Parts of a Letter from Gertrude Dale Hearn Lanahan Whitman
On Thursday, March 16, 1971 after being questioned about the past, she wrote this letter to her daughter Fannie:
Dearest Fannie, I am writing this specifically to you because of your request to know about a lot of things. This is my fourth attempt to write this letter and believe me, it isn't the easiest thing I've ever done. Not because I don't remember but because I really don't know exactly what you want to know. I'm glad tho that you care enough to be concerned and curious but really there is very little worth remembering about my life.
I was born August 14, 1911 in Memphis and my Mother was Mary Catherine Hutchinson before she married my Father. His name was James Hale Hearn. My Mother was born in New Albany, Mississippi and my Father in Luxora, Arkansas. I had two sisters, Suzanne and Julia Catherine, three brothers whose names I don't know because they all died shortly after birth and really I'm not sure they were named. There was one set of twins including in my brothers. I was the second child. Suzanne being the oldest and then my other sister. My Mother died when I was 5 years old but the exact cause of her death I'm not sure about. I've always been told she died of stomach trouble but somehow I've felt it might have been cancer and that maybe in those days there wasn't too much known about it. All of the children died before she did, leaving just me and my Father. I've always been told my sisters died of congestive chills and the boys died shortly after birth but from what I don't know, so you see there are a lot of questions that I don't know the answers to either. After my Mother's death I was just shifted here and there till Daddy married again when I was 8 years old. His second wife was Julia Middleton and they had 5 children. One of which died when he was 4 months old of menegitis. I remember him vaguely and the other four you know. Dorothy, Geraldine, Bubba and J.H. (being born after my Father's death in 1929). My Father died following an operation for the removal of an enlarged sleen January 22, 1929 at John Gaston Hospital. I can't give you any information about my Grandparents because I never knew any of them except your Great Grandmother on my side and her name was Mary Catherine Crosley before she married my Grandfather and I think his name was William Hutchinson. All I ever heard for certain about him was that he was of German decent and that he was a Baptist Minister. My Grandmother was mostly of Indian decent but exactly which I don't know. I had numerous Aunts and Uncles, some I knew and some whoi died before my time. The only thing I ever knew about my Father's side was that his Father came directly to American from Ireland and I beleive his name was John Riley Hearn but other than that I don't know anything about them. I suppose I grew up just about like all normal girls but I was raised very strict which made me very ignorant to many ways too. I went to church every Sunday and I went to several schools but I received most of my schooling at Treadwell School out in Highland Heights. I graduated from Grammar School there and quit and I was promoted to the 11th grade in 1927 when I was 15 years old. I went to work for the Telephone Company that summer and got married in September after my 16th birthday so I didn't go back.
Now I'll do my best to tell you as much as I can about your Daddy but I must confess I am completely in the dark about most of his life, at least the part before I met him. He never talked too much about anything except the wrongs he felt were done him. He was born in Lapanto, Arkansas on February 28, 1908. His Mother was named Thagnes Court before sh emarried his Father and his name was William Lanahan. She had been married before but what her name was before I don't know. She had a daughter named Jessie Mae and as far as I know there were no other children except your Daddy in their marriage. I never knew what caused his Mother's death but he was very young at the time. His Father died of a heart attack while sitting on a bench in the yard of St. Paul School when your Daddy was about 4 years old. It was always my understanding that he spent most of his childhood in an orphanage and for that he was very bitter. Most of his relatives were more than well-to-do and he always felt they could have taken care of him. One of the cousins Beulah Court Crenshaw did take him out when was about 15 years old and old enough to work at their dairy. However it seems he couldn't get along with her husband so they sent him to John Court's and stayed there and worked for him also in the dairy business. That is where he was living at the time I met him. He too was going to Treadwell School and was already in High School. I was in the 7th grade at the time and didn't know him but was very proud and thrilled when I did learn who he was for he was an outstanding student and by far the best looking boy in school. He excelled in every subject and in every sport he went out for. I met him because of a dare which was very silly. There was another girl going with him and he was all she could talk about and one day I asked her who in the world he was and she told me not to think I could get him. I wasn't really interested and forgot about it but a friend of mine dared me to write him a note. Well it took him about three days to answer because he said he was trying to find out who I was. From then on there was no one else for either of us but the extent of our dating was more than limited as I wasn't allowed to date at all. I was only 12 at the time and Daddy said I was too young and he was too old for me, he was 16. After quite some time he was allowed to come to the house to see me but that was it. The Summer that I went to work at the Phone Company we began talking about getting married, just to ourselves of course. He was the only boy I ever went with or wanted to go with and I knew he was the one I wanted to marry. I knew too that Daddy would not agree till I was older so on September 1st, 1927 we slipped off to Hernando, Miss and got married. Aunt Maude was in on our secret and she went with us and said I was 18 instead of 16 and he was 19. Daddy had just given me a new outfit for my birthday in August so that was what I wore. I remember sitting in the car with Aunt Maude while he went in the Court house to get the license and as it was a hot night he had left his coat. I knew the ring was in his pocket and I slipped it out to look at it and that was the most beautiful sight in the world to me. There in the moonlight those diamonds sparkled like everything but he never knew I had already seen it. When we had been married about a week, I woke up one morning and my ring was gone and I almost had a fit. I looked every where for it and he appeared to be mad saying I was careless with it. What happened was he had slipped it off my finger and had our initials and date of marriage engraved inside and didn't tell me about it. I was one happy girl to get it back never dreaming at the time that it would bring me so much unhappiness and destroy all my beautiful dreams.
