The colorful side of my family

Looking up family history for Veterans Day, I ran across a few other pictures to share, and a few stories I thought I’d write down before I forget them, because there’s no one else in the world left who’s been told these stories. Unfortunately, all those folks are gone.

It seems like the Oklahoma side (my Dad’s side) of the family was the more colorful, or maybe they were just the storytellers. I really don’t know any stories from my mom’s side, even though I grew up spending time equally between both camps (never the two would mix, even though they lived three blocks apart, but that’s a story for another time).

I guess the thing that makes them colorful is all the drama. And drama is a great thing for story telling, but it’s often a lousy thing to live through. And so it was for my family.

My grandma (Oda Fay) met her husband (James) at her cousin’s birthday party. Unfortunately James was her cousin’s boyfriend at the time! He was a handsome older man – 25 years older! in 1940 he was a mysterious stranger who had recently arrived in town, and nobody knew his family or much about his background. 25 year old Oda and James disappeared during the party, and turned up the next day – married! What do you imagine her parents thought when she turned up married to a stranger who was the same age as they were?!

By 1946 Oda and James were surrounded by their brood of four bouncing happy kids – Little Jim, Charles, Dannel, and baby Marjorie Faye. Little Jim would be my dad someday, and the only one of the gang to have a family of his own.  In 1952, when Little Jim was 12 and baby Marge was 6, James passed away, leaving a large family to survive on their own. I believe they were helped out by his veteran’s benefits for the widow and family.

Oda lived with her mom and dad, and got help from her sister Dormalee and brother Dolan ‘Red’. But four kids was a lot to take care of, and Oda had the horrible misfortune to be struck by tuberculosis. Called The White Plague “Because the disease is deadly and highly infectious, victims were isolated in special hospitals called sanatoriums, where at the beginning of the century, at least, they lived out their last days with other patients. The death rate from tuberculosis in 1950 was only 11 percent of what it was in 1900; still 33,633 people died from the disease that year. By 1955 the number of deaths from tuberculosis had been halved.”

 Indeed, Oda Fay had no choice but to go to a sanatorium in far away Arizona, leaving her four little ones in the hands of her elderly parents. Three rambunctious boys and a precious little girl. And for some reason, a horrible choice was made – one that would haunt the family for the rest of their years. After having just lost their father, the kids lost their mother as she was sent to the hospital, and then they lost each other. The family was broken up. Little Jim was sent to an orphanage. Marge stayed with her grandparents. I don’t know if the other two went to the orphanage or to other family. I think the assumption was that Jim would handle it best, being the oldest. At the time of course they didn’t know if she would survive the tuberculosis, a lot of people didn’t. It turned out the breakup was only temporary, and some time later Oda recovered and came back from the sanatorium (with only one lung was the story, though maybe it was only one working lung, or the equivalent of one) and everyone was back together, but the damage done lasted a lifetime.

It’s funny to think how kids grow. From a 12 year old to a 17 year old is five years and a world of difference. Somewhere in that period, my dad was abandoned by his family and spent some time, a few months, a year, I don’t know how long, in an orphanage. He said the only thing that kept his spirits up during that time was getting his issue of MAD magazine, and he’d sit outside and read it and laugh and forget where he was. He ran away from the orphanage repeatedly, trying to go home, and they kept sending him back. When folks talk about the post-war prosperity of the ‘good old days’ of the 50’s, they leave that part out.

When then family was reunited he was a teenager, and he was understandably upset. He had a hard time connecting back up with the family. Things were strained. Dormalee had bought a house in Portland, OR, and invited her favorite nephew to come out and join her, invited the whole family actually, but they didn’t want to move until Marge graduated. The kids were all in school in Sapulpa, and Oda had a cafe on Route 66 where she was slinging hash to support the family. So ‘Little’ Jim moved out to Oregon for his senior year, and his nickname changed to ‘Big Jim’

He drank too much, partied with his buddies, raced his 57 Chevy 2-door post at the strip, ruined Dormalee’s beloved Edsel squirreling around on Larch Mountain (something she reminded him about for the next 25 years), and somehow failed to actually graduate high school. But he had a home. For the rest of his life he had a strained relationship with his mother for abandoning him, and with the brothers and sister who were chosen to stay with family while he was sent away. Dormalee managed to be the hub that kept the family connected.

So next time I will have to tell you about how Big Jim got his girlfriend in trouble, and was forced to do the right thing, which lasted the rest of his life, for better or worse…


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