(Villa Mae Basinger, circa 1920, Tillman County, Oklahoma, age 19)
My father's mother, Villa Mae Basinger Barnett, was born 22 December 1901 in what was then Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory (now near Jimtown, Love County, Oklahoma). Her parents were recent immigrants from McNairy County, Tennessee who participated in the parceling out of Native American land to white farmers during that era. When Villa was eight or nine, they sold their Love County land and moved west to settle permanently near Davidson, Tillman County, Oklahoma, growing cotton just north of the Red River.
(Villa Basinger circa 1920, Tillman County, Oklahoma)
At age 19, Villa married Lorenza Derwin (L.D.) Barnett, a man who lacked ambition or voice. Their oldest son was my father, Harold Derwin Barnett, and he never remembered his parents actually being happy with one another. Villa was hyperreligious, a mania that only increased with age, and a hypochondriac. L.D. gave up any hope of work during the 1930s and retreated to Frederick to play dominos for money. Villa followed him and somehow started a cafe, keeping the family afloat until World War II offered L.D. employment and evangelical Protestantism diverted him from gambling.
(L.D. and Villa Barnett, 1920s, Tillman County, Oklahoma)
They had a second son, Vern, four years after my father. My father joined the Army Air Corps right out of high school and left home forever, desperate to escape his mentally ill mother and ineffectual father. I grew up dreading my grandparents' visits. They both died when I was in my 20s and living in San Francisco. A few years later, I began doing genealogical research with a few specific goals in mind, one being to figure out what the hell had happened to my grandmother to make her crazy.
(L.D. and Villa Barnett circa 1947, Tillman County, Oklahoma)
She had two constant refrains: That nobody loved her (had EVER loved her) and that she was at death's door. Her younger brother Allie Basinger had inherited the family farm, and she relentlessly told stories about how he was favored over her during their upbringing. We vaguely knew the Basingers had lived elsewhere in "Indian Territory" before settling outside Frederick. I began my research with census and land records.
A decade later, I had assembled the following picture: Villa's father, Thomas Henry Basinger, was one of the younger of 12 children born to Nep Basinger and Susan Jane Carothers in McNairy County, Tennessee. Only six of these children survived to adulthood, an average out of skew when compared to others of their circumstances in that region. The high death rate was commented on decades later by a Carothers researcher, who agreed with me it indicated either congenital health issues or negligent/abusive parenting (or, of course, both). I have been able to put names to only eight of these dozen children, but I have been to Mars Hill Cemetery in McNairy County and mourned the long line of small graves in the Basinger plot.
Villa's mother, Sarah Elizabeth Morton, was fair-skinned and blue-eyed, but her mother's father, Elijah Morris, had been Choctaw and fought for the Union. Some of Sarah's brothers looked pure Native. One of Villa's paternal uncles had also fought for the Union side, and none of the Basingers appeared to have enlisted in the Confederacy. However, the Basingers had been slave-owners and carried virulent racism with them to Indian Territory, passing it on to Villa and her brother. Villa herself was very dark-haired and dark-eyed. I wonder how all these variables played out in her upbringing.
She also almost certainly had some form of epilepsy, an inherited condition she passed on to several of her descendants. This was evident in what were called her "fits", seizures where she would fall to the ground and jerk, or babble unintellibly. This would have been considered evidence of demons or Satan by her family of origin, and was denied or blamed on her "excitability". On the 1900 federal census, Tom and Sarah had been married ten years; Villa would be born at the end of the next year. Sarah states she has had eight children at that point, none of them surviving. This statistic is even more apalling than the survival rate for Tom's parents: What on earth was going on?
In the 1990s, my father and I drove to Love County and found the cemetery which had been used by the Tennessee migrants before they relocated further west in Oklahoma. There were graves for four of the dead Basinger children (my grandmother's siblings), indicating none of them had survived beyond two years of age and one boy had never been named. Daddy remembered that his mother used to insist her parents did not name her until she was three years of age, a claim everyone scoffed at. Suddenly we realized this had probably been true. They likely had not dared investing her with a name until they knew she would survive.
Then we both recalled her constant wails that nobody had (ever) loved her and that she was likely to die at any moment. Daddy sat down heavily on his pick-up tailgate and said "My god, she was right. In her own way, she was right." She had been held at arm's length by parents frozen by loss, if not outright abusive, who expected her not to survive. Somehow she had managed to defy the odds, but it damaged her permanently.
(Villa and L.D. Barnett, 1971, Tillman County, Oklahoma)
She actually lived to be 78. After her funeral, my father came home, sat down heavily on the couch, buried his face in his hands and said "I just wish once in my life she had told me that she loved me."
We are all trying to repair the scars of our ancestors, whether we know it or not.