Naomi and the Girl Scouts

10 year old Naomi by the dockI’d been meaning to post more about my grandmother Naomi’s childhood and family, but the last few weeks have been so chaotic (my dog Peri died, I went through some intense mourning, and I got a new puppy–the details are in my Moments of Unexpected Beauty blog if anyone’s interested) that this project has been unwittingly suspended. I don’t have time to do an extended post right now, but I want to share a story Naomi told me when I told her about the Girl Scout article I was writing for the local paper. She said she’d been a Girl Scout leader when she, her husband, and her two children lived in New York. She’d planned an overnight camping trip for her girls, but when she was about to leave, her husband laid a profound guilt trip on her for leaving him alone with the children.

“You can’t go! Robert has a cold!” he’d protested.

“You’re a doctor–YOU take care of it!” my grandmother had replied, and she went.

I love this story–it shows a lot about her independent, tenacious personality, and I was really pleased to pick up this tidbit about her adult life since I’d been mostly focusing on her childhood.

I’m also posting a picture of ten-year-old Naomi standing by the dock near her childhood home. It’s not directly relevant to this post, but I like it and want to get it out there. I hope you don’t mind!

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The twins as toddlers

Toddler Naomi and RuthI went to my grandma’s house on Friday to go through pictures. It always amazes me how just when I think I’ve seen them all, she produces new ones. She let me bring copies of three new ones home. I don’t have much text to go with them; I’d been hoping to write about Naomi’s older sister Marian next, but things have been pretty rough lately, so I haven’t done much with Naomi’s Story recently. (Details are on my other blog, Moments of Unexpected Beauty, if anyone’s interested.) I would like to post my favorite photo, though: It shows Naomi and her twin sister Ruth as toddlers. The picture is sweet and warm; I love the way Naomi leans on her sister and Ruth looks at her almost protectively. It’s heartbreaking to think about what will happen to Ruth in six or seven years, but at that moment, they were just two little girls eating graham crackers and bonded by their love.

The Ragamuffins

The RagamuffinsHere’s one of my grandma’s favorite photos; she calls it “The Ragamuffins.” It shows her and her twin sister Ruth along with their little brother Jimmy. (His legs are bowed because he had a bad case of rickets due to malnutrition.) Ruth is on the left. Seeing her laughing so vibrantly breaks my heart every time I look at it; a year or two after it was taken, she would be lying on the floor of the barren living room, nothing between her and the floor but an old mattress, dying an agonizing death from diptheria. My grandmother said Ruth was always the outgoing twin, and you can see her personality shining through in this picture. She and Naomi were very close, speaking to each other in a language that only they knew, and to this day Naomi has a hard time talking about her death. Only once did she say that after Ruth was dead, Naomi defied her mother’s orders to stay out of the living room. She snuck in and saw Ruth lying on the mattress with a blotch of purply blood under her nose. Later, government workers came in white hazard suits to take Ruth’s body away. Their mother, Mattie, never got over Ruth’s death. Every year, they would put a pink hyacinth on Ruth’s grave, and Mattie often threatened to go there to commit suicide when she was upset with the surviving children. To see this picture, and know the tragedy that lay ahead for these three children…It makes me glad I don’t have psychic powers and can’t see what lies in my own future.

Naomi’s grandparents

Frances and Jesse Rawlings (Naomi’s grandparents)

When I was going through photos with my grandma, we found this replica of a portrait of her great-grandparents. Naomi’s grandmother had died giving birth to Mattie, so Mattie was raised by this couple, Frances and Jesse Rawlings. They lived on a tobacco farm in Virginia, but beyond that, Naomi doesn’t know anything about them. Still, I appreciate this glimpse into a distant past.

Naomi’s father: John Augustus Kimball

John Sr.
Naomi’s Father: John Augustus Kimball, Sr.

