Bringing Back Mom

I stopped talking about Mom the past two years. As Dad’s memory faded, he no longer seemed to mourn her. When I did bring up the topic of Mom – perhaps commented on something she would have enjoyed or her birthday – his pain was visible. So I stopped bringing her up.

But now we are preparing to bury Mom and Dad in the plot at Arlington National Cemetery that was reserved for them when they buried my sister Midge there in 1953. I’ve set an ambitious goal for myself to write some sort of a legacy book for the family, something that tells the story of Mom’s Driscoll side as well as Dad’s Harrison/Snively/Campbell clan.

I’m posting bits of memories here, augmented by some historical stuff. Since this series of posts is not about the experience of caring for or losing a parent, its primary interest for readers may be as a peek at life in the West in the early 20th century. Because Mom was Eileen long before she was Mom, I refer to her by her birth name when I get to the section about her personal history before my brothers and I came along.

* * *

Dad said it best, “Eileen is a personage.”  Eileen Driscoll Campbell did more than fill up her corner of space. She could fill a room with her personal power and presence, and she influenced the course of everything and everyone around her.


The older I got, the more I wondered how it was that my parents were 40 and 41 when I was born, when most of my friends’ parents were younger. My brothers are 15, 10 and 3 years older than I am.

Eventually I became old enough to ask whether I was planned. Mom would demur, answering only, “Every once in a while, we just said oh what the hell.”

Two characteristics were apparent in her statement: she wasn’t hung up on being proper, though she was every inch a lady, and she had the ability to live in the moment.

Some of that character came from being an only child. Born on July 3, 1917 in Boise, her mother, Madeline (born Maude Grace Spieles on Nov. 30, 1885 in Chicago) and father, Dean (born April 24, 1883 in Tekamah, Nebraska) met and married only two years prior, in 1915.  When Eileen was born, they were 31 and 34, old for the times.

But some of Eileen’s independent streak may have derived from growing up in the West, when the West was still wild. Eileen had grown up on her grandmother Hannah’s knees, hearing stories about how “Han-Han” came “West”… when the West was Minnesota.

Hannah Driscoll, 1935

Hannah Driscoll, 1935

Hannah’s family left Pennsylvania to take advantage of land grants created under the Homestead Act, claimed 160 acres of land in Martin County, and erected a rudimentary sod house on the prairie. After almost 10 years, they gave up, tired of Minnesota’s terrible blizzards lasting days, the menace of prairie fires and the last straw, the grasshopper scourge of 1873. “Settling to the earth they were a crawling mass devouring every green thing except the wild greens,” Hannah wrote in her memoir.

In 1874, the family struck out for Nebraska in two horse-drawn covered wagons, where they established a farm in Tehama. Hannah married John Driscoll in 1881, who landed in town following his discharge from the 64th N.Y. voluntary infantry after the end of the Civil War. When John’s health failed, years later, they sold the bank and lumberyard John had established, and struck out for the west coast. The family had tickets to the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland in 1905, but never made it farther than Boise, where they permanently settled.

Mom's father, Dean Driscoll

Mom’s father, Dean Driscoll

Dean’s photo album from the early 1900s look like a movie set, with Native Americans on the streets and horse-drawn carriages. Letters from John to his Dean’s younger brother Lynn, away at college, shared news big and little of Boise (population 17,000) at the turn of the 20th century: a visit by William Jennings Bryan, foreclosures of businesses by the Sheriff, plunging land values, small pox and ptomaine poisoning outbreaks, fatal auto accidents as cars replaced horseless carriages, an arrest of an acquaintance for insulting a woman (“he said he was drunk”) and the institutionalization of another into a “mental asylum” in Seattle.

Eileen must have felt the world ripped out from under her when her father died in February 1941 of hypertension. It is perhaps because of his early death, at the age of 58, that we heard so much about Dean.

Eileen and her mother were extraordinarily proud of Dean’s reputation in the community as a respected attorney in private practice and later as a one-term Representative to the state legislature and Assistant Attorney General. (Aunt Janie, Grandmother Campbell’s sister, apparently had a real snit about the Driscoll focus on Dean, writing from Oceanside where Dad had returned home from the war, “I am so sick of Mrs. D’s everlasting hammering on the Driscolls.”) A Harvard Law School graduate, Dean was admitted to practice at the U.S. Supreme Court, though he never argued a case before it.

