Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Hard Life of Widow Tibbs

Regular readers of this blog may remember when I wondered whose stories deserved to be told. My conclusion was to make room for the stories of people whom the dominant narratives  overlooked—the poor, the marginalized, people of color, and those deemed too ordinary to merit attention. The first post directed toward reviving some of those untold stories concerned the Renfrows, one of the few African American families who lived in Grinnell. 

Another African American family that shared Grinnell with the Renfrows was that of James and Mary Tibbs. As I wrote in a post last fall, Jim Tibbs shined shoes in Grinnell, a humble job that gave some customers license to indulge their meaner natures. But Tibbs died in January, 1941, leaving behind his widow—who was still in her 40s—and six children.  The two oldest children soon charted their own routes out of the house. Harold had already graduated from Grinnell high school before his father's death, and soon thereafter enrolled at William Penn College in Oskaloosa. Albert, the second-oldest, married an Oskaloosa woman in late 1942, and the following spring joined the US Army. That left Mamie with four children still at home: Janet, who graduated from Grinnell High School in 1946, Shirley, who finished school in 1948, Roberta, who graduated in 1949, and Edward, the youngest, who was a member of the class of 1951. So, widow Tibbs had plenty to think about as she contemplated life after her husband's death.
Undated photograph of Harold and Ed Tibbs (courtesy Grinnell College Special Collections and Archives)
One of Mamie's first decisions was to move the family from their Third Avenue home to a frame house at 712 Elm, the same building from which Grinnell College students rescued all those letters thirty years later. Although all Mamie's children gradually left home and set out on their own, Mamie herself remained in the house until 1964. For more than a decade, therefore, she lived in that house alone, coping with the challenges of maintaining the house. But she did not forget her children; as she pointed out in a 1958 letter, she wrote to each of her six children every week, at least up until the increase in postage obliged her to reduce the frequency of her letters. Regrettably, the cache of family records rescued in 1974 includes only one part of that correspondence: a folder of letters and cards in Mamie's own hand, all sent to her youngest son, Edward, over the course of four years—1955-1958. Apparently Ed saved these letters—only about a dozen or so—and at some later point returned them to 712 Elm Street where Grinnell students later found them. Ed's brothers and sisters received their letters elsewhere, and, if they saved them, left them elsewhere beyond our reach; almost certainly those letters long ago disappeared into the trash, so we are unlikely ever to gain a broader vision of Mamie's concerns.

Despite the limitations of this small collection, Mamie's letters to Ed Tibbs make fascinating reading. As she no doubt did with each of her children, Mamie regularly reminded her son of her love, but otherwise the subject matter of the correspondence wanders without much conscious plan. She reported on news from her other children, remarked on developments in Grinnell ("the law here has a new car," she wrote Ed in 1958; "it's nice, [but] you sure can tell it miles away!"], and sometimes discussed her plans for the future. A persistent theme, however, was how difficult life was for her in that Elm Street house. Although she often found a way to send a dollar or two to her children, several of whom had their own struggles with poverty, Mamie's letters reveal how close to the margins life ran for the Tibbs family in the decades after Jim Tibbs's death, and remind us that every story—perhaps especially a story of struggle—enlarges our understanding of life in Grinnell in those years.
The house on Elm Street figures in several letters, Mamie reflecting upon the difficulties the house presented. As revealed in a 1946 letter from Albert, Mamie contemplated buying the house almost from the moment she moved there. Harold opposed his mother's plan, but Albert was inclined to support her, as he wrote Harold: "she is doing something that she has been wanting to do all her life; let her be happy. After all, it is only $700 and that isn't really much money...." For whatever reason, Mamie did not buy the house then, but she kept the dream alive, and sometime in the winter of 1958 she revived the plan, hiring someone to inspect the house and give her an opinion on its soundness. The report, however, poured cold water on Mamie's enthusiasm; she wrote Ed, "the house should be torn down, the man said, and built over." It is easy to imagine Mamie's disappointment at this news, which might explain why she decided to consult her neighbors for their advice. Here, too, however, the news was not encouraging. Observing that the house had "too many air holes," Mrs. Moyer urged Mamie to get out.

In fact, Mamie herself often reported that she had trouble—and plenty of expense—keeping the place warm. We know from her letters that she heated the house with wood—as many others in this era did—, because "coal is so high here. And oil is too." At first, Mamie had the help of her children, but once the children graduated from high school and moved on, responsibility for getting all that wood into the furnace fell increasingly upon Mamie's own shoulders. In March 1956, when she was 64 years of age, she wrote Ed to say, "I have been chopping wood and raking the yard and I am really tired." Apparently the city had cut down some trees from the lot behind her and had given one of the trees to Mamie for firewood. It was hard work, but there was no alternative, so Mamie did what she had to do. Only two years later, after having had a scare from her heart, did she tell Ed, "I ain't going to chop no more wood to try to keep warm."
Ed Tibbs, 1949 Grinnellian
Keeping warm was a real and recurring problem that imposed a heavy burden on the household budget. Writing in February, 1956, Mamie told Ed that she had no money to send him. "I paid almost all my money on finishing paying for the furnace. At last I am done," she wrote; "it ran me short this month." To make money for this project Mamie had put off paying some other bills, which she was only gradually clearing. "I ain't got no [bills] in the hundreds now," she wrote Ed, "and I am so glad. I pay for my home by myself, put in the furnace by my self, and now I want to put in the water as soon as I can...."

