It’s a snowy day today and they’re encouraging everyone to stay off the road. I’ve been thinking about my grandmother lately and this cozy day inspires me to write about her.
I really only had one grandmother. My other grandmother left the family when my father was only five. He was raised by a step-mother who was our grandmother, until my parents divorced. Apparently, that also concluded my grandparent’s relationship with us as well.
My mother’s mother was always there, however. When my parents split, my mother did what a lot of women would do, she drove us to her parents’ house. I hadn’t been there in a long time, if ever. We walked into the kitchen where my grandparents sat playing cards with my great uncle and aunt and, I’m sure enjoying a drink or two. My grandmother showed us around the house, helped us see where we would sleep and to settle in.
I adored my grandfather. I have written about him time and again. He was the best person I still have ever met. My grandmother, who had 7 children and 31 grandchildren, was always on the move but never unkind. She was just busy and didn’t enjoy children underfoot where my grandfather delighted in having grandchildren in his lap and willing to be taught.
Things I remember about my grandmother: My grandfather didn’t think she knew how to handle money, so he made her save for things she wanted or needed via cards that banks used to offer that would hold dimes or other coins. You saved your money on these cards and then used them. I remember she got a new winter coat that way. Granddad even named someone else his estate’s executor, so sure he was that she would spend wildly or be misled. I remember my grandfather did not like her to smoke, so she never smoked in the house but would often return home from errands or visits smelling like a chimney. I remember she came to visit me in my college dorm and, after my mother left, sit back and lit up (when one could still do such a thing). While he may seem harsh, my grandfather was actually very respectful and loving to “the Mrs.”, and expected the same from everyone else.
I didn’t know what made my grandmother “tick”. She wasn’t a woman prone to long conversations – she always had too much to do. She enjoyed crocheting. She cooked a lot, but that may have been just because there were always mouths to feed. They had a small farm which every spring featured a huge strawberry patch. She would use us grandchildren to pick the ripened fruit, one of my fondest childhood memories (Hello! Pick two, eat one…) Well, it was one of my fondest memories until I mentioned it to her in her later years and she said, “You damn kids only took the easy ones on top and I had to go back over them again”. Crushed. One thing she and I had in common was our love of old things – especially old photographs and books. I inherited some of both when she passed in 1992.
I never knew my grandmother’s “people” as country folk might say. I did hear she had relatives of some sort in a larger city about 4 hours away but I didn’t know who they were and they never visited. So one day recently, I started digging through materials I have at home which is predominantly genealogy about my grandfather’s family. Finally, I hit paydirt. I found a letter from the Children’s’ Home Society of Virginia, dated March 13, 1958, addressed to her. It said:
Dear Lucy’s Grandmother,
We have your letter of February 27 requesting help in getting a birth certificate. You were born during the period when births were not in this state and we do not have sufficient information in our records to have a delayed certificate filed for you. However, I am enclosing a notarized statement which I believe will serve in most instances where a birth certificate is required.
Well, that was a kicker! I had no idea she was ever in a “home”. Behind it was the notarized statement which said, in part, “[She] came into the care of said Society at the age of six years and six months, and was said to have been born on November, 8, 1909 in Nelson County, Virginia.” Six years old! My heart ached for my grandmother. Because I know this, too: During the depression, my grandparents couldn’t provide for their children, so my mother and her siblings were also placed in a children’s home for a few years. It must have broken her heart to have to do that to her own kids.
I dug deeper, needing to know more and wishing I knew enough when she was still alive to ask her questions. But this is something she never mentioned. Finally, I hit paydirt. Well, it doesn’t fill in the softer questions but it certainly answered my main questions. My mother had gone through a genealogy phase years ago and she had written up some information on my grandmother. Let me tell you, you could flesh out a novel from this story.
Nellie (Grandma, can I call you Nellie?), was born to Samuel, age 49, who worked as a laborer at a nearby stone quarry and to his wife, Mary, age 46. I was surprised by their ages until I saw the list of her siblings:
Samuel , born 7/18/1895
William Raymond, born 8/20/1897
Mary Elizabeth , born 8/18/1900
Lulu Mae, born 9/4/1902
Ellen, born 9/29/1904
Marie, born 9/23/1906
Walter, born 9/11/1911, died 9/21/1911
To remind you, Nellie was born in 1909, making her the baby of a family of seven (not counting Walter who passed away as an infant).
Tragedy struck the family, when Mary passed away on February 24, 1914. But the final blow was when their father, Samuel, passed away on August 8th, just seven months afterwards. I don’t know if there was any extended family but it doesn’t seem so because Nellie, six and a half years old and the youngest, and the others were put in the care of the Children’s Home Society of Virginia. Nellie was placed in the Methodist Children’s Home in Roanoke, VA, and from there was placed in foster care with a family in a small town about 150 miles away. Very little information is available but it seems unlikely that they’d have been able to place seven children together. It seems that Nellie remained with this family until she was 18. At that point, she went to live with her sister, Mary Elizabeth who was 27 by that time, and brother-in-law who lived about 45 minutes from the foster family.
This is the happily ever after part: My grandfather was a good friend of Nellie’s brother-in-law. He said that the first time he went over to his friend’s house after Nellie had moved in, he fell for her hard and right away. But he was 10 years older than her and that was a big gap for an 18 year old. So he was patient. Well, he said he was patient but they were married on October 2nd, 1929 when she was almost 20 years old. They were married until Granddad passed in 1991 at the age of 93. Nellie passed on New Year’s Eve in 1992 at the age of 83. Together, they raised seven children of their own, and had enjoyed 31 grandchildren and were getting to know all their great-grandchildren.
Discovering the loss and separation my grandmother faced in her early years gives me reason for more empathy for her and more respect for how she grew up and led her life. I’d love to be able to contact the foster family to learn about her as a girl but doubt anyone who knew her would still be around. I continue to be amazed by the people I know and meet. We need to be gentle with one another because we all have baggage and backgrounds that others can’t know. Nellie’s story may be a tragic one but she’s not alone in having sorrows to bear and most of us don’t wear them where they’re easily known. And that’s my lesson on a snowy day.