There’s a home movie from 1964 which begins with Christmas scenes of children playing with toys in grainy but vivid color. Without warning, at about the ten-second mark, the picture suddenly shifts to a mass of flowers. Children, the same ones from the Christmas video, wander through the shot as it pans over a tidy display of flowers underneath the tent at a new gravesite.
I recognize my mother’s parents: Janette and Ramie. They’re in their late 20s, younger than I am now. The funeral is for Clotile Minnie Weeks, Ramie’s mother. The picture changes again and shows the adults standing solemnly side-by-side behind the floral display, looking downward. The children are absent.
Clotile was only 55 when she died, younger than my parents are now.
“Times Are So Hard”
I visited Edisto Baptist Church in February 2011 when I was 26, roughly the same age as my grandparents when they stood at Clotile’s headstone in the home movie.
It was sunny and the chill in the air was blunted by the smooth summer-like teeth of sand and gravel. The church sits at the lonely intersection of local and state roads about five miles north of Williston (pop. 3,000), South Carolina.
The sandy countryside across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia, is where my mother’s ancestors settled when they arrived from the port at Savannah or from New England in the mid-1700s.
Some of them would end up owning large tracts of land and establishing large plantations of 50+ slaves. Some were simply yeoman farmers. Most of the men of suitable age fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. After the Civil War, all would return to subsistence farming or sharecropping.
Not far from the church at Edisto, in September 1908, Elias H. Weeks was a farmer on rented land when his wife, Estelle, gave birth to their third child and first daughter, Clotile Minnie.
Clotile would ultimately have six siblings, all of whom would live into adulthood, which was no small feat for the time.
From what I’ve gathered through hearsay and half-heard conversations, Elias and Estelle were reserved, almost shy people. Elias’ few photographs show him as thin and gaunt with high cheekbones. Estelle’s face often seems to merge with the background.
Estelle and Elias’ family grew quickly. Seven children were born between 1903 when Estelle was 19, and 1922, when she was 37.
During Estelle’s last pregnancy, she or Elias must have encouraged their eldest children to write letters to Santa Claus for publication in The Aiken Standard because all three children did just that. The letters were published on 21 December 1921. Clotile’s letter follows:
Other children in the “Letters to Santa Claus” feature also mention “hard times”, hinting that the roaring of the 1920s was hardly felt beyond the centers of power and money in the north and west. Indeed, there was no Gatsby to be found along the South Carolina side of the Savannah River – though, as we’ll see, men don’t need money to be disappointing.
A Young Woman
I have two pictures of Clotile, the first of which shows her and her family when she was fourteen years old.
On the back of the photo, in the handwriting of someone I don’t know, are the words: “A Happy Crowd Mr. and Mrs. Weeks, Ray, Hallman, Murry, Leila, Clotile, Hazel and Jennie. (Nov. 1922).” [author’s note: I have no idea who Hazel and Jennie are. Never heard of them.]
Clotile sits looking directly into the camera. I have her mouth: that same quiet smirk. My grandfather, Ramie, has it too. She looks like she’s fiddling with her hands or something in her hands. She’s a teenager, though exactly what that meant in rural South Carolina in the 1920s, I’m not sure.
What I do know is that four years after that photograph was taken, Clotile was married to twenty-seven-year-old Gola Calvin Cushman.
I wish I could say that I knew how they met, but I don’t.
Gola’s family lived in the Williston area at the same time as Clotile’s and, sometimes, it seems that proximity is enough to bring people together. Truly, proximity has been the primary mover of romantic connections throughout history. Call it fate? I call it geographic convenience.
By April 1930, at age 21, Clotile was married and had two children.
A few years into the marriage, Clotile and her children began to make long visits to the home of her parents. Gola isn’t mentioned.
Estelle would spend a week at Clotile’s house. Clotile spent the holidays with her parents along with her growing family but always without Gola.
More visits with Elias and Estelle, always without Gola. All through the 1930s these little social news items appeared in The Aiken Standard.
