The Malevolent Matriarch


The Malevolent Matriarch is an unedited look into one family’s life in Tacoma–our stories of old–from the perspective of an aging woman living with her daughter (and recreated here, for posterity).

Orah, my father’s grandma, was often alone. She was also in charge of that active young boy, her grandson, more than she cared to be. By 1940 whenย  Orah was 65, she had lost not only her husband, Elmer, but her oldest daughter, Lillian. She was eventually afflicted with significant health issues, largely ignored. This combination fostered a certain disposition, if you will. I refuse to sugar coat the truth; the title will become evident.

As I waded in, several themes began to emerge: finances, pension, recreation, health and aging, loss, boredom, neighbors, gardening and food, family, public transportation, divorce and single parenting in the 40s. There is much more. (My master’s in Aging Studies spiked my interest in how they dealt with aging in the 40s and 50s; that theme will emerge as well).

When youngest daughter Bertha moved from home, to fill her time and ward off boredom, Orah wrote. Sharpening her pencils and her tongue, Orah began putting their lives on paper. If Bertha hadn’t saved the pile, we’d never be the wiser. There are hundreds of letters, this gift, begging to be opened. Their story needs to be told.


The Scene

In 1939 Bertha married George Miller; she was 31 and the soon-to-be-recipient of mama Orah’s musings. Before moving to Sequim, WA (and eventually Port Angeles), Bertha lived at home–3526 S. K St. in Tacoma–the very home Orah stands in front of above.

PIX_Butterfield_Bertha Lalla Hazel_probably Port Angeles_1950s


At right are Orah’s girls, sisters Bertha (left, born 1908), Lalla (center, born 1898, pronounced Layla), and Hazel (seated, born 1902).

Bertha’s farm in Port Angeles, WA, early 50s.


The Setting

Dec 2015_kitchen at S K st tacoma



Orah occasionally wrote after crawling into bed at night; more often letters were written from the kitchen while she tried to stay warm near the now gone, wood burning stove.




March 2015_box of letters to bertha
A fraction of the total, Orah often wrote more than once a day.

Every letter in this series was written from this house, their home, over the ensuing 12 years.

Lalla, my grandma, owned the home. Other residents included Lalla’s son Rodney, my father. At the time of Orah’s first letter, dad had just turned 11, about his age in the photo at bottom.

Grandma Lalla on K Street

When grandma was working full time and raising her child, she took in female renters, most of whom worked at McChord Air Force base nearby.

Key Players

From left and seated are dad’s great uncle Forrest, his great Aunt Edith (Smith), dad, his grandma Orah, Orah’s youngest daughter, Bertha, and my grandma, Lalla. Middle sister Hazel took the picture, and her husband is standing at left. Forrest was Orah’s brother.


Smith, Butterfield, and Geier clan, circa 1939

This photo is telling (and I can’t help but smile). While it’s difficult to know with Edith and Forrest, look at the ladies at right. While dad happily plays in the sand, Bertha conceals a smile and Orah scowls. Lalla simply looks unhappy.

The Malevolent Matriarch begins during cherry season, July 3, 1940 with a trip to the hospital. Watch for the upcoming post titled Cherry Season.ย 

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