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Friday, April 28, 2017

What to Watch with a Bad Back

I threw my back out somehow while sleeping. So I have been alternating walking with lying on the floor watching movies on my laptop. Here’s what I watched, and what I thought.

Charade

Beware! Spoilers aplenty coming right up. This movie features the perfect cast, the perfect script, the perfect director, the perfect music. Henry Mancini music enhances it all. The many ways the song “Charade” is arranged and played are amazing. I can’t stop singing it in my head. Mancini music is the 1960s.

Cary Grant. Audrey Hepburn. Need I say more?! More! Walter Matthau and his droopy-eyed, non-threatening-until-the-end villainy. James Coburn and his cowboy drawl and gun tricks and those terrifying matches! George Kennedy looking bigger than anything with a menacing hook, slamming the door to the funeral parlor on the way in and on the way out. And his straight pin! Ned Glass and his hysterical sneezing. Audrey Hepburn eating everything and smoking too many of Walter Matthau’s cigarettes. Audrey Hepburn looking impossibly chic even when running for her life. Audrey Hepburn chasing Cary Grant. Cary Grant making faces. Cary Grant showering with his suit on. Cary Grant being equally menacing and attractively heroic. That cute little boy who played Jean-Louis looking not the least threatened by people talking about killing him—adorable!

The director, Stanley Donan was known for his musicals, but his handling of this suspense yarn proved him the worthy peer of Alfred Hitchcock. He kept the cast perfectly controlled at all times (even Cary Grant’s hamming up was not overdone), perfectly balancing the comedy, the romance, and the suspense. The disparity between Grant’s and Hepburn’s ages was well handled in assigning the aggression to Hepburn and the restraint to Grant.

The script is wonderful. The suspense consists of the war story in which five agents double-cross two governments for a lot of gold, and fifteen years later one after another double-crosses the rest for the entire hidden stash. The central question is where the stash is hidden, and Audrey Hepburn’s character is the key to that question. The romance concerns the damsel-in-distress who resourcefully stays a step ahead of the bad guys and chases the guy she wants to be rescued by but who may be one of the bad guys so she stays a step ahead of him too. In changing the romantic pursuit to the woman after the man, the script made the casting work out beautifully (not to mention sentimentally). The script provides Regina with an ironic arc from one husband with four identities whom she wants to divorce for his deception—to another husband with four identities whose constant deceptions are part of what attracts her to him: she cannot resist the puzzle box that is his character. What is at the core? She’s sure it’s a treasure, and she’s right. We can’t help loving a suspenseful romantic comedy like this.



Florence Foster Jenkins

I was introduced to recordings of Madame Florence when I was in college, and I loved her quirky, off-key, horrible and awesome rendition of Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria the best. I bought a cassette tape of her songs, and years later, I found that she was available on CD, so I bought those too. The movie was a must-see for me, and it did not disappoint. I appreciated the way Meryl Streep and the script writer and the director brought Madame Florence to life with a childlike yet wise approach to the business of making fun.

I loved the deeply conflicted devotion in the Hugh Grant character of St. Clair Bayfield. I loved the performance of Simon Helberg as the pianist Cosme McMoon who is drawn by the money and then by his odd affection for Madame Florence into the grand deception, even as he bemoans his loss of “reputation.” The deliciously ironic ambiguities in the story over whether she didn’t know her true lack of ability or had succeeded in convincing herself to believe an alternate reality, and over whether St. Clair does truly love her, and over whether McMoon is deluding himself about himself, allows us to follow patterns of deception and self-deception that are beautifully set off by Nina Arianda’s believable switch in Agnes Stark’s raucously mocking laughter to respectful encouragement, an homage to honesty.

Agnes Stark is the one character with whom most of the audience can readily identify, her gut reaction to first hearing Madame Florence being true to most of our own reactions. But her devastating honesty also leads her to recognize the honesty in what Madame Florence is trying to do, and she stands up to the booing crowd in Carnegie Hall and nearly single-handedly changes their perception—and ours—of how to appreciate that honest effort, flawed though it was. It is a pity the New York Post’s entertainment reporter didn’t stay to hear Agnes’s performance—he might have recognized its quality and changed his review. As it was, the movie draws an ambiguous cause-effect relationship between the review and Madame Florence’s death.

The real Florence Foster Jenkins died just a month after her Carnegie Hall performance, but it is less than clear that the concert led to her death, since she was declining anyway from the lifelong effects of syphilis. In both the movie and the reality, the concert was a bittersweet last hurrah and an acknowledgement that all the good will in the world can make a bad singer entertaining, but that is all.



La La Land

In the dreams of lovers of old movies, this movie is a fulfillment full of tributes to the classics. My favorite scene is the Casablanca moment when Mia appears in Seb’s. But then there’s the American in Paris montage, the homage to Rebel without a Cause at the planetarium, the nod to Funny Face in putting those balloons in Emma Stone’s hand, and a whole lot more, especially of Astaire-Rogers dance set ups. And if you’re a confirmed lover of nostalgic jazz to boot, this movie is all you could ask for.