We lived at my home for about a year or maybe a little longer and things were just wonderful. He was working at Wellington Chevrolet Company but lost his job and I suppose got disgusted because he left and went to Arkansas to his sister. That didn't set too well with Daddy because he thought your Daddy had just up and left me. When he came back he had a hard time convincing Daddy otherwise. He went over and asked his cousin, John Court, for a job again and after he started working back there we moved in to an apartment. The following January Daddy died and I got pregnant with Bobby. Life began to be quite different then and was I suppose a forerunner of all the things that followed. He said he loved me but what he felt was too possessive. He was jealous of everything that took one minute of my time away fro him. I wasn't allowed to go to the store by myself or have any friends around. I was shut off from everyone and everything. I didn't really mind too much because he was my whole world and making him happy was my only concern. However when he learned there was going to be a baby I began to realize just how deep the jealousy was, he seemed to resent the baby from the very first. He thought it would be taking something away from him. I guess that was the real beginning of everything because that was when the physical cruelty began too. I couldn't understand it then and can't now. he started drinking and quit his job and for a while it was rough with him just working a little here and there. We had to move back home and were living there when Bobby was born. My Stepmother had bought a cleaning place and he was driving the truck and the morning Bobby was born he was in jail from driving while drunk. Whe he came home he completely ignored both me and Bobby but I thought it was embarrassment when it was resentment. We stayed on there till Bobby was a few months old and he got another job and we moved again first one place and another. Finally getting back back to the dairy with his cousin. We were living there when you were born. His drinking had become very serious by then and after you came we left there when you were about 7 months old.
From then on it was just one crisis after another, moving here and there and him being gone most of the time. I loved him so much tho that I was always glad when he came back. Then James was born when we lived in Highland Heights and that is where we were living when you got burned. He was so worried about you that he straightened up for quite some time. Then his sister came to live with us and thru her he met Bill Burkett and from then on it was a downhill go all the way. I never knew just what kind of ahold Bill had over him, but he couldn't stay away from him it was that way the rest of his life. His family didn't seem to exist anymore, just Bill and the bottle. Then the Welfare began helping us and he wouldn't try to work. We finally moved to McKinley Street where Linnie was born and to Pontitoc where Lillian was born. When Lillian was three days old he beat me terribly and left. When he did come back he told me that his sister had told him a lot of lies about me and said he knew they were lies at the time but still listened to her. He begged me to take him back and I did but I had by that time grown pretty tired of it all.
... We moved over on Dunlap Street and maybe you don't know but I was about three months pregnant and of course I lost the baby after we moved there.
The Welfare was helping me and whether you know or not, I had no choice about getting a divorce. They told me if I took him back again they would have to take your children because your lives were in danger the same as mine. I knew that I could not live with him anymore and I also knew I certainly did not want to give you children up to live with him. At that time I had no idea that eventually I would have to do it and even if I had known, my decision about getting a divorce would have been the same. I knew it was the end after I lived thru that incident (not included here). We later moved to Lucy Street where you children and I had a good life for quite some time. ... We moved back to Mrs. Woolbright and I went to work at John Gaston hospital and maybe you remember that. ... I got sick with pneumonia and was off room work for a few weeks and when I did get able to go back, I only worked a couple of months when I had what the doctors said was a nervous breakdown and that was when the Welfare told me they were going to have to put you children in a home till I got able to look after you. There was nothing I could do but agree as I had no one I could turn to for help. Bobby was already in Nashville for that fire he was accused of starting but which I never believed. They took two of you one day and the other two a couple of days later. That was the end of my world. I had nothing left. I was sick and had no place to to and not able to work. The doctor had told me I had to be someplace by myself where it was quiet if I expected to get well and for that reason the Welfare said I couldn't stay where I was. They finally agreed to pay for me a room and found me one right across the street from the Juvenile Court. Bobby had been brought back there for some reason and would sit there in the window and cry and talk to me from across the street and that didn't help me any either. He finally went back to Nashville and Aunt Maude came and asked me to come back home till I got better. I did and finally went to work on the WPA doing housework for other people. I didn't mind because it was honest work and I had to pay my way and too it gave me a little to buy things for you children. I might say right here that after you children left, it was four months before I was able to come out there to see you and to me that was an eternity. I worked there eight months and got sick again and again the doctors said it was my nerves. I was in and out of the hospital for the next four months and finally got better and went back to work. However, I only worked for four more months when I collapsed and was taken to the hospital again. This time I stayed about five months straight. I got so bad off that they let Mrs. Robinson bring you children to see me. The doctors said I couldn't get well so I told Aunt Maude to take me home and she did. I had to learn to walk all over again and gaining confidence again was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I'm sure you remember coming out there several times... I was married to your Daddy for the second time when I met Floyd. I remarried him because I did still love him and I wanted your children to come home, but after we got married that old fear keep coming back and I knew I could not live with him. We never lived together one minute after we got married the second time but stayed married three years. Maybe things would have been different, I don't know but I do know I was afraid to take the chance. That seemed to hurt him more than anything and after that he seemed to lose all desire to do anything.
Even when I went to Germany I asked myself what in the world was I dong going all that distance to be with someone that I didn't care about so I kept drinking over there. Not to the extent that I was in a stupor all the time but enough that I could endure the situation. I woke up one day tho and realized just how disgusted I was with myself and also with the realization that I did love Floyd and that I was doing was not the life I wanted to live. I wanted to be the kind of person my family could love and be proud of and darling I prayed. I thank God every day that he heard and answered my prayers and I was given another chance. One thing you can be certain of is that no matter what happens I will never take another drink. I do wish your Daddy could have seen things that way and maybe his life would have been different. I'm happy now and Floyd's more than good to me. We have our differences but who doesn't. There is none of that old life anymore...
Loving you always, Mother
This photo of Gertrude's parents on their wedding day was included with the letter: