Charlie

Published by J.D. Ray in the blog J.D. Ray's blog. Views: 45

I went rooting through the basement yesterday, sorting through boxes of junk, most of which needs to be thrown out. But rooting occasionally turns up a truffle, and I found a paper I'd written for a class in college in 1993, "Gender Studies". The assignment was to interview someone, and I chose my grandmother, who my mom had nicknamed "Charlie" (for no explicable reason); a nickname I later picked up.

It's my intent to use this essay as a foundation element for a book about my grandparents. I've captured it in Scrivener verbatim from the original (it's poorly organized, partially because of the format for the class, but partially because I was a lesser writer then than I am now), and present it here partially as a declaration of my intent to expand on it and partially as a way to put it somewhere in the digital cloud where it will be preserved.

With that, I give you "Charlie".



Born in 1918 near Great Falls, Montana, Dorothy Louise Thompson, dubbed “Charlie” by her daughter Elizabeth, has led quite a life. Her second marriage, forty years now and still going strong, has been one of sharing and companionship that doesn’t cling to definite ideas of gender roles. In her interview, she told of growing up in Montana and Saskatchewan as part of a big family, and how what she learned there came to use when she married the second time and suddenly found herself mother to not only her own two, but three more children.

“I was born in Aznoe, Montana. It was just a grain elevator, a store, and a post office. And the post office was in the store like in most places out in the country where you had to go miles and miles to pick up your mail… and it’s no longer there. It’s now an extinct town. Improvements in transportation make the whole town obsolete, I suppose. That was back in the horse and buggy days when… well, that’s all that we had to get around in: a horse and buggy. Or a horse and what we they called a buckboard. That’s just a wagon seat and a bed like a pickup. Quite a rough ride, I tell you.

“I was born at home. Since I was born in March, 1918 (we had a very severe winter that year), my father had to ride the horse through the snow to where the doctor lived. It was below zero even then. It was a very severe winter. The doctor came to the house. My mother, being a nurse, gave very good directions to the people that were there to help. My grandmother was already in the house, so she had done all the preparations for the delivery before the doctor got there.

“We lived out on the farm, the homestead that my parents had gotten. My father was a painter, and he did painting around in Great Falls and the small towns and in the countryside. That’s the way he made his living, paper hanging and painting, all facets of the painting he knew. But he had problems with what they called ‘the painter’s colic’. He was very allergic to some of the paints in enclosed rooms. So he’d get very ill sometimes, with this painter’s colic, and later on they found out that it was from the white lead in the paints back then. They didn’t know about it back then, they just knew that a lot of people got it. So he wanted to get out of the painting business.

“Though he didn’t know anything about farming, when they threw open the areas of Montana to homesteading, he and Mom each applied for a homestead. I don’t remember the number of acres that each person could get as a homestead, but it was a small amount.

[What do you consider a small amount?]

“Well, I don’t really know. I’ve forgotten. Anyway, they had to ‘prove up’ on the ground. That was to build some sort of a building and to live in on the ground and with… oh, it must’ve been eighty acres to a homestead, because one father pieces of ground that they’d ‘proved up’ on was called ‘the eighty’, and mother called her piece of ground “the sun kissed”, because she felt that it’d been kissed by the sun. And she loved it out there.

“I was one of five children. We moved to Great Falls when my brother, who was just older than I, was old enough to go to school in the first grade. So we moved off of the homestead when I was between four and five years old. George was really a year older than he should have been [to start school]. He was seven before they moved to town. They were thinking about having him go to a country school, but then thought that it would be best if we moved into Great Falls, which was 32 miles from where I was born. I started into kindergarten when I was five, because that’s how old you were when you first started into kindergarten back in those days. At six, you went into the first grade.

“Out on the homestead, even through it was really small, it was difficult. A really difficult time. In order to help the family, to support the family of then four children and my mother and dad, and my grandmother on my father’s side, mother went out to nurse for the little country doctor who had his office and practice in Fort Benton. She graduated from the University of Michigan (she was in the first graduating class of women there).”

With her mother working out and about in the rural area, much of the housework had to be tended to by the children. Dorothy, being the second oldest child, had much of the responsibility for the housework loaded onto her, because the oldest, George, was helping tend the farm.

“I went to school in Great Falls clear through high school, and graduated in 1936. Also in 1936, my mother’s mother fell and broke her hip. She was in her seventies then, and no other member of the family was able to go and stay with her. So I was sent from Great Falls to Orrville, California to live, to be with my grandmother, and to care for her until the hip healed. There I worked in a cannery, part time. That’s what I did there, along with aiding my grandmother.

“After she was better, I went back to Great Falls. When the war broke out in 1941, my brothers had already gone into the service and Boeing was advertising all over the country for workers to work in the war plants. And so my sister [Amelia] and I decided that we’d like to go. That’s how we ended up in Seattle until 1945.”

Every little while, Dorothy pauses to thin about what she’s said and try to think of what to say next. Often she apologizes for “this being so dull and boring”. Just when she thinks she’s said everything, though, she remembers something else she left out.

