Yesterday was the anniversary of my grandfather’s birthday. Henry Tyler Robinette was born in 1874 and died in 1975, when I was 16. He turned 101 just days before his death. What started out as a cold quickly developed into pneumonia, “the old people’s friend” as I’ve heard it called. He was gone in less than a week.
Papaw Robinette, the patriarch of our family, was an interesting man. By the time I was old enough to have memories of him, he was senile. He was 85 when I was born; I was the last grandchild in the family. When I think back on the story I know of his life, he faced many hard times. His first wife died, he was left with 5 children; he remarried and had 6 more children; he went bankrupt during the Depression and lost not only his farm but also his brother’s. Still he managed to survive and soldier on.
Henry Tyler Robinette was the eldest son of 7 children born to Samson Sage Robinette (b. 1826) and Micah Jennings (b. 1834). He had two older sisters, Julia and Jennie. When Papaw was a young man, his father split the family land among the 5 sons (I guess the women got overlooked because they were married and had someone to “take care of them”).
Papaw went to college at Lincoln Memorial University in Kentucky and majored in business. He returned home to farm. Evidently that business background didn’t help him very much, because he lost both his and his brother’s farms during the Great Depression. Or maybe he applied all the knowledge he had, and times were just so tough that there wasn’t much he could do about his desperate situation. Most of the people who lived down in his “holler” (hollow) in Fairview, Virginia, were in about the same situation.
Sometime along the way he married Allie Myrtle Kyle, and they had 5 children (3 boys and 2 girls). Allie fell ill with consumption (as they called tuberlosis in those days), and as a last resort Papaw took her and the children out to New Mexico, hoping the drier climate there would help her. Sadly, it didn’t, and she died in 1911.
Not long afterward Henry met a young schoolteacher named Rosa Alice Steele, and they married in 1912. They had 6 daughters: Eunice Mae (b. 1913), Reba Susan (b. 1914), Della Bertha (b. 1916, I think), Myrtle Virginia (b. 1918), Edna Frances (b. 1919, I think), and Hattie Bernice (my mom, b. 1921).
During the Depression, Papaw and Mamaw wound up sharecropping after they lost their farm. Papaw took off every now and then and peddled goods (I’m not sure what he sold besides milk and vegetables from their farm).
He was a staunch Baptist and a Republican; Mamaw was an equally staunch Methodist and a Democrat. After women were finally given the right to vote in 1920, Mamaw took pride in voting every chance she had. She and Papaw joked about canceling out each other’s votes. Papaw won out on the religious front; they were members of Zion Baptist Church in Fairview, Virginia.
Somehow my grandparents managed to send all of their children (at least in my grandfather’s second family) to college, and every one of them completed college. That was a rarity in the community where they lived. I’ve “heard tell” that the older children worked after completing college and sent what money they could to support whoever was in college at the time.
Most of my memories of Papaw weren’t pleasant, but looking back on them from an adult vantagepoint helps me understand him a little better. Here are some things I remember about Papaw:
- When I was a young child, maybe 3 or 4, I remember running across Mamaw & Papaw’s bedroom on the way to the only bathroom in their house. I was running to avoid what I knew was going to happen–Papaw would stick his leg out of the bed and pinch my leg with his sharp toenails. There was little distance between his bed and the potbellied stove that sat nearby, and I had to go between them. Sure enough, out came the leg and that big toe (yellow with fungus) and other toes clamped down on my leg. I screamed; he bellowed with laughter. (This obviously had happened several times. )
- I recall hearing a tape recording my family made of Papaw talking. Two things stand out in my recollection of that recording: (1) my cousin Joe kicking a coal bucket loudly and repeatedly, with Papaw responding, “Yeah, kick it, Joe” (or something to that effect) and (2) I was crying in the background. Papaw, who had ruled his family with an iron fist, had mellowed by that time. His response to my crying was, “Give ‘er what she wants.” My mom often laughed as she told that story.
- I don’t remember much more about Papaw until I was in third grade, and he and Mamaw moved in next door to my family. My aunt Reb bought the house next door. She and my mom had an understanding: Reb would provide the home and finances (most of them), and my mom would cook and take care of my grandparents’ personal needs. They hired a sitter to stay with my grandparents while they were at school (my mom taught elementary school, and my aunt was a principal). Mommy took care of bathing Mamaw and Papaw, at least on weekends when the sitter was not there.
- We ate dinner with my grandparents and aunt every night. My mom cooked most of the dinner at our house, and I was the runner, carrying food next door. Papaw was coherent at times, but by nighttime he was not the most pleasant person to be around. He often fought as we tried to help him out of his rocking chair. I remember him stabbing his canes in the air toward me when I went toward his chair to help him up. I was scared until I noticed he couldn’t see well enough to actually hit me, and then I got amused. Once he was on his feet and we could actually get him moving somewhere, he was a little more reasonable, and things were relatively calm at the dinner table.
- When I was in seventh grade, my grandmother had an episode with her heart and was hospitalized. Evidently she had a severe reaction to medication she was given; her mind was never again the same. Though my family didn’t talk much about it, I think she had a nervous breakdown. She came home (they did not want to put her in a nursing home, even though the doctor advised it). Thankfully she was sweet and docile, so she wasn’t as challenging to deal with as Papaw. The next plan my family hatched involved me: I was assigned the responsibility of sleeping in Mamaw’s bedroom, just so she would have someone to assist her if she got confused or needed something.
- Mostly I think my family wanted to protect Mamaw from Papaw. Papaw had it in his mind that men were coming to visit my grandmother at night.(Very funny, when you consider that Mamaw was in her 80s and sex was the farthest thing from her mind.) He often sat on the edge of his bed, canes crossed, keeping vigil as he waited for those men to show up and sneak down the hall to Mamaw’s room. Sometimes he sang, mostly hymns, at night; other times he ranted (I always thought he was a frustrated preacher). All I wanted was a little sleep! Fortunately Mamaw was blissfully unaware of most of this.
- Occasionally I’d hear Papaw’s canes click, click, clicking down the hall to Mamaw’s and my bedroom. He’d flip the light switch on in the middle of the night, go over and look at Mamaw in bed, and then come over to my bed and peer at me. I’d say, “Papaw, it’s just me…go back to bed.” Somehow my family always managed to laugh about this situation. I, on the other hand, was irritated. I often went to school sleepy (a little more so than the average adolescent).
So anyway, yesterday I was thinking of Papaw and how he affected my life. I used to think all old people were crazy, based on my experience with my grandparents. At one point in my young adult years I thought about working with older people, as I seemed to have some skills in relating to them.
Funny, but I can’t articulate any deep thoughts about how living near Papaw affected me, other than to say that it sensitized me to the struggles of elderly people facing physical and mental decline. It also impressed on me the stress of the “sandwich generation”–when middle-aged adults have to make decisions about how to care for their own parents at the same time they are raising children. I really admire my family, especially my mom, for doing what they did to care for my grandparents. I’m not sure I’m made of the same strong stuff.