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Sophie and Religious Tolerance:

I also never met Sophie Graham Oxton. Like my Grandfather, she died before I was born. In her case, long before I was born. Nearly 20 years before, in fact. Sophie was Gran’s mother. And, by all accounts one very tough old bird.

Despite the fact that my grandfather was a fairly enthusiastic amateur photographer for several years while his children were small, there are only a few photos of Sophie in my possession. In most of those she is a shadowy, rather dumpy figure off on the periphery of various family groups. Possibly, my grandfather saw no great reason to expend film on his mother-in-law. One shot, a faded, much older (1890s), honest-to-ghod tintype is a formally posed portrait of herself, her husband and daughter, and clearly had nothing to do with my grandfather (this can be found in the Family Album). But in another photo, an obvious enlargement of a part of one of the family group snapshots, something of a personality creeps through. Not a very nice lady, I would suspect. The same hard, watchful, rather hostile stare looks out of Ma’s portraits as well. Gran, perhaps understandably, usually looks rather anxious in hers. I am almost somewhat relieved to see that I usually just end up looking like a lump.

Whatever anecdotes regarding Sophie have survived all tend to make it very clear that she was a right tartar, her husband and daughter firmly held within her iron fist. Uncle Bronty, who would have been quite a small child when she died described her as a mean old biddy. He didn’t like her, and I don’t imagine she was the sort of old woman who ever would have been popular with little boys.

Ma, however, took a rather different view of the matter. Ma’s comments regarding other members of the family were never extensive. However, I can remember her commenting that where her paternal grandmother (whose name, by then, was Mrs. Hind) would expect to be treated like a guest and waited on whenever she graced the scene, Grandma Oxton (who, with her husband, lived with the family) had always pitched in and helped. Why do I have the feeling that a more accurate definition of “pitched in and helped” should more properly read; “barged in, laid down the law, and criticized”?

Old Sophie had certainly led no easy life, which might go at least some way towards explaining her general outlook. The tenth of twelve children of an Antrim County farmer who was so mean that when his pregnant wife had morning sickness and couldn’t face breakfast, wouldn’t let her eat anything at all (until he was ready for his dinner). Indeed, so mean he was that when the baby died, his wife took Sophie by one hand and Sophie’s younger sister by the other, and walked out on him (this, look you, back in Ulster in the 1850s). The three of them crossed the Irish Sea to Liverpool, and stayed for a while with a grown son.

Eventually my great-great grandmother kept a boarding house in Liverpool, assisted by her young daughters. Her daughter Sophie eventually married one of the boarders, the younger son of a baker, who’d been apprenticed to an upholsterer as a boy.

After this young man’s elder brother failed to make a go of the family bakery, (whether this was due to hard times, bad luck or the after-effects of a “brain fever” in his teens is unrecorded) the business passed to young Henry.

Evidently a training in upholstery proved inadequate to the challenge So, Henry and Sophie Oxton, with their six-year-old daughter, Ethel, set forth, in steerage, to the new world in 1889. The bakery, I gather, passed to yet some other branch of the family. Or out of the family altogether. The Oxtons headed for Chicago where other members of the extended family had settled.

Although born in Ireland, (well, Ulster) Sophie was adamant in referring to herself as Scots-Irish. Which was certainly accurate enough, her maiden name Graham(e?) being of lowland Scots origin. Most of this insistence, however, was for the purpose of immediately disabusing anyone of the notion that she might have been one of those «epithet deleted» Catholics.

Sophie Graham Oxton was a Protestant.

More than that, she was an Ulster Protestant.

However much pitching in and helping Sophie might have engaged in, she made certain that her granddaughters would get themselves pinched black-and-blue every March 17th by sending them off to school decked out in orange. They would desperately stick blades of grass all over themselves to lessen the damage.

When they were older and boyfriends started appearing in the family living room, although it was rightly the girls’ parents’ prerogative to conduct the inquisition, Sophie was more than a match for poor Gran.

“What does your father do for a living?” She would demand of some trapped, squirmingly embarrassed adolescent. “What does your mother do in her spare time?”

Finally, she would lower the boom.

“Are you a Catholic?”

If the poor unfortunate was lacking a sense of self-preservation and answered her yea, she would snatch up the kettle, which, as in all proper British (or Irish) households was ever simmering on the stove, and drive him from the house, scolding all the way as to his temerity in daring to address one of her granddaughters.

Her legacy continued long enough that even more than 20 years after her death, when I was at my most recalcitrant, the penultimate of all the various bizarre threats which my parents, or rather my mother, would throw at me was to thunder that if I didn’t do as she pleased she would send me “to the Catholic school, where the nuns will teach you catechism!

I flatly didn’t believe her, since even at that age I had more sense than that. But it was a strong indication that I’d better chill out or the next stage of the proceedings would get me smacked.

Aunt Pisces (according to Ma) always believed that every Protestant sect would have its place in Heaven.

The Lutherans would have one little enclave. The Baptists, another, the Episcopalians a third, and so on. Ma was always grandly contemptuous of this notion. But I don’t imagine that either of them would have given you any sort of odds on the Catholics getting in.

When my cousin Val actually married one, Aunt Pisces adapted.

Ma and Sophie both must have been spinning like teetotems.