The jazz music is exquisite. Ryan Gosling’s speech about the origins of jazz, how it works (“it’s conflict, and it’s compromise, and it’s new, it’s brand new every night”), and how passionate it can be is brilliant. Songs are good, lyrics are clever, and several tunes are hummable—“City of Stars” especially as it has a couple of reprises.

At a number of potentially romantic moments, you get a foreshadowing of the bittersweet ending, of why this couple is not destined to stay together. In their song about wasting a lovely night, the lyrics include that idea, but the image of Emma Stone donning tap shoes that match those that Ryan Gosling is already wearing is a signal that we are entering the world of unreality. In the “City of Stars” song, Ryan Gosling sings of something that’s just another dream that isn’t meant to be. Emma Stone echoes the same sentiment in her audition solo, “Here’s to the fools who dream . . . here’s to the mess we make.” In the planetarium scene where they float up and dance among the stars, it’s the ultimate underscoring of the fact that this movie portrays a fantasy that is not like real life, and the scene even ends with a classic movie “iris out,” a fade-out so called from the old technique of shrinking the camera lens iris down to no light. Their kiss turns unreal in this cinematic treatment. The ending of the movie includes a dream sequence showing how things might have worked out for the couple, but the facts are changed and the choices aren’t true to their characters. The reality feels better as the fantasy ends. We leave the theater feeling good, as was the intent of all old classic Hollywood musicals.

Cue Emma Stone humming “City of Stars.”

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Evidence of the City Directories

I was trying to figure out the course of my great-aunt Ruth’s nursing career. It’s hard to do without much documentation. She didn’t keep a diary that I know of, and when my father moved her from her apartment in Portland, Oregon, after she fell and broke her hip, a lot of her papers must have been thrown out to condense her things to be moved into our house with eight people already living in it. Then her papers were probably further condensed when my parents moved from their big house to a double-wide trailer house. (Later they built a large house again.) A final condensation of papers happened when my parents decided to reduce their household down to a single travel trailer during the years they followed the sunshine and had no fixed address.

Aunt Ruth wasn’t much for talking about her own life. When I got to know her well the year that she and I were left alone in California together, we talked mainly about her sister, the grandmother I never knew.

But now I’m digging into her past and have discovered a source of information about her professional life: city directories on Amazon.com.

Ruth Boedefeld was born late in 1892. That means that it was about 1910 when she graduated from high school. Maybe even 1911. What did she do next?

1912 Elkhart, Indiana City Directory
The 1912 city directory for Elkhart, Indiana, shows that she was an assistant secretary to the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association). The directory says she boarded at 528 Vistula in Elkhart, which was her parents’ home. (I think it’s fun to see that her sister, Beatrice, rated a large bold-face entry for her position as the society editor on the Elkhart Truth. But their father, the cabinet-making foreman at the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern railroad shop, might have felt slighted—or not—he seems to have encouraged his daughters in their careers.)

Bee on that large front porch
In 1914 the city directory has Ruth as a student, still boarding with her parents, but their residence changed to 714 W Marion. It was a large house (the 2011 Google screen shot shows that the house had been divided), and there were a few pictures of their front porch showing they had a lot of room. Back to Ruth the student—I have no idea what she was studying at that point.


Ruth didn’t study nursing until a few years later. In the summer of 1916 her sister, Bee, went to Yellowstone for a few months, and Ruth was her substitute at the Elkhart Truth in the interim. Perhaps she was taking a typing class. Typewriters had by that time assumed the form that they would keep for decades. The Truth office reporters used under-mount typewriters until at least 1917, when Bee bought her own tiny portable Corona typewriter.

The 1917 typewriter

In the 1917 city directory Ruth is listed as a clerk for the New York Central Railroad (the successor to the LS and MS). Then of course the United States joined the World War in Europe.

Ruth went to nursing school and joined the United States Army Nursing Corps. The 1920 Census shows her in Washington D.C. at Walter Reed Hospital. Down on line 95 she appears, an Army nurse still, a little over a year since the Armistice on November 11, 1918.

The entry in the 1922 Elkhart, Indiana city directory is a little sad. Ruth was back at home and working as a nurse at the local hospital in Elkhart. Her father died that October, and during the next year she and her mother settled up his estate, sold their home, and headed to Portland, Oregon.

The next city directory to show Ruth is Portland, Oregon in 1924. She and her mother took a house in the Ladd Addition, a planned community in a wagon-wheel configuration with a rose garden in the center. Ruth worked for the Visiting Nurse Association, probably as soon as she arrived in Portland. The Visiting Nurse Association was a loosely-allied series of organizations around the country of home-health care services. In Portland they ran clinics for giving inoculations and basic child and maternal health care.
The 1924 Portland, Oregon City Directory

The 1926 Portland, Oregon, city directory shows that Laura and Ruth moved four or five blocks east to a place on the corner of SE 9th and Market Streets. Ruth was working for the Visiting Nurse Association.

The 1927 directory shows no change in their location or Ruth’s professional position.