Since John, Sr. left his family when Naomi was about four years old, she doesn’t know as much about his background as she does about her mother’s. She knows that he was born in Cripple Creek, Colorado, but she’s not sure of the year. Her knowledge of his story picks up when he met her mother, Mattie, when Mattie was working as a nurse at a hospital; he was a landscaper there. What their love story must have been like is an intriguing unknown: He was a workman, probably fairly low on the social ladder, while she was a semi-invalid Southern belle from a tobacco farm in Virginia. (Although her family must have been fairly affluent, she’d spent a large part of her youth in New York sanatoriums due to her tuberculosis. I’m not sure if her own battle with illness inspired her to become a nurse or if finances obliged her to find work. Either way, though, she met and fell in love with John Augustus Kimball, whom she called “Jack.”)

The couple married and must have been doing at least fairly well in the early years of their life together. The few existing photos from that period show them and their two oldest children, Marian and John, Jr., posing for portraits in fashionable clothing and looking well-fed. In one photo, the two children pose with three Boston bull terriers; Naomi recalls that Jack bred them at that time. Jack was working as a railroad foreman, and he moved his family into a railroad-owned house in Sewarren, New Jersey. (He must have scored points with his employers when he named his youngest son, James Jones Brown Kimball, after his supervisors.)

Things went downhill, though. After having six children together (Marian, John, Jr., Paul, the twins Ruth and Naomi, and Jimmy), the couple began to fight frequently. Naomi remembers her mother standing in the doorway one night and yelling, “Jack, Jack, come back!” Naomi isn’t clear on what sparked most of the fights, but her older sister Marian told her later that at one point, Mattie was disappointed that he bought her a washing machine for their anniversary. The gift lacked all romance, but Naomi points out now that since Mattie had six children’s worth of laundry to do, the machine was probably one of the most useful gifts he could have given her.

Things came to a head when Jack got his Italian secretary pregnant. Since his employers were embarrassed by his behavior, and since the secretary’s father was making threats against him, Jack was obliged to move. He must have been quite charismatic because, as Naomi recalls, he was fired from his job in Sewarren but re-hired in Philadelphia by the same company. The company wanted his family to move with him, but Mattie refused. Instead, she remained with her children in the railroad-owned house in Sewarren. Her oldest daughter, Marian, soon followed her father to Philadelphia to find work. Although she didn’t move in with him—she boarded with a cousin, and Jack probably lived in other boarding houses—she remained loyal to her father.

Jack returned home occasionally and apparently charmed his way into Mattie’s bed; Naomi recalls her having to obtain illegal abortions in the aftermaths of his visits. His charm also worked on Naomi’s twin sister Ruth, but Naomi herself remained suspicious of him. He did nothing to win her over when, on the twins’ birthday, he appeared with a cake and tried to get the twins to lick frosting off his finger. Ruth did, but Naomi thought it was disgusting. He also brought them a gift: one doll for two girls. Fortunately, this didn’t create a conflict because Naomi refused to play with it, although Ruth had no such reservations.

Despite the thoughtlessness of his gift, Jack must have cared at least somewhat for his children. He, Marian, and Marian’s cousin banded together to try to obtain custody of the younger siblings. They threatened to have Mattie committed to an institution, and at one point, they drove to Naomi’s school and tried to take the children away in their car. Somebody told Mattie what was going on, though, and Naomi remembers her running down the street and taking her children back.

Eventually, Jack must have lost his job in Philadelphia—Naomi thinks he was fired because of Mattie’s continued refusal to return to him—because he disappeared. Nobody in the family knew what became of him, not even Marian. They speculated that he’d gone to the Philippines because he sent a box of oranges and grapefruits from there. He did come home for Ruth’s funeral (she died of diphtheria at age eight), but this marked the last time Naomi ever saw him. When the last of the fruit was gone, so was he.