“I’d forgotten about the years in Canada. We didn’t live all those years in Great Falls. In 1929, right before the depression hit, because of drought and crop failures and grasshopper infestation (it seemed like it was one thing after another on a farm), [my parents] gave up the homestead entirely and went north. Out in Great Falls, seeing that things were going poorly, my father had laid aside a little nest egg of money because he still had hopes of becoming a farmer and having some land of his own. [The Canadian government] opened up the Matanuska Valley in British Columbia, for homesteading again, and he was going to use the money that he’s saved to go [up there]. When they were in preparation for going, it just happened that some other people moved into [our] neighborhood from Saskatchewan, and they gave such glowing reports of land and crops and so forth up there that Dad and Mom went up to investigate. When they saw the lush wheat fields and oat fields and so forth, they bought 360 acres of ground at the end of the Corduroy Roads. Corduroy Roads went over very soft, swampy ground. [Road builders] laid logs across these swampy areas, and those made it really bumpy.

“So we were in Canada for two years, and that was a real experience for us, because we had to go to a different school. That was the first and only place that I went to a one-room schoolhouse. Eight grades, all in one room. And the country people had many activities that were different than what we were used to in Great Falls. We had always gone to city schools. [There were] country dances and get-togethers at the schoolhouse. In the winter, you had to travel by horse drawn sleigh to go there. And they had box socials, where the women would fix up a box and put a meal in it. Then you should share the meal with whichever man bid the highest on the box. That was an activity that the younger people participated in more than the older, married women who had children already. They had potluck where they brought cakes and pies for them and their children.”

Skipping ahead now, Dorothy tells about the war years and what she did while she was in Seattle.

“I took time out during the war to enlist in the cadet nurse corps. I had worked at Boeing for a year and a half. Then I found the nurse corps for a year, and then went back to Boeing. When I was in the nurse corps, I had to tend to one patient (all of the patients had just one nurse). I was a really small person. Still am. He was bedridden, and weighed well over two hundred pounds. In taking care of him, I hurt my back. And so I decided that it was going to be too strenuous and difficult for me to go on with. I wrote to the shop foreman in my shop at Boeing, and asked for my position back. He said that I should come on out, and of course I could have my job back.”

She met a sailor, her first love, during the war. Right after thew war was over, they got married and started a family. It was short-lived, though.

“I got married the first time in 1944, I think. Let me see… Jimmy [their son] was born in 1946, and Liz [their daughter] in 1948, so I was married in 1945. Yes, that’s it. It wasn’t much of a marriage, though, except for the two kids. My husband was drowned in 1950.”

After getting out of the service, her husband had taken up commercial fishing as an occupation, along with her oldest brother George. A boating accident in 1950 left her with one less brother, no husband, and two small children on her hands. With the help of her family, though, she and her children persevered until she met Dee Winters in 1953. He nearly swept her off her feet.

“The second time I was married in 1953. May of 1953. I thought I would never get married again.”

Times were tough, though. When they got married, Dee had three children form a previous marriage, and a single income that couldn’t always support a family of eight, which included Dee’s father, who was staying with them. Dorothy wen to work outside of the home to supplement their income.

“I went to work for Dr. Vipon as a medical assistant between 1955 and 1960. All I id there was do things like prepare patients to see the doctor, take x-rays, and the like. Jo Ann [their oldest daughter] worked there at the same time. She did more than I did, except when she wasn’t there, of course. She went on to become a nurse.

“I didn’t go to work there because I was bored at home, oh no. But with five kids in the house, and Grandpa Winters… we were just getting ap lace of our own, and the money that Dee could bring home just wasn’t enough. Over the years I did all kinds of odd jobs. I worked in restaurants infall sorts of places; Crescent City, Santa Cruz, all over. It seemed that I almost always had some sort of job to supplement our income.”

When asked if it was hard working outside the home and then doing the housework, Dorothy emphatically says that the whole family, especially her husband, pitched in to help, making things easier.

“Dee was always a good helper around the house, and I helped out in the yard, planting the gardens, and weeding and such. We froze food and canned it together. I was lucky in that sense… in that front he time we were married, it was always a sharing of the household chores. With our combined families, with two girls close to the same age, two boys nearly the same age, and then Jo Ann, who was just three years older than the oldest of the boys, there was a lot of work to be done to get children ready for school, or off to jobs. Jo Ann was good about it, because from he time she was eleven years old, she helped with the starting of supper, and with things around the house. The kids all had things that they had to do. We had a daily inspection of bedrooms before we went to work in the morning. The beds had to be made, and the chores done. We had a system where the dirty breakfast dishes were put into a pan of hot soapy water, then rinsed, and everybody did their own right when they were done. That way we didn’t have to face them when we were all home after work and tired. Everybody had to do some part of the household chores, besides the keeping of their own room. All of the washing, ironing, and canning I did, but they all helped with the rest.”

[How about now? You just had your fortieth wedding anniversary.]

“Now, after forty years of marriage, we’re kind of in a rut of working together (ha ha ha). It’s worked out really well for us. We couldn’t wish ti any better for our own children, to be married to someone who will participate in activities together with them. In the hard times, the good times, and the bad times. But I think a woman ought to have an opportunity to have the time to do things outside of the home that she’d like to do. And if she gets participation from her husband around the house, then it’s not all drudgery and it’s not difficult. It’s al to better than if there was only one doing it.”

I’m proud to say that Dorothy is my grandmother. At the end of the interview, she pointedly tells me that she just knows that I’m going to be just as good a husband my my wife as my grandfather has been to her. Throughout my life (she has been instrumental in the project of raising me), she has told me that “kids these days should be taught to help out around the house from a young age. That way, when they get married, they can be good helpers to their spouses, be they husband or wife. Everyone should pitch in.” I’ve done by best to carry on that tradition, and hope to teach it to my children as well as Charlie has taught it to me.
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