But in 1929 they had moved about a mile north to 789 NE Pacific Street. There was no change yet in Ruth’s profession.

The Great Depression had no effect on Ruth’s job. Nursing was always necessary. But perhaps she and her mother could not afford the place on Pacific, for they moved several blocks north to 753 Weidler where they paid $35 a month for the rent, according to the U.S. Federal Census for 1930, taken in April of that year.

They stayed there, as recorded in the 1931 city directory, which shows Ruth as expected, but her mother is listed several lines above with her last name quite mangled as Boebeseld. Ruth is listed also right below her mother as a “registered nurse.”

In 1933 the city directory shows a change in Ruth’s status. She is the Welfare Supervisor for the Visiting Nurse Association. She and her mother had moved again, 15 blocks east, to a little house.

When the 1940 Census was taken, Ruth and her mother had moved to 1202 Tillamook, at the corner of NE 12th Street. They had Bee’s son living with them at that time. Ruth was doing well in her profession.

Showing seven places Ruth lived in Portland, Oregon
The war years were hard on everyone. Ruth’s nephew went off into the Army, and her mother, Laura, died in 1945 a few months before the war ended. Ruth rose to the position of general supervisor of the Visiting Nurse Association in Portland.

In the years afterward, Ruth rented apartment No. 2 in a double building at the corner of NE 16th and Hancock streets. She lived there for the next two decades.

I am not sure whether she retired when she was 65 years old, in late 1957, or later. She appeared in the 1956 Portland City Directory still listed as a supervisor for the Visiting Nurse Association. When the 1959 edition came out, she was listed at her residence, but no profession.

And that is where the city directories leave me hanging. I don’t know where else to look for later city directories. But they might turn up, and they might give me some more information.

Still looking . . .

Aunt Ruth in her apartment on NE 16th St

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Aunt Ruth’s Jewels

Why the Amethyst Jewelry?
Opal ring

My great-aunt Ruth had some wonderful jewelry. In looking it over, I have been wondering why in her collection of birthstone jewelry, she had amethysts. Her own birthstone was the opal, and she had some opal rings, or her sister did. Her sister was also born in October.
Opal and seed pearl ring

Garnet brooch and ring
Her mother, Laura, was born in January, so her birthstone was the garnet. She had some beautiful garnets, including a brooch and ring that we were always told had been bought off a Russian aristocrat after the 1918 Revolution.

Jade necklace
Aunt Ruth favored green jewelry, especially jade. She had some beautiful jade pieces. One of her jade necklaces was set in old silver, with each lozenge intricately carved. She had a lot of great costume jewelry in a number of shades of green as well.
Shades of green!
Aunt Ruth also had a several topaz pieces in a distinctive golden color. Topaz is the November birthstone. Both the Boedefeld grandparents, Katherina and Ferdinand, were born in November. Perhaps the topaz pieces were theirs. I have no idea what the actual age of the jewelry is, but the watch chain at least seems to be from the nineteenth century and could have belonged to Ferdinand. What era the pendant is from I cannot tell. I have not been able to find anything like it online and jewelers specializing in antiques are not thick on the ground around here. Same goes for the topaz brooch. But the ring is still in its original box, labeled Elkhart, Indiana, which dates it to between 1896 and 1921, when Ferdinand Joseph Boedefeld and his wife Laura Worsley lived there. It is a very large size, just right for a man. Perhaps Ferdinand bought it and wore it in memory of his parents.


Various costume jewelry brooches, some glass, some jewels, some enamel

19th century rosary
Besides the topaz jewelry, Aunt Ruth had an old rosary in her possession. Since she was not a Catholic, but her Boedefeld grandparents were, this probably belonged to them. The story is that it belonged to old Ferdinand Boedefeld. We also have an old German Catholic prayer book with his name written in it, and his birth date in 1809. It was supposed to have been given to his son Ferdinand Joseph, his namesake. I have to be glad that primogeniture was not the belief of that branch of my family, or I would never have these treasures—there were three brothers older than Ferdinand Joseph.


Amethyst jewelry
The amethyst jewelry is a little harder to figure out. Ferdinand Joseph Boedefeld was born in February, so this was his birthstone, and perhaps the watch chain was his as well. But the pendant and earrings are for a lady to wear. I can make a guess that Laura wore them in his honor, but that is only a guess. I read somewhere that in the nineteenth century amethysts became the rage everywhere, and then again in the art deco period of jewelry making, amethysts again were extremely popular. Maybe the birthstone connection is there, but it does not have to be the reason for wearing such a lovely stone. I would wear it a lot if it were mine.

The earrings used to be the screw type, but my mother found them very uncomfortable and changed them to these clips. I think maybe the two amethyst drops originally hung at the top of the large pendant, but that is because of the style of the topaz pendant. I love the look of the setting. When I was in high school I used to raid my mother’s jewelry box after she had gone to work in the morning. I wore the earrings to school more than once, back when they were still the screw type. I wished I could have pierced ears in those days, but my parents would not give permission. As soon as I went off to college I had my ears pierced. The screw type earrings were the closest thing in those days to pierced earrings.

