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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"You don't know how much we miss you"

The Houstons at Clifton, September 1905

     For most of my friends and relatives, the name of Mary Robinson is not a familiar one. Yes, we know about the Esteses and the Rows and the Kents and the Houstons.  And yet, because of what I do as a family historian, my experience with the story of Mary Robinson is a rare instance of when the past becomes more than mildewed papers and faded photographs. In this case the past became present in a living person whose life and experience I have been fortunate to share, if only for a brief time.
     Mary Robinson's mother was Mary Houston of Lexington, Virginia. Mary Houston's father was Finley Houston, older brother of my great grandmother Lizzie Houston Row. In the family portrait above taken in September 1905 at the Houston home, "Clifton," Mary Houston is seen standing at center behind her parents, Finley and Grace Houston. At left are her sister Bruce and her husband William Davis. At right are Mary's sister Annette and her husband Ben Harlow.

Mary Houston

Americus Frederic White

     Mary Robinson's parents were Mary Houston and Americus Frederic White. Fred White, who earned his Ph.D. at Washington and Lee, married Mary at Clifton in 1915. Although Mary was the youngest of the Houston daughters, she was the last to marry. After their wedding, Mary and Fred White moved to Donora, Pennsylvania where Fred worked in the steel business. Their daughter was born on the first of December 1916. It was a complicated birth and Mary died a week later. The Whites had planned to name the child Elizabeth. After Mary's death, however, Fred White decided to name the baby Mary Houston White to honor her mother's memory.
Finley Houston to Lizzie Row, February 1917

Fred White to Finley Houston December 1916

     In February 1917 Finley Houston wrote a long letter to his sister, Lizzie Row, giving the particulars of his daughter's death. He wrote: "I have been so crushed over Mary's sudden and to me entirely unexpected death I have not been able to talk or write about it." Finley included several letters written to him by Fred White which described the birth of his daughter and the death of his wife. My great grandmother kept these letters for the rest of her life. She also kept two Christmas cards sent to her by young Mary White, signed in her girlish hand.

Christmas card to Lizzie Row, 1925

Christmas card to Lizzie Row, 1927

     This much of the start of Mary White's (later Robinson) life I was able to piece together during the early days of my delving into the history of the Houstons more than two years ago. I also learned from the 1930 census that Fred White remarried a Mattie Harman and continued to live in Donora with a growing family.
     In the usual course of investigating the lives of my ancestors that would typically be the end of the story. From time to time I wondered about Mary White and whatever became of her. In the absence of any additional leads I decided this would be all I would ever know of her.
     Three months ago I was contacted by a woman who, like me, is a member of She had seen my research on the Houstons. She identified herself as Elizabeth Robinson, the daughter of Mary Houston White Robinson, born in December 1916 to Mary and Fred White.
     Mary Robinson, ninety four years old, was still living.
     I shared with Elizabeth the photographs and papers that comprise my Houston collection. She would then print these at home and take them to her mother. After some time Elizabeth asked if perhaps I would be interested in speaking with her mother. 
      Needless to say my answer was an emphatic yes.
      On July 10 I spoke by phone with Mary Robinson for about an hour and a half. In no time she had completely won me over. She was charming, blessed with a phenomenal memory and was a font of endlessly entertaining stories about her mother and father. Mary sounded as if she were twenty years younger than her actual age. I could have listened to her all afternoon.
   Some of those stories.  
    Finley Houston's daughter Mary met Fred White in the early 1900s while he was still a student at Washington and Lee. In those days the North River (now called the Maury), which ran in front of Clifton, routinely froze solidly enough in winter to allow for frequent ice skating. On one such outing Mary Houston fell and Fred's skates sliced off a significant amount of her dress. Mary made Fred go back up to the house to fetch some pins so that she could get up from the ice with her dignity intact. Fred would have married her during the early part of their courtship but Mary was not then ready. When Fred left Lexington for his first job he gave a bluebird pin to Mary and asked her to send it to him if she ever changed her mind. Seven years later Mary mailed the pin to Fred. 
     In the photo at the beginning of this post, it is evident that Finley Houston's daughters were  beautiful and dignified. But as youngsters they could be quite mischievous. Mary Robinson told me that when the girls were young they were visiting their Alexander grandparents at Red House in Rockbridge County. One day Annette headed up a girlish conspiracy to have some fun. She climbed a tree to gain access to the room where Mrs. Alexander's wedding clothes were stored. Various items were brought down and the three sisters donned these fine old clothes and then climbed the fence which they pretended to ride like horses. 
    Fred White's second wife, Mattie Harman, was the bridesmaid for Mary at their wedding. Mattie's sister, Mary's best friend, had been chosen for the honor but she was then married and pregnant and it was thought unseemly for her to appear in the wedding party.
     Mary Robinson remembered sitting on the porch at Clifton with her grandfather Finley as he sang a song about the stars to her.

Lexington Gazette October 1902

     I was able to tell Mary about one incident that she had not heard of, one I found in a 1902 edition of the Lexington Gazette. Her mother's sister, Bruce Davis, was driving her buggy in Lexington when her horse became frightened by some flags she was carrying. The horse bolted. The hero of the hour, the young man who saved Bruce from possible injury, was none other than Fred White of Washington and Lee.

Finley Houston to Mary September 1920

Finley Houston to Mary September 1920

Finley Houston to Mary September 1920

Mary Houston White, 1935

 After our phone conversation that Sunday, Mary Robinson copied photographs and letters from her collection and mailed them to me. Among them was this letter written by her grandfather Finley. He wrote: "You do not know how much we miss you at Clifton. I would like to pick you up this morning and give you a good hug, then steal a kiss."

     In his beautifully written story, A Christmas Memory, Truman Capote wrote of the day when he learned that his aunt and childhood friend had died: "And when that happens, I know of it. A message saying so only confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string." I had already begun to fear the worst by the time I learned that my cousin Mary Robinson had departed this life on Sunday July 31. If I live to be a hundred, I will always be grateful for that Sunday afternoon I spent with her.

1 comment:

  1. I sit here with tears and chills all at once Pat. This is so beautifully written and you are so blessed, genealogically speaking, to meet up with (in a manner of speaking) one of the ancestors you study. So rare.