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.