A series of tweets I read, related to Hedy Lamarr, made me think about my great-grandmothers, about the options and choices of women a hundred years ago. (This one in particular.) These women are all quite a bit older than Lamarr (my grandmothers were her age), but these stories and their fragmentary nature raise intriguing questions for me. My mother and my father’s sister have both compiled family books that include some element of storytelling, and there may be important details I’ve missed here because I’m writing from memory. (With help from Geni.) But these are my great-grandmothers:

  • Helen (1886-1920) born in what is now Slovakia and emigrated to New York City when she was a child. Died while giving birth to her fifth child in 9 years; her first child, my grandmother, came suspiciously close after her marriage at age 24.
  • Lillian (1881-1969) born in Indiana; also lived in Texas and New York, died in California. Married at 29 to a man who was by all accounts a raconteur and alcoholic. The Texas move was apparently to try ranching; they were married there. According to family legend they left because of Pancho Villa, but I doubt that was the only reason.
  • Elizabeth (1882-1970) born in Indiana, had a child at 17, abandoned him (and his father?), moved to southern California to recover from health issues. Her second marriage was at 28 to a railroad man with a bad temper, and they were later divorced. She had two daughters in her early 30s, one of whom died young. The other was my grandmother. She was really into Christian Science.
  • Carolyn (1889-1960) born in Ontario, Canada and emigrated to the US (Michigan? then California?) when she was a child, lived in various parts of California during her adult life. Grew up farming, married at 23, had 5 children in 10 years. Her husband was a minister. Apparently had at least a bit of college, maybe met her husband in school?

Two of my great-grandmothers I’ve always heard described as incredibly difficult women: Lillian and Elizabeth. Mom once said that Lillian made it almost to 90 entirely on spite. She was cruel and imperious, rude to her daughters-in-law. I don’t remember the particulars on Elizabeth, but I take it she wasn’t especially pleasant to her son-in-law.

And then I take another look at Lillian’s husband, at her being pulled all over the country; I wonder how she met him, how Brooklyn and Delphi, Indiana came together, and why no one before that. (Maybe she was just as prickly as the stories make her sound? And did she have to live at home? Did she go to school anywhere?) I imagine her in her 30s, poor with two small (and very bright) children in a big city far from home. What I’ve heard is that he used to disappear on benders, and that his buddies in the neighborhood made sure she and the kids had enough to eat. The boys ended up going all the way to California, both of them, with the wives she didn’t approve of.

Then Elizabeth: a teenage mom who as far as I know left her son; I’m pretty sure he wasn’t raised in the same household as her other children. I don’t know anything about her son’s father. Deathly ill (tuberculosis of the spine), and she believed it cured by an oddball religion and a strange climate. Her (second?) husband had a terrible temper; my grandmother said that he once threw her (grandma) against a wall so badly that it was the cause of her later spinal disc degeneration. Her second daughter died of a childhood disease, I think measles, less than a year old. Her living daughter had her husband’s red hair and high temper. Later, her son-in-law was a minister in a religion that wasn’t hers. She got divorced; her daughter was divorced no less than 4 times.

Difficult lives led with difficult people. Life choices that make me wonder if there was some yearning towards something else, something bigger than a bunch of kids and keeping house. Something they couldn’t have in their circumstances in their times. Even Helen, I seem to remember, wanted to have a career and was discouraged by those who raised her. When people talk about good old days, I think of Helen: five kids and dead at 33.