Tuesday, July 22, 2014

After Elsie’s Manuscript

Aunt Elsie

If you have been following my Amanuensis Monday series transcribing the manuscript my great-aunt Elsie wrote, you know that it stopped before her family moved from Idaho to Oregon. However, I can continue (admittedly, in less detail) from there. Each time I visited her she told me other stories, which, thankfully, I recorded as soon as I got home.

I have before me the notes from two conversations with Elsie, one on 18 Apr 1999 and one that I unfortunately neglected to note the date, but it would have been in late 1998 or in 1999. Some of what she said repeats what is already written in her manuscript, so I will omit those parts. The rest I will sort more or less chronologically and present in the following paragraphs.

The day of one of our conversations. My “nephew’s” mom was also there, but apparently she was taking the picture.

Going back to the times that Elsie wrote about in her manuscript, she told me a couple things that she had not written about. She told me that when she was a little girl she used to sit on her dad’s lap and curl his moustache. She said he had some kind of special wax or cream that he would put on it.

She also remembered that her dad always said that tea should be the color of whiskey. Elsie told me that she was so young she didn’t know what whiskey was, but she always remembered that tea ought to be the color of it.

And now we arrive where the manuscript left off. The first world war has ended, and Walter Sr. (Elsie’s dad) has fallen in love with Oregon because berries and nuts grow on the sides of the road. He had been working in the shipyards in Portland during the war, while his family remained in Idaho. But now the war is over, and he has decided that the whole Underwood family will move to Oregon.

When they came, they took a train from Idaho to the Oregon town of Canby. That seems a remarkable stopping point to me, as Canby is a fair distance south of Portland, and a pretty small town. I wonder how they even heard of it. However, perhaps it was more prosperous at that time, or perhaps they knew someone there. Elsie said that they stayed with friends for a while, though she didn’t say whether those friends lived in Canby or Portland. And unfortunately, if she mentioned their names, I did not write them down. But after staying with those friends, whoever they were, the Underwood family got a house in the area of Portland known as Errol Heights.

Elsie left home at age 15; she didn’t get to finish high school. At that time she moved in with a prominent Portland family, the Banfields. There is now a freeway named after them. She looked after their little girl, Harriet. She also cooked for them. On Thanksgiving, she would prepare their Thanksgiving dinner before going home to her own family for the holiday.

The little Banfield girl picked out a set of dishes for Elsie. They were a buttercup pattern because she said that Elsie was just like a buttercup. Mrs. Banfield told Elsie to go to a particular store and look at this particular set of dishes. She knew that Elsie loved to set the table. So Elsie went to the store and looked. She liked them, but, she protested to Mrs. Banfield, they were so expensive, and she had such a large family. (Her “family” at this time is, naturally, referring to her parents and siblings. She had not yet married.) But Mrs. Banfield wanted her to have these dishes. So she had the store do a table setting display with them for Elsie and told her to go look at them again on her day off. Elsie felt very awkward about it, but Mrs. Banfield’s word was law, so she went. She nervously entered the store. The salesgirl asked if she could help her.

“I’m supposed to look at a table setting,” said Elsie.

“Oh! You must be Elsie,” said the salesgirl, and showed her to the table setting.

It was beautiful, but once again Elsie protested the price to Mrs. Banfield. It was no use: Mrs. Banfield wanted her to have the dishes, so she bought them for her. She also insisted to Elsie that they be used for everyday, not saved for special occasions.

At the time of my visit, Elsie proudly showed me the dishes, and told me that she still had the entire set. She was just shy of her 92nd birthday.

She said that one time they had duck for dinner, and it tasted like fish.

Sometime after all the Underwood girls were out of grammar school, Walter and Flora Underwood (the parents) moved to Netarts, on the Oregon coast. Walter’s sister and her husband, known as Aunt Sadie and Uncle Alvy, lived next door. Walter built both houses. He preferred living at the beach to living in Portland. He sold flower bulbs there.

Here I must interject a story of my own. The houses in Netarts are no longer in the family, but when my Dad was a child he used to visit his grandparents there. When I go with him for a drive in that area it is like a guided tour: he points out the house that belonged to his grandparents and comments on the changes that have been made in the neighborhood, he shows me where the dump was where his cousins used to shoot rats, he tells about the dune that was behind the Schooner Restaurant and how the kids used to run down it until one day a boy was covered by sand and died. I have accompanied him on enough of these excursions that I can almost tell some of the stories myself, although Dad tells them best. He is an excellent storyteller. Like a little child, I beg him to tell them again and again.

One day, my parents and I were on such a drive, and we saw a garage sale sign. Not one of us can resist a garage sale. And then we realized that the sale was at Walter Underwood’s old house! We definitely had to stop. Among the other items displayed in the front yard were a large number of gladiolas. “The man who used to live here ran a nursery,” explained the woman running the sale. “That was my granddad,” my dad said. These were flowers descended from those originally planted by my great-grandfather. So naturally we bought as many gladiolas as we could carry—not only were they lovely to look at, but they were family heirlooms!

