Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Rebecca Belle Dodson Grimes McCloud Cole, better known as Belle, was born May 15, 1889, and died March 25, 1986. Belle was my great-grandmother on my mother's side. By the time I came along, Belle was already an old 69 years, a hard fiery Cherokee woman with a heart as big as Oklahoma. This is her story.
Belle was born in White County, Tennessee, the first child of Emily Bowlin Dodson and the seventh child of Sam Dodson. Legend has it that Sam was 3/4 Cherokee, and judging by Belle's dark piercing eyes, high cheekbones and porcelain skin, there was probably an element of truth to it. Growing up poor on the plateau of the Cumberland Mountains, Belle's education was sparse. She did, however, finish grammar school, which at that time, was the sixth grade.
By the time she was 15, Belle was living in Oklahoma Indian Territory where Sam Dodson was running a boarding house. It was there, outside of Broken Bow, that she met the rogue and rounder, Lonnie Grimes. Being that it meant one less mouth to feed, Sam and Emily, gave their blessing to a marriage that sent Belle back to Tennessee.
In 1907, Belle boarded a train with her new husband and travelled to Whitwell, Tennessee. Lonnie Grimes was a player, however, and it didn't take long for Belle to figure out that he still had some running around to get out of his system. Lonnie travelled around by horse and carriage or by train, going from one depot to another, one poker game to another, and Belle had had enough. Belle used to say, "That Lonnie Grimes gambled away half of White County before he finally give it up."
Belle was hanging laundry outside on the clothes line, when one day, out of nowhere, her husband showed up at her gate. All set to ask for an annulment of her marriage, a storm blew up, and they went inside their little shack. Lonnie Grimes never left home again until he died of typhoid in February 1914.
Belle gave birth to her first child, Virgie Belle in 1910. Lena Mae came along in 1912. Lonnie Edward was born in June 1914, four months following the death of his father. Alone with no money, Belle boarded the train back to White County, where her mother, Emily, was now living. She moved in with Emily and set about doing odd jobs - ironing clothes, baking pies, cleaning houses - to make a little money. She married Casto McCloud sometime around 1918 and gave birth to Hubert in 1919.
Casto worked in the coal mines all along the Cumberland Plateau. He drank heavily and often took out his rage on Belle and her children. Belle and Casto divorced sometime around 1935. It was the height of the Great Depression, but for Belle, that would not have meant anything, because she had known no other way but dirt poor. In 1938, she met Elmer Cole, a widower with a six month old daugther. Belle and Elmer married, and Belle suddenly had another daughter, Rilda Dean.
Elmer Cole gave Belle the one thing in life she had never had, a peaceful home. Elmer was a quiet mountain of a man who worked in the coal mines. He moved his family to Crossville, Cumberland County, to a little asbestos shingled house on the outskirts of town.
I spent many summers at Grandma Belle's house in Tennessee. Her home is a series of snapshots in the my mind that I'll never lose. That little blue-green house had a front porch with a rocking chair. Out in front of the house was a little vegetable garden, to the side, chickens pecked the ground. A cornfield was in the back of the house and beyond that was the outhouse, a tiny building of aged pine, with three depositories. That outhouse stunk to high heaven, which is why it was so far away from the house!
Upon entering the front door, was the living room, small and painted an olive green. A long couch was against the front wall, while Elmer's brownish red vinyl recliner (usually with Elmer in it) was positioned immediately across from it. A coal stove took up a huge part of the living room, but it rarely burned in the summer time or early fall. There was an old Zenith console television that was never turned on, and just above the rabbit ears was a picture of Rilda Dean hanging on the wall.
Off to the right were bedrooms and to the back was the kitchen. There was a picture of Sam Dodson over the kitchen table. In Lena's bedroom, which became the guest bedroom whenever Grandma Virgie and I would visit, hung a portrait of Lonnie Grimes. The walls in the bedrooms were papered by newspaper, but the beds were pure feather down with heavy wool blankets and homemade quilts.
I remember the smells that emanated from Grandma Belle's kitchen. She always had a pot of pinto beans on the stove, sometimes cooking with a ham in them, other times just a slab of fatback, but they always tasted as good as they smelled. Since Belle's family went to the bed with the chickens and got up with the roosters, breakfast was the big meal of the day, but all the meals were meant to sustain a person through the work that needed doing.
Elmer Cole died in the early part of 1979, and Belle left her little farm and moved into the Crossville city limits. At 90 years old, Belle finally had hot and cold running water. She had three bedrooms and an indoor bathroom, but she wouldn't enjoy it long. In 1982, Belle broke her hip and never recovered. Her memory slowly but surely faded away as did her strength and zest for life.
Belle died on March 25, 1986 at Cumberland Medical Center, leaving behind, two sons and three daughters, 12 grandchildren, 20 great grandchildren, and six great great grandchildren. Belle lies beside Elmer at the Green Acres Memory Gardens in Crossville, Cumberland County, Tennessee. In spite of the hard times that Belle knew all her life, she remained a devout Christian. She is undoubtedly among the Great Cloud of Witnesses watching her descendants run our races and cheering us home.