Short (5’6″) and energetic, he had a shock of thick brown hair and dressed immaculately, never appearing on the streets of Boise without a fresh flower in the lapel buttonhole of his fresh white Palm Beach suit in the summertime (and rarely without an Antony Y Cleopatra cigar parked in his mouth). The buttonhole flower came from his mother Hannah’s yard “starting with the snowdrops, first flowers through the snow, and as spring and summer progressed, violets, lily-of-the-valley, pansies, pinks, through the fall-flowering marigolds,” Mom wrote in a letter to historian Gwynn Barrett to assist in his research for a book on Uncle Lynn. Dean had a strong sense of duty to his parents and stopped to visit his mother on the way to the office every morning, eating buckwheat pancakes whenever they were offered.

Despite his reputation, the Driscolls weren’t wealthy. His income level may have been due to the small town nature of a law practice. In a letter in 1912 to Lynn, Dean’s father wrote, “…Dean says he has made $200 a month since he commenced business but has only collected $400 of it. He is well satisfied but I hope he will get money soon as I have been putting up for him so far….”

Dean held most of the details of his law practice close to the chest, but we know he represented immigrant communities including Basque Americans, which had (and has) the largest concentration in the U.S.; in Mom’s last years, lamb was the dinner entree for which she always had an appetite, a holdover from her memories of participating in the Basque community’s annual lambing camp. She recalled that her Dad could dance the traditional La Jota, and Christmas Eve dinners didn’t begin until her father had stopped by the Archabals, a Basque sheep ranching family. He was posthumously awarded the Order of the White Rose of Finland for service to that community as chairman of the State for the Finnish Relief Fund.

He liked vigorous sports and sparred with professional boxers when they came to town.  Mom later wrote that he like long runs – “five miles at least” – up into the foothills. At the Y, he played handball often and boxed nearly every day, in addition to playing on the “Bankers” Twilight Baseball League team.

Mom wrote:

“The first thing anyone should say about Dean Driscoll is that he had absolute integrity. I don’t think it was possible for him to compromise — or “adjust” or “compensate,” as we say these days. He had extremely high standards of ethics and performance for himself (probably a contributing factor to the high blood pressure which killed him) and for those close to him. And he simply didn’t bother with people who didn’t meet those standards.”

Mom also wrote that her Dad had a “keen wit and sense of humor and was a master at rather cutting repartee. He used words sparingly – but very much to the point – and often devastatingly.”

Pranks were big in those days, and Mom remembered this story of his youthful mischief: when a minister came to visit and put his hat near the heater, Dean slipped a piece of Limburger cheese inside the hat band, with predictable results. She wrote, “My Dad didn’t think I was very funny, tho, when I tried the same trick in the pocket of a leather jacket belonging to a friend, thereby ruining the coat. I never could figure out a way… to equal or emulate his Halloween feat back in Nebraska boyhood when he and his friends put a cow astride the church roof. Even he didn’t remember how they got it there – but it was a community effort to get it down.”

She also recalled the story of a widowed friend of her parents who coquettishly said to Dean, “Oh, Dean, no one loves me and my hands are so cold. Will you hold them?” He retorted, “God loves you and sit on your hands.”

Mom was very close to her mother, who she described as loving, caring and shy. Madeline was embarrassed by her lack of a college education, to which we were told Dean would reply, “You have an educated heart.”

We have few insights into life at their home at 1504 N. 17th Street. We know Eileen was fond of their Chinese cook, Fong Wing, who disappeared during periodic “tong wars” between the two competing societies in Boise.

Dean was hardworking, even a workaholic. Mom wrote, “It was his habit, as long as I can remember, to go back to the office after dinner, work until midnight or so – and then drive out across the desert, to ‘blow the cobwebs out of his brain’ as he put it.”

At his mother’s insistence, Dean had signed a temperance pledge so Dean and Madeline’s home was alcohol free. Every family has its “oft-told-tales” and Mom often recalled one about an especially hot evening when her father said, “You know, Madeline, I think I’d like to have a drink.” After conferring, he set about preparing a Tom Collins and brought one out to Madeline, who was sitting on the porch. She declared, “I believe this is the best Tom Collins I’ve ever tasted.” After a moment, Dean exclaimed, “Oh my god, I forgot to add the gin.”


Age 7

Age 7

In her childhood pictures in the 20s, Eileen’s dark brown brown hair was cut in a chin-length page boy that complemented her strong chin, and high and prominent cheekbones. She had an outdoorsy look about her, with toned arms and legs, and coloring associated with the “Black Irish” (leading one family friend to inquire if there might have been a little racial mixing in generations past). Her brown eyes sparkled and her generous lips framed a bright smile. Even in the pictures of her as a teenager in the 30s, when the style was for girls to look demure, her face still conveyed a sense of individualism, determination and intelligence.

