Three years ago today I published my first post on WordPress. I was terrified, but I wanted to share a one hundred year old letter I found among our family documents. The author was my great grandfather Elmer Hunt Butterfield, making a plea for his daughter to return home. I had no idea grandma flew the coop, but, I was determined to find out why.
Originally written and published March 20, 2015:
I have often wondered what life was like for my grandparents and their parents. What was it like to raise children in the early 1900s? What did the house look like? What was in grandma’s garden? How did they deal with life? I can read historical events from that time, accounts written by others. I might scour the Internet. Without a personal account, though, I cannot know for sure.
And there it lies: in the documentation. When mom moved from her home of 51 years we hit the mother load. We unearthed wills, leases, financial reports, receipts, and bills of sale. I started a file for birth, death and marriage certificates. There is an autograph book from the 1850s. But the riches were in the countless cards and letters. They did that back then. They wrote and wrote and wrote. In our case, they saved (and saved and saved) what appeared to be every single letter, some as far back as the 40s–or so I thought. I knew we were sitting on a time capsule, but it began much further back than I first realized.
Note the date on this letter. March 20, 1915, one hundred years ago today. It was authored by my great grandfather, Elmer Hunt Butterfield, to his daughter, Lalla, my grandmother. The date alone? I was beyond fascinated. Read on:
“Now Lalla you don’t know how you have hurt me by going away from home,” and “stop and think how much Ma has done for you, nursed you,” he wrote. “I am over here all alone and to know that you are not home and left the way you did just makes me sick.”
Good heavens. What happened?!!? I was completely hooked.
“When we got off the car…neither one of you would speak,” and “you don’t know how I felt. I thought I would faint away...” he wrote. “I can’t write any more now. I can’t see for tears.”
“You don’t know how I worry about you.” “I can’t sleep nights at all.”
Lalla was 16 that March. Albeit 100 years ago, that she left is news, and it gives me pause. What resources could she have had, where did she go, and how long was she gone? She didn’t marry my grandfather until 1921–by then she was 23–eight years later. But more importantly, why did grandma leave?
“Just think of your little sisters and think a little bit about me.” “Go home and try and get along with ma.”
I had heard about “ma.”
According to dad, his grandma Orah was a force to be reckoned with, and it appears she and Lalla had a significant rift. Dad once wrote: “You’d have to know my grandmother to really appreciate her. She was one of the toughest old biddies I ever have known. She ruled the roost, so to speak, and used anything within reach to enforce her status. I don’t know if we loved her, respected her or just feared her.” If she came after me with a switch, I’d run, too. (True story, courtesy dad’s memoir).
Then it dawned on me: check the dates! A tragedy left the family rife with pain in 1912 when grandma’s oldest sister Lillian passed away. Grandma was only 13. According to family lore, Lillian died at home–from tuberculosis–after a time of quarantine on the front porch. Lalla then became the oldest sister, and Orah had lost her firstborn. Wait! Quarantine? Front porch? Why was that so familiar? I knew I’d seen a picture….
After a quick search, I found the family home in dad’s memoir. Notice the tent on the porch in the photo below left–probably where Lillian stayed. This house is, in fact, where the family lived when Lillian died; I confirmed the address, date of death, and Lillian’s middle name from a newspaper obit, all uncertain until now. Built in 1910, much of the original structure remains. See photo below right (courtesy, Internet). Dad wasn’t certain this was his grandparents’ home as evidenced in his caption. Sadly, he never knew, but that’s OK. I know, and my fascination continues. (I just want to go there, find the owners, and say, “Don’t you REALIZE what happened here?!!?” Upon receipt of the inevitable “Huh?” I’d then say, “Well let me just tell you.” And……I’d probably be hauled off for disturbing the peace. I’m trying to stay out of Tacoma.)
When I was little, I wondered why grandma was so emotional, why she always cried. She cried when we arrived, she cried when we left, and she cried over the phone. She held our hands while we talked. She seemed to need to touch us and hang onto us, often. My sister and I are her only two biological grandchildren, and she was fairly protective. Granted, we lived one state away; however, this seemed a bit much. Friends’ grandparents didn’t seem to behave this way. I thought grandma was just a crier, weak somehow.
Here are the facts: of Orah’s four daughters, only grandma had children–and she only had one–my father. Of that entire family, we were the only grandchildren. How about the new family dynamic? Imagine losing your sister AND suddenly becoming the oldest child. Imagine–I can barely write the words–losing your oldest child. No doubt Orah’s expectations of Lalla increased; no doubt Lalla fought back. Elmer was away, working. Seems the family fell apart. No wonder.
This is what eats at me: Was there help? Probably not, because back then, visiting a counselor was frowned upon. There was a social stigma, i.e. something was wrong with you, if you sought help. I recall hearing this when I was young. People didn’t seek help; they dealt with life and death the best way they could. Commonly held beliefs about mental health were: those who sought help were crazy, mental disorders are not treatable, the need for help is a weakness, and people should tough it out or snap out of it (1). There was a time in my life when I needed help. I nearly lost my second born on the occasion of his birth–and it nearly did me in. I recalled the family discussion, though, and avoided “help.” Sadly, the stigma filtered down to me.
In grandma Lalla’s case, life became precious; we became precious. Over time grandma became increasingly emotional. She hung on any way she could, and one way was to cry. Whether a conscious act or not, crying is one way to ask for help. It also seems to minimize aggressive behavior in others. When people see crying, they become softer and sometimes offer help, easing others’ pain (2). I no longer see grandma’s crying as a weakness. I finally understand. But, Grandma had other ideas…
Perhaps because it provides another clue, perhaps because I like it, I’ll share something grandma loved. This poem verbalized her wish and need to cry. She wanted the freedom to cry, wanted the tears to flow, “For they help me remember.” She didn’t want to forget. I think that’s pretty gutsy. (Look at the irony! Back when it was not acceptable to seek help, she learned how to deal. These days, when counselors abound, some of us stuff it in.)
Maybe she cried for Lillian; maybe she had regrets. Her mother and sisters needed her at home, her father needed her home, yet she left. Maybe there was shame. No doubt she feared more loss. Writing on the envelope containing Elmer’s letter instructed Hazel to bury the letter with Lalla when the time came. Why Hazel did not comply we’ll never know, but I am awfully glad I read it, 100 years later.
It’s apparent both grandma and Orah were strong women. I don’t perceive Lalla as weak. I try to imagine what she endured, how she must have felt, but I can only guess at her pain. I don’t know the details of her leaving. It doesn’t matter.
I remember the soft, warm lady who held my hands, who couldn’t get enough of us, and that brings tears.
Reflection: How does what happened in your grandparents’ lifetime affect you?
NEXT : What is the significance of ‘Finding Merle’? Watch for my next post: a tribute to dad.
(1) Ferrini, A. F., & Ferrini, R. L. (2008). Health in the later years. New York, NY; McGraw-Hill, Inc.
(2) Hendriks, M.C.P., Croon, M.A., & Vingerhoets, J. J. M. (2010). Social reactions to adult crying: The help-soliciting function of tears. Journal of Social Psychology, pp. 22-42. doi: 10.3200/SOCP.148.1.2242.