I knew something of pioneers and cowboys when I was a kid. I’d read books about Lewis and Clark, Buffalo Bill Cody and Calamity Jane. I’d seen The Rifleman and Gunsmoke. Those old west types were tough, weathered people. Plain spoken. Men and women who knew how to ride a horse, rope a calf and shoot a gun. That’s what it took to live in such wild times. It was a great surprise to eventually learn that Elizabeth “Libby” Gunnell, my Granny G, was one of them. Even though she’d shared a lot of life stories with me, I never figured her for a cowgirl. Not for a minute. Not until I was grown up and began to discover the photos.
Black and white images of big-boned teenage girls in blue jeans and cotton shirts, standing on a horse-drawn flat wagon. Young Libby and her four sisters riding their horses across the Wyoming prairie. Cattle drives depicted on brittle brown paper. My grandfather Rosser, Grandma’s husband, captured in sepia tones as a U.S. cavalryman who rode skirmishes across the Mexican border when Pancho Villa’s men were raiding U.S. towns in 1919. All of this was a stunning revelation. It showed an exciting dimension to Grandma G that I never gave her credit for. She was kind of a bad ass. A girl who wore blue jeans in the early 20th century before they were cool. It was weird.
The grandma I knew was kind of uptight–a paragon of virtue and restraint. She wore polyester pantsuits and inexpensive faux silk blouses that buttoned up to her neck. A devout Catholic, she went to church every Sunday and occasionally got giddy on a few sips of wine. Once a year, on her birthday, she’d smoke a cigarette. One. No more. Grandma G never used crude language (the polar opposite of my maternal grandmother, Winnie). Instead, she had an amazing arsenal of quaint little old lady sayings that made me and my siblings laugh.
Babies were “cute as a bug’s ear.” People who went their own way were “independent as a hog on ice.” When things were tense, one might get “nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” A lot of anything was “more than you could shake a stick at.” And so on.
All of this was charming. Still, Grandma G was a formidable presence when I was little. We had to jump through hoops whenever she came to visit. No matter how we prepared or what we did to please her, it was never good enough. Our clean house was too dirty. My hair was too ratty. The boys looked too shabby. Teri was too fidgety. Mom was a terrible cook and wife. All of us were bad Catholics who didn’t go to mass enough. (Grandma G made sure to rectify this every chance she got.) It all boiled down to the single fact that Mom wasn’t good enough for Dad, Grandma G’s only child.
In the early days of their marriage, Mom was terrified of her mother-in-law. She’d get so nervous around her that she became a self-fulfilling disaster. Dust gathered. Dinners burned. Dishes broke. Babies screamed. Mom could do nothing right. And Dad was a saint. What else could Grandma G believe? Dad was all she had. Was all she’d had for so long. He was everything. And Mom had taken him away.
Libby was 33 when my dad Robert (Bob) was born in 1934. She was quite old to be having children, much less her first and only. Perhaps she and Rosser simply had a hard time conceiving. Maybe there were miscarriages. No one is left to tell the story. Grandma G did not speak of such things. As for Grandpa Rosser, we never knew him. He drank himself to death years before my parents wed. All the stories told about Rosser Cary Gunnell depicted him as a fun and genial guy who could talk to anyone. When Elizabeth met him, she was a rancher’s daughter and he was a horse wrangler. Did they fall in love? Did her father arrange the marriage? I like to believe the former is true. That Libby was smitten with the charismatic young man who worked at her grandfather’s 94,000-acre ranch north of Douglas, Wyoming. Libby would have been sweet and shy. Rosser a clever and hardworking fellow who charmed her family and stole her heart. Surely there was romance. But it would be short-lived. The drinking that was so much a part of Rosser’s youthful mystique would be his demise. Once married, he moved Libby to Omaha, Nebraska where he had landed a job selling vacuum cleaners. They set up house and hunkered down. Domestic bliss did not follow. Rosser’s Good Time Charlie persona morphed slowly into a drunkard. He continued to work as a salesman. But it was a struggle. Jobs came and went. Libby, however, held strong. She put in 50 hours a week in a department store as a clerk. All the rest of her time was consumed caring for her son and husband. Life was exhausting; her troubles relentless. The giddy girl hardened into a stoic woman who could not afford to be weak. Libby worked and worked. She did not take vacations. She did not buy fancy clothes or perfumes. She did not take more than she needed. Ever. Moderation would give her physical health and long life. Though I sometimes wonder what dreams she sacrificed along the way.
Libby and Rosser moved to Los Angeles when Robert was still a boy. They enrolled him in Manual Arts High School. After graduation, he joined the Air Force to serve during the Korean War. Libby was left alone with Rosser, who couldn’t stay sober. One day, he collapsed and threw up blood. His doctor told him if he had another drink, it would kill him. The doctor was right. Rosser died soon after of cirrhosis of the liver. His belly had swollen with fluids. His organs had broken down one after the other. Libby tended to him. Then he was gone and she was completely on her own for the first time in her 53 years. Her four sisters were married and scattered across the states. Her mother was old and living in Wyoming. Her strength faltered. A telegram to England brought Robert home. Her hero come to the rescue.
Grandma G demanded a lot from her hero. And he was always there for her. I believe that she gradually came to see my father for the man he was. She was disappointed by the divorce. It was a sin. By his drinking. It was a weakness. The same weakness that killed his father. Then there were the children to consider. Over the years, Grandma G saw us living in squalor. She saw my mother and Grandma Winnie collapsing under the burden as my father did nothing. Though she stayed loyal to her son, something shifted. Grandma G softened. Respect and friendship grew between her and Mom. She and Winnie became like giggly schoolgirls together. From time to time, Grandma G would take one or more of her grandkids for sleepovers at her little apartment off Vermont in L.A. My sister Teri and I could not wait to go through her drawers and closets. They were full of fascinating artifacts of Grandma’s past. A thick lock of hair cut from her head when she was 17. An ancient wind-up mechanical beetle. A box full of Kennedy silver dollars. A fur made of little foxes biting their own tails. A tiny golden gun with a pearl handle. No matter how many times we asked her, Grandma answered every question about these things as if it were the first time. She was patient and loving. When I was nine I got my tonsils and adenoids removed. Afterwards, I stayed with Grandma G all by myself for several days. She gave me ice cream whenever I wanted. She made me perfect poached eggs for breakfast and we played endless games of cribbage. We watched Lawrence Welk, her favorite show, and the Wonderful World of Disney, mine. And we laughed ourselves silly.
Grandma G lived longer than she wanted. At 98 she prayed for God to take her. But Dad could not let her go, so she lingered another two years in agonizing pain. Toward the end, she talked to her mother and sisters who had moved on. She was getting close. They were waiting. Reaching out to her. Calling her back home. Back to a time and place where she was happy—a cowgirl riding her pony across the endless plains of the American west. I like to imagine here there.