Rosa Blanche, John Wilson, and Mary Dent McGee were three of the ten children of John Wilson McGee and Cynthia Ida Blanche Dent. They were born in Crawford County, Georgia; Rosa in 1883, Johnny in 1901, and Mary (known as Mary D to her family) in 1903. Mary D, Johnny and Rosa's stories remind me of the quote about Southerners and their eccentric relatives: no one asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask which side they're on.
|Rosa McGee (center) with sisters Varrye (left) and Winnie (right)|
Rosa McGee was never married and lived in the McGee homeplace in Crawford County with her family all of her life. After her parents' deaths, she stayed on with her brother and sister. Rosa worked for the University of Georgia Extension Service and was an early proponent of soybeans in the 1930's - just the plain bean, not the products we have today. No doubt during the Depression, many people were quite happy to consume plain soybeans. She collected Indian artifacts, tended a beautiful home garden and cared for her brother, who was blind and suffered from epilepsy, and sister, who was mentally ill. Rosa was described as "mannish" (possibly a euphemism for gay). A family story tells of her inviting a pretty young schoolteacher to dinner, using her nephew as bait. Sadly for Rosa, the schoolteacher and nephew hit it off and later married, creating lasting tension between Rosa and her niece-in-law. "Why Lucille, you wore plaid, you know I like you in stripes!" "Lucille, you wore pastels, you know I like you in paisley." The poor woman could never get her outfits right for a visit with Rosa.
|Mary Dent McGee|
Mary D was a beautiful young woman who suffered from schizophrenia for much of her life. Her illness seems to have begun when she was in her 20's, after she had attended college and begun teaching. Mary D carried disinfectant and paper towels in her purse to sanitize any surface she might come into contact with, and the first order of business when she visited anyone was to take a bath. She had a form of distorted body perception that caused her to wear excessive amounts of makeup. She often behaved strangely because of her illness, but would try to model her behavior on her sister Rosa's in order to appear more normal. Despite her challenges, Mary D was described as "charming and engaging," and was flamboyantly feminine.
Johnny McGee's disabilities could have caused him to be warehoused in an institution, but his family kept him at home, where he was an active member of the household. In spite of his disabilities, he also had extraordinary abilities; he remembered every family birthday, event and wedding, even if he had not been present, and the weather on that day. He collected and worked on clocks, helped his mother in the kitchen, and "pitched" the Sunday hymns. (As Primitive Baptists, the McGee family did not use musical instruments.)
At one point in her life, Mary D disappeared for a long period of time. This was not uncommon; it was assumed her absences were times when she was at the State Mental Hospital at Milledgeville. During this disappearance, however, the family was considering having her declared dead in order to have her father's estate probated after his death in 1936 (which had special provisions for Mary D and Johnny because of their special needs), but couldn't until both Mary D and Johnny had died. Then in the late 1950's, Mary D reappeared with a Hungarian circus performer husband 16 years her junior. Julius Mester appeared to be as mentally unstable as his wife, whom he supposedly met in the circus (or at Milledgeville). Despite his own mental health issues, he became an important part of the household, taking over the catfish ponds at the McGee homeplace, a source of income, and becoming caregiver to Johnny when he was dying of cancer. The McGee household must have seemed like something from a Southern Gothic novel: a lesbian, a blind epileptic, a beautiful, fading schizophrenic, and a Hungarian circus performer.
Unfortunately, mental illness caused more serious episodes in the McGee household. Mary D tried to kill her young nephew with a butcher knife (despite the fact that she loved him). When he died later in life, she and Julius concluded that his mother had killed him, causing a rift between them and his grieving mother that never mended. Mary D and Julius built a home on the McGee property, which Mary D somehow blew up in a gas explosion. She developed breast cancer and had a double mastectomy, which she thought was a good enough reason to go topless, asking, "don't I look like a little boy?"
Rosa McGee died in 1963 at the age of 80. Johnny died in 1973 at 71. Mary D died in October 1982 at the age of 75. Julius died in 2004 at age 80. All are buried at the Salem Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery in Crawford, Georgia.
|McGee family (front row): Grady, Vari, Mary D, Ted, Gordon. (back row): Johnny, John Wilson, Quinton, Ida, Rosa, Winnie, Davis|
|McGee plot at Salem Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery|