Theresa Mae (Alexander) Fife



Submitted by Frank Butcher, updated May 11, 2007

Theresa Mae Alexander grew up close to the Red River near Petty, Texas.  She probably met Stephen Fife when he came from Mississippi to nearby Honey Grove with his family.  Theresa’s parents did not like Stephen, and were opposed to his budding romance with their daughter.  Possibly in an attempt to put a halt to the relationship, Will and Annie sent Theresa to a college in Tyler.  Theresa was a student there for one and a half years, but apparently she and Stephen kept in touch, and eventually Stephen went to Tyler and the couple married.  Theresa and Stephen went with the rest of the Fife family to settle near Ben Hur, where they had a family of five boys and four girls.  Stephen said that all he had to do was hang his pants on the bedpost and Theresa would get pregnant.Theresa had musical talent and some training.  Before she was married, Theresa played the piano for the local Methodist Church where she and her parents were members.  Her daughter, Genevieve, remembers that the family had a player piano in the living room of their house, and that her mother would entertain the children every Saturday by playing that piano.
Theresa’s father died after she was married, the result of being kicked in the stomach by a mule. The inheritance that Theresa received after her father’s death was the means by which Stephen was able to purchase the family farm at Ben Hur.
Theresa made excellent buttermilk biscuits.  Her technique was to put the biscuit mix in a bowl or on the table, and make a "well"
in the center where she put the buttermilk.  Then Theresa would gradually work the biscuit mix into the buttermilk with her fingers until the right consistency was obtained.  The resulting dough was rolled flat, cut, and baked.  Amazingly, with nine children clamoring for breakfast, Theresa would cook whatever each child requested.  If the kids placed nine different ‘orders’, then Theresa cooked nine different meals.  Her niece, Ruby Fife, remembered that Theresa would open a can of syrup, which would be passed around the table, and the person who finished off the can would just toss it out the window.  According to his daughter Eileen, Stephen had to have hot biscuits and cornbread twice a day, and the family had never heard of light bread.  Ruby also recalled that Stephen had to buy a new stove every year because the bottoms burned out from constant use.
To the right and behind the Fife house was a building called the “cabin”, where cars were kept.  There was a large bell atop the cabin, which was used to summon family members from their work in the fields at noon when lunch was served.  According to James Fife, the family had a mule that would bray loudly when the bell rang, and eventually the mule became so conditioned to the routine that he brayed at noon even if the bell was not rung. Appropriately, the mule was named “Belle”.
Stephen rarely attended church, but the kids went regularly.  Theresa stayed home to get Sunday lunch ready, which was almost always fried chicken.  A favorite desert was sugar pies. Theresa made up biscuit dough, rolled it out, added sugar, butter and vanilla, then turned it over and baked it.
According to her daughter-in-law, Mary Beth Lenamon Fife, Theresa was “very even tempered, a sweet woman”.   Her son, Haskell, said about his mom “She was very calm, never got mad, and if she did, you never knew about it.  She never griped or hollered at you.  She was bound to be a good woman to raise 9 kids, especially 5 boys, and never lose her temper.” Her daughters remembered their mother as very loving and easy-going.  They recalled that when Theresa’s feelings were hurt, rather than lash out, she would retreat into the kitchen and cry.
Theresa worked all of the time.  Her boys always had to have freshly ironed shirts for their socializing, so Theresa spent much time washing and ironing.  Stephen bought his wife a gasoline-powered washing machine to help with this chore.  Ruby remembered that by the time the wash was hung on the fence to dry, the collection of clothing on the fence reached down the road to the neighboring house.  Theresa tended a large garden, canning vegetables and even sauerkraut and beef.  She also cleaned out the intestines of slaughtered hogs and stuffed them with meat to make sausage.  Theresa had a black lady named Mattie who helped her with the huge workload.  While Mattie was single she lived in a small house on the farm, but moved to her own place when she married.  Mattie worked for the Fife family for more than 40 years, and reportedly was the only person who could deal effectively with Stephen, who was stubborn and often harsh with his family.
At the beginning of school, Stephen would go to town and bring back enough material to make three dresses for each of the four girls.  The girls would peruse the Sears catalog to find styles that they liked, and Theresa would then cut patterns from old newspapers and sew 12 different dresses.
Theresa had very little nice clothing for herself.  She was only 5’, 2” tall, and weighed just 98 pounds when she married, but became very overweight as an older woman, and did not go out often.  Her daughter-in-law, Mary Beth Fife, remembered that she and Haskell had to buy Theresa a dress that she could wear to their wedding. Theresa’s main social outlet was to do quilting in the winter with neighboring ladies.
Theresa died at the age of 62 from the effects of a stroke.  She was in and out of consciousness in her last days, and heard her granddaughter, Linda Fife, crying in the yard.  The last words of this lady who had devoted her entire life to taking care of her children and grandchildren were "don't let them hurt my baby".
Frank Butcher