Friday, February 21, 2014

Grandma, Part I

Rosie Arreda Dobyns, c1923

I think life as a genealogist, a scientist, and a veterinarian has given me somewhat of an informal degree as an armchair psychologist. Treating people's beloved pets is more than just medicine. It is daily dealing with grief and anxiety and confusion and fear. Just as being a genealogist is - and should always be - more than just names, dates, and places. When I lecture to fellow researchers, I make a point of telling them that we are story-tellers as well as fact-finders. For many, walking through a cemetery is "creepy" or "scary." Quite to the contrary, I am often overwhelmed when I walk through the rows of monuments. Here are the last physical traces of lives lived, loves lost, dreams fulfilled or shattered. Under every stone lies a story begging to be told, and it saddens me that most will not.

The biggest hurdle in telling those stories is that there is nobody to tell us first-hand of the lives of those who have gone before us. We can only reconstruct them from the tiniest fragments of old letters, or perhaps the diary entry of a neighbor or cousin who interacted with them. Very few of us will be lucky enough to stumble upon our ancestor's musings in their own hand. Sometimes the best we can achieve is to reconstruct the life of someone based on the historical era in which they lived, or the ethnic, religious, cultural, geographical, and societal norms that dictated how they lived their lives.

As a genealogist I see behavior patterns that repeat from generation to generation. In some cases children mature to make the same mistakes of their parents and grandparents, and societal "no-nos" such as divorce, illegitimacy, alcoholism, abandonment, abuse seem to follow certain lines of descent. It is not difficult to fathom that we learn from what we experience, especially as children, and that breaking molds takes knowledge, patience and understanding. As a scientist I am enthralled by findings indicating that the memories of our ancestors may actually be passed genetically by the changes in the expression of our genes due to environmental and emotional factors. The study of epigenetics may indicate why certain behaviors persist that have no direct genetic influence.

My grandmother possesses one of these stories that she herself did not tell. And I often think there was more depth to the woman than I had ever imagined. She was a wife and mother, and likely every day involved the typical routines that defined such a role in the 1940s and later. But I wonder if a childhood marked by tragedy and sadness influenced a lot of who she was that I never saw, nor understood.

Rosie Arreda Dobyns was born in Johnston City, Williamson County, Illinois, on 7 July 1915, to Volney John and Gracie Mae (Hanks) Dobyns. She was the fourth and final child born to this couple. Although both parents hailed from Hopkins County, Kentucky, Volney's job as a coal miner took him wherever he could find work. They "moved from town to town keeping up with his jobs" and the young family had recently settled in southern Illinois before Arreda's birth.*

The marriage between Volney and Gracie Mae was apparently a monumental mismatch. Married just three months before the birth of their first daughter, Clara Belle, in 1909, it was probably a union that neither entered into with great joy. He was twenty-six years old, an athlete, a musician and a notorious ladies man. She was nineteen years old and pregnant. Volney had an eye for the young girls, and "he had a horse which he rode all over the country courting several girls at the same time." Granted, when Volney met eighteen-year-old Gracie she shared her home with six sisters, but she was the one who caught his eye, because after all "she was considered to be the smartest and prettiest of the Hanks girls." Unfortunately, marriage and family did nothing to change Volney's ways, and everything to change Gracie's.

Volney John Dobyns

Volney John Dobyns was the youngest child and only son of Thomas G. and Louisa (Farmer) Dobyns. Two of his sisters died of tuberculosis in their teens, and the mother succumbed to the same disease when Volney was just twenty years old. Being the baby and the only boy, he likely got what he wanted. He was a vain man, and although he was a coal miner and "came home after a day in the mines looking more black than white," he loved fine clothes and preferred to be immaculately clean. He was very proud of his appearance, wore nice suits when he was not working, and dyed his coal black hair when it started turning gray in his 30s. He was fastidious with his dental hygiene and insisted that his children take care of their teeth as meticulously as he did, inspecting them often and providing tooth brushes and toothpaste for the children in their Christmas stockings.

Volney loved sports and played in a couple of traveling baseball teams in his youth. He taught his children to play ball, swim, and roller skate. He loved all the latest music and taught himself how to play the violin. Though he never had any formal training, there was nothing he could not play. He would eagerly come home daily with a new song to play, and although only his eldest daughter learned to play the violin, the other girls, Eunice and Arreda, and son, Thomas, were taught to sing along. The last song Eunice remembers him teaching them was "My Little Margie" popularized by Eddie Cantor in 1921. Their father would not remain a part of their lives much longer after this.

