A Mix of Sun and Shadow

“A Tear” pencil sketch by Wendy Harty January, 2021

Edith May was not an orphan but grew up in an orphanage. She did not fit the dictionary definition of orphan. She was hard to research because she had many aka’s (also known as). I am awestruck with the shadows and the sunlight Edith May walked in. All she knew of a father was a story repeated to her; he came into the town of Thomas, Oklahoma, with two high stepping prancing horses, pulling a new buggy, and he was a most attractive boy/man. He needed new horseshoes and was on his way to the copper mines in Colorado. Edith May’s grandfather was the blacksmith at Thomas. The details of Edith May’s conception are in the shadows. On a blustery, wind swept snowy day, Edith May was born on January 4, 1904 to Sarah “Sadie” Dillenback, aged 15. Sadie was the oldest daughter of Menzo and Lemira Dillenback. This couple themselves were still having children, in total, Sadie would have nine siblings, and her mother was pregnant at the same time as her daughter. Lemira must have been very distraught to try and smother the new baby with a pillow. Fortunately for Edith May and Sadie, a neighbor lady, Alice Roberts, was stopping by to offer help to the family. When she understood the situation, she stopped the homicide and took the baby to her own home. Sadie married at age 17 in 1906, to a man 19 years older than herself. Sadie wanted her baby back but the husband said no. The marriage ended in divorce and Sadie remarried Louis Hentgen in February 1911. By this time Edith Mae was in the orphanage and her mother in Craig, Oklahoma 265 miles away from Thomas, Oklahoma.

The baby, Edith May, had auburn hair, was a good baby and very loving. At first she nearly starved to death, while her new foster mother Alice tried to care for her. For six years, Edith May knew sunshine. The couple Clarence Curtis Roberts and Alice Amandy Rice had married in 1894. They were living in Thomas, Oklahoma where Clarence was a well to do farmer, running a flour mill. This couple had legally adopted Cecil Charles “Bob” Roberts when the adoption became finalized Feb 12, 1904. Cecil had been placed by his birth mother with the Oklahoma and Indian Territory Children’s Home Society, in March 14, 1903. Alice was truly a saint to rescue the baby when she knew she was also adopting a son. The couple took in Edith May, but there weren’t any adoption papers. Cecil would become her brother, three years older than Edith May. How Edith May fell in the pig pen was always a mystery, but the incident when she was only three could have been very dangerous. She was also bitten by a dog on her shoulder and was always afraid of them after.

It was a very sad household when Alice Roberts died. Cecil and Edith aka Roberts were eight and six. What was Clarence Roberts to do without his beautiful wife only thirty years old when she passed?

Mrs. Alice Amandy Rice Roberts found in the The Thomas Tribune January 13, 1910, obituary notice in the paper.

Mrs. Alice Roberts, wife of Clarence Curtis Roberts, died at the the home in Thomas, Monday morning, January 10, 1910, after a long and painful illness. She had been ill five months of consumption and during the last weeks of her life her sufferings were intense. Imbued with a Christian spirit this good woman murmured not of the fate that awaited her nor of the almost unbearable pain that racked her frail being. She had all that medical skill could give, but all efforts earthly were in vain. She was a member of the River Brethren Church and had been in the mission work for twelve years. Mr. and Mrs. Roberts had reared seven orphans and two are left sorrowing by the death of the loving Christian foster mother. Funeral services were held at Bethany Church, Tuesday afternoon by Rev. D. L. Doub and the burial occurred at the cemetery near by. (Info courtesy of Jessica Roberts and Gene Phillips on findagrave.com)

On the May 18, 1910 Census of Deer Creek, Custer, Oklahoma are listed two inmates: Cecil Roberts and Edith aka Roberts ages 8 and 6. Interesting that they were called inmates. Edith May entered a shadowy time of her life, living in an orphanage.