Finally, in my catalog of Aunt Ruth’s jewels are a couple of delicate necklaces. I don’t wear a lot of silver, but the silver and crystal necklace is an exceptional piece. It is one of the most beautiful in its simplicity and elegance, so I do wear it often. The other, a piece crafted for one of the organizations that Aunt Ruth belonged to, I used to wear when I was younger but not much anymore. Still, it is a pretty thing.


Having made a habit out of watching Antiques Roadshow, I have to look over my pieces and think whether any of them is a hidden treasure, but no. These are all valuable for their family connection, and that is all. Every time I look at them or wear any of them, I think of Aunt Ruth, and that is a great reason to keep them for themselves.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Aunt Ruth, Affectionately

I had the privilege of knowing my great-aunt Ruth for 21 years before she died. Not just knowing her, but becoming friends the older I grew. I plan to write about her in stages, the first being my personal recollections with a little cursory research. I have a lot of sources to read through for further entries in her life story. I wrote a post in here years ago about another “unattached” aunt and had always planned to add Aunt Ruth’s story to that series, but I haven’t done it until now because her story is so much more involved than that of Fannie Ginders.

My great-aunt Ruth was one of my favorite people. I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate her until I was older, but at least I grew to appreciate her enough while she was still alive that we became somewhat friends despite the 60+ years between our ages.

Ruth Malona Boedefeld was born in Tacoma, Washington on October 4, 1892, joining her five-year-old sister Beatrice in the family. The two sisters became fast friends.

The little family moved back east to Elkhart, Indiana, when the girls were still small, and there they grew up. They had a wide circle of friends, always headed by Bee, who was the acknowledged leader of all their acquaintance. She was called “Queen Bee,” and Ruth was her first attendant in her court.

They imagined all kinds of games and thought up plays and elaborate costumed scenarios to enact on the long summer days between school years.

Ruth completed her schooling in Elkhart in 1911 or 1912, and then she cast about for something more to do. Her sister was working for the local newspaper, and when she left to spend the summer of 1916 in Yellowstone National Park, Ruth took her place as a substitute reporter. Bee was a gifted writer, but Ruth’s talent filled in very well.

Ruth was always active in the Episcopal Church. She grew up in a musical family, with all the members of the family singing in the church choir. She participated in all the church socials as well, and she taught in the Sunday schools. She played the piano very well, but she didn’t continue with it after she was an adult.

Ruth was an attractive young woman, with naturally curly red hair and sparkling blue eyes, a dimple in her chin and a cute upturned nose. She had a lot of boyfriends, more even than her vivacious sister. But somehow none of them quite worked out permanently.

When the World War came along in 1917, Ruth began training to be a nurse. She joined the Army and went to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. Nurses were assigned as lower-grade officers to keep them from fraternizing with the enlisted men, but of course human nature got around the rules and the young women were often out on dates with the men.

Ruth was out on a group date with a couple of her fellow nurses and an enlisted man for each of them when she had an accident. They had a jeep, and the roads in those days were mostly not paved yet. We don’t know where they were, but it was likely a moonlight picnic out in the country somewhere, because as they were returning to drop the nurses off at the hospital, they hit an almighty bump at too great a speed, and Ruth was bounced right out of the jeep onto the road! It hurt a great deal, but she didn’t think anything was broken. Her fellow nurses got her into the hospital and treated her as well as they could, but they couldn’t report it or get a doctor to look at her, because then they all would have been facing official punishment, as well as involving the enlisted men, which could have led to pretty serious problems for all of them.

So Ruth suffered and got along as best she could. The accident had life-long consequences for her though. She became lame from arthritis in that hip before she was 40, and for the rest of her life she shuffled with increasing difficulty, relying ever more heavily on her grandfather’s famous Civil War cane for support.

But it didn’t stop her from having plenty of adventures. She was a full-fledged nurse, and after the War was over, she went home and worked in the hospital there.

In 1922 her father died, and as her mother, who had been reared in Oregon, longed to return to her beloved Northwest, Ruth and her mother moved to Portland, Oregon. Bee had married and was living in Wyoming at the time; she had a baby son too, and Ruth and her mother were able to see them on the way to their new home. Bee and her little family soon moved to Portland too.

Ruth and a few of her professional colleagues decided to try starting a Visiting Nurses Association to provide home health care for people who couldn’t get out of their houses. It was a huge success and Ruth was active in the Association until her retirement.

Meanwhile, she and her mother did some traveling every time Ruth had a vacation. They took the train, which at the time could be quite a luxurious way to travel. And they had the money, thanks to Ruth’s earnings and careful handling of their finances, to go in style.

Sadly, Ruth’s sister, Bee, died in 1936, and Bee’s widowed husband remarried within a year. Ruth’s mother was furious. She didn’t consider that he had grieved long enough, and she felt that it was his duty to marry Ruth if he was going to remarry at all. Ruth did not share the feeling--while she liked her brother-in-law, she had no inclination at all to have a romance with him, let alone marry him.

But Ruth’s nephew was another story. She doted on the boy, and he loved his Aunt Ruth and his Grammy very much. His father was a traveling salesman, and he wasn’t at home very much. Ruth and her mother offered to take the boy into their home and see to it that he completed his education. When the father announced that he was going to marry again, the boy was very excited. He liked his father’s girlfriend very much and was happy that his dad was going to be happy again. But when he took his exciting news home to his Grammy and Aunt Ruth, there was a terrible scene. He was told never to mention his father’s name again in that house. There was a further terrible fight between his father and his grandmother, and his grandmother won. The boy remained in her and Aunt Ruth’s household for the rest of his high school career, and beyond.

Ruth did not feel the same way her mother did. She liked her brother-in-law’s new wife, and she made friends as far as was possible. She convinced her mother that the boy must be allowed to visit regularly at his father’s house and to participate in his father’s family.

World War II started, and Ruth’s nephew had graduated from high school and after a few odd jobs started working for Boeing Aircraft. He received a draft notice in Seattle and decided to enlist. Because of his technical high school background and high marks on the tests the Army gave him, he was sent for further training to various colleges, one in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, then a transfer to New Mexico, and finally he was posted to Point Barrow, Alaska, to work on the communications system for the entire Pacific Theater. Ruth and her mother were extremely proud of their boy. They were also relieved that because of his intelligence and skills, he was not sent into combat.

Ruth’s mother had a stroke just before she turned 80, and she died in January 1945. Ruth sent a telegram to her nephew, but he couldn’t come home yet. Ruth settled her mother’s estate and welcomed her nephew home in the springtime. He was out of the Army and began to use the G.I. Bill to finish his college training in electrical engineering at Oregon State College. So Ruth was alone once more.

She continued nursing and working on community projects.

Her nephew met a young woman in 1947 and married her in the spring of 1948 when the couple both graduated—he with his bachelor’s degree, and she with her high school diploma. They moved immediately to Pennsylvania where he began working in the infant picture-tube industry at the dawn of television.

Ruth and a friend decided to visit the Orient on their next vacation. In the early 1950s they took a cruise to Hawaii and Japan. They were gone several months and brought back wonderful things.

When Ruth’s nephew and his wife had children, Ruth knitted them socks every year. Her argyle socks were always a feature of Christmas morning gifts. She knitted each child a special Christmas stocking, with the child’s name knitted right into the sock at the top, and little Christmas pictures knitted into the sides of the stocking.

Her nephew was transferred to California, and every fall Ruth took the train from Portland south to the Bay Area to visit them for a week or two around her birthday. She loved being around her nephew and his family. The children were certainly a rambunctious, noisy crowd, but she never minded. She had a great sense of humor and laughed a lot.

She had a hard time by then getting around. It hurt her to walk, and she moved with difficulty everywhere she went.

When she would come down to California to visit us, we always spent a day going to see her cousin Clara, who lived north of San Francisco. Clara was actually the widow of her cousin Ralph, who had died in the 1930s. But Clara and Ruth were close friends, and Clara always welcomed us. Well, she welcomed our parents, and my sister and me, who were pretty quiet girls. But our brothers, not so much. Our four older brothers were the noisy, rambunctious ones, and as soon as they were old enough to leave home, our parents left them home. I always loved the drive up to Marin, across the Golden Gate Bridge. When I was little, I thought the tall red towers were giants, standing in the water and holding up the bridge by its cables.

Ruth lived in a beautiful old apartment in downtown Portland. In it she had a lot of old-fashioned furniture, and wonderful old photograph albums to look at. We went to Portland for Christmas in 1967 and spent a lot of the time visiting her at her apartment. I think we went there for Christmas dinner. I spent most of the time behind one of the chairs in the living room, stretched out on the rug, perusing those old photograph albums.

I saw the pictures of her trip to the Orient, and before that, trips to Canada and all around the USA. I saw pictures of when she was young, and of a certain boyfriend who accompanied Ruth and her parents on a picnic out in the woods somewhere in Indiana. Ruth and the boyfriend were holding both their hands and spinning in a circle in one picture, leaning back from each other and laughing. I thought it was the most romantic photograph ever and wanted to know what had happened to the boyfriend. I was most disappointed to hear that she didn’t know what had happened to him and couldn’t remember why they had even parted company. She didn’t even remember his name.

I could hardly believe it. How could she not remember anything about a boyfriend who had been important enough to invite on a family picnic with her parents, and whose photographs had been important enough to save throughout her life? I was sure I would never, ever forget a boyfriend that important, if I ever had one, of course.

I remember that Aunt Ruth had worn one of her green printed silk dresses for that dinner. She always wore pretty silk dresses, and she always had on hose and black heeled court shoes. She generally had on a bead necklace, but nothing expensive.