Volney wasn't all fine clothes, handsome looks and physical and musical talents. He had a darker side and had a nasty temper. He doled out punishment to his children using his leather razor-sharpening strap. "It always seemed to me that he enjoyed doing it, and he was exceptionally rough." He was a notorious gambler and was happiest "when he could get into a big poker game and come home bragging about his good luck." But it was rarely luck that earned him his winnings. He played with marked cards, and his life was often in danger due to his cheating. And cheating at cards wasn't the only thing he was doing.

Gracie Mae Hanks, 1906

The photos that exist of Gracie Mae Hanks in her youth show a handsome girl, almost pretty, but even in informal photos with family and friends smiling around her, she seems dour and serious. Certainly fun-loving, flirtatious Volney saw another side of her in her youth, but according to her daughter Eunice, "My mother was a quiet person. She seldom laughed and was very serious. She seldom sang, and now, I think of her as being an unhappy person." There was little for her to be happy about. She was living apart from the sisters she loved and was married to a man who was openly unfaithful to her. She had left him at least on one occasion and had taken her four children back home to Kentucky, but she always returned to her husband. She aged poorly. By the time she had reached the age of thirty, she had the appearance of a woman far more aged, and for a husband that had a roving eye for the young girls, she had nothing to offer to keep him at home.

Gracie Mae (Hanks) Dobyns, 1922.
Behind her from left to right are her daughters
Eunice (b. 1913), Belle (b. 1909) and Arreda (b. 1915).
The child in her lap is unknown.

Gracie Mae's pride and joy came in her duties as a mother and a housewife. She had no hobbies and interests outside the home, but she was an exceptional seamstress. This probably pleased her husband's penchant for fine clothes, and "her daughters were always the best dressed girls in their classes at school." She made clothes for friends and neighbors, rarely accepting payment, and she only needed to see a picture in a magazine to make an identical item of clothing. Patterns were unnecessary. Whereas her husband partook fully of worldly pleasures, Gracie Mae's happiness revolved around her sewing machine. She had equal aptitude for cooking and house-keeping, and despite the never-ending supply of coal dust her husband brought home, her house was spotless.

In the spring of 1923, Gracie Mae was doing what she did best: housework. A small windstorm was brewing and she rushed outside to retrieve her laundry. The clothes line stretched from the house to the outhouse and as the wind picked up, it tore the outhouse from its foundation and entangled Gracie within its collapse. She was taken to the hospital in West Frankfort, Illinois, and diagnosed with a broken back. She stayed in the hospital for about three weeks, but there was little that could be done other than to maintain her comfort. When the inevitable approached, she was sent home to die.

The bedroom Eunice and Arreda shared was used as Gracie's sick room, and all four children were crowded into a single room. Although admittance into the bedroom to see their mother was forbidden, they would quietly sneak in to see her. "My most painful memory was the day we were all taken into her room to say good bye. She was already comatose but had been dressed in a pretty night gown and bed jacket, and I thought she was beautiful."

Gracie Mae (Hanks) Dobyns died 15 July 1923, at the age of thirty-three years. She was taken home to White Plains, Hopkins County, Kentucky, for burial. Arreda had celebrated her eighth birthday the week before. Volney was free of a burdensome marriage. And the children were left with no home.

* Passages in quotations were written by Eunice (Dobyns) Cates in 1998 in personal memoirs of her life.


  1. Fascinating story! Adding you to my reader so I can keep up!

  2. Welcome to the Geneabloggers community! I look forward to reading more about your family. This case is quite interesting. You will notice our blogs have a similar look. Feel free to check out mine at Good luck with your blogging adventures!

  3. Great story, but with a sad ending.

  4. Epigenics? Don't get me started. I have seen proof of that in my genealogy as well. Amazing how things such as illegitimate children run in families, gambling, alcohol and cheating as well. It's too much to simply write it off as a coincidence.
    By the way my 2nd great grandmother had the surname Farmer and she was from Indiana. I have avoiding researching the name as of yet for fear it was too common a name.
    Doug Daniels

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