I had heard this vague story that my mom could have gone to college. By vague, I mean I don’t know where she would have attended. Moreover, someone (who?) was willing to pay for it. Further, the reason she didn’t go to college or join Girl Scouts was her hair. Specifically, the fact that her hair would become kinky when wet.
Was this a genuine concern of my mother’s? Maybe. But it sounded more like HER mother. Mom’s first cousin, Frances Beal, told this tale about Fran’s daughters and my grandmother, who was temporarily taking care of them. The story, which I have excerpted here:
“The girls were five and four [in the mid-1960s]. They had never seen a curling iron in their life. And in this house, the heat, there was this big, big cast-iron stove… Gert had started the fire and put [in] these coal-burning things, and flames are leaping up when she takes the burner off. She sticks the comb in there. The elder one’s watching all of this, getting more horrified by the minute. And so then she takes it out, wipes it on the dish towel, right? And she says, ‘Come here.’ ‘What are you going to do with that?’ She said, ‘I’m going to straighten your hair. You look like the wild woman from Borneo.'”
So if her potential frizzy hair was a college deal-breaker for my mom, it was from the conditioning [hair pun there] of her mother. Regardless, it was a real shame. She was astute. Even in the stages of dementia she experienced in her last years, she was still very savvy with math.
Marrying that man
One of my sisters asked her, late in our mom’s life, “If your mother was so restrictive, how was she able to marry Les Green?” She said, “I don’t know.”
But her cousin Fran did. “When my cousin Gertie — Trudy, they call her now — started to date the man who eventually became her husband, he was deemed too dark for the family. And I think my father [Ernest Yates] and my Uncle Ed had to intervene and say, ‘Listen, I’m not going to be able to ever speak to you again unless you stop this nonsense.'”
This tracks. Ernie, who died the year after I was born, was a labor leader who ran for political office and married a white Jewish woman. Ed fought in World War II and had a more expansive worldview. Could Ed and/or Ernie have been my mom’s would-be college benefactor? I may never know.
My mom was a wonderful woman. Still, it pains me that the narrow-mindedness of her mother limited my mom. Given the time my sisters and I spent with my grandmother, we knew first-hand that side of my mother’s mom.
It occurred to me that I’ve written a few times about my paternal grandma Agatha Green. For instance, here and here and especially here. I am reminded that she was born 120 years ago on July 26.
I’ve written far less about my maternal grandma Gertrude Williams, born August 10, 125 years ago. I think it’s because my relationship with her was more… complicated. She was born Gertrude Elizabeth Yates, daughter of Edward Yates and Lilian Bell Archer. For the longest time, even my mother believed she was born in 1898. I always remembered it because it was the year of the Spanish-American War.
Then one day in the mid-1960s, she went to register to vote. Unwilling to lie to a government official, she confessed her true age.
I thought Gert grew up in the house my mother always lived in until mom got married. But in the 1905 New York State Census in Binghamton, NY, she lived at 53 Sherman Place, a street razed c. 1960 to build a park near 45 Carroll Street. By 1910, she lived at 13 Maple Street with her parents and her younger siblings, Edward, Ernest, and Adina, or Deana as everyone called her. Gert had an older sister who had died before she was born.
In March 1912, her father died. Yet, in July of that same year, her mother Lillian married a guy named Maurice Holland, a guy from either Texas or Mexico, depending on which subsequent Census you believe.
In the 1920 Census, the household was Harriet Archer (Lillian’s widowed mother), Lillian, Maurice, and Lillian’s four children. Gert, now 22, was working as a maid.
My mom enters the picture
Gertrude married a guy named Clarence Williams around 1927, and they had a child named Gertrude. (She will hereafter be referred to as Trudy to avoid confusion.) And they had a second child, who did not live long and died in early 1929.
In the 1930 Census, the household consisted of Lillian and Maurice; Gertrude, Edward, and Deana, Ernie having moved out; a nephew of Lillian named Edward Archer, 17; and my mother Trudy, 2. Here is a picture of Gert with her mother, sister, and daughter.
But where’s Clarence? Fuzzy gossip suggested that Lillian and maybe even Harriet (d. 1928) drove him away. I never got the real story. Gert is 32 and working as a servant.
By the 1940 Census, the residents were Maurice (Lillian d. 1938), Gert, Edward, Deana, and Trudy. Gert only had a 6th-grade education, and she was working as a housekeeper.
My sister has many undated pictures of people visiting 13 Maple Street, eating in the not-very-large backyard. So it was some sort of cultural mecca. What was THAT all about?
