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.