Tuesday, August 7, 2012

An Old Family Photo

Bankston Family, c. 1912
Judging by the ages of the children in this picture, it must have been taken about 1911 or 1912. Except for my great-grandmother, Allie Magee Bankston, these are all people that I grew up with, although of course I knew them when they were much older. As I look at pictures like this, I think of how we become emissaries from a different world as we age. My grandfather's family travelled by ox-cart. Automobiles were rare and when my grandfather and his siblings heard a car rattling down the country road near their house in Washington Parish they would all run out to see this strange new means of transportation. They knew many old Confederate veterans from the Civil War, and people had strong feelings about the war.

The paterfamilias sitting in the chair died when I was 15. Until the end, Leon Bankston retained that upright posture and steadfast gaze. He had been a schoolmaster in the 1890s, and although he had spent most of his life as a farmer, he always kept something of the nineteenth century schoolmaster's manner. He was a staunch southern Baptist. I always thought that was the reason that he raised his children to be teetotalers until an elderly lady who had known the family told me otherwise. "When people in your family drink," she said, "they have problems with it." According to her version, at least one of my great-great uncles and a number of other relatives had been alcoholics, and this made the patriarch wary of liquor.

My great-grandmother died at age 64 in 1940, possibly from diabetes, the disease that killed my father 46 years later. I believe she met her husband when she was a high school student in her late teens and he was her teacher. If that is true, the rules on faculty-student relations were obviously somewhat less stringent then, at least if the relations led to marriage. I’ve seen another picture of the two of them as attractive young people, just after their wedding.  In that photo, also, he’s in a chair and she’s standing just behind in almost the same posture.

The tall girl on the far right  (from the viewer’s perspective) is my Aunt Zula, born in 1897, who later became Zula Swetman. Aunt Zula was a public school teacher, but by the time I knew her she had retired from that and devoted herself to Sunday School and Bible teaching. Not too long ago, I met members of an African American family with property next to the old Bankston place and one of them told me that when she was a little girl Aunt Zula would visit them with books to give the children religious teachings. When I would stay around the farm during the summer, I also attended her Sunday School classes at the Baptist church just down the road. She must have taught the Bible to just about all the kids she knew. Aunt Zula and her husband, George Swetman, lived with my great-grandfather and helped him work the farm. My clearest memory of Uncle George is of him showing me how cattle were milked in the dairy barn.

The boy on the far left is the oldest son, Uncle Roland, born in 1899. Like most of the boys, when he reached young adulthood he made his way to the big land grant school in Baton Rouge, the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College and became an engineer. Much later, when I was in college he asked me what my major was. He gave me a disapproving frown when I told him sociology. “what kind of job are you going to get with that?” He asked.

My grandfather is the young man with his arm on my great-grandfather’s chair. Born in 1901, he liked to talk to me about his childhood and to take me back to the country and the farm as much as possible. He was a traditionalist, and wanted to connect me to the country and the old home. He used to read to me at night out of a book on Louisiana history. But he also left the farm and made his way to the center of the world, Baton Rouge, where he became a cadet at LSU, which was then still partly a military school. I think he wanted to become an army officer, but he graduated in 1924, as the US was shrinking its armed services following the First World War. Instead, he became a salesman and worked for Burroughs Office Machine Company for 40 years. I still have some old adding machines in my garage.

The boy on crutches in front of my grandfather is Uncle Cecil, who was struck by polio. The clever doctors in New Orleans decided that the best way to relieve the pain in his legs was to cut the tendons. He never walked without the leg braces and crutches. One of my great-uncles said that the only time he had ever seen his father cry was just after they received the news that Cecil would never walk again. Uncle Jesse said that he walked into the barn and saw his parents standing with their arms around each other, both weeping. But Cecil also made his way to the center of the world. My grandfather told me that one day he was studying in his small room at the top of several flights of stairs He heard a scuffling, banging sound coming from the stairwell. When he went out to investigate, he found Uncle Cecil dragging himself up the steps. “What are you doing here?” My grandfather asked. “I’ve come to go to school with you.” Uncle Cecil finished law school at LSU, became an attorney, and was later known as the Hon. Cecil Bankston, City Judge in Baton Rouge. When my parents and my older sister were living in Baton Rouge in 1951, just before I was born, diabetes first announced itself to my father and he entered the hospital in a coma. I’ve been told that my mother and sister stayed with Uncle Cecil’s family while they waited to hear if my father would survive.

