three boys. My mother was there in the middle somewhere.
By the way, my grandmother’s name was Muggie, not Maggie. Yet another mystery. The lumping together of such a name with the classical Minerva shows that people are indeed more complex than you imagine. Or as the Yorkshiremen say, “There’s nowt so queer as folk.” Sad to say, some of Muggie Minerva’s disrespectful grandchildren called her Muggie Manure behind her back. But we all love her dearly.
My grandmother wasn’t the only one with an unusual name. Muggie and Albert’s children were Maudine Grace, Langford Praytor, Cordell, Rayburn, Roxie Fayne (my mother) and Bobbie Lynn. My aunt Maudine married a man named Doyle and one of their girls was saddled with the merged name Doylene. Most of the Mitchum-related kids in my generation had more typical names.
The Dodds had gone in for pretty regular names most of the time, although I did have an aunt Malyer Jean, whom everyone called Tackie, and an uncle, George Talmadge. The family called him Talmadge until he got grown and asserted himself. He was the last-born and unexpected. I heard that his own father was so unhappy to have had another child that he would not call him by name until Talmadge went off to the service. Until then, Gordon called him “Boy”, something that bothered my mother. Talmadge was still in high school when I was born. After my parents built their house in Whitehouse, Talamdge sometimes stayed overnight with us because he went to school in town. I think my mother, not all that much older but a married woman with a son of her own, became a bit protective of him.
My parents met when a blind date did not work out well for my father and he wound up asking my mother out. He was 25 and she was 18 when he proposed to her at a high school basketball game. She accepted and they went off to be married by her uncle on January 10, 1947. Because she was attending Federal Institute, a sort of business/secretarial college in Tyler, they had to keep the marriage a secret. At that time, female students who got married had to take a year off from school. Everyone assumed she would be pregnant within a matter of weeks. My mother managed to graduate from the Institute without getting pregnant. I gather the marriage was not much of a secret, but the school administrators looked the other way if they knew. It was a kind of heterosexual Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.