The personal is political.

August 16, 1944

Wednesday

My darling,

How does one write a letter of this kind. How does one say my sister received a wire from the War Dept. that her husband was killed in action. To write these words down — to have finally put these words of misery on paper are almost more than I can bear. The war is over for us, Hy, when we know that when the war is over, our family circle will not be complete. To know that Harold is not coming home to Annie and Susan. Oh, my darling, how hard I prayed to God to be good to us. I pushed any other thought in the background. Don’t tell me he was in the Marines on combat duty — others have returned. Why not my sister’s husband? Oh, God. Hy, to look at Susie at 17 months and think she should never know her father’s wonderful smile and the love he has for her.

I tell Annie to keep going for Susan’s sake. We give her pills, I tell her how mistakes have been made before and can be made again — But how much longer can I bear that look in her eyes. I know her soul is dead. She only thinks it can’t be true and that is why she opens her eyes at the beginning of another day.

Monday night Annie called me to say “Lillian, my husband — is dead. They told me so. But it isn’t true, is it? No, Harold can’t be dead. Not Harold. He promised to come back to me.”

Ruthie came over and stayed with Robin so Marty, Dad and I could come over here. I’ve been here since then. Mother is taking care of Robin. I can’t go back to my house when I have so much — and Annie has nothing — nothing.

All day long they sit on the couch and talk to themselves — to Harold.

Dad is gone this time. Whatever mind he had is holding on by a thread — that Harold will come back — that somewhere a mistake was made.

If ever I asked you for anything, hear me now — Work, Hy. Finish your school and then go over there. Finish your work — not for bars and a salute, but to carry on where Harold left off. They made him a first lieutenant — do you hear that — “We deeply regret to inform you that your husband 1st Lt. Harold N. LeVine was killed…”

You know how proud we were of our lieutenants in the Marine and Air Corps — they didn’t have much chance. You give them that chance. Give them that chance, Hy. You have always done what you have set out to do. Let nothing interfere with your work. Annie is proud of you, Hy. Even now Hy, when her life has fallen to pieces she tells everyone her sister’s husband is going to Officer’s School. She tells them about Artie when they come to talk about her husband. Don’t fail her, Hy.

Don’t worry about us. Put every thought out of your mind except school. That is what I need from you, Hy. That will help me bear this misery — if ever I am to have happiness, it must be because my husband brought it to me — by hitting back in the only way he can now. God will help you, Hy. I know he will. He must.

Love,

Lillian

Annie writes to Harold every day. Give her hope, Hy. She has had enough of death. The only way she can live is to keep that hope. Nobody must take it away from her.

I love you very much.

Lillian

Sisters: Annie & Lillian
Sisters: Annie & Lillian

This was the letter my grandma sent to my grandfather 73 years ago today when her sister’s husband was killed in the Second World War.

I spent a lot of time thinking about this letter today. About Harold, an American Jew who died on the beaches of Guam, 7,364 miles away from his home in Chicago. About my other great-uncle Art (“Artie”), an American Jew who was shot down in a plane by Nazis and kept as a prisoner of war at the infamous Stalag Luft III in modern-day Poland. Art and Harold went missing within weeks of one another, and three tight-knit families in Chicago were shattered with grief.

Continue reading “The personal is political.”

Leoti Leni West.

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.

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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.

Daddy-O day.

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.

Father/Daughter

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.

He writes:

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.

Will & Agnes, 1909
The apple of his eye; Agnes & Will, 1909

 

Honoring our ancestors.

Today I visited my great-aunts Agnes and Margaret, both of whom died in childhood.

Agnes & Margaret, 1910

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.

OConnell girls
Untouched for 105 years

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.

OConnell babies
After a little love & soapy water

Alene, or Lena.

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.

Lena

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.”

Lena and girls.jpeg

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.

Gold rush grandma.

Happy Friday from my great-grandma Jessie Mabel West!

Mabel West 1890s

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.