The Amazing Women in My Family (And a Few Amazing Men, too)

Every two weeks or so, I have happy hour with my grandmother (see her in photos in previous posts). She is 89 and so much fun to be around. Last week, my cousin, Jeff, and I had happy hour with her; but, after the stress of this week and trying to work so hard on my dissertation, I decided another happy hour was in order. So, we indulged this afternoon!

Usually, we just sit around and sip scotch while talking about fun stuff. Today, however, she had a surprise for me. She had my uncle bring out a box full of my deceased great-great-uncle's papers. My G. G. Uncle Jack Warner was and is someone close to my heart. We went to visit him in Indiana every year from the time I was six-years-old until I was near thirty. After that, I usually saw him when his neighbors brought him down to the Kentucky/Tennessee line to pick up my grandmother for a long visit. Jack died a few years ago (so I basically only missed a year or two of not seeing him at his home) at the age of 93. Fortunately, he had his wits about him until the last few months, and he was an amazing man.

Jack was an English professor at Purdue University in LaFayette, Indiana. Some of the best moments of my childhood were spent at his country home, playing around cows and near corn fields with his neighbor's daughter, Julie (who is probably my oldest friend). Julie and I wrote letters to one another during the year, between the visiting times, and when we saw one another again it was as if no time at all had passed. This is still true today, though we haven't seen each other in ages.

Uncle Jack and I also exchanged letters, his written partially in French (because I was learning the language at the time). He called me "Frogette" and I called him "Froggy" because he had such a wide grin. When I would visit, I would play with artifacts he had collected from around the world (amazing, because he never let anyone touch those things) and his stereoscope. I absolutely loved the stereoscope. During the afternoons, when everyone else would take a nap, Uncle Jack and I would sit on the porch or in the room added on to his garage and test each other with quotations from famous literature. He was amazing in his ability to remember quotations.

In any case, when he died, he left me his writing desk and his collection of letters from World War II. (His sister saved all of his correspondence from the war. He was involved in intelligence and deciphering codes.) It is amazing to see how his boyish frame of mind changes to a jaded, matured man's point of view from 1942 through 1944.

Anyway, the point is, he was an incredible man...but he came from an amazing family. Now, many of us who have been in academia long enough have come across those men who are the ancient professors. They like things the way they WERE--not the way they ARE. And that includes women in the field. Now, my uncle knew that I was pursuing a PhD. He thought I was crazy--but not because I was a woman. He just knew how much the field had changed and he warned me of the pitfalls. But he always supported me and secretly loved (he admitted to others) that I was doing it. The reason? I was continuing not only his legacy but also the legacy of the women in our family. Jack was a surprise baby, of sorts, born late in his parents' lives. He was also born into a family of women--four sisters, to be exact. They spoiled him rotten...and maybe that is part of the reason he remained a bachelor all of his life. Anyway, the point is that all of these women were highly educated, and many were educators in their lifetimes.

And...this is where we return to the happy hour today with grandma: in the box of Uncle Jack's papers were several diplomas that belonged to the Warner women. The diplomas for Edith and Winnie and Josephine were not surprising to find. Jack adored his sisters and kept many of their belongings (they all passed before he did), especially those of Josephine's. (I actually had the pleasure of knowing Aunt Jo before she died. She had a house with a secret passage that I thought was so amazing...and she gave me her bedroom furniture that I used until it literally fell apart.)

What I didn't expect to find was my Great Great Grandmother Alice Batten's high school diploma. Alice was born to immigrant parents (from England), and, out of her four siblings, only she and a brother survived past childhood. Born in 1871, she graduated high school in 1889, right on time. It was hard to keep from crying when I saw the diploma. I mean, clearly education was a huge priority for her. Life couldn't have been easy and it wasn't as if she married a rich man or anything. They weren't poor, but they weren't wealthy either. She must have instilled the same values into her own daughters. These girls not only graduated high school but most (if not all...will have to check) went on to college. The sisters ended up as teachers, government employees, and principals of schools.

Two sisters, Winnie and Jo, never married and lived long lives, for the most part. They were described as "strong women" who had minds of their own. They traveled the world together, and sometimes with Jack, too. I have one of their travel journals for a trip they took across the country to Hollywood, and I saw photos today of Josephine's trip with Jack to Greece. (Josephine and Jack were very close. He had a special room and living area built on to his home for her, but she fell ill and never was able to move in.)

The other two sisters were Mabel and Edith. Mabel was my grandmother's mother (she married Herman Galloway...I never met either of them), and Edith married my Italian/American Uncle Ugo Carusi. Mabel died of ovarian cancer when my grandmother was ten or eleven. Edith died in the hospital preparing to deliver her son, Colin. She choked to death, and, though the baby was born alive, he died a short while later. Ugo married again, and he and his wife, who he referred to as Ms. Shaffer for their entire marriage, never had children. Ugo was a tragic figure, but I adored him. The last time I saw him was when I was about eleven-years-old, and somehow I knew that I would never see him again. I cried for ages as we drove from his house. But, even though Ugo was in his eighties at the time I knew him, we had an amazing connection and a deep bond. He was very old school. When we visited him in Washington, D.C., we observed the old-school formalities of dressing for dinner, listening to him singing opera before going out, and all of that. I loved it. I also loved that he had a photo of Shirley Temple, who he hosted at his home when she was a child. Also, Ugo was involved in immigration, and he helped Roddy McDowall out at one time....see? Always just a few degrees of separation from those we really want to meet. Roddy and Elizabeth Taylor were great friends. Too bad I didn't know much about Elizabeth Taylor in those days!

Anyway, each time I would visit Ugo, I would go into his room and look at the photos of my Great Aunt Edith. I don't know why, but I felt as if I knew her. I can only imagine the daring and excitement that she and Mabel felt when they decided to move away from home to work in Washington, D.C.!

But back to the story...The point is, these women were all educated and had independent lives before retirement or marriage (Mabel and Edith both met their husbands while working on the job in D.C.).

My grandmother continued the legacy, as did her children and grandchildren. All of the women have graduated from college and many of us have advanced degrees or specialized degrees or have distinguished ourselves in our chosen fields (even if we don't always believe it...the fact that we have survived in this economy is a miracle in itself).

It makes me sad to realize that I will never know the stories of the women in my family's past. I have my grandmother and know many of her tales, but I only have scattered memories of Jo and no memories or much knowledge of the rest. My hope is that from here on out, the rest of the men and women in our family will keep records and journals so that those who come after us (if any of us actually ever reproduce) will know something about where they came from.

And this is only the beginning, because I only touched on part of my family. There are so many other stories (for example, my mother's mother was a business woman and owner...and a force to be reckoned with, herself!).

PS: Over the coming days, I will try to post photos of people mentioned!

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