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that money figured so often in Mamie's letters. In an undated Christmas card to Ed, she wrote: "I am sorry I couldn't send you no present but will send you something later on." In a 1958 letter she enclosed five dollars, "as it is all I can send." On another occasion Mamie sent one dollar: "that is all I have till next Friday or Saturday. You can buy some cig[arettes] now.  I will send you some [more] money then." When Ed asked Mamie for twenty dollars, she replied, heatedly, "I don't happen to have no $20 in the house right now and won't have till the first of the month." She proposed instead to get Albert, then living behind her at 707 Summer Street, to provide ten, and she would add ten more later. In a subsequent letter Mamie complained that Ed did not confirm having received the five dollars she had sent: "I haven't got money to throw away," she wrote, "so let me know if you are getting it or not."
Roberta Tibbs, 1949 Grinnellian
These recurring financial concerns urged Mamie to consider moving. As early as 1955 she confided to Ed that she was "planning on moving to Omaha, Nebraska." "I can work a little in Omaha," she continued, "because I can get jobs baby sitting..." At that time Harold, Janet and Shirley were all living in the area, and evidently it was Janet who extended the invitation. "I am sick so much," Mamie wrote, "I thought I would try it over there for a while...." Nevertheless, she did not move. A year later Mamie reported that Roberta and her husband, Art Wilder, had invited her to live with them in Marshalltown, "but I am not planning on that," she told Ed. In her opinion Roberta "hasn't got enough room for herself," let alone a guest. A 1958 letter proposed still another possibility, that Mamie move in with Shirley; "I don't know for sure yet," she continued. "I've got to think it over." Mamie admitted that she was "crazy about" Shirley's "honey" of a house which she described with enthusiasm: "she has a big porch in the front and a two-door garage at the back and a nice front yard and a nice back yard." Ever mindful of her own wood-burning furnace and all the labor it required, Mamie could not resist noting that Shirley also had a gas furnace.
Shirley Tibbs, 1950 Grinnellian
Sadly, relations with Shirley suddenly deteriorated, so that the planned move did not materialize. In an undated letter, Mamie told Ed that "Shirley and I had been arguing about everybody and everything. And I had to tell her where she stood with me. I told her I didn't blame you for not giving her anything because she doesn't care for any of us, only what she can get out of us...I seen her [Shirley] and V [?] making fun of me so I just let them both drop. I am done with both of them. I have taken them off my list." Although she had planned to give Shirley a bed for her new baby, Mamie now trashed that plan: "Oh no! I will [not] help any body that ain't so D--M import[ant]!"

Mamie finally abandoned the house on Elm Street in 1964, moving to Omaha as she had long imagined she would, although with which of her children she lived I could not determine. In the meantime, age, poverty, and hard work wore away at her health. Not infrequently Mamie began letters to Ed by observing, as she did in a September, 1957 letter, "I am not feeling so good myself today..." Some of the health issues were common, as when she told Ed in a 1958 letter how she had been sick in bed with the flu for several days. Not once did Mamie mention having visited a doctor, but she did tell Ed that she was taking pills that cost her dearly. What pills they were and what ailment they aimed to remedy she did not say.
Mount Pleasant Mental Health Institute
Meanwhile, Ed himself was not well, although exactly what the trouble was remains unclear. The letters she wrote Ed were all directed to the Mount Pleasant Mental Health Institute (originally known as the Iowa Lunatic Asylum) where Ed was a patient for several years in the mid-1950s. In a 1955 letter, Mamie remembered that, prior to moving to Mount Pleasant, Ed had been "a real sick man and they [doctors at the institute] have helped you"—but how or with what she did not say. Perhaps Mamie herself did not understand Ed's illness, and his doctors at the time might have had only a slightly better understanding. Nevertheless, Mamie occasionally expressed the hope that Ed might be released, and one letter reported that she had written Ed's doctor to ask about it. "I hope you are feeling fine and are back to yourself," she wrote. In fact, Ed was subsequently released from Mount Pleasant, and later lived for a time in Omaha, then in Oskaloosa before entering the Poweshiek County Care Facility in Montezuma; when he died in 2002, Ed had lived in the Montezuma Nursing and Rehabilitation Center for sixteen years, indicating perhaps that he never conquered the problems that had first taken him to Mount Pleasant.
Mamie's last dated letter to Ed was written in 1958, and with that letter the historian's door into Mamie Tibbs's life closes. After abandoning Grinnell in 1964, Mamie never returned until her 1973 funeral and burial in Hazelwood cemetery. She had lived 32 years after her husband's death, and had seen her children grow up and generate their own families (Mamie's obituary reported that she was survived by twenty grandchildren and fifteen great-grandchildren). Sorrows were mingled with these joys, as her children struggled to make marriages work and ends meet. On balance, though, the family had done well, and much of the credit goes to Mamie, a poor widow who did all she could to help her kids succeed.

Meanwhile, the house on Elm Street sat empty, city directories regularly reporting it as "vacant." Somewhere within the decaying frame walls there remained a cache of letters, awaiting discovery and the opportunity to tell part of the story of Mamie Tibbs's hard life.

1 comment:

  1. Dan - you are a wonderful storyteller! Thanks so much for these glimpses into lives we would never know about. I love learning about these gems you discover!