Peeling the Onion: A Pennsylvania Memoir



When I was around fifteen, my grandmother, Florence Butler Ullery, decided I was old enough to hear grown-up things. She told me how her father, Albert Butler, had robbed a bank sometime after 1910. He had miscalculated what day the payroll cash arrived, and had come home with only $30 for his trouble, followed within an hour by the police, who dragged him off to jail. My grandmother showed me a photo of him, a middle-aged man with a Masonic pin on his lapel. It was taken in Scottdale, apparently the day he went off to prison after his conviction. On the back was written, “The pictures with both of us in them didn’t come out. Good-bye from your Pa.” He never came back, leaving my great-grandmother Christina Butler to fend for herself.

“Those were rough years, during the First War, and then the Depression,” grandmother sighed. “But we got through.” Great-grandmother Christina had died when I was eleven, preceded by “Homer,” the cigar-smoking old man who “boarded” with her and to whom it was said she was “secretly married.” As children, we were told to include “Grandma Butler and Homer” in evening prayers.

My grandmother, a wide-faced, simple woman, sat peeling onions, her chair pulled near the “slop bucket” where the peels fell. “The truth is like this here onion,” she said -- the first and last time I ever heard her speak metaphorically.

“What do you mean, grandma?”

She held the onion out for me to examine. It was partially cut open to reveal the white under the skin. “See here -- I peeled it and there’s the white part.” She cut some more. “Now look -- there’s some dirt and another peel inside.” She cut again, halving the onion. “Now the rest is all white. That’s the way people talk to you. There’s always a lie outside, then a little truth, and then some more lies, and then the inside is all true.” She asked me if I understood.

Yes, I said, there were people in town who said one thing and did another. Like my stepfather, “Uncle Joe.”

My parents had been divorced the previous summer. A messy affair, and everyone had to move out of town. My mother took up with my father’s sister’s husband. Both couples divorced. “Uncle Joe” became my stepfather, proclaiming how happy he was to have such a brilliant stepson and how he would make sure I got to college. We moved to the new town and Uncle Joe and my mother pretended to be married.

Then Uncle Joe came into my room one Saturday and told me, “You’re not welcome here. There will be food on the table, but that’s it. The day you graduate from high school, I want you out of here, and don’t expect anything from me.” I later found out he had dumped his children by a previous marriage in an orphanage some years before.

To get away from Uncle Joe and my mother, (“Gertrude and Claudius” in my own Gothic imagination) who were quickly becoming the town drunks, I spent most of that summer with grandmother, in the four-room, tarpaper-covered house that had been her mother’s and was now hers.

I noticed something I had never seen before. Grandma kept a loaded shotgun near the door.

“What’s that for?” I asked, alarmed. I was terrified of guns.

“It might be for your Uncle Joe,” she said. I smiled at the thought, but assumed she was joking. While my grandfather was alive I had never seen a gun in the house.

The next day, a car came up the long driveway and grandma told me to turn off the light and duck down in her bedroom. She turned off the television and all the other lights, locked the door, and came into the room and crouched down on the carpet.

I heard the chickens scattering in the yard, then a single set of footsteps on the porch. A light knocking on the door, then louder. Then an angry pounding.

“God-damn it, Florence — I know you’re in there! I just want to talk!”

It was Uncle Joe’s voice.

He pounded again, cursing. He stood for a while, then the footsteps tromped down off the porch. There were chicken noises again -- a loud one as the rooster went for him and he likely kicked it; another round of cursing as the rooster followed him to the car;  and then the car started up and did the turnaround to retreat back to the mountain road. We waited until everything was quiet again.

“What did he want?” I asked.

Grandmother was livid, shaking with a combination of rage and fear.

“He comes out here, on days when he’s supposed to be working. He wants me to go to the county courthouse and sign my property deed over to your mother. I told him ‘No’ twice. I have three children and this will always be home for all of them. He wants to use me and your mother to get this house. Your Uncle Ron and Uncle Bob will always have a home here, and your mother too. When Joe comes in the daytime like this, I just turn out the lights and hide.”

That night I dreamt of Grandma shooting Uncle Joe dead. It was a good dream.

*     *     *

A few days later, while peeling potatoes, Grandma bent her head toward where the gun stood, and she saw I was looking at it, too. She took a deep breath and told me another story.

“My mother lived here for a long time after my Pa went to jail. You don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in the country, running a house all alone. Your husband goes away, or dies, and there are all these men sitting around in roadhouses reading the paper, and they see the name in the obituary, and they remember you. Men you hadn’t seen since you were a little girl in school.

“One day a car comes up the drive and it’s two or three men. They’re real polite and respectful. They bring a big sack of groceries. They come in and sit down and have some of your bread. There’s a bottle of whiskey in that sack, so they say, ‘Let’s open it and have a drink.’ And you want to be polite, so you get the glasses out.

“And then one of them says something about how lonely it must be out here without a man around. And they laugh and make jokes until you blush. And then they suggest something, and if you had a whiskey with them and you’re a little silly and you give in —“

She paused and looked at me, not sure if I, at fifteen, knew what she was saying. I knew. I just looked at her and waited for the rest.

“And if you’re dumb enough to do that, then there’s no stopping it. They tell their friends, and pretty soon they come by the carload. That’s the other reason I keep the shotgun there. That’s the kind of thing that happens to … women.”

I had visions of my great-grandmother fending off rednecks with the shotgun, and I never forgot the story.

*     *     *

My grandmother Florence has been dead for many years now. Her oldest son Ron, a tall lanky man with speech as slow as melting tar, lived far away and didn’t look like anyone else in the family: he’s dead too. Her son Bob lived in the house until his passing a few years ago. My stepfather, “Uncle Joe,” finally moved in with my mother, and gasped his last from emphysema in the run-down shack he had so coveted. My mother is long gone, too.

Curiosity about Great-Grandma Butler and her Alsatian ancestors led me into some genealogical research a few years ago. I discovered cousins I never knew, and some of them visited the house and sent me photographs. The roof had crumbled and the house is now a ruin.


The cousins interviewed some of the neighbors and found one farmer who remembered all his parents’ stories about the Butlers. He knew about the bank robbery, and that Albert Butler was part of a gang of three robbers, all of whom went to prison.

Papers we had obtained about Great-Grandma Butler were startling. She had married an Alsatian man named Georges Jaquillard, who divorced her saying she had committed adultery “with numerous persons on numerous occasions.” So Albert Butler was her second husband.

After Butler went to prison, the neighbor farmer reported, Great Grandma Butler supported herself by making and selling moonshine, all through the Prohibition and for some years thereafter.

“Yes, she sold moonshine there,” the farmer reported. “But she didn’t just sell moonshine. She sold herself — and her daughter Florence.”

Truth is an onion. My grandmother, at its white heart, had prepared me to understand it when the time came: “the kind of thing that happens … to women.”


Note: I wrote the above as a "family story-telling" exercise in a course on Native American Literature I took with Prof. Alexia Kosmider. As you can see, I don't take the easy route with homework. I had never written down this memory until then. The photo above shows what remained of my grandmother's and great grandmother's house.

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