Profile of Laura Jane Waldrop Gregg
by her granddaughter Karen Hollingsworth Gardiner
“My daddy was a mean man and I didn’t like how he treated Momma,” my mother revealed to me a dozen or so years after her father had died and just three or four years after my beloved grandmother, her mother, had passed away. In fact, she said she didn’t like or respect her father much at all. There was a strange hardness in her voice. Then silence. Then a stunning explanation.
“One Sunday morning, when I was just a little girl, I got up early and walked across the dogtrot hall to the kitchen,” she said, staring intently into an open time-hole in our harvest gold and avocado kitchen wallpaper.
“My momma.” Her voice wavered and she took a steadying sip of coffee. “My momma was lying in the floor by the stove crying, and my daddy was leaning over her, threatening her with a hammer. He was holding it over her head, like he was going to hit her.” She paused.
Maybe I asked. Maybe I didn’t have to.
“I don’t know why.”
She shook her head, and the time-hole disappeared. She was looking at me, really looking: how was I reacting to this rare revelation of an ugly past she never talked about. Then her voice went flat. She had to finish what she’d started, but, how?
Matter-of-factly. Speaking the unspeakable: “I guess he didn’t like something about how she was cooking his breakfast. I ran to her and he tried to hide the hammer and help her up, but I will never forget seeing my daddy trying to hit my momma in the head with a hammer.”
She got up, emptied her coffee into the sink, put the mug in the dishwasher, and walked away.
My mother was born in October of 1929, just days before Black Tuesday ushered in the Great Depression, and this would have happened right in the heart of those dismal times, on their small subsistence farm in rural Alabama.
She told me this story only once.
Once was enough.
My grandfather, Henry Clay Gregg, had a stroke when I was about four and went to live in a distant nursing home. He died two years later, and my memories of him are wispy at best. I thought he was mean, too, though. When I was a toddler, before his stroke, he used to snatch my toys away and lock them in a trunk.
My memories of my grandmother, though, are vivid, and my grandfather does not figure in them at all. I was with her a lot. In the afternoons, from second through fourth grade, I would walk to her Northport home from the nearby elementary school and stay until my mother picked me up after work. In fifth grade, I attended a new school too far away for walking, but for a couple of summers after that, I stayed with her almost every day. Then, when I was twelve, she started getting forgetful and moved in with us. After a few months, the forgetfulness became dangerous in a house with two working parents, and she had to go to a nursing home, too. I spent afternoons and summer days with her there, too. In fact, I was sitting beside her bed just an hour before she died. She and her mother were in the same room, and I sat between them, between my grandmother and my great-grandmother, absorbing what they said and did.
I appreciated what a rare privilege this was. But by that time I was also approaching fifteen, about to enter ninth grade, teenager-self-absorbed; I didn’t know there would be so many things I wish I had asked when I had the chance.
What I did ask, what I do know, what I learned from her: kindness and cooking and sewing.
In the summer, she and I ate oily tinned tuna on saltine crackers for lunch while watching Art Linkletter on her black and white TV, the only show I ever recall her watching. We listened to the obituaries every morning on the radio, in case we needed to bake a cake to take to someone we knew who was grieving. We made country-fried steak and gravy in her heavy cast-iron skillet. And fried chicken, after she caught one in the yard and slung it around by the head to snap its neck. I didn’t participate in the feather-pulling, though I did eventually learn to cut up a whole chicken into identifiable pieces. We made tea cakes and sweet potato pies. She even attempted spaghetti one time simply because I liked it. She had never eaten it but improvised from my childish description. We used macaroni, ketchup, Worchestershire sauce, and parmesan cheese. It was not very good, but we tried. We picked apples from the trees along her fence and dried tart slices in the sun on big sheets of corrugated tin. These, we packed into coffee cans that she stored under her bed, and we used them (the ones my brother and I didn’t filch) to make applesauce and fried apple pies. We picked rusty-green scuppernongs from the arbor in her backyard and she cooked them down into jelly.
PHOTO CAPTION: Tea Cakes made using my grandmother’s mixing bowl, dough cloth, rolling pin, and biscuit cutter
We sewed together, too. She didn’t make clothes, but she did make the most beautiful patchwork quilts: grandmother’s flower garden, nine-patch, spring wheels, eight-pointed stars. So many other patterns. So many quilts. I figure she must have made over 100 in her lifetime. I have four of them.
