© Copyright 2009, 2011 by Joel R. Hall – All Rights Reserved
At this point in my tale, let me pause to introduce some new characters. These are people linked more temporally than geographically to the White House on Jersey Street, since my first memories of them belong to this era of my life.
The first and most important of these characters are my mother’s parents, my grandparents: Reagan and Jessie Otts. Few people have had so profound an effect on my life as these two. I owe them more than I could ever hope to repay and love them with all my heart. They were always there for us and created in my mind such a mosaic of wonderful memories that I could never write them all down were I to devote the rest of my life to the endeavor. They weren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination and in some ways were infuriatingly imperfect, but they were nonetheless two of the best role models I have ever known. My mother was their only child so they focused all of their love and affection on us. They visited often and never missed a birthday or holiday. Over the years they took us camping, fishing, water skiing, to the beach, to Six Flags Over Texas yearly, and on numerous trips. They encouraged us in every activity we undertook and always made sure we knew exactly how much we were loved. Some of my most powerful memories revolve around them and to this day I thank God that they were in my life.
My Grandmother Jessie was a fiery Irish lass. Her given name was Jessica Leona McKinney, but she had gone by Jessie for practically all her life. She was a ball of energy who organized everything and everyone around her. She was opinionated and more than just a little racist as were most people of her generation, a fact which she denied until the day she died. “I’m not prejudiced.” she would say. “I just don’t want to be around them.” Of course, the “them” referred to African Americans in particular, but to some degree to any member of another race. In some ways, she was almost a female Archie Bunker, although to her credit, she did mellow in her racist views somewhat as she got older. I confess that this aspect of her frustrated and angered me more than words can say. I could not understand how someone with the capacity to be so loving could at the same time be so intolerant of others simply because of their skin color. To this day I find it baffling.
My Granddad Reagan was almost the polar opposite of Jesse. Where she was short, about five two, he was tall, about six two. Where she abounded with nervous energy, he exuded calm in his easy, laid back way. While she had a quick, fiery temper, he had seemingly endless patience. He truly was slow to anger and quick to praise. He taught me practically every good trait a man should have. He was an honest, hard working, generous, happy person. His raspberry responses to Jessie when she would start in on him were legend and every now and then he would patiently listen to her nag at him until finally ending it by simply saying, “Oh Jessie. Hush up.” He was notorious for watching the scenery while driving which would drive Grandmother completely bonkers. One of my favorite memories involves his quick wit when faced with her fussing about his driving. He was “sightseeing” while on the highway and Jessie admonished him to “Watch the road.” “Ain’t no sense in both of us watching it,” was his calm reply. That ended the fussing and had us kids in stitches. I wish you all could have known him. Like Will Rogers, he never met a man he didn’t like. The world became a colder place with his passing.
My Grandparents on my father’s side also enter into my memories during this time of my life, but not as strongly. We saw them much less frequently and had to share their attentions with our cousins since my father was one of four brothers each of which had children.
My Granddad Hunt was a big bear of a man with a sonorous, booming voice that could be heard at a remarkable distance. He was kindhearted and fun loving, and had nicknames for all of us kids. (I was “lion tamer”.) He was a country boy from East Texas that could shoot the eye out of a squirrel at forty yards with bare sites even when he was in his late seventies. He was a remarkable story teller and sounded like he belonged in a John Wayne western. He hugged you so hard it almost broke your ribs and would squeeze your knee so hard (“cow eating corn” he called it) that it simultaneously hurt and tickled. He and Granddad Reagan both grew up as friends in the same small town, Larue, in East Texas before moving off to seek their separate fortunes. They lost track of each other and only got reacquainted when my mom and dad started dating in Dallas years later. Small world.
My Grandmother Helena was a sweet, sad, quiet woman. She was an excellent cook and made some of the best banana pudding I have ever tasted. Her German Chocolate cake was to die for and her cookies were absolutely divine. She was born Helena Rusk. It is through her that I descend from Thomas Jefferson Rusk of Texas Independence fame. Rusk street in downtown Houston is named for him. Rusk was a great man, but unfortunately, he left a legacy of dysfunction after his death by suicide that affected that family for generations to come, culminating in my grandmother living out her years in depression and sorrow. She had been raised as the child of an abusive, alcoholic father, also named Thomas Jefferson Rusk, and the effects of that trauma stayed with her the rest of her life. She loved us kids, but was fundamentally unhappy with her life. It colored her every moment and led to bickering and sniping at Hunt. He wasn’t the real problem, but she was not able to ever deal with the real problem and so spent her time taking it out on him. I loved her and Granddad Hunt, but always wished they could learn to enjoy life and each other more.
My memories of my grandparents during this time of my life center mainly around holidays and birthdays with Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter being the three biggest sources of those memories. I was very happy at this time in my life, so most of those memories are happy ones. I was too young to yet comprehend there being any problems with anything. Life was good.
© Copyright 2009, 2011 by Joel R. Hall – All Rights Reserved