Friday, February 27, 2015

Famous Playmates

In 2007 music journalist Andrew Means published Some Memories: Growing Up with Marty Robbins - As Remembered by His Twin Sister, Mamie. Mamie recalled a number of anecdotes about growing up with her famous brother, including a few about a girl she met and befriended after becoming neighbors in Glendale, Arizona - my grandmother, Nancy Witter.

For those who may not be familiar with him, here is a little YouTube introduction to Marty Robbins, performing two of his songs about El Paso in 1965 and 1978:

I remember hearing about grandma's famous neighbor from time to time when I was growing up, but aside from being an interesting thing to mention whenever Big Iron came on the radio, it wasn't something that seemed to have much to do with family history - until my cousin Chad acquired a copy, signed by the author, and sent it to me a few years ago.

Dick Jr. and Nancy Witter, 1930s Glendale
Mamie and Martin Robinson - "Marty Robbins" was his stage name - were twins, born five minutes apart in September 1925 in a two-room house near Glendale, Arizona. The family moved around quite a bit, from that house (which was about 8 miles north of Glendale along what is now 59th Avenue) to Prescott, to Phoenix, north to Cactus (which no longer exists, being absorbed by Phoenix suburbs around the intersection of Thunderbird and Cave Creek Roads) and eventually, back to Glendale.

Dick Witter Sr., my great-grandfather, ran a dairy farm there, and Hannah Merle (whose family helped settle Glendale in the 1910s - which you can read about here) raised their two kids, Dick Jr. and Nancy. Nancy was born in March 1925, and Richard in February 1921.

Around 1932 or 1933, Mamie recalls moving from Cactus, where they attended Sunnyside Elementary (which later became Greenway Middle School), to Glendale, where they enrolled in the Peoria School District. "We walked about half a mile to catch the bus," she says, "and it seemed we rode a long way to Peoria."

I attended Peoria Schools myself, though 50 years later. In high school, I had to ride the bus about 15 miles from my house at 89th Avenue & Deer Valley Road to Cactus High, so I have a pretty good idea what that bus ride might have felt like to Mamie and Martin. And this is where my grandmother comes into the story!

"A little girl named Nancy came over to me and asked me my name. I told her it was Mamie and she laughed, saying it was the funniest name she had ever heard.  I happened to agree with her, but nevertheless I started to cry. Later she became my best friend during the years we went to Peoria School."
Richard and Nancy, c. 1930

That does sound like my grandma, I have to admit. I've inherited a bit of that trait myself - the tendency to notice the odd and call it out without picking up on the social cues that would alert a normal person that they had caused an offense. Nancy probably had no idea that she had caused Mamie any distress! Despite the initial hurt feelings, though, when Nancy invited Mamie to play with her at recess, all was apparently forgiven.

Mamie had a lot to say about her twin brother's antics. He liked to challenge other boys to wrestle, torment her and her friends with taunting nicknames, and he even indulged in the occasional bit of petty shoplifting from the local store - much to Mamie's horror.

She also had some interesting things to say about her friend's family - giving me a view of my grandmother's life I wouldn't have otherwise had:

"These were depression years for everyone, although at the time it seemed as if some were far richer than others in this farming community.  It wasn't until years later that we found out that other families were just as doubtful about making it financially as we were.
"Besides, riches are all a matter of how you see things. I thought my friend Nancy was really rich when I visited her and saw that she lived i a house that wasn't falling down, and that she had her own bedroom with pretty blankets and bedspreads.
"Years later she told me she liked to visit me as a child because I had so much more to play with than she did. By that she meant spaces to roam, trees to climb, and the endless thickets that served us as imaginary rooms and houses in which to play.
"Nancy was from a small family. She had one brother. I thought he was cruel and scary because he was a bully. On the school bus, he would take my nickel away from me. Not even Martin could help me get it back.
"When we had no school, Nancy would often visit with me all day. She would arrive early in the morning and stay until her father came after her.
"When she came to play, there would be a certain amount of jealous rivalry between my cousin Lois - another frequent playmate - and me. But in an effort to outfox Martin, the three of us would usually end up banding together and the visit would turn out well.
"We had to watch continually for Martin and his tricks. Once I thought I had lost Nancy's friendship because of him.  We were playing around a haystack.  It seemed awfully high to me at the time, but in reality was probably only a few feet.  Martin sneaked up on one side of it and jumped down on us, taking us completely by surprise and scaring us badly in the bargain.
"Nancy began crying and wanted to go home right then. She had no way of getting to her house, so instead she went with Lois to her home. I was sure I had lost my best friend, and was really upset with Martin. I began crying and chasing after him. He tried to say he was sorry for scaring us, but at that point it was too late for apologies."
      ("Some Memories", pg. 80-81)

Nancy and Richard, c. 1930
It would seem that the girls were close enough friends to survive these setbacks. As they got older, some of the problems they faced were a little more serious. Martin and Mamie's father had long had a drinking problem, and it either got worse as they grew older, or they simply noticed it more. Either way, after a few years, the family moved out of their house and into two big tents they set up near what is now 59th Avenue and Thunderbird Road.

Life there was busy, and Mamie, her brothers, and their parents seemed to have an increasingly fractious relationship.

"Sometimes I would go to my friend Nancy's house, about five miles away, and play with her in peace. I would be given a ride over there, and we would play house or paddle in an irrigation ditch.
"Even at these times, we did not escape entirely. Often Martin would show up and throw rocks at us. It seemed as if he came from nowhere. When we went after him, he ran away laughing like crazy.
"Needless to say, Nancy didn't like him at all. Telling on him did no good, so we had to suffer. Mom definitely had a blind side when it came to Martin's tricks. The ditch, by the way, is still there. I think of us playing there every time I drive by it."
      ("Some Memories", pg. 94)
In 1937, Emma Robinson took Mamie, Martin, and the other siblings then still living at home, moved into Glendale, and divorced their father. It would seem that Mamie and Nancy saw less of each other after that. A few years later, when things got serious, Martin joined the Navy and went to War. Life moved on for everyone as he returned and eventually became an internationally famous country singer.

As a kid, my dad would always get excited when he heard a Marty Robbins tune on the local country station, KNIX. Sometimes he would allude to grandma's acquaintance with the singer, but it wasn't something the family talked about in great detail - just an interesting fact. For us, it was the beautiful voice, the cowboy tales, and the sense of a local boy making it big that made the songs important to us. But the older I get, the more I appreciate the small ways we are tied to our history and our culture.

Grandma died in 2004, the same year Mamie Robinson died. Without Mamie's recollections, I would only have a vague family legend about their relationship - but thanks to her (and to Mr. Means for making sure those recollections got published!), I have something small and precious to remember about the woman who painted this sunset, and a reason to hum a certain cowboy's tune while looking at it.


  1. Tad: I so enjoyed reading your evocative account. It's gratifying to know that the book has made a connection between your family and Mamie and Marty. I certainly never dreamt I'd discover more about the identity of Nancy. Sounds like your family might have a few stories of its own.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Andrew; it certainly wouldn't have been possible without you!

      One of the other stories I hope to tell here is about Nancy's brother, Richard. He had a pretty interesting life, and ended up retiring as a Maricopa county judge in the late 80s. Mamie's recollection of him as "scary" and a "bully", while not flattering, add to the texture of what I remember about him.

      I'll definitely reach out when I get around to telling THAT tale!