Mattie before her death

Mattie looking out the windowI spent Friday afternoon going through old photos with my grandma, and a few more pictures of Mattie emerged. I’m having problems getting my ancient desktop to upload pictures, so I can’t post all of them, but I’m especially haunted by this one. My grandma (Naomi) says that her brother took it when Mattie was doing dishes and looking out the window, although the photo’s been retouched enough that none of Mattie’s surroundings are apparent. It must have been taken toward the end of her life–Mattie died at age 55. I find the contrast between the well-dressed, exuberant young woman in the first photo and the worn, haunted face in this one heartbreaking. As I said before, I’m not sure what to make of Mattie, especially in light of two new details that came out on Friday: First, I’d originally had the impression that Mattie blamed herself for Ruth’s death because she got up to get coffee and came back to find Ruth dead. On Friday, however, Grandma also mentioned that Mattie had refused diphtheria vaccinations for her children even though county officials had come to her door to administer them and even though Mattie herself was a nurse. That would add a new level of depth to her self-blame, but then, she still refused vaccinations for her other children even after Ruth’s death, so maybe it was the coffee after all. Grandma also expressed anger toward her mother for not going back to her husband; as Grandma put it, “My mother let her children starve rather than swallow her pride, and I don’t think that’s right.” Grandma had no strong desire to be with her father per se, but she did think she and her siblings would have been better clothed and nourished if their parents had reunited. The situation was as complex as it was painful. Grandma concluded, “Neither one was an especially good parent.”

Naomi’s mother: Mattie Bertha Rawlings

Mattie Bertha RawlingsNaomi’s Mother: Mattie Bertha Rawlings

Mattie was born in Prince George’s County, Virginia, on Jan. 1, 1884. She was an only child; her mother died giving birth to her. She was raised by an African-American Mammy on a tobacco farm there. She contracted tuberculosis when she was young; Naomi believes she was exposed to it by her Mammy, who in turn was exposed to it in the unsanitary servants’ quarters. Mattie’s family sent her to a sanatorium in New York, where she was treated with a concoction made of raw eggs known as “egg nog” (a supposedly medicinal drink not related to the holiday beverage) and forced to sleep on a cold porch, which was supposed to benefit TB patients. Because of (or more likely despite) these treatments, Mattie survived, although lingering effects plagued her for the rest of her life. A problem with her hips, which Naomi believes was related to the TB, caused her to limp. Mattie called her condition “sciatica” and said that every step hurt. One of her legs was shorter than the other. Even so, she went on to become a nurse and met her future husband at the hospital where she worked; he was working as a landscaper there.

Naomi seems quite ambivalent about her mother. In some stories, Mattie appears as a strong and resourceful woman, but in others, she seems fanatical and almost abusive. This is what I’ve gleaned about her:

Mattie married John Augustus Kimball, the then-landscaper, and had six children with him. The first two were John Augustus and Marian Lolita. The couple seemed to be doing well when the first two children were young, and Naomi has a picture of then-two-year-old Marian, looking well-dressed and comfortable, posing for a formal portrait with a stuffed sheep. After living in Philadelphia, where Naomi and her twin sister Ruth were born, John, Sr. got a job as a railroad foreman in Sewarren, New Jersey. The Kimballs moved into a railroad-owned house there. Their life was likely peaceable enough until John, Sr. impregnated his Italian secretary. Faced with the wrath of her father and the embarrassment of the railroad company, he moved away. Mattie refused to follow him, and she remained in Sewarren with her younger four children. (John, Jr. and Marian had already grown up and moved away.) They lived in a house owned by the railroad; it was located at the end of a dead-end street. Mattie had no steady income of her own, but small acts of kindness helped her survive and raise her children. The railroad never charged her rent, and a representative from the water company who had come to shut the water off didn’t completely shut the valve. Because of his deliberate oversight, the family could place a pail beneath the water pipe and leave it to fill. Mattie would send the children down to the cellar to bring up the full bucket and replace it with an empty one. Since the cellar was dark and full of cobwebs, Naomi recalls this as one of her most dreaded chores. It was necessary, though, since the dripping pipe was the family’s only indoor water source.

John, Sr. made occasional visits home, often to impregnate his wife. Mattie could barely feed the children she had, so Naomi remembers her going away to have illegal abortions and often becoming violently ill afterwards.

