I must have first “met” my father’s mother, my Grandma Sallie Frances Norman Brinlee, when I was just a baby, since my parents moved back to Texas from Pennsylvania when I was about 10 months old. However, we only stayed in Texas for a few months and then moved out to Southern California to live, and there are only three occasions that I remember visiting with Grandma Brinlee.
The first was a Christmas visit, and that trip to Texas must have been in December 1962. On the way we visited a cousin of Dad’s (Archie?) in New Mexico, followed by a stay with my mother’s sister Irene in Seymour, and then we stopped in the Dallas area to visit my father’s oldest brother, Girdion. From there we made our way to Grandma’s farm, where she lived with another of my Dad’s brothers, Leroy. Uncle Leroy would take me out with him when he went to feed the animals and he let me pet one of the calves. Grandma had two dogs, one of which was supposedly half wolf. The wolf-dog didn’t appear too intimidating, but we nevertheless kept our distance. There was a goat in the yard who liked to butt people who got too close. I wasn’t taking any risks on that score, either.
Grandma’s farm did not have many conveniences; I believe it did have electricity and well water. There was not even an outhouse. There was a stream bed. My mother took this in good humor, but we made a lot of jokes about it.
Grandma made her own butter, which she finished off using a mold (I think) with a daisy-like pattern. She served this with delicious biscuits. We had fresh eggs from Grandma’s chickens.
One of the aspects of the visit I liked most was that I got to help Uncle Leroy cut one of the trees on the farm to use as a Christmas tree. Then we made popcorn and strung it to use as a garland and fashioned other ornaments from chestnuts (or something like them) and the silver paper from cigarette packs (my parents and most of the Brinlees were heavy smokers; I seem to remember we had plenty of these homemade ornaments to put on the tree). Aunt Evangeline also came to visit, and was already suffering from the emphysema that would contribute to her death a couple of years later.
A few years after this trip Grandma flew out to visit us in California; my parents started calling her the “Globe-Trotter.” She came with another lady; I believe this was her sister Mollie. The thing that amazed and fascinated me was that they were both users of chewing tobacco and at most times had a “chaw can” with them. I had not noticed it so much during our trip to Texas, but during this visit it dawned on my that Grandma had a rather abrupt demeanor; she expected obedient behavior and could make some pretty caustic comments of disapproval. Many years later, after both she and my mother had passed on, I found and read some letters she had written to my mother after my father’s death. My parents had divorced before my father died, but these letters to my mother revealed a much more tender side of my grandmother’s personality than I had ever seen. She confided her fears about her poor health and inquired about how I was doing in college. She signed off with “I love you very much.” I believe the grandmother we saw was the stoic woman who had led a hard life, the one who inspired a little fear in her grandchildren, but there was a lot more to her than that. She apparently had an inquiring mind – she had started some family research some years before but, as my father and Uncle Bill noted, “got disgusted with finding so many horse thieves” and such, so had given it up. (Grandma was a Norman, but I haven’t found any Normans so far who fit that bill; however, there were definitely Brinlees – my great-great grandfather and his brother -- who were tried for crimes, but as far as I know they were not tried for stealing horses. They were tried for murder. More on that later.)
The last time I saw Grandma Brinlee was right after my graduation from high school. By this time I was living with my mother in Baylor County, Texas. Early in the morning after the graduation ceremony, my father drove me to Grandma’s farm. Grandma’s graduation present to me was a large, fluffy bath towel. There were several uncles there as well, so the Brinlees spent the day talking. Fortunately for me, Uncle Lewis had brought his son Wayne, who was close to me in age and intellectual interests. We had never met before, but we also spent the day in pleasant conversation. By the end of the day, almost everyone had left; even Grandma got tired and went to bed. Only my Dad and Uncle Windy were left. Uncle Windy had had cancer and appeared to be in fragile health. Still, he and my Dad managed to stretch out their good-byes for at least an hour or two. “I hope you don’t mind too much,” my Dad said. “This may be the last time Windy and I get to see each other.” I was getting a little tired and impatient, but I just nodded. Later I was glad I had not rushed to pull my Dad away. Uncle Windy lived another 20 years, but my father died the following November in an automobile accident.
How many times has each of us wished that we had listened to our relatives’ conversations a little more closely and asked them more questions? I could have asked Grandma about her family research or my Dad and his brothers about their service in the various branches of the armed forces. Only the youngest Brinlee brother, my Uncle Bill, is left. He is like a treasure to me now; I try to get him to tell me as many of his wonderful stories as he can remember when we talk on the phone. My youngest daughter even interviewed him about his service in the Navy for a project for her history class. She is very proud of him. I am hoping that my daughters will be wise enough to treasure what I took for granted.