A gladiola resembling those we got from Walter Underwood, Sr.’s former garden.  
By 3268zauber (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
But we must go back in time again, and return to the stories that Elsie told me. There is little left; the rest is more like snippets of information than stories, but they are still worth telling.

During WWII, there was a scare at Netarts Bay. Walter Sr. and two other men watched on the ground all night, but fortunately nothing happened.

When V-J Day came along, people swarmed into Safeway, the grocery store where Elsie worked.

Elsie’s sisters Aileen (my grandma) and Inez worked for Jantzen Knitting Mills. Aileen was the floor manager, and Inez was a spinner.

My grandma, Aileen, is the last woman from the right in the second row. Her sister Inez is directly behind her.

Elsie also said that she remembered going back to Idaho and visiting her sister Vida’s grave with her mom. If you recall, Vida was the baby who died of typhoid fever, apparently when the Underwoods were living in Burley, Idaho. “Mom allways thought she could have saved Vida,” Elsie wrote in her manuscript. She told me that Vida had been the only one of the children who had brown eyes.

That is the end of the notes I took on the two visits I mentioned. There were many more visits and many more notes, but I was just beginning to become serious about genealogy and still had a lot to learn about organization. The other notes are scattered amongst my papers, yet to be sorted into any sort of identifiable structure. I often, when going through old paperwork, run across a stray piece of scratch paper or even an envelope covered in genealogical notes from those early days.

However, since you have already spent so much time getting to know Aunt Elsie, I suspect you may be interested to learn about the rest of her life.

She married a man named Ferris Jones on 21 July 1928 in Portland, Oregon. I don’t know much about their marriage, as Elsie seldom talked about it except when saying something like, “That was when I was with my first husband, Ferris.” I once asked her about Ferris, but all she would say was, “He wasn’t good to me.” They divorced sometime before 1960, but I have not yet been able to find the record.

Despite how well I thought I knew Elsie, I learned only last year that she was married on 9 July 1960 to a man named Donald Peterson. They probably met at work, since I know that Elsie worked at Safeway, and he was a meat cutter at Safeway. There are, of course, a number of different Safeway locations, and I don’t know at this time whether they were both at the same location, but it does seem the likeliest scenario. Their marriage, however, was very short-lived. Even my dad, who was a child at the time, was surprised to hear of this marriage, having no recollection of it, and I could not find a single picture of Donald in the family album.

Marriage record for Elsie and her second husband Donald. Two of the witnesses are Elsie’s sister and brother-in-law.

She married a third time on 20 April 1963 to Lee Crocker. This was the uncle that I knew, and the marriage that lasted. Elsie once told me how they met, and I know that I recently saw those notes, but evidently I did not put them where they belonged, because I don’t see them now. However, I do remember that the story involved square dancing and seeing Lee walking around with his three children.

Lee, as I knew him, was a quiet, but very kind man. Elsie, in contrasting him to her first husband, said, “He’s good to me.” Elsie never had any biological children, but she took in Lee’s as her own. Their mother had passed away in 1960. I know that Elsie loved those children very much. Every time I visited she was sure to show me the latest pictures of her kids and grandkids and to tell me what each one was up to. Unfortunately, I never got to know them personally very well, though we did meet a few times, but Elsie always made sure to tell me the latest news. (I suspect she kept them apprised of the latest news about me, as well.)

When my own grandmother, Aileen, passed away in 1989, Elsie and Lee took over as sort of my surrogate grandparents. It is difficult to put into words what they meant to me. It was shortly after my grandma died—memory makes me want to say the day after, but I’m not sure that is correct—that I spent a very special day with Lee and Elsie. I think it was the first time that I had stayed with them without my parents, and it might even have been a sleepover. But after that day, although I still missed my grandma, I didn’t feel quite so much like she was gone. And I knew that whenever I needed Grandma Aileen, I could always call on Elsie.

Lee passed away on 11 April 1992. After that, Elsie moved into a smaller apartment. I remember “helping” her move. (I doubt if I was much help!) We explored many treasures hidden in her huge closet. She did not have to move far; they had lived at an upscale retirement home called Willamette View Manor, and she stayed within the manor, just in a different hallway.

Elsie remained lively and spry into her 90s. She kept some rosebushes in the manor’s garden and made a habit of leaving roses at her neighbors’ doors in the morning so they would have fresh flowers for their rooms.

And then one day she fell. I have never understood how a broken bone can completely destroy a person’s health, and I probably never will. But Elsie spent the rest of her days in the hospital. She passed away on 20 June 2001.

I think her life was well summed up by one of her friends at the funeral. I don’t know who it was, only that she lived at the manor. She told my mom and me that, having no family of her own, she had never quite understood why Elsie was always talking about hers. Sometimes it would rather annoy her that Elsie was always talking about others. But, seeing how many people were at the funeral and how much love there was, “Now I understand.”

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