The Expression on Grandma’s Face

by Kim on June 30, 2010

My grandmother with her husband's family

My paternal grandmother Edith married when she was 14, on October 4, 1911. Her husband – my grandfather, Harry – was 38, 24 years old years older than his bride.  My grandfather is the in the front row on the left. My grandmother, his new bride – is in the second row standing, second from the left –  the short young girl. I have spent a fair amount of time trying to imagine what my grandmother’s life was like and what was going through her mind at this time of her life.  It sound atrocious that my grandfather took a child bride. But the way the story was told to me was that my great-grandmother, Edith’s Mom, died when Edith was 1-year-old. Her father re-married and put her out of the house when she was a teen because his new wife didn’t want her there. She was essentially an orphan and there weren’t any homes for 14-year-old girls then.

A close up of my grandparents after they were first married.

My grandfather Harry had been married before and he had 2 children from that marriage. Their son was reported to have some affliction, perhaps Down’s Syndrome. My grandmother Edith was hired to take care of this son. It might have resulted in a marriage of convenience, but I believe my grandmother loved my grandfather and that he cared for her too. I have spent some time looking at this photo and my grandmother’s face. 14 years old. Alone and no one to turn to. Pregnant. Bound to a much older man. Finally having someone to take care of her financially and a home. Her expression looks blank. She doesn’t look scared. She has no idea how her life is going to be. Bewildered might be the right word to capture how she feels. Hardened might be another term that best describes her. I think she looks remarkably confident and resilient at 14 years old.

Laundry with 14 children

Her first son was born March 29, 1912. That was 5 months after she was married. The baby reportedly weighed 13+ pounds. Her midwife or doctor told her that she wouldn’t have any more children. She had 13 more after the first one, 10 boys and 4 girls total. (See Being a Middle Child, #7 of 14) Her husband would be ill most of his adult life and she would be required to provide for the family AND care for her children. They survived the depression by my grandmother taking in laundry for others and for farming out her 10 sons to area farmers during those times. But somehow she provided a happy home. The bond between my aunts and uncles was close and real. My aunt’s account during this time that their Mom “somehow” scrapped enough money together to buy the material to make them suits for Easter. Another remarked that she received a watch for a graduation present. She was sure that my Grandmother made payments for a year to be able to purchase the watch for her. After dishes were finished after the evening meal, they would play rummy at the kitchen table or my Grandfather would help his kids with homework. It is astonishing to me that my Grandmother was able to create this great childhood for her children – with only a little help from her husband.

Photo Scanning Austin

My Dad's family in 1939

This photo was taken in 1939, 3 years before 4 of her sons would go off to war. She is here with all of her healthy children and her 66 year-old husband. I found newspaper articles about my Dad in some newspaper archives that describe a very active family. Most of the boys and some of the girls played high school sports. My Dad was on the tumbling, volleyball, basketball, and football teams. Other uncles were also on the teams, making all-area honors. I have several photos of the younger uncles playing in the yard and by the creek. It appears to be a pretty wholesome family.

4 sons in WWII

In December 1942, my Dad enlisted in the war and reported to Camp Wheeler, Georgia.In October 1943, my Dad arrived in Africa for duty in WWII and joined his older brother Frank in the region. In December 1943, my Uncle Jim was the fourth son to enter the war. I have telegrams that were sent to my grandmother telling that my father was missing in action and then seriously injured and hospitalized during the war. I can’t imagine getting these telegrams with little information. It was another serious sacrifice that she made when her sons served their country. I remember when my grandfather died. I was six years old. We visited him at my grandparent’s house and my grandfather was in a hospital bed in the living room. I remember the tender care that my grandmother gave to my grandfather. She truly cared for him – it didn’t seem to be a duty.

My grandmother realized the importance of family. It was perhaps because she didn’t have one that supported her when she was growing up. Without having the rich family experience herself, she crafted a wonderful household for her 14 children, even in dire economic times. When her children married and had children of their own, there were over 80 people in the immediate family, too many to gather in one home. In 1956, My grandmother started an annual tradition of our family reunion, held at a park where each family would bring a covered dish to share. There were games for the kids to play and a whole afternoon where all of her children could gather and celebrate their family. This reunion is still a tradition even though my grandmother, grandfather and most of her children are now gone.

Some people are given a birthright in form of money or an inheritance. No one in my family passed down any material goods for sure. My birthright comes instead from my grandmother doing the best she could with the little that she had. “Nothing we can do can change the past, but everything we do changes the future.”

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancy July 3, 2010 at 12:10 am

What a great lady your grandmother was and how hard her life must have been with 14 children. What a heritage of goodness she left you!


Greta Koehl July 10, 2010 at 10:54 pm

A wonderful tribute to a lady of great character and strength. She left a tremendous heritage of children and memories.


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