(Re)searching for Grandmother

grandmother

I never really knew my grandmother Jessie. I visited her house in Yakima, sat across the dinner table from her in Tacoma, occasionally tagged along with my Dad when he brought her dinner at the convalescent home where she spent her final years years. But I didn’t really know her.

I’m not sure any of us in the next generation did. We agree that she was subdued, beaten down, after years of bullying by her husband and perhaps her sister and her parents.

In a blog post last month I wondered why she didn’t divorce my grandfather sooner — the snake who kept a woman, Erma, on the side throughout their marriage. Married in 1911, Grandmother divorced him sometime in the 1950s, more than a decade after her last child left home. I know why he married her — she was his stepping stone to respectability — but I still don’t know why she married him. And why she stayed. I wrote, “Divorce wasn’t impossible even when she married; four were reported in the paper on her wedding day.” Her father, early in his career, represented women in divorce cases. Presumably, she could have had free counsel, if she had wanted it.

And then it dawned up me. Duh. She didn’t divorce him because it would make the paper. Because she would be publicly humiliated. More than she was already by the open secret of his other household.

Her older sister Janie wasn’t present when Grandmother married in their father’s home. Janie’s absence, I assume, was a message. But, afterwards, what was done was done. Janie, who considered herself a society matron, may have insisted Jessie stay lest a divorce besmirch the family reputation. Janie was notorious for her screeds to various family members; when in the presence of one, she usually criticized another.

This week I went back in time. At least it felt like it, combing through newspapers and the archives of the Yakima Valley Museum and the Yakima Valley Geneological Society. Among other things, I wanted to know:

  • Was it true that my Grandmother and Janie dropped out of high school? What were the consequences for my Grandmother’s self concept?
  • What were the expectations of women at the time she married and raised children? How much pressure did she feel to live up to those expectations?

My Grandmother and Jessie most likely attended Central School in the early years of North Yakima. A cousin heard that Janie insisted they drop out after a black girl enrolled in their class. Janie and Jessie were raised by their mother to think of themselves as descendants of “the Harrisons of Virginia,” and Janie worshipped the glories of their plantation past. Janie even had an expression for people she viewed as below her: “the low people.” In the 1900 US census, both Janie and Jessie were listed as “at school.” At the time, Janie was 17 1/2 and Jessie was 15. In 1905, the year Janie would probably have graduated, the Central School senior class picture does not include her. School census records were not kept until several years later, but it’s possible that Grandmother — whose mother completed college in Virginia — did drop out at Janie’s urging, and was isolated in part because of her incomplete education.

1905 Central School, Yakima, WA, senior class

1905 Senior Class, Central School, Yakima, WA

Next, Part II: What Propriety Demanded of My Grandmother

Photo source: “The Papoose,” Senior Class, Central School, Yakima, WA, 1905. (For those interested, the Yakima Valley Geneological Society has a self-published document in its stacks about the history of African Americans in the area. African Americans were present from the pioneer period of the late 1800s and made contributions to many fields, including education, farming, law and commerce.)

With appreciation: to Mike Siebol and John Baule of the Yakima Valley Museum, along with Josie at the front desk; and Frank at the Yakima Valley Geneological Society!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “(Re)searching for Grandmother

  1. Kayleen Campbell

    I’ve heard Janie was a spitfire, and she certainly spoke her mind. I’d thought though when I’d heard her recalled, there was a sort of fondness for her rather, erm, colorful personality. I sent you a message on Facebook, by the way. 😉 It probably went to your “other” box.

    • Well, she was both! She was kind of notorious among the daughters-in-law. I have one of her letters, sent to her sister in 1944 or 5, and it has a hefty amount of piss and vinegar (in this case, aimed in the direction of my mother and her mother). But I adored listening to Janie’s stories when I kept her busy so that my folks could sneak out and back in to restock her refrigerator. She funded several educations, and I’m sure helped with more than one house payment along the way. That said, she could be a bit of a tyrant when it came to insisting that things be done her way. All part of the package. I’ll look for the FB message!

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