I’ve just seen the 1950 Census
It shows Edward, 47, as head of household, naturally(!), because he was the eldest male; he was a truck driver. Adenia, 42, was a stitcher. Gert, 52, was now listed as separated from Clarence (d. 1958) and not working outside the home. Trudy, 22, is a shipping clerk. She married Les Green, 23, on March 12, 1950; he was a cleaner doing remodeling work.
Eventually, in 1950, my parents-to-be moved into 5 Gaines Street, about six blocks away. It was owned by Gert and presumably her siblings.
I enter the picture
I was born in 1953. In 1958, when I was going to kindergarten, I was supposed to attend Oak Street School. Since my mother worked outside the home, at McLean’s department store, it was determined that 13 Maple Street would be my school address so that I could go there at lunch and after school, tended to by Gert and Deana. Ed had moved out by then.
Deana was cool. We’d play 500 rummy and Scrabble. I taught her canasta, which Grandma Green had shown me.
Gert was a pain. She would tell stories, but it was difficult following them or believing how much, if any, was true. She would indicate that we should not go near this person, who turned out to be a relative. Worse, she forbid her adult daughter and us to see her brother Ed because he was living with a woman, Edna, who was not his wife. After Ed died in 1970, my strongest memory was of Gert and Edna crying on each other’s shoulders at the funeral.
There were “bad men” lurking in the Oak Street underpass, we were told. The boogie man existed. When I washed the dishes, which I did at home regularly, she told me I shouldn’t because it wasn’t manly. This was one of the several times that Deana said to Gert, “Leave the boy alone!” When Deana died in 1966, I was devastated.
My mother was in a tug-of-war between her mother and her husband, which I alluded to here. Dad clearly did not like Gert. One time, we were having dinner, and someone asked Gert if she wanted some peas. She said, “I’ll have a couple.” My father put two peas on her plate. It was shocking and bite-your-lip funny and may explain why I can be such a literalist.
Mom’s first cousin Frances Beal, Ernie’s daughter, tells a Gert story here, in the fifth paragraph from the end.
When my parents and baby sister Marcia moved to Charlotte, NC, it became clear to everyone except Gert that Gert needed to move down with her daughter and son-in-law. She had a coal stove, which required going to the basement to shovel the coal into pails and carry it up rickety steps. I did this a lot as a kid, which I oddly enjoyed.
It was the task of sister Leslie and me to take Gert to Charlotte. She railed against it. Where would she get stockings? “They sell stockings in North Carolina.”
She lived in Charlotte until she died on Super Bowl Sunday in 1982. She was cremated in Charlotte but buried at Spring Forest Cemetery in Binghamton, less than 100 meters from 13 Maple Street.
I did love Gert, I believe. But I didn’t always like her.
Gert requested/demanded that Trudy, who was an adult, to have nothing to do with Ed either, and she capitulated to that. I know that, except in passing – they lived only four blocks away – I never saw them.
Sometimes, I felt bad for my mom. She got stuck between a couple of dominating personalities and often sublimated her own.
But let’s go way back to the early part of the 20th century. My great-grandparents, Edward Yates and Lillian (nee Archer-pictured) had four children who lived past infancy: Gert, Ed, Ernie, and Deana. Edward died by 1920. Gert fell in love with a guy named Clarence Williams, got married, and had a child, Gertie (my mom, who I’ll refer to as Trudy because that’s what she later called herself.) Well, Lillian didn’t approve of Clarence, a baseball player in the Negro Leagues, for reasons not clear to me, and apparently drove him away. So my mother was raised by her grandmother, her mother, and Aunt Deana. The primary male role model for her was Ed since Ernie had gotten married and started raising a family. Lillian died c 1937, but by then the damage to Gert and Clarence’s relationship had been done, I gather.
Ed fought in World War II and everyone was proud of him. I remember seeing his picture in uniform on a mirror in the house Gert and Deana shared when I was growing up. But just as my grandmother stopped talking to another relative when he started having children with a woman without the benefit of matrimony, so too did she pretty much disown her brother Ed when he started living with this woman named Edna in the mid-1960s. And I suppose that was her right, though I found it sad. And peculiar too, since she wasn’t really that much of a religious person; I can tally on one hand the number of times she went to church while I was growing up.
What I found more painful, though, is that Gert requested/demanded that Trudy, who was an adult, have nothing to do with Ed either, and she capitulated to that. I know that except in passing – they lived only four blocks away – I never saw them.
Then, in 1970, we got a call to rush to the hospital; Ed was dying. We got there after he passed away; he was the first dead person I had ever seen not in a casket. My burning recollection is of Gert and Edna crying on each other’s shoulders at Ed’s funeral. Edna died within a couple of years of Ed. *** Want to read an uplifting tale of an Ed and Edna? Go HERE.