She let me go through her jewelry and gave me a beautiful, big opal ring that fit on my pinky finger. The opal was big, but the ring was tiny. I had small hands, so that pinky ring really was very small, though the opal itself covered from my knuckle to the joint where my finger started. My sister picked out a carnelian cameo ring. There were some other cameos that she gave us too. There was a gold pendant watch with the letter B engraved in very fancy script on the back that she gave me, and I immediately started wearing it, every day.

She gave me an amber ring that was much too big for any of my fingers. There was also an amber pendant that she gave me, and some other jewelry. Some of the jewelry I have now was first given to my mother, and when I liked it so much, she later gave it to me. I have all of the opal rings that the two sisters had, for both their birthdays were in October. They gave my mother an antique amethyst pendant on a silver chain, with matching amethyst drops attached to screw-type ear cuffs with tiny silver chains. Amethyst was my mother’s birthstone and had been Aunt Ruth’s father’s.

A few years after that Christmas Ruth was struggling on the steps to the basement where the laundry was for her apartment house. She fell and broke her hip.

My father took some days off work to fly to Portland and help her. I was given the grand opportunity to go along and take my first airplane trip. I was saddened to see Aunt Ruth, stuck in a bed and seeming very frail indeed.

My father and I had to go through her things, sort what was needed immediately, and hire a firm to have the rest packed up and shipped to our house in California. We had to see her lawyer, a very formidable and regal-looking old lady, probably one of the first women to become a lawyer in Oregon now that I think about it. She had a set of Dickens books in her office, and I couldn’t resist looking at them, but I didn’t touch anything. I just sat right by the bookcase and read and reread every title. She asked me if I would like to borrow one of the books, and I picked David Copperfield. She said I could borrow it if I promised to read it all, and if I would write to her what I thought. I promised, and that summer fell completely in love with that book.

We took Aunt Ruth on the plane with us to California and moved her into a nursing home near our house. We went every week to see her. Sometimes I thought it was a chore, but I was a teenager, firmly in the selfish, I’m-the-center-of-the-universe stage of life. Or maybe not so much, because I really liked Aunt Ruth’s stories. I had by then discovered my grandmother’s diaries, those of Ruth’s sister, Bee, in which she detailed all their youthful adventures. Aunt Ruth enjoyed discussing those stories with me and reliving all the fun they had had as young girls.

Aunt Ruth was determined to walk again. She went faithfully to her therapy every day, and one day she told us that she had something special to show us. She was helped into her wheelchair, and we were all taken down to the therapy room. She was positioned at the ends of the parallel bars, and she grasped them with her hands and hauled herself to her feet. With both hands on the parallel bars, she slowly and painfully made her way three or four steps forward. We cheered. I thought to myself that here was a kind of determination that I should try to emulate throughout my life. I felt admiration and love for her grow in me.

Aunt Ruth never did become able to to walk enough to move out of the nursing home and into our house. My mother was working and couldn’t take care of her needs, so she had to stay in the care center. She was able to come to our house every so often for special occasions, but as the years went by it was quite an ordeal for her and us.

When my parents moved to Oregon after I had graduated from high school, they intended to move Aunt Ruth with them but delayed until they had been able to build their house. I didn’t move to Oregon with them at that time. I was working and thinking whether I wanted to go to college or not. I didn’t own a car at the time; I rode everywhere on my bicycle and at night got rides with friends. I rode my bike every Sunday after church to see Aunt Ruth that year. We talked and talked. I told her all my adventures (I was having a lot of adventures in those days!) and we reminisced about the past a lot. I loved hearing more stories about my grandmother, who had died so many years before I was born.

I really missed Aunt Ruth after my parents moved her up to Oregon. Now I think I really missed my chance during all those conversations to get her to talk about herself. She never did talk much about her own life. She much preferred telling about others.

I went to Oregon on a vacation and went to see Aunt Ruth. She had become very frail and was no longer walking. It wasn’t as good a nursing home as the one in California. I left, very depressed about her situation.

I went off to college and in the summer back to Oregon to my parents’ home. We visited Aunt Ruth, but she was wandering in her mind and barely knew who we were. My sister and I were working for the summer, so we stayed home while our parents went down to California for the graduation of one of our brothers from University of California at Santa Barbara. While they were gone, Aunt Ruth died. We got a phone call from the nursing home, and we immediately went there to take care of things.

We met with the director, and with the mortician, and we arranged for the crypt at the mausoleum in Portland where Ruth’s mother and sister were entombed. When our parents came home, the four of us held our own little service for Aunt Ruth.

If I were within reach, I would leave her flowers every Sunday.

I will end this part with an Easter greeting card from the the era when Ruth would have sent them to her friends. Easter for her was the holiest day of the year, and since I am posting this on Maundy Thursday, she would have appreciated the card right now.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Aunt Agnes Had a Wild Side

One evening we were sitting around in Grammy’s kitchen, talking. My brother and I had a tape recorder hidden under the table—this was when you could get in trouble for secretly recording your relatives—and we got the low-down on our great-aunt Agnes from Grammy and Aunt Dodie, who were her younger sisters. They weren’t really talking to us, you understand. They were reminiscing with each other while Grandpa and Dad and the uncles were over at the table talking about something else, and several aunts and our mother were gathered around the stove and sink.

