|Vol. IV, No. 2, Fall 1990|
Memoir of a Woman I Never Met
By Alma E Edmonds
I am a creature of my time, without roots in any place. Though my parents grew up in the Ozarks, they left as young adults for schooling and nomadic teaching careers. As child and woman, I lived in many towns and cities in several states. Sometimes we visited the Ozark hills and springs and the small, shabby, subsistence farms where some of my parents' people lived. I would hear my mother's careful, educated speech soften as we sat outside these farm houses on summer evenings listening to accounts of absent family members, illnesses, deaths, sometimes a wry joke or a hunting tale, and rarely, mention of the old ones, long gone, who had come from Tennessee and Kentucky into the eastern Missouri Ozarks early in the nineteenth century.
I cherished these old family tales, and in my senior years have investigated the facts that underlie them. No tale touched me so much as Angle's story, as I heard it and interpreted it, and perhaps have colored it in my own way.
Her middle name was Angeline, but everyone called her Angle, unless to tease by using her first name, Mariah, which she disliked. I only know Angle from mother's and my grandfather's stories of her, which themselves may have been blushed by time and affection, for when they spoke of her, there was a glow in their eyes, a warm wonder in their voices that conveyed more than their words. Through them, Angie became flesh and blood to me too, as though I had been there when she took the child who was to be my mother to the springhouse for crocks of cold, yellow-flecked buttermilk and molds of butter imprinted with an acorn design.
Angle's father, Lemuel Self, was born in New Madrid County in 1813, just after his family survived the earthquakes of 1811-12. At sixteen, he was on his own and moved northwest into Crawford County. He became a skilled maker of plows, primitive furniture, and wagons, eventually he acquired a small farm and married Sarah Eaton, who bore him eight children, the seventh of whom was Angle.
I can only guess at Angle's childhood, but she must have heard puzzled wonder in her father's voice when he told family stories about the New Madrid upheaval. We know he told such stories because Angle told them to her children and grandchildren. Angle would have admired her father's skill with tools, and his self-sufficiency and independence, which she was to emulate.
Angle married Frank England, who was said to have driven a stagecoach through the Cumberland Gap during the Civil War, shot a neighbor who had seduced his young sister, then ridden west into Missouri to escape the neighbor's kin and Tennessee law. Long after, on a secret visit to his parents, he learned that his victim survived without serious injury.
Frank and Angle acquired a small farm in Crawford County, and Angle bore eight children, three of whom died in infancy. Another died of tetanus at age four after his little hand was accidentally crushed as his father was laying a rail fence. Then Frank contracted consumption, the scourge of early Ozarks people, and spent his last eight years bedfast, coughing and hemorrhaging his life away.
Angle took over the farming with the help of her oldest son, Walter, my grandfather, who remembered her as a stern taskmaster. "She'd switch my bare legs good with some o' them," he told me once, chuckling, and pointing to tough ironweed stalks. But he remembered, too, that when his dying father bitterly forbade him to ride one of the horses at night to see the girl he planned to marry, Angle led the horse from the barn over plowed ground and tied it to a tree for her son.
When the young couple married, they lived with Angle and Frank until after Frank died, so Grandfather could help with the farm work. When his brother and sisters were on their own, Grandfather established his own household, and Angle moved to Cherryville. Living alone in a cottage in a section where toughs sometimes came was not safe, but Angie hung Frank's old hat on the hall tree, and when she felt threatened, would call out to him as though he were in the back room.
Like most women in the Ozarks at that time, Angie had been exposed to only a few years of a one room grammar school. Like most women, she sewed, wove carpets, made quilts, washed, ironed, cleaned, cooked, preserved food, farmed, and gardened--all by the most primitive means. Yet she somehow made time in her daily round of drudgery to read and think. Mother remembered evenings at Angie's cottage when she read aloud to her grandchildren as she must have read to her own children. Few books were available to her, but her children told how she would walk miles after her long, harsh day to borrow a book she had not read. Mother remembered hearing biographies of the founding fathers--Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and one of John Paul Jones. Perhaps there was a biography of General Grant, too, or Angie read to her children the odyssey of the Greek Ulysses, for when her son Walter was allowed to give himself a middle name, he chose Ulysses.
Faced early and often with the harsh realities of her time and place, nurtured by these few books and by her own lively mind, Angie became a free thinker. Unable to accept easy certainties, she was a searcher after truth. Her religious and philosophical position might not have met with much approval in her community, but her character and strength demanded respect. "There was little sentimentality about her, but a quiet reserve, a twinkly sense of humor," was the way Mother described her, adding that in her faded calicoes, she bore herself like a queen. In 1913 she died in agony of a ruptured appendix, there being no physician nearby who could or would perform an appendectomy, and she was too ill to be moved over rough, rutted roads to the city.
Angie passed to her children her love of learning, her need to search. Her son Walter was never able to attend school past the eighth grade, but he read well, computed figures quickly and accurately, and was proud of his beautiful handwriting. When his daughter Florence, my mother, was twelve, she nearly died of typhoid fever, and during her long convalescence, he employed an educated German woman in the area to teach her the German language. Later he sent Mother to board in Steelville where there was, for its day, an academically excellent high school. He gloried that she became valedictorian. Two of his three children went to college, all of his grandchildren took degrees and became teachers, engineers, businessmen, public servants.
When in midlife Mother finally received a degree at the University of Missouri, her father came to her graduation, an erect, white-haired man with an old-fashioned handlebar mustache, wearing a pale gray suit bought for the occasion with careful savings. I was in the school there, too, and watched him walk about the campus looking wonderingly at the ivy-covered buildings and crowds of students, then moving silently, reverently (oh, the books!) through the library where I worked.
I think often of Angie, whom I never knew. She faced whatever was handed her with calm competence, never losing her eagerness for life and her longing for knowledge of a world she never saw and the ideas that shaped that world. Though she was unique, as each of us is, I think she was not atypical of Ozarks women. There were many of her kind in these ancient hills and, as an Ozarker now myself, I celebrate the heritage of the Angies.
Alma Edmunds lives in Springfield. She has been an editor with the University of Missouri Press and for seventeen years was in charge of the newspaper library of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
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