family caregiving

My Grandmother Jessie Bell

My mother’s mother was born 125 years ago this week in the hills of east Tennessee. It seems unlikely that her dirt poor illiterate parents, Shadrack and Harriet Robinson Jarnigan, would have any knowledge eight months later that a remote territory in the far northwest corner of the country had become the 42nd state in the Union. They surely would have been amazed the far away place would one day become their newborn daughter’s adopted home.

Jessie Bell was born in their tiny cabin home, one of the youngest of 11 children. Her mother died when she was eight. She left school in the fourth grade to care for hearth, father, and the children still at home; learning to cook and sew from a kind neighbor.

She married a widower 20 years her senior who had five children and needed a wife, though it was his son she wanted marry—at least that’s what she told me. She had four children of her own, determinedly thwarting her husband’s unspeakable efforts to deny her.

As Jessie Bell raised her children and step-children, she peddled crafts and took in sewing to supplement her husband’s meager income as a carpenter during the depression. They lived in a dozen homes during my mother’s childhood; none had electricity, refrigeration, or plumbing. Jessie Bell cared for her disabled father, who, the story goes, walked 30 miles with his beloved cow to live with them for a time while she helped him petition for a Union Army Civil War pension increase. She ran a rooming house in Tennessee while her husband traveled between Tennessee and Georgia with loads of fruit to sell, then went to Florida looking for work and found it in a B-17 plant, where she eventually joined him after her youngest child was grown. As far as my mother knows, he sent no money home.

After my parents moved to Washington following World War 2, she left her abusive husband and moved across the country to be near them; promising to return if he needed her. Around the time of my birth, she returned to Tennessee and nursed him through illness for several weeks until his death. He told her she was an angel. I knew my grandmother as an unhappy woman who rarely smiled; but certainly she was sainted.

She babysat for my sisters and me; and for a time lived with her youngest child, who also had moved to Washington, caring for the three children while their parents worked. With grandchildren grown, respite from relentless caregiving finally came.

Jessie Bell died at age 99.

Jessie Bell at 18.

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