Her Defining Image

By J. L. Starkey

And now, I’m glad I didn’t know

the way it all would end,

the way it all would go.

– Tony Arata

“This is my mother,” grandma said as she pointed to a beautiful photo in an old album. “Her name was Mabel…she was sixteen when this was taken.”

She paused to take a sip of her tea, and then she continued, “Now, she was a Fisher before she married my dad, you know. His name was Rural, but everyone called him Bert.”

Another pause, another sip, and then, “Now, Mabel’s mother…my grandmother? Her name was Esther, and…”

Mabel at age 16 [Family photo collection]

That beautiful portrait of Mabel was the first family photo that grandma shared with me, and it remains one of my favorites. I see so much hope in Mabel’s eyes, and confidence too. It is the photo of a young woman ready to take on the world.

It is, quite simply, her defining image.

It’s interesting to look at a photo when you know what the future holds for the individual pictured in it. I knew that Mabel would marry at age sixteen, that she would give birth to sixteen (yes, sixteen!) children, and that she would help her husband manage the family farm.

Since grandma was never one to sugarcoat things, I also knew that Mabel would endure more than her share of tragedy in the years after she posed for that portrait.

I was a lucky kid, because I had a grandma who was always willing to tell a story or two (or five) about her family. Sometimes she would try to name all of her siblings, just for fun. She would usually slow down when she got to Oscar or Donald, and then she would consult her pictures or notes for a hint.

Over the years, we heard bits and pieces about the lives of all the Rowe siblings. We knew about Cleo, the one with the perfect complexion; and Lena, the career woman. We knew about Morris, the family historian; and Cecil, the retired master sergeant.

Oh, and don’t forget Nita (or maybe it was Violet?), the really funny sister with the good fashion sense…and so it went.

Sadly, we also knew about the brother who died in the flood. In her later years, grandma had trouble remembering his name and the circumstances surrounding his tragic death, and she never did discuss how her mother handled such grief.

Years later, I made it a goal to discover the rest of Mabel’s story, tragedies and all.

And it turned out that Grandma was (almost) correct.

Tragedy at Badger Creek

Badger Creek,” by Stredway1, own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Born on 22 July 1911, Justus Willard Rowe, the eleventh child of Mabel and Bert, was named after Mabel’s father. Just two days before his thirteenth birthday, Justus drowned in a boating accident on Badger Creek in Cowley County, Kansas. The story went out on the Associated Press wire, but the name of the deceased was reported as Richard instead of Justus. I wondered if the error was made deliberately, to protect the family’s privacy. Winfield newspapers did not run the story at all, perhaps out of compassion for the Rowe family.

Justus Rowe’s death (note incorrect first name)
Iola Daily Register and Evening News, 21 Jul 1924

Justus Rowe was just twelve years old at the time of his death. Today, I am the mother of a twelve-year-old son. When I think about the tragedy in those terms, it hits close to home, and my heart breaks for Mabel. She had at least eight children living at home in 1924, and her youngest child had just turned three when she lost her son on that terrible July day.

I wondered what her life was like after that day. Was she given the privacy and time to mourn? Did she have the support of her husband and older children? How did she go on living in the wake of such sadness? I assumed that she rarely – if ever – talked about it, and perhaps that was why grandma didn’t remember the incident with a great deal of clarity.

Photo and memorial created by Judy Mayfield, Find A Grave Memorial# 63191352

Illness, Loss, and Unthinkable Grief

While grandma provided amazing details in most of her stories, she didn’t do that when she discussed her father’s death. She simply said that Mabel outlived Bert by several years, and then she moved on to another story.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I would learn that the fear of losing everything he had worked for had driven Bert Rowe to make a desperate – and final – decision.

Atchison Daily Globe, 25 Oct 1930

My father was calm and matter of fact as he told us about Bert Rowe’s death. He said that the family was facing the loss of their farm, but Bert believed that the government would not put a widow off of her land. According to dad, Bert felt like he had no other choice, so he took his own life, leaving Mabel and his children to ask the one question that had no answer: why?

My search for answers led to a news article that went out on the AP wire the day after Bert’s death. While that story provided details, the facts were quite different from the ones my father shared with me.

Which story was correct? Did they both have shades of truth? Or were both versions completely false?

Sometimes, genealogy does not lead us to answers, and that is the case with this chapter of my family history. While I know parts of the story, the actual circumstances that led to Bert Rowe’s suicide will never be known.

I am certain, though, that Mabel did not care one bit about keeping a farm that came at the cost of her husband’s life. Perhaps she would have echoed the words of author Marcus Sedgwick, and told Bert that:

There’s always a third choice in life.

Even if you think you’re stuck between two impossible choices, there’s always a third way.

You just have to look for it.

from Revolver

Author’s Note

The first draft of this post did not include details of Bert Rowe’s death. However, after reading about John Besner (click here for his story), I decided to tell the rest of Mabel’s story.

Thank you, Carrie, for sharing your family’s story, and for giving me the courage to do the same.

“The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals in the United States.”

3 thoughts on “Her Defining Image

Add yours

  1. I wrote this week about an ancestor who died in an “insane asylum”. It took my breath away when I put it all together. I don’t know if he had a physical or mental disease. It was described as brain affection in 1882. He was not ostracized as the obit is very complementary of his life. Still…a horrible discovery to have been institutionalized.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: