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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

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