I think the little girl with the big bow standing just beside my grandfather and Uncle Cecil is Aunt Theresa, born three years after my grandfather. After marrying, she became Theresa Powell. I remember her mainly as just one of the great aunts, although she lived to be about 97 and was certainly around for most of my life. The little boy with the bow tie and the suspicious expression occupies a larger place in my recollection. This is Uncle Roy, born the year after Theresa. In his adult appearance, he was clearly a larger and older version of the little boy in this picture. Uncle Roy was an engineer but not, I think, a university trained one. His family lived not too far from mine on the outskirts of New Orleans. His youngest son (also Roy) is a year older than I am and Uncle Roy was a leader in the son’s Boy Scout troop. They took me on some of the campouts with them.

                The little fellow standing beside Roland is the best-known of the clan, Jesse Bankston . As Director of State Hospitals in 1959, Uncle Jesse refused to sign orders to discharge Governor Earl Long from the state mental hospital in Mandeville. Long had been behaving in ways that were strange even for a Governor of Louisiana, and had been committed by his estranged wife. Uncle Jesse told me that even though he liked and admired Long, he believed the political leader had become seriously unstable and needed treatment. However, Earl Long was still sane enough to fire Jesse, appoint a more cooperative Director of Hospitals, and went back to running the state in his increasingly colorful manner. Jesse went on to other government offices, and served as a committed official of the Louisiana Democratic Party.  I remember my grandfather and Uncle Jesse leaning against a fencepost out in the country in 1964, arguing Presidential politics. My grandfather fervently backed Goldwater, while Jesse was a Johnson man. When Uncle Jesse died at the age of 103 in 2010, I attended a big funeral ceremony at the Governor’s mansion.

The small child with the page boy cut just in front of my great-grandmother must be my Uncle Jake, who was born in 1909 and, like many of others, lived into his 90s. For some reason that I do not know, Jake was not as close to the family as his brothers and sisters were. I do remember my grandfather talking about Uncle Jake and calling him to try to get together. I believe my grandfather was the family peacemaker and connector.

The baby on my great-grandfather’s lap must be Aunt Mildred. While many of the others left the farm life, my Aunt Mildred married Dannie Garrett, who was dedicated to the farm and country life. My parents took my sisters and me to visit the Garretts often because they were my father’s favorite relatives. Uncle Dannie had cattle and horses and dozens of hunting dogs. One day, I showed up on the farm proudly sporting my Davy Crockett coonskin cap, only to be mobbed by the dogs, who knocked me down, took the cap and tore it to shreds. If coonskin caps ever come back into fashion, I will remember not to wear one around coon hunting dogs. Aunt Mildred once told Uncle Dannie that he had to get rid of some his dogs, so he gave a number of them away to his friends and reduced his collection to a dozen or so. That, he said, was that smallest number of dogs that any man could live with. 

Two more children, Marie and Leo, do not appear here, supporting my dating of the photo. Aunt Marie was born in 1913. Her husband, Harold Scoggins, taught sociology. He did not ask me what I would do with my major. Uncle Leo, who followed in 1915, was the most easy-going of all my great-uncles. Perhaps this is a characteristic of youngest children. He was an engineer and became supervisor of waterworks in Baton Rouge.

As I look at this picture, I wonder if this was the heroic generation, the one that moved off the family farms and made our present world. I think of Ibn Khaldun’s three generation cycle of growth and decline, and I wonder if we are still just living off of what they built.

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