She always had a basket of pieces beside her, stitching them together in her spare time. She made me a whimsical turtle quilt when I was about ten, appliquéing reptilian tails and heads onto colorful drunkard’s-path-patterned squares, unwittingly teaching me that geometry can be fun. When I was younger, maybe seven or eight, she let me piece together—all by myself—sixteen doll-sized squares. She quilted it, and we edged it with white satin ribbon. I still have it–on my dining room table, underneath her wooden dough bowl. Her quilting frame was suspended from the ceiling over her bed and could be lowered when she needed to stretch a pieced top onto it, along with cotton batting and a calico back. I don’t know what happened to it–where it is now–but I remember it hanging over her feather bed, just a wooden frame against the beadboard ceiling when she wasn’t using it. When she had a quilt in progress, at night it became a magical canopy overhead.
These are my memories—of a gentle and creative woman—and I cherish them, but so much of her story is lost. I know what she was like in the 1960s, but what was her life like before? What was it like when she was a girl? When she was a farmwife with children, struggling through the hardships of the 1930s and 40s in the American South? I have few things to guide my research: some quilts and kitchen tools, yes; a few family photos and news clippings; and, a handful of documents hidden behind the paywall of Ancestry.com.
This is what I’ve learned.
Laura Jane Waldrop, aged twenty, in 1919, was unmarried. She was, as James Agee would remark in Cotton Tenants, of an age when “most girls . . . are married and mothers of at least one child” (p. 53). She was also a large woman and because of her size she was perhaps considered unattractive or less desirable than her petite younger sister Irene (Waldrop genes produce large people; her mother’s people, the Williamsons, are small).
In 1920, Laura is absent from the federal census list of her widowed mother’s household. Her older brother Fred is not listed because he had recently married and moved out. But why is Laura not there? Where was she in 1920? Census documents and other government records on Ancestry.com can provide valuable information, but they also leave gaps, great gaping holes in the fabric of a person’s life—holes that beg for narrative, for someone to remember and tell the story.
In January 1921, at age 21, Laura married Henry, a short wiry farmer thirteen years her senior. Did he love her? Did she love him? This is hard to know. It is a fact that their first child, a son, Henry Loyal, was born a scant eleven months later, in November of that same year. Still, her husband seems a violent bully, maybe someone hard to love.
But I remember my grandmother being upset in the late 1960s when my mom’s younger sister took the framed photograph of my grandfather off of my grandmother’s bedroom wall and left with it; it was her only picture of him. “I know he’s her daddy,” she muttered, “but I thought I could keep his picture until I passed on.” Whatever the story, she married him, perhaps feeling it was better to be married than not. Agee, writing of depression-era Alabama just a few years later, notes that “the life of a spinster in an impoverished farm family is so ghastly that anything will do for a substitute” (p. 54). She and Henry remained together until his death in 1963. They had three more children, spaced four years apart, unusual during a time when twice that many children typically arrived only a year or two apart: Virginia Dare (1925), Miriam Augusta (my mother, 1929), and Dorothy Dean (1933). My grandmother spent eight years as a widow, passing away, herself, in 1971.
Laura was perhaps prepared for the difficulties of life with Henry because her father, by all accounts was, himself, a violent man. But James Washington “Wash” Waldrop died in 1914, when she not yet fifteen years old, leaving her mother, Sarah Louella Williamson Waldrop, at age 41, with eight children from ages 2-16 and a farm to work. In a Tuscaloosa News article, written on the occasion of Sarah Louella’s 94th birthday in 1967, my great grandmother recalls a childhood that equipped her for what lay ahead as a widow. Her own family had raised sheep in New Lexington, Alabama, and she had helped her mother spin and weave. “We even made our own blankets,” she told reporter Sarah White. White also reports that Sarah helped her brother chop down trees and saw logs when she was only ten years old. And she often unloaded heavy sacks of corn from off horses’ backs in her family’s grist mill. From this foundation, and her experiences as a farm wife after her marriage in 1896, Sarah Waldrop successfully kept her family farm going with the help of her children. Laura’s mother had been married for 18 years, and in 1967 (when this article was written) she had been a widow for 53 years more. Ironically, the feature story celebrating her life refers to her throughout as “Mrs. J. W. Waldrop” and never once mentions her own name.
