Charlotte Talley never knew her grandmother, Josie.
After all, Josie Pyles Saunders abruptly abandoned her family in Denison, Texas, in 1939 or so, leaving estranged husband Walter Saunders to raise their 13 children (three had died before she took off). Family legend has it that she said she was going to the store one evening and never returned, vanishing without a trace in the days before the Internet made tracking people through online public records and genealogy sites possible. One family theory is that she ran off with a man from town. Another is that Walter Saunders never remarried because he always expected she would return to him and the family. He died in 1955. Typically, the older kids took on the responsibility of raising the younger ones.
Born in 1950 and more than a decade after Josie left, Talley grew up knowing very little about Josie because her father, Donald, refused to talk about his mother at all.
“He was very hurt by her,” said Talley, who grew up in the Modesto area and now lives in Jamestown. “They all were. How could she leave 13 kids like that? Whenever I asked about her, he wouldn’t talk.”
But information that came her way about a month ago is making Talley rethink at least part of that equation. We’ll get to that momentarily.
While Josie’s children indeed were hurt and angry – only one is still alive and in Texas – some of the grandchildren took it upon themselves to find out what really happened to her. Over the past few months, one of Talley’s cousins in Texas cracked at least some of the Josie code.
Through Josie’s maiden name (Pyles) and Social Security number, a cousin discovered their grandmother died in 1962. She is buried in Turlock Memorial Park as Josie Nickels, alongside husband Louis Nickels, who preceded her in death by two years. The cousin learned that after bolting Texas, Josie likely hid out for a while with relatives in Oklahoma – she was part Chickasaw Indian – before turning up in Arizona. Then she headed to California, specifically Hughson. Whether she knew Louis Nickels from Texas – where he was born – or met him here remains a mystery.
Talley’s uncle in Texas, 80-year-old William Saunders, sent her the information telling her where Josie is buried. Here? In the Valley? Talley went to the cemetery and photographed Josie’s grave marker for them.
This past week, she also called The Modesto Bee to get a copy of the obituary, which reported that Josie fell ill while in Yosemite National Park and died in the infirmary there. One other bit of information in the single-paragraph obit is what has Talley intrigued: that while she never knew Josie as a grandmother, they very likely came face to face by happenstance. Really ...
Talley’s family moved from Texas to the Modesto area sometime around 1952 because Talley’s mom had a sister living here. They lived for about five years in Hughson, at one point in a house near Hughson Church of Christ. According to Josie Nickels’ obituary notice, the church hosted her funeral service Aug. 8, 1962, which suggests she was a member of the congregation.
“That church was right across the street from where we lived,” Talley said. “I used to walk to the different churches in Hughson. I know I went to that one. I’d have gone to the same church. I could have been sitting right next to her.”
And wouldn’t have known. After all, grandma Josie took off more than a decade before Talley was born. Likewise, Josie probably never would have expected that one of her sons would by pure coincidence bring his family from Texas to the same small California town 1,630 miles from Denison.
Equally strange is that Talley’s dad, who worked at Tri Valley Growers, never saw her around town during the time they both lived in Hughson. He was 14 when she left, so he likely would have recognized her. Did she recognize him and avoid him? They’ll never know.
Talley was 12 and her dad had moved the family to Modesto by the time Josie died in 1962.
They still are learning the particulars, and some of it might never be known. Josie’s obit listed no survivors whatsoever. The family has no documentation showing that Josie ever formally divorced Walter Sanders after leaving the family.
Did she go to Mexico to get a divorce? Talley wonders. Or did Josie just use Nickels’ name?
They still have so many questions about her life – and specifically how she could leave her 13 children behind? Did Talley ever see her?
Yet 76 years after she left, the only one they truly really know the answer to is, “Where’s Grandma Josie?”