Alabama

Chasing Ghosts: Alberta (Stradford) Dickson

[This post is the fifth in a series, “Chasing Ghosts.” If you haven’t already, you should read the first entry, “It’s like he knew it was coming.”]

For third time in four grandparents, I have to say it again: I never knew my grandmother Alberta Dickson, my father’s mother. And of my four grandparents, she is probably the one of whom people have spoken the least. Of the few things I know about her, one stands out: she was a practicing Christian Scientist. Where people have talked to me about my grandfather, her husband, those same people didn’t mention her. To my understanding, though she was educated, she was a homemaker. Beyond that, my dad once told me me that nandinas were her favorite plant . . .

Alberta Stradford was born in 1910. My father’s records list no middle name for her. She was the youngest child of Albert Stewart Stradford and Louisa “Louie” Davis Stradford. (I had to check several pages of records and Dad lists her mother’s name as “Louie” every time, though on her own page he has struck through “Louie” and written “Louisa” above it.) My grandmother had two siblings: an older brother, Carl J. Stradford, born in 1898; and an older sister Dorothy Louise Stradford who was born in 1903. My grandmother was the youngest of the three siblings, and I have never heard anyone remark at all about either her older brother or older sister. (According to Dad’s records, Dorothy died in 1950 (aged 47) in Massachusetts, which is another story worth chasing down later.)

There is a black-and-white family photo that opens my dad’s Stradford family notebook. It shows my great grandfather, Albert, on the right of the group with a wide-eyed and stone-cold expression; he wore a thick but well-groomed mustache, and his hair was greased and parted in the middle. His wife, my great grandmother, sits on opposite side, far left, and is a simple looking woman with her hair pulled straight back. Unlike her husband, she wears a friendly expression, even happy, with a slight smile that looks like she might be trying to hold back an even bigger one. Their two elder children are in the middle. Both appear to be teenagers or very young adults, well-dressed, both very handsome. And my grandmother is the anomaly. She is very young, probably four or five with a page-boy haircut, smiling mischievously, and turned sideways sitting in her father’s lap in a pose far more affectionate than formal. She is the only one in the picture who looks comfortable or happy.

My grandfather, Herbert Coleman Dickson, Sr., married my grandmother in 1937. I don’t know how they met or in what church they were married. My dad once told me a story that I still find really odd, and he told me that he even found it odd. He said that his mother told him, after his father had died, that Herbert Dickson, Sr. had married her without her permission; she said that they were courting, and because he was unsure whether she would say yes to his proposal, he got a friend at city hall to draw up a marriage license even before he proposed, to ensure that things worked out his way. My grandmother told my dad that she felt like she didn’t have any choice once she saw that legal document. I have no evidence that the story is true, but it’s what my dad told me one time.

My dad talked a little bit about his mother, who he called “Mother,” not Mom or Mama. He talked about how she was educated – I think I remember him telling me that she had a two-year degree and was qualified to be a schoolteacher – and how she really wanted him to go to college, too. (My dad joined the Marines instead, and spent on year at Troy State, which he described as miserable.) I have also surmised from vague comments that my grandmother must have been staunch about her Christian Science faith, even though none of her children followed in those footsteps.

To read more about my paternal grandparents’ marriage, you can read my other entry on Herbert Coleman Dickson, Sr. the few details I know about their marriage are there.

My grandmother died in 1972. The way my dad told the story:

His mother had been sick for some time, but since she refused to see a doctor, no one really knew what was wrong with her. (She was only 62.) One day, my dad came over to check on her – at the house on Princeton Road – and she was asleep in her bed, so he went outside and cut the grass, then straightened up a few other things for her. Then he went inside to tell her he had been there and ask if she needed anything, but when he tried to rouse her, he found that she was not asleep. She had been dead for some time.

My older brother was about two-and-a-half when our grandmother died, and I wasn’t born for another two years. After she died, my dad inherited the house and he moved his family into it. (I say “his family,” not “our family” here because I didn’t exist yet.) Again, I find it strange now that there were no pictures of my grandmother (or my grandfather) hanging in our house, considering it was the house that they chose and bought— they were the reasons that we lived there at 3902 Princeton Road in Montgomery, Alabama.

My mother never has talked about her mother-in-law much. The few details that I can gather from her anecdotes and remarks have portrayed a stern woman, not very friendly, and who lacked charisma. My mom also told me that Alberta Dickson claimed that her father was the first licensed CPA in the state of Alabama, and apparently she used to belittle her salesman husband for his lack of formal education.

Everything that I know about three of my four grandparents is either facts procured from scattered documents or hearsay, which is one reason that I’m calling this project “Chasing Ghosts.”

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