Addie: A Memoir
“An autobiography that begins with one’s birth begins too late,” is how Mary Lee Settle begins her memoir of growing up in rural West Virginia. Following through on that thought, Settle fills her autobiography with the history of her ancestors, from William Tompkins, a great-grandfather who made the family’s initial fortune in salt, to Addie, her grandmother and a central figure in Settle’s own childhood, to her fretful mother Rachel. In the end, Mary Lee Settle becomes an almost minor character in her own story, and that is both fascinating and frustrating.
The key event in Settle’s family history, as she sees it, was her grandfather Henry Preston Tompkins’ tempestuous romance with her grandmother, Addie, who was already married and the mother of three daughters when she met Tompkins. She did not move in the Tompkins social circle and was in fact a poor farmer’s wife, but “Pressy” fell for her so thoroughly that he saw her through a divorce (in 1892!) and then married her. Settle writes:
“None of his family, or hers, came to what must have been a sad little wedding. In many ways it was a disaster that they have never been forgiven, in many ways a love which was the deepest one that many of us ever knew.”
I loved the stories of the Tompkins relations, sitting up in Charleston and whispering about the awful woman who built a porch on the old family homestead and grew vegetables where Mama’s flower gardens used to be. They had their revenge by filling Addie’s daughter Rachel’s head with stories of how the family used to be, Before the War, and in the process making Rachel understand that her own mother was an embarrassing aberration to her family. Addie and Rachel are ultimately more vivid than Mary herself, who doesn’t appear on the stage until the last third of the book.
In the end I was a bit disappointed. Settle observes so many times that her life was formed by battle lines drawn before her birth, feuds that went back 50 years, ways of doing things that were part of her bones and sinews. And one does see that in her memories of her relatives and how they lived when she was growing up, but there was a huge story left untold. Mary leaves off detailed telling of her own life some time in the late 1930s: what happened after that? Addie and Rachel were at best semi-conscious of the pull of past events on them but Mary is fully conscious of it. How did that happen and what was the result of the process of examination? This we do not learn, and the final fifty pages or so is rather disjointed and even unclear as to when things take place.
But much of the book is a joy. Settle is an excellent writer and has a wonderfully Southern turn of phrase and way of telling her family’s stories. For example:
“Minnie was a morphine addict, and my mother knew it from the time she was a child. She would, my mother said when she finally realized that I knew, drive the hypodermic through her dress into her hip as she sat beating egg whites in a china platter with a wire whisk and not even stopping. Then she added, ‘She was a marvelous pastry cook.'”
If you like Southern history, and vividly detailed recollections of everyday life in the first part of the 20th century, this book is definitely worth checking out, despite its frustrations. The absolutely hilarious passage where Addie admonishes all her grown offspring via her version of grace before meals is worth the price of admission alone. I will remember Mary Lee Settle’s stories and ancestors for a long time to come.