Minnie (Havens) Halderman, my maternal great grandmother, holds a firm grip on her place in my family tree: The Brickwall. Her photograph portrait in an oval fish-eye frame hung in my grandparent’s home. Handwritten numbers “1913” scratched on the back of the photograph suggest the year in which it was made. Emma, my maternal grandmother, Minnie’s daughter, died in 1940. When my grandfather died in 1967, his home was emptied of its contents and Minnie’s photograph came to me. It hangs in my house as it has hung in every house I’ve lived in since.
Not much is known of Minnie. Born in 1877, her place of birth changed with each census as did her age. In 1896, Minnie married Charles William Halderman in Tombstone, Cochise County, Arizona. They made their home in Bisbee, Cochise County, until 1920 when the family relocated to Tulare County, California.
Minnie’s photograph suggests secrecy. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” says the coy tilt of her head against the cupped fingers of her right hand. I study her photo and ponder what secrets she took to her grave. Enigmatic is a charitable description. In my family she is known as Minnie the Fibber. “That old lady couldn’t tell the truth if she had to,” Grandpa often exclaimed.
In 1952, she lived in a ramshackle old house in Washoe Valley, outside of Reno. The only indoor plumbing was a cold water tap at the kitchen sink which drained into a 5-gallon bucket. I bathed in a wash tub in the summer kitchen. To an eight-year old city boy, the outhouse was revolting. The house, a series of one-room cabins attached to form a “U,” was huge and as mysterious as Minnie. She tended a large vegetable garden and the contents of an equally large greenhouse. I watched in awe—also huge—as Minnie, with a few boards, a piece of rope, and an old tarp, threw together a lean-to tent against an outside wall of the house to give me a play space.
My 75-year old great grandmother had a 1935 Chevrolet coupe she called “Mae West.” Not quite 5-feet tall and barely able to see over the steering wheel, she held it with both hands, crushed the accelerator to the floorboard with her tiny foot, and whisked us into Reno or Carson City. In retrospect, breathtaking. To an 8-year old boy an amazing adventure.
Mystery, inscrutability, and perplexity notwithstanding, it is Minnie and the experiences she gave 8-year old me I recall each time I look at her in my favorite photograph.