There are two main definitions for the noun matriarch: a woman who is the head of a family or tribe and an older woman who is powerful within a family or organization. If you ever met Gearl Dene Cunningham, and especially if you knew her, this definition was personified for you. She was a strong and progressive woman even before anyone knew there were any.
Gearl Dene was born and died on the land designated an Oklahoma Centennial Ranch where her family raised her. She and Dan started out with a piece of her family legacy and added more, passing it on to their own three boys who will undoubtedly pass it on to their kids. She will lie beside Dan in sight of their home along the pasture where they raised horses for so long. Gearl Dene was born in a little house just north of the horse barn. “There were cracks between the boards,” she said. “In the winter when we got up, the dipper would be frozen in the water bucket.” Later Gearl Dene’s dad built “the fancy house” across the road. This is the middle of Joe Bob and Glenna’s house. The hallway is the beautiful hard oak boards which were once the outside of the fancy house.
One of my favorite stories Gearl Dene told was about her son Joe Bob. “I don’t know how it turned out he made a teacher,” she told me, “he hated school.” This particular morning Gearl Dene had sent the boys out to meet the school bus, and she had a town job at the time. “You know back then you had to wear a dress with a belt at the waist and high heels. I looked out the window and Dearl and Ronn got on the bus, but I saw Joe Bob going across the pasture.” So she took off across the pasture after him, dress, heels and all. “He ran, but I hollered at him, ‘don’t you run from me.'” Then she looked right in my eye in that direct way she had, with that little smirk at the corner of her mouth. “It was then I saw the hardest moment of indecision I have ever seen.” That was her wit. She was quick and tough and nobody’s shrinking violet.
For three generations Dan and Gearl Dene were the glue that held a large loving family together. They were happiest when everyone was crammed into their little house. Along with all those Cunninghams, many others were brought into the family by extension, including me. I have always said I have two families, the wonderful one I was born in to and the one who adopted me. The difference is, my blood family had to take me. The Cunninghams didn’t.
She didn’t take any sass off any of the kids, no matter which generation it was. One day when Jessi was staying with her after she got sick, she wrote “Nanny got the fly swatter after me twice today.” That was her way. She was as loving as could be, but she expected kids to mind and adults to conduct themselves with decorum. She repected those who did. Her granddaughter Lycrecia told me recently, “she thinks every good man is hers.” I’m pretty sure I know what she thought about the ones who aren’t, too.
The grandchildren and great grandchildren called her Nanny Dene, but that was never how I saw her. She was Gearl Dene to me, a smart, tough, fun loving gal that was my friend. She loved livestock shows and dogs and being outside – things we had in common. Many years ago when I first met her, she said when she was a girl, she thought since her name was Gearl Dene, it would be great if she had a boy to name him Dearl Gene. And sure enough, that’s what she did. How wonderful it is that Dearl gets to be her namesake. That’s the perks of being the first one, I guess.
There’s no way to say how much we will miss her. It will leave a big hole where the glue used to be. But she’s standing up straight to her full, tall height today beside Dan. I’m sure she’ll visit us here and there until we see her again. I believe Cardinals are loved ones visiting us. Crecia told me one day a big male was watching Gearl Dene eat dinner through the window. I think that was Dan. She had a life well-lived and meant a great deal to a great many.
She came from Rose Prairie, a part of it. We will give her back, but the family will miss its matriarch.