I have written often of my mother and her mother and the influences that they had on the lives of my siblings, cousins, and me. Not as many words have been devoted to my paternal grandmother, but not because I didn’t love her and admire her. We just weren’t around her as much as we were with Mama’s parents, so her presence in our lives wasn’t as pervasive as was Mimi’s and Papa’s.
My grandmother McClure’s full name was Martha Ellazine Spinks McClure, but she was known as Ella to her family, and GrandmaElla (one word) to all of her many grandchildren. She was born in 1895, the third of fourteen children of Mary and Samuel Spinks. According to tales I was told, she was a lively, fun-loving girl who loved to dance. Her brothers were natural musicians, playing all manner of instruments, and they often played at the house dances common to those times. Ella had plenty of opportunities to dance.
In 1920, Ella married Ed McClure, a widower with eight children, most of them grown, with young families of their own. From 1921 to 1937, she had eleven children, five daughters and six sons.
Of course, she was a mother and wife in the days of no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing. She cooked on wood stoves, and had wood heaters and fireplaces to provide warmth in the winter. She milked cows, raised chickens and a big garden, all to help feed all the children, grandchildren, and assorted relatives who’d come to visit and stay for a few months. When her daughters were old enough, they took over the housework, but the garden and the milk cows were Ella’s, as was the cooking for all those folks.
My first memories of her are those of a small child, visiting Grandma’s house. In those days, two daughters and two sons still lived with her. On weekends there would be a houseful of grandchildren to add to the number for meals, which were always bounteous.
The most striking thing about Grandma Ella to me was that she never got in a hurry, but everything was always done on time. She’d milk in the early mornings, work her garden and still cook a big meal at breakfast and dinner. She’d have meats, vegetables, fine biscuits and cornbread and desserts every meal, every day, and she made it seem effortless.
I always thought it odd that not once did she ever sit at the table with the rest of us. She had a special chair that she sat in to eat, a little off to the side of the big table. She would put her food in a bowl and park her five foot frame in the chair and rest while she ate.
For all the hard times and hard work and sorrows in her life, I never heard her complain about anything. She was unfailingly kind to all of us kids, and while I never remember her playing with us as grandparents do with grandchildren now, she would always talk to us, and she would listen to what we had to say.
Grandma had a kind heart; I’ve heard her sing the old ballads she loved so well, and tears would flow at the misfortunes suffered by the folks in the songs. She always enjoyed music and liked the hymns at church better than the sermons.
Grandma always wore an apron and a bonnet, and she smoked a pipe. If a son-in-law brought some cigars to the house, she’d smoke them, too. We kids thought that we had the absolute coolest grandma of anyone when she’d light up that cigar.
Once her church was having a revival, and Aunt Mildred, who was still living at home, invited the preachers to come by for a visit. She was straightening the house, and tried to get Grandma to take off her apron and for goodness sake, put up the pipe and cigars. Miss Ella informed her that God didn’t take offense at her smoking, and if the preacher did, well he could carry himself back home.
As was common to women of her day, she always referred to her husband as “Mr. McClure..” I never, ever heard her say anything about “Ed,” or “my husband.” It was strictly Mr. McClure. I remember going with her to the cemetery outside Jena where my grandfather was buried. It had been years since he passed away, yet when she got to his grave, she cried and cried, as if it had only been a short time since his death. At the time, I couldn’t understand how her grief could have lasted so long, for I was a teenager, and had never experienced any such loss. Now that I have a grandchild of my own, I know too well that grief for a loved one is ongoing, that it lasts as long as a person lives. One year, twenty years, it’s all the same.
Once I went with Grandma Ella to visit her mother Mary Spinks, from whom she inherited her indomitable spirit. I watched as Grandma Mary helped her daughter up the steps to the porch. I remember thinking, this is backwards; we should be helping Grandma Mary because she’s the oldest. We had a lovely visit that day, and it tickled me to hear my grandmother called “Ella” and “child.” From that experience I learned a universal truth: no matter our age, we are always a child to our parents. There’s a comfort in that thought.,
My grandmother Ella McClure was a most admirable woman, a loving mother and grandmother, a caretaker of people, a lover of flowers and music and an occasional good cigar. She persevered when times were hard, and they were often hard when she was rearing her family during the depression years. But she survived it all, rearing a healthy family in spite of everything that worked against her. Ella was a woman of great courage and great strength. There are few in my generation who can match her.