By 1940, Clotile and Gola had five children. One traumatic stillbirth in 1941, and my great aunt Linda in 1942, would round out the family.
Gola was an absent father. By the time that Ramie, my grandfather, was ten years old in 1949, Gola was run up on charges of abandonment.
Clotile had been raising her children seemingly without the help and support of her husband, though the newspaper clippings show that Estelle and Elias maintained a close relationship with their daughter. Of Estelle, my grandmother Janette (who married Ramie) would say: “She was beautiful inside and out.”
One relative told me the story of driving slowly by a chain gang with her family on one of the rural highways in Aiken County. Her family was perturbed by the sight of one of the inmates cheerfully waving at them as though he knew them. Then, of course, they realized it was Gola.
By the end of the 1940s, Clotile gathered her four younger children together and left the farming community of Williston. In doing so, she left Gola as well as the proximity of her parents.
Following the end of World War II, the Graniteville Company in Graniteville, South Carolina was expanding into more civilian markets. The company was a classic paternalistic southern textile mill: it established schools, churches, and built and rented homes to workers. The entire town was dominated by the mill.
It was to Graniteville that Clotile relocated her family, so that she could work for the mill. Using the time of the abandonment charges as the likely impetus for this move, Clotile would have been in her early 40s at the time.
Textile work was not easy. The Graniteville Company was unique, to be sure, having been founded in the 1840s. Most southern textile mills were established by northern capital in the decades following the end of the Civil War. Yet the Graniteville Company’s deep roots did not make the work any easier.
Workers spent long hours at their machines breathing in lint and dust, leading to the notorious “brown lung” syndrome. Yet for rural southerners displaced by economic hardship or driven away by sharecropping, the mills were a way to earn a steady income without the seasonal anxieties of farm life.
For Clotile, it was simply a matter of survival.
For yours truly, the move to Graniteville was fortunate, because it allowed Ramie to meet Janette, get married, and start a family – but that’s another story.
Gola’s brother, Lafayette, apparently did what he could to try to convince his younger sibling to take responsibility for his wife and children. Lafayette himself is an enigmatic figure: never married, he was drafted for service in World War I but fortunately never saw combat, arriving in Europe after armistice. He lived alone in a small home in the woods without electricity or running water.
My grandmother Janette would describe Lafayette, affectionately known as “Fate”, as an “angel of a man, being a caregiver to Gola, his sister, Anna, wanting Rosalyn [Clotile and Gola’s oldest daughter] to leave her sorry, abusive husband and have her come stay with him and he’d provide for them, using his money to care for them, and never begrudgingly.”
Whatever help Clotile may have received, she worked herself to exhaustion in Graniteville.
The second picture I have of her shows her at Christmas 1961, no longer the little girl who wrote to Santa Claus. The only little girl in the picture is my mother, Susan.
Clotile passed away roughly two years later. She died, at age 55, of congestive heart failure. Twenty years older than I am now. Flowers would surround her grave.
When I visited Clotile’s grave at Edisto Baptist Church I was almost a decade younger than I am now. At the time, my wife was pregnant but we didn’t know it just yet. We didn’t anticipate just how much more difficult life would become or how often we would brush up against death, pain, and bone-shaking sadness.
My grandmother, Janette, passed away of cancer earlier this year. Much of what I know about Clotile I know from Grandmom. So this story, however meager, is dedicated to both of them: the mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law.
Beyond that, there’s no tidy conclusion. I don’t know if Clotile had time to reflect much on her life. I don’t know if she regretted anything or if she would have found regret a waste of energy.
For my part, I’ll likely edit this story in the future. Ramie, now without Janette, still quietly lives in the house they shared. He lives among her clothes, her smell, and certainly her sound. I’ll likely send this story to him – it’s about his mother, after all, and it’s his fault I became a genealogy nut in the first place.
We do not choose what we inherit from our ancestors except for the stories we tell, and in the telling, those stories become as much about us as about our ancestors.
I am tired, Clotile, but I am still young, but I am so tired.