Pets, Places, & Things, Single Space

Babe and an Heirloom of Independence

I never met my grandmother, “Babe”. When my mother, “Bonnie Lee” was 16, Babe died in a car accident in Gonzales, TX. I’ve listened intently to stories about Babe throughout my life, craving to know the matriarch who inspired the 3 generations of independent women in my family. Told by my mother and my Aunts Nancy and Sissy, most are related with laughter, some with tears, and often with disagreement over details. This storytelling has allowed an heirloom of independence to be passed down to the grandchildren and great grandchildren Babe never knew. The choices she made weren’t easy and may not have always been right, but each was made as she fought to be in control of her own life. To me, the purest definition of Independence: The ability to control one’s own life.”

To control one’s own life; it’s what women want, men want and what countries want. It was also something almost impossible for a woman born in San Marcos, TX in 1915. Her given name was Ann Etta Stanley. That’s “Ann (space) Etta”. To some she was Annetta; the census takers had gotten it wrong from time to time, as did the coroner on her death certificate. She would have hated that. I’m certain she haunted that careless man for at least a few nights after his pronouncement of her death. So as you can imagine an easy nickname like “Babe” was welcome and made life simpler.   Legend has it her nickname came from the song, “Pistol Packin’ Mama” recorded in 1943.

Drinkin’ beer in a cabaret And I was havin’ fun! Until one night she caught me right,

And now I’m on the run

Lay that pistol down Babe, Lay that pistol down, Pistol Packin’ Mama,

Lay that pistol down.


The chorus was pondered by Al Dexter as he listened to a Texas barmaid relating her witness of a gun-toting, woman scorned who gave chase to the “other woman” through a barbed wire fence. The troubadour considered what he’d say to a woman with a gun. “Lay that pistol down, Babe, lay that piston down” was the poetic response that laid foundation to the famous song.

Now pardon me for a moment but I’m from Texas, and in 1943 a few guns and pistols present in a household were more than normal. As the stories are told, the image of Ann Etta gun wielding to make a point or scare off an unwanted suitor is vivid, frightening, retrospectively hilarious and oddly empowering. “Babe” was a moniker well earned.

The bigger anomaly of the time was a strong woman, single by choice and deciding to raise children alone. For the time, it was considered such an aberration that when she divorced my grandfather her 4 children were placed by the state in an orphanage in San Antonio, TX. They told Babe, “Just until you get on your feet.” Right. What they really meant was “Just until you find another husband.”

So ironically that’s what she did. As she continued to fight to be in control of her own life, she wanted her children back, so she got married again. Just. Like. That.

I’ll see you every night Babe, I’ll woo you every day, I’ll be your regular Daddy, If you’ll put that gun away.

Lay that pistol down Babe, Lay that pistol down, Pistol Packin’ Mama,

Lay that pistol down.

Soon after, word spread though the orphanage that the baby was born. My Aunt Nancy, the eldest, decided to run away to go see the new sister. Nancy was returned to the orphanage the next morning; defeated but not beaten. In reality it was a victory, as she had met her goal. She delighted her siblings with the story of how she had ducked behind buildings, run down back roads, through fields and across town. The younger children begged for details about the new baby “Sissy”. Nancy knew she wouldn’t be on the run for long, but that victory sustained her and the group for a few more months until they were allowed to go home to Babe.

Though the chosen clutch player, the new stepfather was not the greatest of catches. Before the orphanage, “Mac” would come to visit Babe without rave reviews from her children. After the anti-climax of a new marriage and the birth of his own child to favor, he grew more unpredictable and bad quickly got worse. On what seemed to be a more carefree day, Mac teased the girls with a pair of scissors as he gave chase, playfully threatening their long braided pigtails. Bonnie Lee was finally caught, giggling and shrieking. She resisted of course, and struggled to break away. As laughter turned to tears and tears turned to fear the unthinkable happened. Suddenly the two tethered pigtails became one; the other was waved giddily by Mac, as if a flag flown in triumph. Stunned and silent for a moment, the reality of what must be done washed over Bonnie Lee and Babe. A lone pigtail has no purpose; the other must be sacrificed as well. Nancy stood agape and speechless. She felt both grateful and guilty – her pigtails still in tact. But Mac explained “fair was fair”. Since sister Bonnie’s had to go, Nancy must now step up to the gallows. With two quick snips, years of my Nancy’s long locks fell to the ground. Now, they could both be taken for boys.

Soon after, as the story goes, an iron skillet full of hot bacon grease flung by Babe at then end of a row encouraged Mac to move on. His final attempt to control the family was to pour the milk into the yard along with what little food, just to make single motherhood a little harder. But Babe was single again and in control of her own life. This time, she got to keep her children.

She kicked out my windshield, She hit me over the head,
She cussed and cried, and said I lied, And I wished that I was dead.

Lay that pistol down Babe, Lay that pistol down, Pistol Packin’ Mama,

Lay that pistol down.

The storytelling continues and I’m excited when I hear one new to me. Babe died when she was 49, which is the same age I am now. She lived her life the way she wanted to and made few excuses. She loved strongly. For better or worse, she was in control of her own life. My wish for all women, men, and countries! Happy Independence Day!!

Dedicated to: Mom, Aunt Nancy, Aunt Sissy, Janetta, Cissy, Nancy, Peggy, Caroline, Charlotte, Shae, Shannon, new Baby Girl Houghtaling and of course Babe.

Written by: Bonnie Browing

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