Friday, May 20, 2011

Fiery Spirits, Bland Paper

Beautiful blonde. Daddy’s girl. Headstrong. Southern lady.

She was Ruby Broyles McClellan, great-granddaughter of Florida pioneer George Edmund McClellan, more immediately known as the lively daughter of the Tampa dentist, Dr. R. C. McClellan.

From my first recollections of my maternal grandmother, I could at least always agree with the label of Southern Lady. But there was little more a young child could discern about the long-lost girlhood of her elder.

After all, more than fifty years separated the two of us. With a generation between us, all I could know of what growing up was like in her day would be to listen to the stories others told.

Of course, I could easily recognize the trails on paper: the dates, the certificates, the news clippings. I had pictures of a young flapper (for that is what she threw her heart into), and portraits of a charming lady. I had her face on paper.

But it was the remembrances passed down, blurted out by others in odd moments of recollection, that most convincingly painted her portrait.

My grandmother must have been quite the character. She loved to have fun. She and many friends enjoyed the dances of her day. There was no lack of eligible bachelors coming to call at the family homestead—feigning interest in deep conversations with her dad, while all along it was her presence that they had stopped by to admire.

I heard once from a relative that my grandmother had, as a teenager, gotten into an argument with her mother and actually slapped her. Impetuous. Shocking for that time period.

I heard my mother once mention that her mother had been right in the thick of the “Roaring Twenties,” enjoying it to the hilt.

I heard that my grandmother had been in love with a man, but that her parents didn’t approve. To cool the relationship, they had sent her up north to her uncle’s home in Johnson City, Tennessee, for an extended “visit.”

I heard that, during that visit, my grandmother eloped—with a different man. Tall, dark, handsome, he swept her off her feet. Charming met winsome.

And then, somehow, after years of struggle through Great Depression tribulations, through raising a family, through two-parent career stages in those years when Leave-It-To-Beaver moms only worked at home, she became the proper, sensible grandmother I remember—the grandmother who found her place on paper.

After my grandmother died, my aunt gave me her “Little Black Book.” It was just her address book, but it had other notes in it—everything from my dad’s shirt size for birthday presents to clippings from the newspaper that she had found amusing. One such note said,

For beauty I am not a star;
There are others more handsome by far.
But my face, I don't mind it,
For I am behind it—
It's the folks out in front that I jar.

Paper only seems to blunt the impetuous spirit it seeks to replicate. Oh, for a way to know these elders the way they were during the peak of their lives, instead of assuming their aged shadow represents the full content of their being.


  1. I own her fathers home in Fort Meade. It's been completely restored to it's circa 1898 appearance. I enjoyed this article very much!

  2. @Indietop20: Thanks so much for stopping by! I would LOVE to see pics of how you've restored the McClellan house in Fort Meade. Please get in touch at afamilytapestry at gmail dot com.

  3. :) she sounds a bit like my great aunt Eleanor - Who later became the first woman mayor of Chula Vista, California.

    How exciting to hear about the home being renovated!

    1. Now that's a story I'd like to read about on your blog, Iggy :)

      Sounds like your great aunt was a can do type of person! She certainly picked a beautiful region to live in and serve as mayor!

    2. has a partial story. I will have to ask my parents for some more background. My g-aunt moved to California - its almost as if she ran away from home.

    3. Thanks for sharing the link, Iggy. Now that I read the full post, I remember the tag line from that story. So much for "high" tea!

      Funny you should mention "its almost as if she ran away from home." I wonder if that is the way easterners see it in general. That's what my mother used to think when I decided to stay out here. And she came by that opinion honestly: that's what her grandparents thought of her uncle doing the same thing two generations before me. It is a long way from home. But it's beautiful out here :)


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