March 14 – Seven Sons, Two Nephews, and a Story

My grandmother visited her nephew and his family (my cousin Bill Butler is the young boy on the right). Being adventuresome, she even flew in the airplane with him while my grandfather politely refused.

by Matilda Butler

“Hi Leslie. It’s Matilda Butler. You’ve been trying to reach me.”

Pause. “Oh, yes. Thanks for calling. I have sad news.”

“That’s what I feared.”

“Dad died two days ago. I wanted to let you know.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“You two were often in touch,” she continued, “but when I called your phone number, I reached an answering machine with a different name in the recorded message. I didn’t even leave my name. Then my brother suggested that I call again and see if someone might know how to reach you.”

“Yes, it’s a long story, but I got an email just now with your phone number.”

“Dad had heart surgery and seemed to come through it just fine. The surgeon was quite pleased. But then…”

Today, I learned that Bill Butler, my cousin, had died at the age of 87. Since we can never control our thoughts, I have to admit that mine raced to my grandmother, Harriet Matilda Rigsby Butler. Grandmother raised seven sons and two nephews. Bill’s father was one of those nephews. Typical of her can-do attitude, she quickly agreed to raise his father when his mother died shortly after giving birth. At this point his older brother was still living with his father, my grandmother’s brother, who couldn’t manage an infant. Then, when this brother was shot in a barroom brawl, the older boy was placed in an orphanage. My grandmother immediately went to the orphanage and got the other boy. This meant that the brothers were raised together in the midst of a large, loving, farm family. My father, the seventh son, said that often five of them slept on a single bed.

This is Women’s History Month and I’ve been thinking about women I admire. On Women’s Memoirs, I wrote about one woman I’ve always admired and on Telling HerStories I’ve written of a second person who has influenced my life. But Grandmother was my first source of inspiration.

As a child, I loved sitting on her three-legged foot stool and hearing her stories of riding in a covered wagon from Illinois to the Indian Territory where her father sold fruit trees. She instilled in me a sense of adventure. Her openness to experiences has been a guiding light in my new life adventure that has taken me from California, where I thought I’d always live, to a new home in Oregon. (That’s why Leslie didn’t find me at our old telephone number.)

Many years after sitting at my grandmother’s knee, when I was an adult and listening to relatives reminisce, they would tell of the time they were discussing a no-good, drinking, gambling uncle of mine, one of my grandmother’s brothers. In the version of the story I always heard, they said my grandmother was quiet for a while, and then spoke up, “But he always was a good milker.” She taught me that you can find something good in everyone.

Matilda Butler is the co-author of the collective memoir Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Tells Her Story and is co-founder of Women’s Memoirs, a website with information and products for women writing their memoirs. She is currently finishing Writing Alchemy: The Art and Science of Turning Your Words into Gold.

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7 responses to “March 14 – Seven Sons, Two Nephews, and a Story

  1. Pingback: Women's History Month: Women Who Inspire Us with Their Stories — Memoir Writing Blog

  2. Pingback: Celebrating Women’s History Month | Telling HerStories: The Broad View

  3. Matilda, your grandmother sounds like a remarkable woman. And how remarkable also that you are a living bridge, able to transfer a fragment of her stories about riding in covered wagons (and probably outhouses, wells with buckets, oil lanterns, ets.) to your grandchildren. Such living conditions may seem like a fairy tale without the personal connection of the stories you can tell about their foremother. Write on!

  4. Your grandmother sounds like she was a wise, strong and brave woman. I am glad you shared this story with us – it’s stories like these about women like her that need to be preserved.

  5. Sharon: Thanks for your comment. I feel particularly honored to have her name. She was loved by all her sons so it is surprising that her name wasn’t taken long before I came along. Somehow my father, the seventh son, gave me his second daughter, the name of his mother. Matilda, by the way, means “Mighty in battle.”
    –Matilda

  6. Linda: You’re right on all three counts — wise, strong and brave. Because my grandfather grew potatoes (on rented land), there were often large numbers of males around the table. In addition to the nine sons, there were all the field hands as well. My father told me that she baked three to four pies each morning as the lunch dessert. Hard to imagine.
    -Matilda

  7. Lois M.Butler, Boyd, Robinson

    I was the first grandchild to be named after grandmother Butler.
    Lois Matilda Butler (daughter of Harry and Mildred Butler) born 1930
    It was cotton Grand dad Butler raised I remember many things from my childhood concerning my grandparents as well as being in Spiro,OK.
    I have a sister buried there. Last visit there was 1989 with my father.
    I met a man who remember and knew Gran dad Butler.
    Lois

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