Frank Babb

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Favorite Children and Other Family Relationships: a Story, Chapter 2

In 1928, my father, a handsome 25-year old, had won my bookkeeper mother’s hand and brought her to the farm to live for a “year or two” with his parents and the two summer-time aunts, Leta and Dorothy, until they could accumulate the resources to buy their own farm.  The Great Depression had arrived and the creation of new households units was becoming more difficult.  It was not unusual then for children to continue living with their parents after marriage.  But the hard times continued and four years later in 1932 when I made a pre-Christmas appearance they were still living with Grandfather.

Grandmother Meda had died in January of that year at the age of 57 from an “obstruction of the bowels.”  Did this mean cancer?  I never knew, nor did the family say.  After that, there were no more discussions of our moving to another farm.

Father’s brothers and sisters left the farm as soon as they came of age.  Irene, the oldest, who worked as a clerk in the dry goods store where Mother was a bookkeeper, married a barnstorming pilot who became a successful institutional food salesman in Chicago and Detroit.

Lester, who never saw a machine he couldn’t fix, left at age 21 to serve in World War I in an artillery battery commanded by a young captain from near Kansas City named Harry Truman.  After the war Lester became a master mechanic and a Dodge and Plymouth automobile dealer.  Although a lifelong Democrat, Lester couldn’t bring himself to cast a presidential vote for his former captain whom he intensely disliked.  Was he a bad leader? A martinet?  Lester never explained other than to say, “I couldn’t stand him.”

Leta graduated from the local teachers’ college and taught music in high schools before going to Columbia University for a masters degree, taking classes in piano and opera at the newly opened Juilliard School of Music in her spare time, then returning to Maryville to resume her teaching career.

Morton was a farm laborer and during World War II managed a grain elevator and a filling station.  A congenial and pleasant man, he liked to garden and take care of his yard.  He and his wife, Sarah, had a daughter named Darlene.

Dorothy also graduated from the local teachers’ college and taught art and music in high schools.  She was a water colorist (too many flowers and sunsets, I thought), the family genealogist and the planner and executer of family outings and projects.  She had a nice soprano voice and sang in church choirs but not in those directed by Leta.  In family discussions during the interminable Sunday visits to the farm, the brothers and sisters discussed matters and Dorothy would then tell them what to do.  Although Grandfather didn’t participate in the discussions, he too took his marching orders from Dorothy.

Father was a farmer, a weight lifter, a good semi-pro baseball player and figure skater.  He was a self-taught cornet, piano and organ player with a clear untrained tenor voice.  He and Dorothy sometimes sang duets of World War I patriotic songs, hymns and show tunes of the 1920’s and 30’s.  Father and his sisters played tennis on a grass court in a corner of the lawn, the lines hand-mowed in the grass by Grandfather and me, and golf with the sisters and his brother-in-law, the institutional food salesman, on a nine-hole golf course they laid out in a twenty acre sheep pasture.  For some reason they didn’t ask me to play golf with them or to caddy, but I was permitted to be the ball boy in their tennis matches.  Mother didn’t play either tennis or golf because she wasn’t interested, she said, and more likely, because she didn’t want to compete with the aunts.

When the teacher aunts returned for the summer, they took charge of the domestic operations, sometimes even helping with the household routine of cooking, cleaning, clothes washing and gardening, and the family’s social life.  One of their self-imposed responsibilities, which I encouraged, was entertaining me.  Each owned a black Model A Ford coupé that they drove in a cloud of dust at high speeds on the country roads.  I know because I was usually a passenger.

Since Grandmother Babb had been in charge of the house, and probably the farming operation during her lifetime (it was her money that bought the farm and provided the working capital so that Grandfather never borrowed even during the Depression), the aunts naturally inherited her position on the domestic front as the person(s) in charge.  While I don’t remember hostile exchanges between my mother and the aunts, Mother was reconciled to having aunts-in-charge and being their household helper during the summers.

Father and Grandfather floated above all this, and I of course exploited the situation of being the favorite and, until my brother was born, the only child, grandchild and nephew.  The only downside was that Aunt Dorothy insisted on giving me drawing lessons and Aunt Leta singing lessons.  I soldiered through the lessons to reap the benefits of having them at my disposal to read to me, to listen to my prattle and to take me on automobile excursions.

The year 1939 must have been the happiest in Mother’s life…..(To be continued)

10 Responses to Favorite Children and Other Family Relationships: a Story, Chapter 2

  • Caren Holtby says:

    Summers sound idyllic, no doubt a welcome relief from Missouri winters. What did you take away from growing up in this extended farming family that contributed to who you have become? Did you have a favorite aunt ?

    • Frank Babb says:

      Except for two cousins, daughters of my mother’s sister Veda, I didn’t play with any children during the summer. My brother Gary was born in 1939 and wasn’t a playmate during the period when the school teacher aunts returned to the family home. Therefore, I spent all my time with the adults in the extended family and learned how to deal with them on a daily basis. I didn’t think of either aunt being a favorite. I enjoyed being with them, each having a distinct personality. Fortunately for me, they had their own lives and interests and didn’t hangout with each other. In this environment it was easy to become self-reliant and do whatever I wanted to do without the influence of my peers.

      Thanks for the comment, Caren.


  • Emily Hilliard says:

    I grew up all over the USA from California to St. Louis to California again to Pittsburgh etc.. and I only knew about farm life from books. It sounded grand to me. ..but then most anything was all
    right then..I had a happy childhood. Mother was an only child; my father was the eldest of 4 boys.
    My aunts were scattered with these Burk husbands from Wilmington to New Mexico . They were all
    dear to my sister and me when we saw them .. summers usually. I’m enjoying this story – I wonder where the kids went to school? E.H.

    • Frank Babb says:

      In farm communities before World War II most kids went to one-room schools with grades 1 through 8 in their neighborhoods. After the War, we started busing these kids to elementary schools in the small towns in the farming areas. Country schools are a subject I’m planning to write a future blog or two about. The education I received from the Ireland School a mile and a half from my home prepared me very well for my future education ending with Harvard Law School.

      Thanks for commenting, Emily.


  • joyce Broan says:

    A rich family heritage indeed, and I enjoyed reading it! When will be next installment be coming?

  • Dee Cox says:

    Your family history is such fun, Frank, and you seem to be so bemused and comfortable with everyone in your house. Thanks! I look forward to your next entry. Dee

  • howard crise says:

    The early demise of your Grandmother Meda, and your subsequently wondering how she might have influenced your life, reminds me of my maternal grandmother.

    Etts, a Baltimore schoolteacher, had a nagging pain in her side that finally led to exploratory surgery in 1944 when she was 60. They didn’t have the screening tests back then, the colon cancer was caught just in time, and the surgeon excised it. That same year my mother divorced when I was 2, and we went to live with her parents for seven years.

    Very much the matriarch, Etts had me reading before my fourth birthday, indulged me way too much,
    and instilled her values indelibly by the time my mother remarried. I vividly remember her, but she so dominated my grandfather that he faded into the background so I can barely conjure him and the handful of interactions we had.

    Etts was hardly a saint, but she gave me the coping skills to survive.

    Keep your stories coming. They help in this age of angst.

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I'm Frank Babb, author, traveler, and adventurer. I look forward to connecting with you!

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