At the age of 39, my great-grandfather, Arthur, went to the hospital to have his tonsils taken out. I imagine they’d been troubling him often and he just couldn’t stand it anymore. He was a coal freight agent for the Chicago Eastern Illinois Railroad.

His wife, Alice, 37, and their two children, ten-year-old June and fourteen-year-old Arthur, Jr., dropped him off the night before the surgery, which was to be performed the next morning. Even back then, it was not considered too significant a surgery and so they dropped off their husband and father, said goodbye and see you tomorrow.

Alice on her wedding dayJune 10, 1914

Alice on her wedding day
June 10, 1914

The following morning, Arthur died on the operating table, his heart too large, literally, to endure surgery. It was 1930, and Alice was left alone with two children at the start of the Great Depression.

The bank took the house in Chicago, forcing Alice and the children to move to an apartment in Rogers Park, the first of several apartments. It’s left to me to imagine what it was like to lose a husband and then give up her home and the belongings that wouldn’t fit in the new apartment; to leave her friends and neighbors, maybe a tree she used to like to sit under, or the way the front door creaked a welcome home. To imagine how she told the kids that now that their father was dead, they had to go to a new school with new people. She would never own a home again.

Then Alice took the only job she could find: curling dead people’s hair in a funeral parlor. Every day she got up and went to the funeral parlor to sit in silence and curl hair so her children would have a place to live and food to eat. After a few years, she found another job in the ticket office at Riverview amusement park on the city’s Northwest Side. She got her children through the Depression, and during the war she worked for the government.

She didn’t remarry until the 1950s, until her children were raised and raising their own, until June toddled my own mother on her lap.

This is one of my family’s stories.

24 thoughts on “Alice

  1. What a heartbreaking story Jess- but you tell it with such beauty and grace. Alice was an amazing woman. It really puts into perspective the things we sometimes feel overwhelmed with in life are nothing in comparison to what she endured.

    • True. Alice also endured the loss of both her children (as adults; my mom’s mom died at the age of 46 from pancreatic cancer). By the time I knew her, she was a no-nonsense grandma, for sure.

  2. Women are strong today, but when I read stories like this, I am reminded just how very strong our ancestors were. I’ve read some of my grandmother’s memoirs, and I am astounded to read of what she endured, how hard her family worked, and yet how happy they were. Strong stuff indeed. Thank you for sharing Alice’s story.

    • Thanks for reading, Maddie. My parents have both talked about how hard and tough Alice was; very no-nonsense and “let’s get this done.” I don’t know if she was like that before, and so was able to get through the Depression as a single mother, or if the Depression made her that way. Either way, yes–strong, indeed.

    • It’s been interesting thinking of some of my family’s stories–stories I’ve always known and so they’ve been taken for granted–and now as an adult with children, seeing them in a whole new way.

  3. Makes you think twice before you complain about anything. I know I take way too much for granted. Thanks for the story Jess! It’s good to be reminded about how things used to be and how they could be.

  4. What a story about strength in women, Jessica. I could almost feel the cracks in her heart when Alice had to tell her children about their father, and how she never owned a home again. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story and Alice’s beautiful picture.

  5. Jessica, it was so interesting that you shared this story. You told it so well that I felt like I was right there in her life for a minute feeling the grief of her husband’s death and the challenges of finding a job during a difficult time in this country. What a strong woman who was your ancestor. Feeling now that she must have given you some of that strength…

  6. Maybe I’m just hormonal, but here I am, sitting at my desk at work, tearing up reading this! Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers certainly were strong women. And definitely stronger than me. Makes me rethink my daily complaints!

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