Mattie never worked outside the home, but she had dreams (never realized) of becoming a traveling preacher, and she knew the Bible well. She used her intense religious feelings to discipline her children; when Naomi and her younger brother Jimmy were misbehaving, she would pray loudly and fervently, telling them that they were wearing “black capes” and would go to hell. Her praying frightened the children more than any whipping would, and they would beg her to stop. (Even so, they would usually return to their misbehavior once she was gone.)

Despite her religious fervor, Mattie and her children never attended church when Naomi was growing up. Naomi thinks she did attend earlier in her life, when her husband was still with her and her lifestyle was still relatively prosperous. The death of her daughter Ruth might have been a major factor in her lack of churchgoing. When Ruth (Naomi’s twin) came down with diphtheria, Mattie employed all her training as a nurse to try to heal the child. She had to keep the other children away from Ruth lest they get infected too, so she put Ruth on a mattress in the living room and ordered the others to stay upstairs. She was too destitute to bring in a doctor, so she sat by Ruth’s side and prayed. She believed her prayers could bring the child back from the brink of death, but one night, when she got up to get a cup of coffee, she returned to Ruth and found her dead. Mattie blamed herself for leaving Ruth and never got over her death. Later, when Naomi and Jimmy were misbehaving, she would threaten to go to Ruth’s grave and kill herself there because of their bad behavior. Since she would also sometimes threaten to drown herself in the creek by her house, Naomi recalls stopping her fights with Jimmy to have an anxious debate about where to seek their mother to try to keep her from committing suicide.

Mattie inflicted some significant trauma on her youngest children with her prayers and threats, but she also sacrificed much for them. Losing Ruth made her determined to save Naomi, who came down with diphtheria shortly after Ruth’s death. Naomi recalls being so exhausted that she just wanted to lie down and give up, but Mattie propped her up and forced her to keep walking so that she wouldn’t suffocate. Mattie’s dogged efforts to keep Naomi moving probably saved her life.

During the height of the Depression, Mattie would drag a wagon about two miles in order to get a ration of flour and coal to feed and warm her children—this despite the pain in her legs that caused every step to be a torment. When Naomi was working on a major project for her high school English class and was forced to borrow an acquaintance’s typewriter, Mattie somehow came up with $50 to buy Naomi her own Royal typewriter; to this day, Naomi has no idea how Mattie got the money, but she still has the typewriter. Mattie also somehow came up with money to buy Naomi a beautiful belt for her then-beltless coat and walked a long way to buy it, even though she was sick at the time.

Naomi recalls being disturbed by Mattie’s prejudices, especially against Catholics and immigrants. Mattie believed that Catholics would give control of the U.S. to the Pope if they were elected to political office. She would also sometimes mimic the accents of neighboring immigrant factory workers. Since Naomi attended school with their children, she was uncomfortable with her mother’s mockery.

Despite her prejudices, Mattie was also resourceful and generous. She would use what little she had to provide for her children; she fed them vegetable stew, baked beans, and oatmeal as much as possible. In summer, she would make elderberry jelly from the berries growing wild near the house. Since the windows in the house had no screens, she would cut strips of newspaper and hang them over the windows to try to keep out some of the voracious mosquitoes that plagued the children at night. She put a pair of man’s boots at the foot of the stairs and called to her (not-actually-there) husband to get the (nonexistent) gun when she heard hoboes wandering into the ground floor at night. (The house was so dilapidated that many wanderers assumed it was deserted and tried to spend the night in it.) Even so, she never sent a tramp away unfed when he came to her door and asked for a meal. Mattie generally didn’t have enough to feed her own family, but she couldn’t let strangers go hungry. She even felt guilty when she realized she’d given one tramp spoiled milk.

Mattie died in 1939 of complications related to her tuberculosis and from being worn down in general. Her three youngest children remained in the house for about a year before selling it and going their separate ways.

I learn more details about Mattie almost every time I talk to my grandmother, and the tidbits she mentions always present a complicated portrait. As menacing and fanatical as Mattie could sometimes be, she overcame her ill health and raised four children as a single mother during the height of the Depression. In Naomi’s words, for Mattie, “every step hurt, but she never stopped walking.”