Grammy’s kitchen was always a great place to hear family gossip. But the details of such stories, remembered over eight decades of their very long lives, weren’t always exactly the same from telling to telling, and as happens with practically all groups of siblings, when Aunt May (who was next in age to Agnes and years older than Grammy and Dodie) heard their version, she declared it didn’t happen that way at all and that they remembered things all wrong.

Now I’d better put in here for strict accuracy (if such a thing is possible with family stories handed down) that Aunt May was already dead when this particular tape recording was made. But she had lived for years and years and years near Auntie Vi, my Grammy’s eldest daughter who heard every story multiple times and stored them all away in her nearly-computer-perfect brain. Auntie Vi had a memory to beat everybody’s. And she told me that Grammy and Aunt Dodie had changed some of the details of the part of the conversation that had to do with what their older sister May had done to get in trouble when they were young. So maybe, I worried, they had changed things about Aunt Agnes too and I’d better drop this story from the history I was writing. No, Auntie Vi assured me. No, that part was true.

So here, excerpted from the history I wrote of that family, is the tale of how Aunt Agnes morphed into the very proper, very upright Christian lady that my mom knew from a somewhat wilder youth that my mom was very startled to learn about.

The Munro girls were motherless, to start with, and their father had a lot of trouble keeping a job, to the point that they had trouble keeping a roof over their heads. Their mother had died in 1899, when Dodie was only three years old. Jessie was four and a half, Lillie was six, May was ten (going on eleven), and Agnes was twelve. Their older brother John had gone blind from untreated conjunctivitis and had been taken as a charity case to the Arkansas School for the Blind and lived there for several years.

The U.S. Congress was busy as usual passing all kinds of bills, and one that had an impact on this little family had to do with water projects for the ever-thirsty, ever-growing western states. Father Munro took the children on the train and moved them to a little camp near Boise, Idaho, where he got work on the Boise Reclamation Project, which built a series of three dams on the Boise River in the early 1900s. John was over 18, so he went to work alongside his father. Agnes was left to take care of her sisters.

But Agnes was probably like a lot of teenage girls today, wild about boys and not so wild to be saddled with the daily care of a lot of troublesome little sisters. May cooked up a scheme for them to get some money by coating pennies with mercury and having little Dodie and Jessie take them into the candy store to pass off as dimes. When their father inevitably found out, the girls all got a whipping, no matter what their age was.

Agnes, around 1910
By December 1904 Agnes had had enough of that life and wanted complete freedom to do as she chose. She ran off Christmas eve with her then-boyfriend, Bill. They got married and Agnes found out soon enough that she had merely traded one kind of restrictive life for another. And it wasn’t whom she lived with that provided the restriction; it was lack of money.

She had two babies that died, and in 1907 she had a little girl who lived. That was in Oregon. She and Bill had followed her father and family after they had moved to the southern Oregon coast and later up to Portland. Agnes liked Portland. There was a lot going on there. She began exploring her options, and she divorced Bill. She lost her little girl for a time, though we don’t know who took her in while Agnes couldn’t care for her. Agnes worked as a waitress and moved to a logging camp in the mountains where she did the cooking. Plenty of men and opportunities there.

Agnes and children, 1917
A tall, handsome Danish logger named Ame caught her eye, and she married him about 1914. The next year they had a son, and a year and a half later, a daughter. Agnes got her older daughter back, and Ame informally adopted her. Life in a logging camp was hard, but Agnes’s early life had prepared her for camping, and she liked the outdoors a lot.

But one day in 1922 her husband was in a terrible accident when a bridge trestle gave way over the Nehalem River as their logging train was crossing. The cars rolled over and over down the steep sides toward the river, coming to stop just above the water, with several of the men, including Ame, pinned underneath. Rescuers got them all out and they were taken to the hospital in Portland, but Ame died the next day.

Whatever her wilder nature had wanted, Agnes faced the realities of her life and married again one year later. Her new husband, Ed, had little education and training, and he did whatever he could find. He worked as a laborer on the railroad at one point, and he drove a truck for the mail service at another. Agnes bore another son and another daughter.

Curiously, in 1930 when the census should have recorded Ed and Agnes with two little children ages 4 and 6, as well as the teenagers who were Agnes and Ame’s children, no children are recorded in their household except those belonging to a woman listed as a servant in their household. It is very odd. Where were all of Agnes’s children? Well, census records are notoriously inaccurate, so we don’t assume anything based on this odd report. But it is curious, given Agnes’s history.

One thing we know about the Munro sisters: they were very tight. They had each other’s backs throughout their lives and stayed loyal to one another. They took care of each other’s children and were there for each other through illnesses and accidents. No doubt they rallied to Agnes’s side through each of the calamities that she had undergone. Whether Agnes had a wild side or just a teenage longing to have some fun instead of having to accept the responsibilities of a grownup long before she should have had to, she settled into the role of caring for others throughout her life.

