This week we celebrated the life of a wonderful wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and step-mother. Genealogists are fortunate to have step-families, because it means there’s an entire new family tree to discover and explore, and my step-mother Wanda Pauline May was as generous in sharing her family history challenges as she was in sharing her mouth-watering Texas cooking and warm hospitality.
Polly welcomed anyone who came to her door with her big southern smile and long soft “Y’all.” When she told me about the blank spaces in her southern family history, I was excited about to branch out from my own German immigrants and New England colonists and explore her southern roots.
I quickly found that Texas can be a researcher’s paradise with online death records, plentiful digital newspapers, and the awesome portal to Texas history.
I learned that Polly’s Louisiana-born grandfather had come to Shackleford County by way of Corsicana, Texas, and that yes, indeed, his new bride was very young when they were married. Polly said her grandmother was so young that the couple had run away through the swamps to Texas to be married. Whether or not that part of the story is true, they did go on to have a large family with several daughters bookended by two sons.
Newspaper articles told how Polly’s young cousins tragically died after accidentally lighting a kerosene stove with gasoline. The two girls, aged under ten, were the daughters of Polly’s Uncle Sam. This was Uncle Sam of my “Man in a Bottle,” a little carved chair bearing Sam’s photo that rested inside an old glass bottle. Polly once told me, “That’s my Uncle Sam. He used to carve those little chairs and give them to me.” Fond memories of a well-loved relative.
Polly had forgotten or never known the details of her cousins deaths, but she was glad to know more about her family. She was thrilled to read old newspaper clippings about her grandfather’s life as Mayor of their little Texas town, and his runs for city and county political office. Sometimes he won, sometimes he lost.
She left Texas to attend college in Southern California, and stayed on to marry and raise a family. In a time when June Cleaver was the role model for American housewives, Polly was divorced and supporting three sons by working full-time as a secretary. Her background among Texas oil drillers and farmers surely made her a good fit at the construction equipment companies where she worked and eventually met my dad.
They made a handsome couple and heads turned when they walked into a room. Dad’s hearty laugh and Polly’s soft Texas drawl created an irresistible melody, and they never lacked for invitations. After many years, I figured out that Polly carefully coordinated their special occasion attire. It was never matchy-matchy, but just complementary enough to be eye-catching.
Polly’s southern cooking was legendary and she spoiled Dad with beautifully prepared and served meals. He spoiled her too with loving cards and gifts.
Polly was a wonderful step-mother. Shortly after she wedding Dad, she took me aside and told me something that made all the difference in our relationship. She said that some people think of a “step-mother” as “wicked” or “mean,” but that she had loved her own step-mother and would be honored for me to call her Stepmother. Not Mother; she never wanted to replace my own mom. But, Stepmother; a special person with her own place in our family tree.
I tried to be a good step-daughter, but I know I fell short many times. She would look at me and smile. And then sigh. She offered to help me find a wedding dress when my mom was unavailable. Her dressmaker friend was enlisted to design and sew. But Polly and Nellie just shook their heads when I repeated, “simple, simple, simple.” It was the 1970’s. I wanted cotton; they suggested satin. I wanted eyelet trim; they thought lace would be better. I thought a ringlet of daisies would be perfect; they sighed and showed me photos of headdresses and veils. Poor Polly. In the end, the Dress was perfect. It was simple, yet special.
Polly and my dad were married for nearly half a century. I loved her for the happiness she brought our dad, and for the new branches she brought to our family tree. We have brothers, nieces, nephews, and now a new generation of little ones. I will miss her. My beautiful stepmother.