Out Home: A Prose 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. She showed me a photo of him — a middle-aged man with a Masonic pin on his lapel — taken in Scottdale, apparently the day he went off to serve his prison term. On the back was written, “The pictures with both of us in them didn’t come out. Good-bye from your Pa.” He never returned, leaving my great-grandmother Christina Butler, and her children, to fend for themselves.
“Those were rough years, during the First War, and then the Depression came,” grandmother sighed. “But folks got through.”
Great-grandmother Christina had died four years before, preceded by “Homer,” the cigar-smoking old man who boarded with her and to whom it was said she was “secretly married.” Homer had presided over one room, piled to the ceiling with cigar boxes, old 78 RPM records and back issues of Popular Mechanics. Helter-skelter piles of yellowing newspapers in English and German were hurled out of the window after his death and burned.
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 divorced the previous summer. My mother took up with my father’s sister’s husband. Two divorces ensued. “Uncle Joe” became my stepfather, proclaiming how happy he was to have such brilliant stepsons and how he would make sure my brother and I got to college. We moved to a new town where nobody knew us, and Uncle Joe and my mother pretended to be married.
One Saturday Uncle Joe came into my room and told me, “You’re not welcome here. There will be food on the table, but that’s it, since we get child support from your father. 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. From that time forward, I heard nothing from him except verbal abuse. He condemned me for “sitting around and reading books.”
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 that summer with Grandma, who lived alone now since my grandfather’s death. I remember taking Grandma Butler’s old rocking chair and placing it under the huge pine boughs, reading Poe and Lovecraft, Dumas and Hugo until it was too dark to see. I had books to read, and woods to roam in, and a quilted bed to sleep in.
Everyone called the four-room house, never completely finished and covered only with black tarpaper, “out home.” A coal stove heated the kitchen and a system of pipes and flues heated the other rooms as well. It was snug and warm in winter; in summer, open doors and windows admitted a cool mountain draft, and a lot of chores and food preparation moved to the back porch. There was a dark cool cellar with what seemed thousands of jars of home-canned raspberries, peaches, yellow string beans and apple sauce. Water was carried from the nearby spring in buckets, and when it rained, all the washtubs were rushed into the yard: free bath water!
Sitting in the kitchen one rainy afternoon, I noticed something I had never seen before. Grandma had 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 called me in and 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 must have known I was in there, too, but he didn’t call my name. (I can’t recall him ever addressing me by my name).
He called “Florence!” one more time, pounded again, cursing. We could hear his angry breath puff out. He stood for a while. He waited; we sat in silence. 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; anther 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. She shook 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 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 over the slop bucket, Grandma bent her head toward where the gun stood, and she saw me looking at it, too. She took a deep breath and told me another story.
“My mother — your grandma Butler — 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’s in jail, or in the war, or dies, and there are all these men sitting around in roadhouses reading the paper, and they see the name, and they remember you. They know you’re alone — men you haven’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 see there’s no car in sight, and no man anywhere around, so they get out. They’re real polite and respectful. They knock on the door with their hats off. 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 grandmother — and her mother before her — 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, a recluse. My stepfather, “Uncle Joe,” finally moved there with my mother, and gasped his last from emphysema in the run-down shack he had so coveted. The porch sagged in and collapsed. New tarpaper was nailed over the roof while the windows and doors began to rot. My mother is long gone, too, having spent her last years in a high rise where no one had to carry water in buckets from a spring or trek to an outhouse.
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 was now a ruin. Through the wreckage of the house I could see tattered curtains and the frame of my great-grandmother’s bed.
Another photo came a few years later: the land had been sold for taxes and the farmer next door acquired it. Nothing remains of the trees around the house, and of the house, there is now only a slight rise where the foundation and cellar had been.
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.
After Albert Butler went to prison, the neighbor farmer reported, Christina 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.”
But was it as simple as that: men taking cruel advantage of women?
What did I know about Christina Butler? Once, after sharing a slice of the best bread in the world, fresh from the oven, she showed me a picture of her grandfather, standing in his grape arbor in Alsace. She told me he had been a water-boy for Napoleon on one of his campaigns. “We all loved Napoleon,” she told me, “because he overthrew the monarchs.” (Napoleon loved his Alsatian troops. He said of them, when questioned about their loyalty: “They speak German, but they saber in French!”) She died when I was eleven, and as I seldom visited her, I do not remember much else.
More papers came my way, and they were startling. Christina was married twice. First, she had married a man from Lorraine named Georges Jaquillard, who divorced her saying she had committed adultery “with numerous persons on numerous occasions,” a charge not contested in the divorce. So Albert Butler was her second husband.
It also turns out that the mining towns around Pittsburgh were a hotbed of anarchism in those days. The IWPA was started there and its “Pittsburgh Manifesto” urged violence against capitalists and a maximum of personal freedom for both men and women. “Free love” was one strong component of the movement. Emma Goldman had toured not only Pittsburgh but the coal and coke towns, fomenting radicalism. Freiheit, the German-language anarchist newspaper, was everywhere. Was Butler’s bank robbery a political act? Did Christina have to make a bonfire of anarchist literature after the failed heist?
Christina practiced “free love,” and apparently did so for profit when she had to. And what should one make of the two men, old “Homer” and my grandfather, who made “honest women” of Christina Butler and her daughter Florence? Homer was a classic recluse, the type of what happens to old anarchists. Who knows what ends their “marriage” served?
My grandfather, averse to labor to the very end, lived off “relief” all his days. Once a year, when it came time to pay property taxes, he would trek off, with dread and disgust, to work in a coal mine, but only long enough to raise money to pay the tax bill.
A profound distrust and hatred of politicians prevailed in my grandparents’ house, and church-going was treated with mockery. “They dress up on Sunday,” my grandmother recalled bitterly, “and they make fun of you for what you wear. And then they talk about you behind your back.” I am not even certain that my grandparents were legally married to one another.
These values carried over to my mother, who seemed averse to any public activity. I think she even dreaded going to the post office. I was brought up being told, without explanation, that we were not the kind of people who could go to church, or join things. Not even the Boy Scouts for me.
Not one place I lived in as a child remains standing. Yet in my mind I always knew the Diebold-Butler place was there, a last resort and refuge. “Out home,” you could grow your own corn, tomatoes and radishes, keep a few chickens, and steal electricity by climbing the power pole and attaching your own wire. Water always filled the spring, and the rains always came. A “relief” check came once a month, and once in a great while, someone had to go and buy new tarpaper to redo the roof.
At night, you closed the windows tight and a carpet of desperate moths covered the glass on the outside. Whippoorwills echoed back and forth, and, once in a while, something large would lumber through the darkness, making the dogs howl. If you took your name off the mailbox on the road, no one would even know you existed. What you did there, and with whom, was nobody’s business.
I would not and could not have gone back there, but it will never leave my consciousness. I look at the photographs of the ruined house, with sorrow and loss. “Out Home” is gone forever.