“The orphans in Oklahoma” wrote Abe Eisenhower uncle to President Eisenhower, “Our state is a place of great immigration of rich and poor: widows come here with large families and sharpers rob them and they are left in destitute circumstances… men addicted to drink come and here if flows freely and breaks up homes… families with little children in filth and rags would tell of husbands away and had not been heard of. Most of Jakkob’s orphans came from broken homes, wrecked by whiskey and from unmarried girls who abandoned their offspring. Abe and Anna Eisenhower had come to Thomas, Oklahoma in 1899 and found themselves in a Brethren settlement living in a dugout in the side of a hill. Their objective was to prove up a homestead and the childless couple dedicated themselves to making it a home with bed and board and love, for as many orphans as they could plus one more they could never turn away. In 1901 the Jabbok Faith Missionary Home and Orphanage was chartered. The couple farmed and produced most of their own foods. Thirty-five children in ten years wife Anna diapered, washing dirty clothes and faces and caring for minor cuts sustained by “her” children while Abe cared for the Jersey herd which supplied them and the town of Thomas with milk and supplemented their uncertain income. In 1909 just before Cecil and Edith May Roberts arrived, the couple only received $15 in cash and some fresh meat, in donations. The Jabbok orphanage was strictly an Eisenhower venture, unrelated to any church until 1906 when it became the Brethren in Christ Church (River Brethren). Abe became frailer and he and Anna donated the buildings and land to the church. Abe in his decade had planted acres of orchards and put fields into berries. In the spring of 1910, Cecil and Edith May would view pink acres of peach blossoms and the white blooms of a hundred pear and apple trees. But for Cecil and Edith May Roberts life became a shadow of what they had known with the Robert’s family. Abe and Ann Eisenhower had left the Jakkob Orphanage, to the church and others took over. Life in an orphanage became very structured: get up, clean up and dress, eat, learn, with very little free time. Adults were in charge who were extremely strict and religious. They prayed all the time. The old orphanage became the school room and a storage space. Edith May obtained a grade four education. One day she was spanked and beat on by the teacher because she wouldn’t say “Good Morning” and was knocked unconscious. Another time , Edith May repeated what another girl told her to say, “Pray for the devil to leave Maude”. Maude was a spinster who was in charge of the girls. Maude reported on Edith May about her unholy prayer, and the preacher beat her. Edith May always hated red beards because the preacher had one. She never remembered climbing up the basement stairs where she was banished. This was her first year memories in the orphanage. There were no toys, the children made a playhouse under a bush and had broken dishes and pots to pretend with. For punishment she was separated from Cecil and couldn’t see or play with him. Edith May remembered being taken to the river, waiting on the bank for her turn, to be immersed and baptized. Edith Mae was never adopted from the orphanage. Her childhood and teen years were spent in and out of foster homes. Edith May would hope for a “forever home”, but no one was interested; they just wanted her as a hired help. She would develop social skills based on her intense coping mechanisms. Even after the traumatic experience and trauma of separation, Edith May when the lights were out still dreamed and hoped and kept dancing. She learned not to dream about people who hurt her, or scared her or made her angry; she learned to fill her head with the sunrise that gave good assurance of hope and tried to fill the hole in her chest. Edith May liked to say, “Life is a path and you have to keep going.”

At age 17, Edith May Roberts married Enoch Leach Dow on February 25, 1921. Enoch also called “Newt” and Edith had a daughter they named Clara Cordelia on April 15, 1922. The marriage was abusive. A second marriage was to Ralph Woods. The couple had a son who had an accidental fall on his head and he died from his injuries. Two years, later a daughter, Bonnie was born. This family lived in Fairview, Oklohoma close to Ralph’s mother called Grandma Bess. When Bonnie, was five, the family packed up and moved to southern California. It was World War II and both Ralph and Edith May worked in the shipyards. When Bonnie was eight, Edith May divorced, Ralph Woods and Bonnie was put in a Catholic boarding school in California. Bonnie hated the school and Ralph asked his sister, also named Bonnie, if his Bonnie could live with her. Off Bonnie went to live with Aunt Bonnie at Greenville, Texas, and stayed with her (a very happy life) till she married at age 21.

In the words of Bonnie: ” During my time in Texas, I saw very little of my mother. She was very good at writing letters even with her fourth grade education. In spite of this she was a very good reader and read most of her life. I have always admired her because she educated herself. Edith May worked as a waitress, housekeeper and a companion of several sick people. She married four times to mediocre men. I think she was always searching for love but never found it. At one time she moved to live with her other daughter Clara but she returned to California. She retired and lived in a retirement home. She was very happy there but became blind and couldn’t drive and needed more care. I moved her to Texas with me. She was not a complainer and accepted her life as it was. She was kind and I know she loved me. When I got older, I realized she didn’t give me away. She wanted me to have an education and live in a stable home and be well taken of. Edith May always said she wanted to live to be 100. She made 96. She loved to dance, had a great sense of humor and overcame many hardships in her life. She was a wonderful example of courage and never gave up on herself or life.”

Edith May and Bonnie
Edith May and Bonnie

When I Wendy, had my DNA sample returned the names of Bonnie and Clara showed up as my second cousins. We have currently 26 matches to explore that make the connections to Bonnie’s paternal family. Bonnie and I corresponded and I helped her fill in her father’s tree. I also corresponded with the Robert’s family and found out they had helped Edith May reconnect with Cecil. Once told to me was the statement, “If you’re going to go take the lid off, make sure you can get the lid back on! referring to family skeletons in a tree. I don’t believe this of Edith May’s story, just as part of the resilience a person can overcome no matter what life throws at you. Edith May died September 6, 2000 at Katy, Texas. R.I.P.

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