When her youngest daughter married at the age of 18 and bore a son a year later, Agnes had her stay with her because the young husband was away working. The day after the birth, Agnes heard a crash in the bathroom and rushed in, finding her daughter unconscious on the floor. She called for help and got her to the hospital, but sadly the daughter died of a pulmonary embolism. Agnes helped rear her grandson until the boy’s father married again.

Agnes’s husband Ed died two years after their daughter, and Agnes did not marry again.

I don’t know what happened to Agnes’s eldest daughter, the one from her first husband. She was living with her mother and Ame in 1920 in that logging camp, but after that she disappeared from all records. Except there is a death record for a girl of her name in February 1924, when she would have been 16 or 17 years old. (She had a rather common name, so I might have to buy the certificate to see if it’s hers. I wish all states would allow their death records to be published online after 50 years! Surely that would not cause a lot of identity theft, would it?)

Agnes’s other children grew up and married and had children of their own. I know some of the descendants of these children. I met Aunt Agnes only once, when she and Aunt May came with Grammy and Grandpa to visit us when I was young. She was a very nice person, warm like Grammy, with no hint to a young girl of any wild side.
Agnes, in a hat, in 1959, between her brother John and sister May

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Poor Isabella

I was looking again at the family of the Shoemaker of Pottsville that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. One of the daughters was Isabella Josephine, born 18 March 1856 in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. We don’t know much about her early life, only that she was married before the spring when she was 30. That was when her father made his will in June 1886, and he named her “my dear daughter Isabella Hamilton, wife of William Hamilton.” Isabella would have been 30 and about 4 months old.


William Hamilton is a complete cypher. All we know is his name, that he married Isabella Josephine Boedefeld, and that he died before 1900.

In the late spring of 1900, we find Josephine Hamilton, a widow born in February 1856 in Pennsylvania, living with three other single people in a house in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Josephine is described as a “housewife,” and she is a “boarder.” Of the other two women, both in their 20s and each a “saleslady,” the elder is the head of the house and the younger is a boarder like Josephine. The man, who is from Spain, is in the insurance business, is a naturalized citizen of 20 years or so and is called a “lodger.” He is also married, for 15 years, it is reported. Despite Josephine being reported to be a widow, under the number of years married column, somebody reported 9 years. The discrepancies in this record can be ascribed to the probable unfamiliarity of the young woman reporting on her household with the detailed facts about all the members of that household.

Perhaps Isabella Josephine’s marriage occurred just before her father made that will, and perhaps William Hamilton died just nine years later, in 1895. With such a common name as his, I haven’t been able to find a single record about him so far.

Josephine disappeared from most of the records after 1900, but she moved to the state of Washington and became a practical nurse, or so her death certificate reported. She died in the Harborview Hospital in Seattle on 21 March 1932. What is on the certificate is from the head nurse of the hospital, and we can probably assume that Josephine had worked there. She shaved ten years off her age, but nobody did the math and correctly reported that her birth was in 1856 even though they said she was 66 years old at death.

The sad thing is that she was being treated for third-stage syphilis since ten months earlier. Presumably the disease had been dormant for a number of years—it can remain dormant between the second and third stages up to 30 years in some cases. It is a very terrible disease, especially before the discovery of penicillin in 1943, which cures it. The treatments were various concoctions of mercury, which often led to mercury poisoning including hair loss, mouth ulcers, teeth falling out, neuropathy, kidney failure, etc. In the late 19th century other things were tried to treat the disease, such as potassium iodide with small doses of mercury, and other metals were tried, including gold, with little to no good effect. In 1909 a so-called “magic bullet” was invented by a couple of chemists who ended up winning the Nobel prize for a compound with arsenic in it called arsphenamine that seemed to be somewhat more effective than anything else up to that time.

Syphilis was sort of “discovered” in the late 15th century by French troops invading Hungary, Italy, and Turkey. It is theorized that maybe it was an older disease that morphed around that time and was brought to Europe by the retreating French army. It was named the French pox in dubious honor of those troops, and it apparently was a much more virulent form of the disease than known today, or even in Isabella Josephine’s time. The three stages known today were present then, but they progressed much, much faster, with death occurring within weeks or sometimes months.

The third stage can produce blindness, insanity, paralysis, heart trouble, and a host of other terrible things, always ending in death. Poor Isabella.

How did she get it? Obviously from sexual intercourse with an infected person. It might have been William Hamilton, or it could have been someone she had an affair with after William died. I do wonder if her husband infected her and if she became a nurse after his death, and if she was ironically hoping to be on the spot for getting a cure.

Such a betrayal that would have been! Many, many women suffered that betrayal of course, but it doesn’t make it any better. And women of that era would not have spoken of the experience with anyone, not even a doctor, unless they trained in a hospital to be more practical than private about such matters.

But it was too late for her. Perhaps she thought she was cured when the disease went into its years-long dormant period, only to find to her horror when she was in her early 70s that she was in for a very terrible end. The death certificate noted that her face was covered with sores. Poor Isabella!