The Poetry and Songs of Lula Rothwell

The source of articles for this column are sometimes unexpected. Susan Shryock (WSHS, 1961) prompted this one when she asked if I would be interested in seeing a book of poetry written by Lula Rothwell, her husband Joe’s grandmother (and my stepfather’s mother). Of course, I was interested.
 
I never met my stepfather George’s mother, Louisa Leona Blankenbeckler “Lula” Rothwell. She died in 1954, five years before I moved to Willow Springs, and most of the people who knew her have passed on, but I heard stories about her.
 
With eight brothers and sisters, George told me he left home as a teenager and joined the Navy to get regular meals. With the Great Depression affecting the country, George did not return home for years because he sent most of his Navy pay to his mother, leaving him with enough “to buy Bull Durham tobacco.” [A sidenote for younger readers: Bull Durham was loose tobacco, which came in a cloth, draw-string pouch, that was used for roll-your-own cigarettes, which was cheaper than store-bought cigarettes.]
 
On a rare visit home, his youngest sister (who was born after George joined the Navy) made a smart aleck comment, to which George took exception, and reprimanded her, perhaps, with salty sailor language. 
 
His mother disapproved and proceeded to give George a comeuppance and underscored it by saying, “You have never had a baby.” With a hair-trigger response, George said, “No, and I’ve never laid an egg either, but I know a rotten one when I see it.” 
 
Nevertheless, George, not a man given to effusive sentiment, spoke of his mother with a detached reverence. He showed further respect in 1952 when he drove from Great Lakes, Illinois, where he was on active duty in the Navy, to attend the fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration of his parents held at First Baptist Church in Willow Springs.
 
I have scant facts about Lula Rothwell, but the few I have cobbled together paint a remarkable portrait. Born in 1883, she had eleven children (six daughters and five sons); lived through World War I; and had two sons who served in the U.S. Navy in World War II. Imagine her shock on December 7, 1941, knowing her son Marion was stationed at Pearl Harbor. 
 
By all indications, she was a religious woman well-versed in Scripture, and according to George, including esoteric verses in the Bible that would promote healing of the sick and afflicted. 
 
She held the positions of chaplain and musician for the local chapter of the Rebekah Lodge, a women’s service organization, originally an auxiliary of the International Order of Odd Fellows. A 20-year member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement (WCTU), she served as the local president for four years. 
 
As to her musicianship, I am pretty sure she played the piano because there was an upright piano in the old Rothwell house on East Ninth Street in Willow Springs. I recall banging out a few chords on it while her husband George Oliver (“Pappy”) Rothwell played a fiddle and shuffled some hoedown dance steps. When I recall Pappy dancing the “double-shuffle,” it reminds me of Jed Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies.
 
Before the package from Susan arrived in the mail, I was not sure what to expect. I imagined a few poems written in pencil in a student composition notebook from the 1930s or 40s. When I opened it, I found a 4 1/2” x 7 1/2” 50-page book, typeset and bound, entitled Treasure Chest of Poetry & Songs, with a publication date of 1953.
 
Today, it would be called a poetry chapbook, and, frankly, one that is more professional-appearing than some contemporary ones I have seen. It contained sixty poems, some written as songs, spanning from 1916 to 1952.
 
Rather than more personal observations from me, I will let a few curated selections from the book provide insight into the enduring spirit of Mrs. Rothwell.
 
(This may be my favorite.)
Keep Your Little Candle Burning
Keep your little candle burning,
It may guide some weary traveler
To a path he does not know.
 
There are many souls around you,
Who are going through the night,
Some who might be kept from falling,
If they saw your little light.
 
(The last verse of Be Not Deceived reflects her WCTU advocacy.) 
 
Be Not Deceived
 
Let the world be dry, let the world be dry,
Down with rum forever, is our battle-cry;
Let this chorus ring through the earth and sky
Down with booze forever, let the world be dry,
 
(Written in 1952, from a memory of 1915. Dedicated to daughter Nan Shryock.)
 
True Love
 
“O Mama ain’t you good?” she cried,
My dear little maid of three;
While in her shining eyes I read,
Her tender love for me.
 
You’re the goodest mama in the world!
(With a hug and kiss), she said;
While I with a mother’s love and pride,
Touched the shining curls on her head.
 
I’ve oft recalled those precious words,
That were so sweetly spoken;
And how I hope within my heart,
That love remains unbroken.
 
* * * *
 
(Reflecting her patriotism, this one from 1917 was dedicated to freedom loving people.) 
Flag of my Native Country
 
* * * 
God of our fathers, help us, 
Give us the strength to stand
Holding sweet freedom’s banner
Over this glorious land.
Lead us to peace and victory;
Victory on land and sea
And long may it wave above us,
The flag of the noble and free.
 
(Written on December 7, 1952, and dedicated to her son who was stationed at Pearl Harbor eleven years earlier.)
 
Music of the Old Guitar
* * *
Of all the gifts that one could choose
From nature’s lavish treasure chest,
For good and pleasure with its use,
I’d say that music is the best.
 
So if you have a talent small,
Or medium, great, or (none at all),
Don’t bury it and cease to try,
You’ll be successful—bye and bye.
 
* * * *
 
Over the past Memorial Weekend, Wendell Bailey and I discussed the intelligence of the Rothwell family. Now, I believe Lula was significant contributing factor. And it is worth noting, she continued to write in her final years.
In the introduction to Treasure Chest of Poetry & Songs, Mrs. Rothwell wrote, “It is the sincere hope and humble prayer of the author, that this book may be a blessing to all who read it.” It was for this reader.
 
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