Now that summer is drawing to a close, I find myself thinking about the car trips we took when we were young.
Here we are in the way back of our station wagon in the summer of 1966. I’m on the right, looking bored (but probably already worried about getting carsick), holding my favorite doll, Susie, who went everywhere I went. We rarely took a big family vacation, like a week-long trip to anywhere, but we often went someplace that was driveable within a day. And many, many times, in any season, this meant a trip to Lake Geneva to visit my maternal great-grandmother.
We headed to this house, located on the edge of town, within walking distance of Linn Pier, a beach area with bright blue, frigid water, and a rocky bottom. Still, when the weather was warm, we liked nothing better than piling back into the station wagon for the bumpy ride down the road, and shoring up our courage to jump from the pier into the cold water. But if the weather wasn’t warm enough or the adults didn’t want to supervise us in the water, we improvised our own games in the big side yard. When we got bored with that, sometimes we could talk the adults into taking us to the tavern across the street. It was a neighborhood place that, though taken up by a big bar, catered to the neighborhood families. Children could often be found inside with their parents. We thought it was great fun to climb up on one of the bar stools and twirl around as we drank a glass of Orange Crush or 7-Up.
My great-grandmother, Katie, was the heart of these visits. I’m not sure what this occasion was, but it looks like it took place in the early spring, before the arrival of warm weather. Our father, always the one with the camera, would have organized this photo. Katie is standing there at the far right, in all her white-haired glory, next to her eldest daughter, Martha (my maternal grandmother), who is next to my mother Irene (Martha’s only daughter), who is standing next to Grace, my mother’s favorite aunt and Katie’s younger daughter. Grace and her husband Jack (sitting on the front step, holding the youngest of us) lived in Katie’s house. This arrangement seemed normal to me because my other great-grandmother (we called her Nana), standing in front of Grace, lived with her daughter-in-law Martha. Both great-grandmothers and my grandmother were widowed by then.
My strongest memory of my great-grandmother is of her sitting on a straight-backed chair in the kitchen, quietly smiling at us as we raced around the house. I don’t remember ever having a long conversation with her. I guess I probably thought we wouldn’t have much to talk about. But I do remember a visit a few years after this photo was taken, when my mother asked if I noticed anything different about great-grandma. I looked at her sitting in her favorite chair, smiling, and nothing looked different. I shook my head. “She’s wearing pants,” my mother said. “Katie decided to wear pants.”
At the time I thought it was a little bit cool that such an old woman had ditched her day dresses for slacks, like so many pants-wearing women in the early 1970s. It didn’t occur to me that maybe Katie delighted in bucking tradition because it was something she liked to do. It didn’t occur to me that she had a whole big life long before I entered the world.
Katie was born in 1886 and grew up in Chicago, where her father was a butcher in a packinghouse. She married Clarence, a Dutch immigrant, in 1907. Their first daughter, Martha, arrived soon enough, but seven years passed before Katie gave birth to Grace. By 1920, the family lived in a rented house on Morgan Street. Clarence worked as a salesman in a shoe store; Katie kept house.
The next ten years brought changes to the family. Martha grew up and left home to get married. After the stock market crash of 1929, as the country sank into the Great Depression, Clarence managed to hold onto his job at the shoe store. But business likely slowed down and he may have had his hours cut. They still needed to make rent. They still had another daughter to finish raising. So Katie found employment at a local grocery store. It was not an easy thing to do. White middle-class married women weren’t supposed to work, not even during the Depression. Jobs were supposed to be for men who needed to provide for their families. But Katie and Clarence knew they both needed to provide to get themselves through the economic disaster.
Katie was apparently good at her job and probably liked it, too. By 1940, not long before the United States formally entered World War II, she had been promoted to manager. She brought 24-year-old Grace in as a clerk. They all made it through.
Grace and Jack never had children. This may be why Grace was one of the first working women I ever knew. When we were young, most of the women we encountered were mothers like ours, who stayed home and took care of us. To me, Grace seemed unusual, even a bit strange, because she had a job. But when I was a child, I didn’t think to ask any questions about it. And now, I think a lot about my great-grandmother, sitting quietly in her chair, wearing her new pair of pants, probably proud that even late in life she could still do something new and daring.