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RIP Daddy Clay

He was the youngest of nine, his parents split up when he was just 11, and his mother died when he was just 14. He spent time with older sisters in Oklahoma and an older brother in South Dakota, never finished high school, and ran away to Texas as a teenager to marry the sweetheart whose mother swore she would never consent to the marriage. By the time he was 21, he was a father twice over, had been drafted in one of the last call-ups of World War I … and had already buried a child.

He was a grandfather years before he fathered the last of his own 12 children, had a raucous and impish sense of humor, and was as stubborn a cuss as ever walked the face of this earth.

He was Clay Rex Cottrell, and we called him Daddy Clay. He was my grandfather, my mother’s father.

We don’t have a lot of photos of him when he was young. The first one was a school photograph from perhaps the last year he went to school in Iowa Park, Texas, or his first year in Frederick, Oklahoma. He surely wasn’t younger than 10 or older than perhaps 12 or 13.

And if you can’t see trouble in that face, that haircut, those eyes, well, trust me… it was there. It was always there.

Perhaps a better indicator of the imp… or hellion… take your pick is this second photo. He can’t have been a day over 18 here. It may have been taken in Frederick, or somewhere in the area of Wichita Falls, Texas.

It surely was about the age when he eloped with my grandmother. We don’t have a wedding picture of the two of them, but this… this I’d bet is pretty close to what he looked like then, in 1916.

Attitude, with a capital A.

By the time I came along and certainly by the time I got to know him, that baby face was long gone, replaced by the lines of time. But the lines were smile lines, mostly.

This shot is probably the way I remember him best. And looking at it, I can tell exactly when it was taken. It’s either 30 seconds before or 30 seconds after he’d said something outrageous to set off my grandmother. That, I suspect, was his favorite sport and she was happy to play along.

One of my family’s greatest treasures is a cache of letters he sent to my mother over the years. They reveal better than any words of mine the imp that he was behind that smile.

Poverty Hill
June 12 – 50

I rec- the Fathers Day gift Sat. Sure like even. Come on down and help me use them. Lots of creeks rivers oceans and etc. in this country we shouldn’t have too much trouble finding water to fish in. … I think I will try to get Congress to put more Fathers Days on the calendar. This one was really good.

July 24 – 50

Dear (son-in-law) – how are you? I am writing you for all your old hats. With your new car you should be having trouble making them fit. … But while we are on the subject of cars I want to give you some advice. I have broken in many new cars and the best way that I can think of to break in yours is for you to load (daughter) and baby … and drive to VA. It takes most motors 3 or 4000 miles to break in so– …

Nov 7 – 50
Poverty Hill Va

I have been trying to write to you for many moons but I can’t even get on a warm trail of my pen. Just located a pencil just now. … You will never know just what you did to me when you left me here and went home without me. … An old farm like this takes lots of work just to live on. Chickens cow & calf & hay plus wood water and 10 million other things always. … Mama is canning sour kraut and talking up a storm so if this letter sorta rambles don’t pay too much attention. I have to stop and look or hand her a jar or something all the time. …

Oct 5, 51
Poverty Hill, Va

How are you & how’s my baby? You know I have always threatened to burn the room (your sister) uses when she is here because she leaves it in such a mess that it doesn’t look possible to clean it up but this time I wanted to burn the room and Judy was in because I couldn’t look in that door with that crib gone for a long time. I sure missed her and still do. …

Poverty Hill Va
Nov 16 [1951 or 1952]

I am writing you about the same subject I always bring up at this time of year. Up till now no one has ever paid me much mind but this year they may. It’s about Xmas and Xmas presents. As I have always said the only real happy persons concerned are the merchants who got the money while ever one else was in a strain the worry and bother. Trying to stretch dollars to cover more ground than they can do is a nerve racking deal and leaves almost everyone glad when Xmas is over and I for one don’t think that is so good. So this Xmas let’s all be sensible and just lay off presents. We don’t need anything but food and whiskey and neither one can be sent as Xmas gifts.

Poverty Hill
Kents Store Va
Jan 13 [1953]

Wish you were here to eat chili with me. I can’t afford any beer to wash it down with but if Mama had you and the kids to talk to maybe I could make some behind the stove and she wouldn’t know it or we could stand guard on it one at a time with a stick of stove wood. … It’s nearly mail time so will go. Write when you can.

Fri [Mar] 11 – 55

I would like to see your new boy. I bet he is cute. … You know and Mama can tell you that there is one size for babies when I like them the best. It’s when they get about (a year or so old). Smaller they don’t know you. Bigger they are too smart to have anything to do with me anymore. You all come as quick as you can. …

Aug 3 – 55

…come at once I am desperately ill. I have been out of beer ever since you left. I was so dry yesterday Mama and Trisha gave me a glass of Truade. I thought mabbe it would taste like beer so I drank half of it before I tasted the d- stuff. It is deadly poison and unless you come at once and bring some beer I wont make it.

(just after a graddaughter was born in late 1956)

Sure glad your big deal is over. I know she is cute. Take good care of her for as you know the value is coming down fast on (two other granddaughters). They are so mean if we are going to trade them for beer we sure need that cute little one to use as loot. Take care of yourself and come as soon as you can.

May 24 – 63

How are you feeling? By now you know that for the last hundred years or so the closer it comes time for another kid to be born the more I fret. I used to cold get and stay a little drunk until it was over but know I can’t even do that so I just have to fret. So take care of yourself and get this deal over. Let us know when it’s over and I will celebrate as much and long as Mama will let me. She hides my bottle you know and I am disgustingly sober by the time I find it.

(just after grandson’s birth in June 1963)

I am glad that you are over with your deal as I know perhaps better than most people just how much h— that is. There is just one thing that bothers me now and that’s why in the h— are you and (your sister) hatching out all these little old mean sorry boys? If you produce one that will match Whiskey Pete (a then-three-year-old grandson) the whole east coast will be in danger. Write when you can.

June 17 [1968]

Honey I don’t like to hear about you being sick. If those Yankee SOBs don’t treat you right call me and I will come give them a knuckle sandwitch.

We lost him 32 years ago yesterday.

Rest in peace, Daddy Clay.

We miss you.

We always will.

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