My Mamaw Robinette


The last week has been full of memories, as May 7 was the anniversary of my maternal grandmother’s birth (and my mother-in-law’s birth) … and my daughter graduated from college on Saturday (great Mother’s Day gift!). 

My mamaw, Rosa Alice Steele Robinette, was born on May 7, 1887. I don’t know much about her early life except that she was born to Susan Lyons Steele and (maybe?) Reuben Steele. She graduated from “normal” school (maybe a couple of years beyond high school?) and was a teacher when she met my grandfather, Henry Tyler Robinette. They married in 1912, the same year the Titanic sank. My grandfather already had 5 children from a previous marriage. His first wife, Allie Kyle, died from “consumption” (tuberculosis), if my memory serves me correctly. Their children were Elvin, Curry Alton (I thought for a long time his name was Uncle Outen), Omer Kyle (known as O.K.), Elizabeth (my Aunt Liz), and Rita (a high school English teacher…yay).

So my grandmother had to be a strong woman to (1) marry my grandfather, whom I recall as a crusty old cuss (though he didn’t curse) and (2) take on the responsibility of raising at least 3 of the children. I’ve been told that they were teenagers when she married Papaw. Having been through those tumultuous years with my own children, I have come to have immense respect for my grandmother after reflecting on how she helped raise children who were not her own, not to mention teenagers.

My grandmother and grandfather had 6 girls, Eunice Mae (“Euch”), Reba Susan (“Reb”), Della Bertha (“Det”), Myrtle Virginia (“Myrt”), Edna Frances (“Ed”), and my mom, Hattie Bernice (“Niece”). They were dirt-poor and lived in Fairview, Virginia in houses that look like the peeling painted “white” clapboard of John Grisham’s A Painted House. They knew about hard times, raising their children and sending some of them to college during the Depression. My grandfather was a farmer and went off to peddle his crops and other wares. He lost not only his own farm but also his brother’s farm during the Depression. I imagine that made for some tense family relationships.

Mamaw was in her 70s when I was born. I have vague memories of visiting their house and seeing her sling a chicken round and round to break its neck before cooking it. (There weren’t many vegetarians back in my day, so this memory did not affect my appetite for fried chicken.) I also remember going to her and Papaw’s house on Thanksgiving Day and spending most of the day making sausage. (It always grossed me out to walk by the gutted hogs on their back porch on the way into the house.)

When I was in third grade, my aunt Reb bought the house next door to ours and moved there with Mamaw and Papaw. I was thrilled to have them next door. I spent many hours watching TV with them (much more than my mom knew) and enjoyed running between our houses, especially when I was a teenager and the walls of my own house felt like they were closing in on me.

When I was in seventh grade, Mamaw was hospitalized for a heart condition. The doctor gave her some medicine to which she had a bad reaction. She was never the same (mentally) after that. I think she actually had what was then called a nervous breakdown and perhaps a psychotic reaction to the medicine.

When she came home, my mom and aunts decided to move Mamaw into a separate bedroom from her and Papaw’s bedroom. They felt like she needed someone with her at night, so I was chosen to be the “night guard,” so to speak. I can’t remember how my mom presented that job to me, but I felt lucky to get to be in the same room with Mamaw.

She was such a sweet and gentle woman. As a teenager, I recall pouring out my heart to her at night when we went to bed. She would murmur sweet things to me, and soon I would hear this little puffing of her cheeks, signaling that she had fallen asleep. I saw her as my confidante, even though I wasn’t sure exactly how much she understood of what I told her. During the day, she often replied with jokey remarks whenever anyone talked to her.

Mamaw was always encouraging, and she passed that trait on to my mother and probably all of my aunts. I remember her singing “Farther Along, we’ll know all about it; farther along, we’ll understand why. Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine, We’ll understand it, all bye and bye.” Rosa Alice Steele Robinette, thank you for many happy childhood memories. Thank you for being a stubborn, proud, and yet kind woman…I am proud that you remained a Methodist and a Democrat while married to an overbearing man who happened to be Baptist and Republican. You cherished your right to vote, and I can only imagine how exciting it must have been when the 19th Amendment finally passed in your early 30s. You set a fine example of faith, grace under fire, and fierce independence–qualities which you passed on to all your girls. I am honored to have known you and been graced with your love.

P.S. To readers of this blog, my middle name is Rose, the name I got from my grandmother. 

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