The same patriarchal treatment was likely true for her oldest daughter Laura Jane, who had, in 1899, been named for her grandmother, Louisa Jane Norris Waldrop. Louisa Jane, born in 1852, had likewise been named for her grandmother, Elizabeth Louisa Strother Hewett, born around 1808. So there was a long tradition of naming first-born daughters after maternal grandmothers—a tradition my parents broke when Laura refused to allow them to name me after her. “I was named after my grandmother and she was fat,” she told my mother. “I’m fat, and I don’t want my granddaughter to be fat. Please don’t name her after me.” Genetics ignored, I wasn’t named Laura, but I still wish I had been. Names don’t make you fat, but they do nourish you.
What hurts me most about this family story is not my misnaming. What hurts is the lifetime of body shaming it indicates for Laura. She was a kind soul who endured much abuse.
Another indignity: her obituary, in The Tuscaloosa News following her death on 21 July 1971, is headlined “Mrs. Gregg” (though, in fairness, it does mention her as “Laura W. Gregg” on the first line); it refers to her as “Mrs. Gregg” throughout.
In 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression and ten years into their marriage, Laura and Henry lived on their own farm on Factory Road in Cowden (now Samantha), Alabama, a farm with a mortgage, but a farm they owned nonetheless. They were not sharecroppers or cotton tenants, though they did grow cotton. They also grew corn, companion-planting peas between the corn hills. They grew ribbon cane in the bottom land. While most farmers grew sorghum, Henry preferred the richer, sweeter, darker syrup of the ribbon cane, which they made at their mule-driven syrup mill in the late fall every year. My mother once told me that they survived the depression partly because they sold peas by the side of the road and milled syrup for neighbors, along with selling their cotton and corn crops. My grandmother would have had a vegetable patch where they grew tomatoes and beans and squash and cucumbers for canning. She certainly grew watermelon, too; and her kids would sit on the front steps of their unpainted dogtrot farmhouse, spitting the seeds into the yard. One summer in the 1970s, I went to that abandoned farmhouse with my mother and her older sister Virginia, visiting from Texas. They both remarked on the watermelon vines still running up those steps long after they moved away in the 1950s. Some seeds thrive in harsh conditions, and some roots run too deep to pull out.
I know two other things about my grandmother’s life in the Great Depression, besides her hard work as a farmwife and mother of four, besides her remarkable foodways and bed quilts. From my mother, I know that in the mid-1930s they almost lost their farm. They were able to pay the mortgage, but one year they didn’t make enough money to pay off the seed and fertilizer bill at a Northport feed store. The store owners were preparing to take my grandparent’s farm to satisfy the remaining debt, until my grandfather’s younger sister, who had been an army nurse in France during World War I and who worked as a nurse at a hospital in Birmingham for the rest of her working life, stepped in and paid the debt, saving the farm.
The other story is sadder but speaks volumes about my grandmother’s kindness. Ancestry.com reveals two “convict records” for Laura’s younger brother Anders. He served a sentence of a year and a day in Kilby Prison from 1 May 1934 to 1 May 1 1935, for grand larceny and embezzlement. Then he spent another eight months, from 30 June 1935 until 25 February 1936, in the county jail for reckless driving. He had been re-arrested on 31 May 1935, not even a month after his release from prison. His fine and court costs totaled $279.88 plus a $2.50 discharge fee. When he was released in February, he (or someone) had paid $13.00 of those fines. The remaining amount was covered by “time served.” Uncle Anders had a drinking problem, according to my mother; he lived on their farm when she was young—right after his release from jail in 1936, apparently. She remembered finding empty bottles under the shed room where he slept at the back of the house. He is listed as still residing with them on the 1940 federal census—another churlish man for my grandmother to care for during the nation’s worst economic disaster.
Life was hard then—made harder still by hammered men and men with hammers. But Laura Jane Waldrop Gregg endured.
Like her lovely inviting hand-pieced quilts, she endures.
Agee, James. Cotton Tenants. Melville House, 2013.
“Mrs. Gregg.” Obituary. The Tuscaloosa News. 22 July 1971, page unknown.
White, Sarah. “Good Old Days Hard Ones, Too.” The Tuscaloosa News. 25 Aug. 1967, page unknown.