In 1898, Bethel came into the world in Indian Territory. She was born in a covered wagon near what would become Sapulpa, Oklahoma.
When she was about 16-years-old she gave birth to a baby boy. It was scandalous at the time, but this did not make her love him any less. When that boy was about three-year-old, she met a man named Harry. He was 15 years her senior. They fell in love or fell into something, and a short time thereafter got married.
Bethel’s gratitude for Harry’s acceptance of her and her quote, unquote, illegitimate son, was premature. Shortly after the marriage, Harry began beating Bethel and when the boy was four, he forced her to give him up.
Harry and Bethel went on to have three sons and two daughters together. One day, during the Great Depression, Harry left home with the middle boy and returned later that day without him. When Bethel asked where he was, he told her he’d given the boy away to a farm because he could not afford to feed him.
“You forced me to give away my first son,” she told him. You will not force me to give away another.”
And, she left and went and found her boy and brought him home.
This was a tremendous act of courage, as Harry was known for being violent. In fact, he’d killed seven men claiming each one had been in self-defense.
Just prior to World War II, Bethel filed for divorce from Harry.
She and her children bid farewell to the Lone Star State. Taking to the Mother Road they moved to California — lock, stock and barrel. A year later, Harry died, and 24 years later I was born — in East L.A.
Bethel was my grandmother. My memories of her are faint, but loving. When she was sick we visited her home near the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California’s San Joaquin Valley. I tugged on her dress and told her I was hungry. For this, my father scolded me. But, she, who didn’t quarrel, whose weakness was children, whispered, “Leave the baby alone.” And, she shuffled to the cabinet and fetched me something to eat. But, there was nothing there. No cookie. No slice of bread. Nothing.
As I grow older, I understand better the tragedies that steeled her. Her story is now part of my story. And, I gather up her sorrows so that I never take for granted my one and only son, born in Oklahoma City 107 years after she was born in the middle of an Indian prairie.
March is Women’s history month. Is there a story about a woman you need to share?