Alice

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.

Edith

Edith Chandler Kinder was born on a small farm in the woods of northern Minnesota in 1923. At the age of eighty-three, Edith, my grandmother-in-law, politely allowed me to interview her, slightly flummoxed as to why I should care. For over an hour, she answered my questions in her lilting, singing voice, often resting fingers bent by age on her cheek as she reminisced. Following is an excerpt:

I was born in Minnesota. A township, but we always used Ballclub, Minnesota as our mailing address. Ballclub was kind of an Indian community. They had an Indian school there. And so I was the eighth child, and the first delivery my mother ever had a doctor attending her. And she got mad at him because all he did was sit in the living room and talk with the men. That’s what she said he did!

Anyway, all went well. And I was a momma’s girl all my life. My dad left us when I was three years old. He was, I think, a nice man. I never really knew him. But he would drink. Not all the time. He was more like a drunk on the weekend or when he got his paycheck for the logs. He was a logger. And he’d go to town and he’d get his money and then he’d pay his bills and then he’d drink the rest. So my mother had a hard time that way.

He hit her. I remember it. I was there. I was three and we had a bedroom, the boys’ bedroom. Was two double beds and then just an alleyway between the two and he had her down, hitting on her. And I remember jumping up and down on the bed, screaming. That’s all I remember about it. From then on, he could not come back. So I don’t know if that was the first abuse and she said once is enough, or if there was trouble. I don’t know why it was so cut and dried, right away. That’s all I know about it. But, you see, when I came along everybody was tired of talking about everything. I didn’t hear a lot of things.

[We had] maybe at a time ten milking cows and my older brothers would come home and help put up hay in the summer for these cows. And [my mother] sold the cream. A few dollars a week. And that’s what she supported us on.

My mother came from Norway when she was three years old. Had two sisters that lived in the neighborhood, they were always good friends. And that’s where my cousins come so important now in our life. Because we were brought up with them, out there on the farm. But they had dads, yet. I really didn’t know about having a dad and I sure never missed it. I think if you have one good parent, that’s about enough.

My mother had six boys in a row. And then she had two girls. And then somewhere long about the fourth boy, whose name was James Thomas, her little old log house caught fire. And some of the boys were in the house with her and she set them outside. You know, you only had a pail of water. You carried a pail of water from the well. That’s all she had. She threw it on the fire but it didn’t do anything. So by then she went outside and the little one was missing. Little James Thomas was just walking age. And she had to go back into the burning house to find him, and hunted for him, and she got burned, badly. And she found him hiding behind a door, to get away from the fire. But he was burned badly, and he died.

And they didn’t expect her to live. She said that when she was lying in this bed in this so-called hospital, she heard her two sisters talking about who was going to take her other boys.

Simple little things stick in my mind. One night, my youngest brother was pitching hay off the haystack, feeding the cows. And I was lying on top of this haystack, and it was the most beautiful night. I can still see it. In the middle of winter. Cold night. Sparkly stars. That has always stuck in my mind. Beautiful.