My Gary Cooper Grandfather

Filed in Gather Writing Essential by on February 17, 2008 0 Comments

When I was five, my grandfather was six feet tall, in a ten-gallon hat and spurs. He was a sheep man, a livestock broker. When the trains came in, he would go down to the livestock yard to see the sheep.

Sometimes I went with him.
My grandmother, Anna Mae Langford Leigh and my grandfather, Wilford Webster (Dick) Leigh, probably 1950.

I lived for the moment when  the doors of the livestock car opened and a -car full of sheep jockeyed each other for position as they bustled to get out. 

The sheep made me so happy; it didn’t take much to please a five-year-old.

I wanted to know if he bid on the sheep, where the sheep went and what happened to the sheep after they left the train.

I never really knew.

My grandfather had a thriving business as a livestock broker and distributor. Cedar City is in southern Utah, and there’s not much grass in that part of the country. Cattle could never manage, but sheep found plenty of dry, sparse grass on which to grange. Sheep were everybody’s business.

That year, on the 4th of July, the town was raffling baby ducks.

Buy a ticket and hope to win a baby duck, you could hear the carny call out to the crowd.

I begged my grandfather to win one;  I was certain he would. Well, either he did win the raffle or he bribed the official because he came back to me with a live baby duck in a small shoebox.

Ducky Lucky, I so named the duck. Ducky Lucky was like all other ducks, but to me he was special. I was flattered he chose me to follow around, and I spoke to him incessantly; he quacked back at equally incessant intervals. Ducky Lucky and I were constant companions throughout the summer.

My grandfather, known as Dick Leigh, was born Wilford Webster Leigh. His grandfather and grandmother had crossed the Rocky Mountains with the Martin Handcart Company in 1856.

His grandmother, Elizabeth Ann (Betsy) Parsons,  had been to boarding school in London, a rare advantage for a young woman of her time.

In crossing the plains enroute to Utah, during a bad snowstorm in Wisconsin, Betsy  gave birth to my grandfather’s mother, Amy Elizabeth Parsons. Betsy’s long hair had frozen to the ground and had to be shorn.

Betsy’s father had been the landowner, her mother the maid. Although Betsy’s father couldn’t marry her mother, he did a noble thing: he paid for her education, and that is how she spent 5 years in the fine London boarding schools.

So Betsy came across the prairie as a young woman who could read and write, cook and could sew dresses out of draperies.  She made clothes for many in the tiny town of Cedar City.

Her dinners were legendary. She was a very popular hostess on the Pioneer front. 

As I grew up, my grandfather grew older.

I barely noticed  he forgot his own children’s names.

Other people noticed, but to me he was still six feet tall in a ten-gallon hat and spurs. I liked to drive into town with him, so we could walk down Main Street, with me in a little dress, and he in his ten-gallon hat and spurs.

He took medicine for hardening of the arteries. As he grew older, the forgetfulness of his middle age became more serious. Premature senility, they called it. At times, he had hallucinations and imagined my grandmother was having affairs.

Everything became worse. My grandmother, patient as she was, could take it no longer. He had to go to the state hospital, where he would live out the rest of his days.  He rapidly deteriorated from an older middle-aged man, to a geriatric 69-year-old man.

I waited in the car reading comics while my mother said goodbye to her father. She wouldn’t let me see him.

He died later that year,  in 1963, of tertiary syphilis, according to the autopsy report.

A few years later, my grandmother married a man she’d known for years. Uncle Bill, we called him. He was half Navajo, and together they were happy.

None of this matters to me, for my Gary Cooper Grandfather, six feet tall in his ten-gallon hat and spurs will always be with me.

Even though he was only five foot eight.




Revised from earlier postings on Gather in 2006 and 2007.

A follow-up toMy Valentine Grandmother


Copyright © 2006, 2007, 2008 Kathryn Esplin-Oleski

About the Author ()

An article of mine, 'On Marriage, Life, Death and Remarriage' was published in "Blended Families (Social Issues Firsthand) by Greenhouse Press." An article of mine was referenced in this book: "Margaret Atwood: a reference guide" by Judith McComb

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