Local Lifestyle

Saturday, Oct 27 2012 03:00 PM

HERB BENHAM: Six generations: A lot of limbs on this family tree

By The Bakersfield Californian

Six generations? I avoid these stories because they make my head spin. It's like when someone talks about their sister-in-law's brother-in-law, once removed.

It was a recent Friday and Jennifer Dodd was at the paper to talk about her family. All six generations. She had called twice and sent several emails. The multi-generational do not get that way by taking a knee.

I asked Jennifer, a medical assistant, whether six living generations was unusual.

"I looked it up for 2010," she said. "I could only find one, nationally."

There is more than one, but six generations is rare. The Guinness world record for the most generations alive simultaneously is seven. I don't know how you break seven, unless you get your head frozen.

"My great-grandmother Susie is 93 and my grandmother Joanne is 71," she said. "My mom, Chris, is 55. I'm 38, my son, Patrick, is 22 and his son, Andrew, is 2 months."

That's six, all right. I thought my family was doing pretty well, but we're stuck in a rut at three. Not that anybody is fishing for grandchildren.

"There are 54 people in our family," she said. "Other than my great-grandfather Johnny, who died two years ago, everybody else is still alive."

With that, she knock-knocked on the table as if relaying this information would be enough to send a great-aunt reeling to the floor in an apoplectic fit.

Wait a minute. There are 54 people in your family, and besides your great-grandfather Johnny, only one of them has died? What are you guys doing over there? What's your secret?

I had never met a family that was better at staying alive. Influenza, pestilence, crossing the street when you've had too much to drink, falling from a pecan tree? Nothing could touch this family.

I sat up straighter in my chair, ditched my snotty attitude and started asking questions.

Jennifer's family are mostly Southern Baptists. Could their ability to withstand death have to do with the conversion experience, where the believer is totally immersed in the water for their baptism? They don't just slap a little water in the face like aftershave. You're all in.

They don't mind food either.

"My great-grandmother and grandmother owned J & J Cafe on Roberts and Chester," Jennifer said. "They ran it between 1971 and 1983. My mom worked there, too, and when she had me, she put me in the back in a dish tray."

Susie, the matriarch, and Joanne, her daughter, now live together in Oneonta, Ala. Although Joanne says she takes care of her mother, her mother swears the opposite, according to Jennifer.

"My grandmother is almost full-blooded Cherokee Indian," said Chris, Jennifer's mom (if you're keeping a cheat sheet).

Susie is a good Southern cook. Her table is laden with fried collard greens fried okra and fried green tomatoes. She'll eat hot peppers, too, like they're candy corn.

The lesson? She's not fussy. When Susie is hungry, Susie eats whatever Susie wants to eat.

"There are woods behind her house where she picks watercress and rabbit lettuce," Chris said.

"She has two gardens that she tends. They can live for three years off what she and mom can. When they came to visit, they brought pickled okra and pear relish (chow chow).

"My great-grandmother likes to quilt too," said Jennifer.

Mother and daughter produce 20 quilts a year, which they give away to people in church.

"My great-grandmother and grandmother flew to Bakersfield a couple weeks ago to meet Andrew, the youngest member of the clan," Jennifer said. "They had a blast. One day, they baby-sat Andrew. They held him, held him and held him."

Susie and Joanne went shopping at Valley Plaza, and they dragged Jennifer around the mall. Susie was looking for a short sweater.

"Susie walked for three hours in the mall that day," Chris said. "Granny can still walk you into the dirt."

The family is good at staying alive. But how about marriage?

Jennifer has been married 19 years, her mom has been married twice, her grandmother three times, and her great-grandmother twice.

Maybe that's the secret. Once is good. Twice is better. Three works, too.

Susie doesn't drive, although she has a license. The state of Alabama even sent her a motorcycle license. I could see her on a Harley staring down a Hell's Angel.

Susie wants to be buried as an Indian. Last year, her granddaughter, Chris, made her burial shroud, a beaded deerskin dress with a fringe and moccasins. They braided Susie's hair -- which she could sit on, it's so long -- so Susie could see what she will look like when she's laid out.

Her burial clothes are ready in a bag. I'm not sure she's going anywhere soon. Susie has two gardens to tend and five generations to look after.

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