Mom rides on the shoulders of a pal

Mom rides on the shoulders of a pal

Either because of her father’s model or her own innate competitiveness, Mom was a Tomboy. It wasn’t that the boys on the street wanted to play with her; it was just that she was the only one who had footballs and other sports equipment. Because she hunted with her father nearly every weekend (until high school when she said she found dances and dates too exciting to miss), he taught her to drive when she was 11.

Eileen’s photo album shows her out and about in her elementary days, in her sailor-style uniform at Girl Reserve Camp, rowing a canoe, on a class bird-hunting trip, climbing a tree. Several friendships formed in childhood stayed with her for life, especially Barb Kidder Ringrose, Betty Ash Hearne and Raine (Lorraine) Moats. Many of the pictures display nicknames: Mugs for Barb (Eileen was Mug-Wug), “Prunes” for Eugene Stokes. They learned to play bridge and took ballroom dancing lessons together. Especially important to her from childhood on was her relationship with her cousins Harriet and John Driscoll. (John died in a training mission during WWII, a loss that Eileen always carried with her.)

Even in her youth, Eileen wasn’t one to back down from a fight. In 1999, Raine wrote to share this memory after their grade school, Lowell, beat Park School, which had a reputation for being tough: “One of those girls kept coming up behind me and hitting me on the back of the head. I was the timid one and so tried to ignore it. This apparently got the best of Eileen because she ran back and started hitting and fighting this girl, maybe because she was hurting and annoying her friend. She really tore into her.”

By the age of 14, Eileen’s pictures show her “cutting up” with groups of friends, a growing circle of boys and girls. The girls got together and formed their own mock sorority, Eta Beta Pie.

Eileen’s social circle expanded in high school. Based on pictures, boys began to appeal to her beyond their utility for sports and horseplay. In the picture below, she coquettishly styles herself for the camera, perhaps a precursor to her turn as a shoe model for the prestigious I. Magnin department store during college. She spoke later of a romantic interest in Stanton Stringfellow, with whom she was featured in the Flora Dora follies. Stanton set a Robert Herrick poem to music for her with the lyrics, “I dare not ask a kiss/I dare not beg a smile/Lest having that, or this/I might grow proud the while. No, no, the utmost share/Of my desire shall be/Only to kiss the air/That lately kissed thee.”


Leaving for college, 1935

Leaving for college, 1935

After Eileen graduated, she initially attended Mills College in California, an all-women’s college. She participated in the choir, and eventually transferred to University of Washington where she majored in music (focused on vocal performance) and was an active member of Gamma Phi Beta.

In the spring of 1939, Eileen and Hank were both enrolled in “the grand old man” Dr. Padelford’s course on Browning. Every couple has a how-they-met story, and Henry would usually tell it. He would set the stage by explaining that he did not attend class the first few days, having a free pass – thanks to a fraternity brother – to taste the wares at the Rainier Brewery. But the third day of class, he was there, albeit disheveled and worse for wear. As class began, most of the seats were filled, but one remained open next to him. “Then this vision entered the room,” he would say, “dressed to the nines.” Eileen took one look around the room, saw the chair next to Hank, and promptly took another seat in the back corner. “She came into class that first day on Brook Fink’s arm,” he would say, “but after two weeks, she left on mine.”

Their courtship wasn’t entirely smooth sailing. A houseguest at the Gamma Phi house turned out to be from Yakima, so Eileen ask her if she knew Hank. “Oh, yes,” the visitor replied, going on to note that he was the boy who had his pin on a girl back home. When Henry arrived to collect Eileen for their date, he said he knew something was wrong the minute he set eyes on her. She gave him $5 for train fare and told him not to come back unless he had his pin.

After that, they were an item. Both graduated in 1939. Eileen once expressed to her father an interest in becoming an attorney, but he rebuffed the idea, saying there would be no “female barristers” in the family. After graduating, both lived in Seattle, Eileen in an apartment where Henry spent a great deal of time. He entered law school, since the family expected him to become the family lawyer, while Eileen took clerical courses. By late 1940, Henry knew that the law was not for him, and he became increasingly convinced that the U.S. would soon be in the war that was tearing apart Europe.


In love, 1940

In love, 1940

Henry enlisted in the 5th Reserve Officer’s Commissioning program of the Marine Corps in January 1941. From there, Eileen and Henry’s stories diverged. Eileen said that Henry wrote her in September or October of 1941 and asked her to join him; Henry held that he sent no such offer. After Pearl Harbor, however, Eileen immediately took a train east and the two married on December 26, 1941.

Next: the war years

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