The MALEVOLENT MATRIARCH
The Malevolent Matriarch is a process and a means to an end. It’s the creation of a diary of sorts–a modern day blog–chronicling my family’s life. As I climb the hill, my questions outnumber the answers I seek. At the very least, I’ll go out with a greater understanding of whence* I came (and a very strong wish that those I meet in the afterlife will welcome me with open wings; I’d best be kind).
It also solves a dilemma: What are we to do with the hundreds of letters written about everyday life in the 40s and 50s? The collection is a gem, a treasure, a time capsule I am thrilled to have. Even through malevolent eyes, the very best parts are descriptions of my father’s childhood, an enviable find.
And, it pisses me off. The letters began in 1940 and have the power to spike my blood pressure 76 years later. Imagine! They answer some unknowns, however, and as I plow along, that will become evident.
The letters were penned by my great grandma, Orah Myrtle (Smith) Butterfield**.
Her mind was as razor sharp as her tongue, and rather than simply read and toss, or try to scan the myriad of pages, I decided to share.
She is the impetus for this blog. While I will try to be kind, I will not sugar coat her words or walk around the truth (and this, Tyler, Andrew, and Kelsey, is my gift to you).
I must add that through the pages as I read her words and got to know my great gramma, I noticed a measure of appreciation. I’m still not sure I like her, but I learned to appreciate what she’d been through; learned not to judge. I didn’t wear her boots.
I must also say that while these letters reveal Orah’s stinging negativity, others expose her sense of humor (there was one!). Some brush the edges of pleasant, simply recounting the day’s activities. I’ve titled my opening post Cherry Season as it is based on a positive letter, the first one she wrote. It was July, warm and sunny, and cherries were in season. Its happy image makes me smile. Because many others don’t, I’m determined to start positively.
Orah’s youngest daughter, Bertha, married (George Miller) the year before the letters began and moved from Tacoma to Sequim.
After Orah’s husband Elmer passed away, for a time she was a “servant” for a family of three (1930 census). Later, she moved in with Lalla (Orah’s oldest daughter, divorced from Carl Geier, my grandma, and pronounced Layla). Also in residence was my father, Rodney, who had just turned 11. Orah had time to fill and Bertha–the one farthest away–became the recipient of Orah’s writings. Middle daughter, Hazel (married Bert Kasae), lived nearby in Tacoma. Thirty nine was a busy year: Bertha married and moved away, and the remaining three moved to the house on K Street.
Come along with me as I take the plunge and unveil life through the eyes of my sharp-tongued matriarch, how she shaped the man my father would become; discover how a sharp tongue can cut, 76 years later.
July 3, 1940
It was cherry season, and the tree in Lalla’s back yard was loaded. It was Wednesday morning and Orah woke up tired. She’d been putting up cherries for grandma and Hazel, and she couldn’t resist the ripe, red bursts of goodness.
“I feel like a cherrie I have ate so many, but they are so good.”
I can picture red teeth and stained fingers, the satisfaction of a young boy eating his fill at day’s end.
Orah had finished the morning ironing, and her legs needed a rest.
Orah grabbed a pencil, her near daily ritual, and sat down to write. She missed her daughter.
The wood stove is long gone, but this is the kitchen where Orah wrote many of her letters to Bertha. She mentioned sitting near the stove to keep warm, or at the dining table where the sun warmed her face.
“It seems like a long time I no see you, “ she wrote.
I’ll be darned. I wondered about this phrase. Dad would say in a playful tone, “I no seeeeee you” if I was around the corner, or over the phone if he hadn’t seen me in a while.
This was nice on two counts, to know its origin, and that it made me smile 76 years later.
On this warm, July day, something was on Orah’s mind.
From patterns she ordered, Orah did beautiful piece work. She wrote of fixing a dress, or taking in a daughter’s skirt. She crocheted tablecloths, made the pansy doily below. Pillow slips were mentioned, and finishing tea towels. She made clothespin hangers for her daughters–something I’d seen hanging in my grandmother’s basement–one of which now hangs in my kitchen.
I finally know its origin. I began to appreciate these contributions.
Sewing and crocheting in the afternoons and evenings, Orah was able to sell some of her wares. This was Orah’s entire income, and what little grandma could spare.
Lalla was working full time, but her earnings went towards rent, bills, food, and raising her son. There was little extra. Some stockings had arrived, though, and Orah had received a second notice the money was due. She was worried, and looked to Bertha for help.
“I have not got the money for them.”
Although money would become a theme and significant sore spot between Orah and Lalla, Orah’s letters reveal plenty of shopping (and speak of her character).
I’d seen several references but initially I didn’t know what Orah meant by 38. Later, when I read “they are here at 38 St. P.O.,” I realized she meant 38th street.
This photo (1941) was taken when Orah lived nearby. This is where they shopped. It was the business hub of the area, complete with stores, restaurants, bakeries, cleaners, and the 38th street post office.
K Street, two blocks west of Lincoln High School, runs into South 38th. The Geier-Butterfield home sat two and a half blocks from the main drag, about where I placed the red X. Dad attended Whitman grade school and Lincoln High.
Orah, left, stands in front of her home on K Street during the years she wrote the letters. At right is a current view.
The next morning, July 4th, Orah would head out at 6:30 a.m. with Mrs. Sear’s*** daughter, Hazel. Wild blackberries were ready for picking and they intended to beat the heat. The family would soon enjoy the fruits of Orah’s labor: blackberry jelly.
This is another source of appreciation: dad ate well. Orah was home during the day, and in the early years did the canning and preserving. There was no vegetable garden on K street, but Orah maintained and took full advantage of the berries, apples, peaches, pears, and cherries.
“And gramma planted raspberries next to the garage and loganberries between the apple and peach trees,” dad wrote. They also had gravensteins and pears.
“For a couple years mom made large batches of root beer and put it in glass jugs which we stored in the open area upstairs,” dad recalls.
“It was a great family drink we served guests whenever we hosted family functions.”
Imagine home made root beer at a family event. Lalla did what she could to have fun, make life enjoyable.
Orah mentions the loganberry bush received from their neighbor, Mrs. Cyr.
Although mostly happy, these images cannot hide the trouble that was brewing. An unhappy or unfulfilled spirit was in residence.
Along with the following, Orah was experiencing headaches, eye trouble, dizziness, “water” trouble, and stomach issues.
“I can’t hardly walk some of the time.” Aug. 1940
“Wish you were here I would make you put me to bed.” Aug. 1940
Still later, “…just meanness coming out.” Sept. 1940
“Left limb doesn’t feel very good.” Feb. 1941
“I’m so tired I don’t know my name.” March 1941
Orah’s misery became more apparent with time. As sometimes happens, we take it out on those we love (“I never seen such a pig” April, 1941).
In Cherry Season, Part II, Orah’s life appears to take a turn, but I believe it was a culmination, that she reached a place where the combination of several life events had taken their toll. How much could you handle? Gives me pause.
* I love dusting off and plunking in the quirky words.
**For genealogical purposes, I’ll create an ongoing surname list, those Orah mentions: Smith, Butterfield, Geier, Cyr, Sear, Miller, Kasae.
***Orah was not a champion speller. Radio was often spelled raido, and she referred to her own grandson as Rondey instead of Rodney. The errors leave me wondering if Mrs. Sear was in fact Mrs. Cyr, but Orah uses both spellings.