Just arrived, wrapped in newsprint advertising a gun auction in Spokane, WA: Three books written by my great-great aunt Leoti Leni West (1851-1933), the first high school teacher in the state of Washington, who traveled from her home state of Iowa to establish Colfax Academy.
At her retirement in 1922, she was the oldest active public school teacher in the state.
The red paper-bound book has a handwritten note inside from the recipient, noting Leoti gave it to them in 1905 as a gift. The hardbound book “The Wide Northwest” was signed by Leoti herself.
Interestingly, Leoti’s niece — my great grandmother Jessie Mabel West — was also a high school teacher in Laytonville, California, and married her pupil (scandalous! I believe they met when he was about 16 and she was 19), my great grandfather John Curts, a lawyer and school teacher who founded Amador County High School in Sutter Creek and was Principal of now-defunct Grass Valley High School. (He also helped incorporate the town of Sutter Creek and was mayor.) Many educators on multiple sides of my family!
I’m very much looking forward to reading about Leoti’s life in her own words. I’ve found her listed on the census living alone in a house she owned in 1900! That was practically a revolutionary act for a woman in that day and age.
My father who is no dad stereotype, whose million voices are the cacophony of comfort I crave, whose long letters I receive with deepest joy, whose stories I carry in my clenched fists, whose laugh lines and ruddy cheeks I wear, whose affinity for wit and laughter and empathy I strive to reach, whose creative and abundant spirit is bound up in kindness and love and the same crippling nostalgia as my own. I love you to the moon and back and back and back.
I started this iteration of my blog (and corresponding instagram @instagrandma_100) as a daily ritual to remember and honor the women from whom I came, and to share their stories. But I wouldn’t have stories (or grandmothers) without all the fathers too. So today I share a letter fragment from my own beloved and exceptional dad, who made the startling point that I am “the next daughter” after dear Agnes and Margaret, both of whom died as children in 1911 and 1912. His own father and mother had only the two boys, and my father’s brother had no children of his own—only a son through marriage. His mother’s three siblings died in childhood, never married or had no children of their own—again, one son through marriage.
So it was my father and mother, seventy years after the last little girl died, who brought the next O’Connell daughter into the world.
Will and Alene would, if they were omniscient, be pole-axed at the idea that the only modern-day (and next) daughter of their family would be the one family member to visit their baby girls after 105 years. Sweet old Alene would gather you to her capacious bosom for sure!
In memoriam of the O’Connell girls and who they might have grown up to be, and to the mother and father who loved them.
Today I visited my great-aunts Agnes and Margaret, both of whom died in childhood.
They are buried in the children’s graveyard at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma. The sea of graves crowned with cherubs and lambs broke my heart, and I read every name as I walked through the rows searching for my girls. I met a man who feeds the cemetery’s feral cats and is followed by a murder of crows — birds so black and glossy they look cartoon. I told one stalking me to at least be useful and lead me to my O’Connell babes.
Finally I found them, a few rows away from where the nuns are buried.
The engraving was unlike any other I saw and I wondered if my grandfather, who was an artist in addition to a lawyer, had done the lettering himself, decades after his sisters died.
I spent a solid twenty minutes with a spray bottle and a toothbrush, uncloaking the stone of its chartreuse lichen and giving the lamb back its face. I don’t know who last visited their resting place, and my father has never seen it, but it’s been a good thirty years, if not much much longer.
When I visited my family in Ireland last year, cousin Ted told me it’s family duty to clean family graves. So here I am, in 2017, carrying on the Irish tradition of my ancestors in a Catholic cemetery in California.
Meet my great-grandma Alene, or Lena, or even sometimes Aileen. Born to the Wallace family in Essex, Ontario, Canada, in 1877, she and her sisters pursued medicine; her sister Margaret was one of the first female doctors ever, but more on her later.
Alene was a nurse in Hot Springs, Arkansas, when she met my Irish great-grandfather Will O’Connell, recovering in a hospital after more than a decade of prospecting and silver mining in the Yukon, Colorado and Utah. They eventually settled in San Francisco, at 588 Jersey Street in Noe Valley, and had two beautiful little girls, Margaret (b. 1907) and Agnes (b. 1909). But tragedy struck, and both girls died in childhood. My great-grandfather never recovered from the loss, and his son—my grandfather William Wallace O’Connell—felt haunted by the absence of his two sisters.
In a recorded history he made for me in those precious few years between my birth and his death, my grandfather said:
“My mother had a more philosophical mind. Of course it was a very great loss, a great sadness to her, but she had a child to care for — a son. And she also had a nice sense of fun. So I grew up in a cheery enough household, as far as my mother could keep us together…and keeping a stiff upper lip.”
It is also largely due to Alene that I have so much information on her side of the family, as she kept notes on birth and death dates, catalogued photographs and letters, and wrote names on the backs of photographs. I like to think she knew I’d come along sixteen years after she died and pick up the story where she left it.
Happy Friday from my great-grandma Jessie Mabel West!
Mabel, as she was known, was my father’s mother’s mother. Born in Willits, California, in 1879, she was a true gold rush girl. In all photos of her, she exudes an almost maternal warmth and her eyes convey a sense of humor and whimsy. She married my great-grandfather John Gooden Curts and gave birth to four children: Jack Sylvester, Homer, California June (my grandma) and Wilda Frances.
Mabel’s father, Sylvester Preston West, was born in 1846 in Dubuque, Iowa, the son of a doctor. In the 1870s, he and his wife, Alwilda Shanabrook West, made their way west and settled in Mendocino County. Sylvester was a telegrapher and linotype operator.
It is believed the West family descends from the younger brother of Thomas West, commonly known as Lord Delaware, though I have yet to find genealogical evidence of this. We are also thought to be related to Benjamin West, an eminent American painter in the late eighteenth century.
I am without a doubt related to Leoti Leni West, a fascinating pioneer who made her way west and became the first high school teacher in the state of Washington. More on her soon.
The photographs in this wonderful series feature Jessie Mabel West and a favorite cousin, E.S. Sampson.
Today is the birthday of both my grandmothers, my namesakes;
the Cal and Leah in Caleah, my middle name.
On the right, California June Curts O’Connell, the grandmother I never knew, who today would be 101 years old. She was born in Sutter Creek, was a barefoot girl in Ukiah and Grass Valley, came of age on Woodland Avenue in San Francisco, and graduated from Berkeley, an anthropologist who found her life’s work at the Legion of Honor.
On the left, Leah Lillian Brodsky Foreman, Canadian daughter of poor Jewish immigrants who was a girl in Dayton, Ohio, before she came of age on the streets of Chicago. At war’s end, she came west to her city of dreams and lived nearly 70 years by the bay, devoting her life to saving those persecuted for their beliefs.
One woman I knew so well I sometimes look in the mirror and see her; the other whose voice, poised and rich and Sylvia Plath-like, I’ve heard only on cassette tapes, but whose eyes follow me in the face of my brother.
June first is the first of the year for me: a day of memory and reflection of the women whose blood I bleed, and an honoring of their rich and varied lives.