Thursday, April 24, 2008


Despite the tiny internal fascinations of genetics, we know that environment also has a major influence on how we turn out. These four women, for instance, are linear descendants with similar genetic inheritance, but their lives turned out quite differently because of the times they lived in, their relationships with birth families, their educational opportunities, and economics. As nearly as I can tell, the temperament potential of each of them was quite similar, but the unfolding path varied quite a bit.

Lucy Jane Philpott
(Photo taken in 1880 at Fern Ridge in Holly, Oregon) was a high-spirited young woman. The story goes that she rode side-saddle to town with her fiance, William Cochran, a red-headed member of a family who crossed the plains by walking the Oregon Trail. She was prosperous, proud and impatient. Therefore, when she was left waiting in town while Cochran talked with friends, she simply rode home alone, which a lady was not supposed to do -- partly because of the propriety issue and partly because of the danger, not least caused by having to ride side-saddle. And it WAS early days after the Civil War. She must have been born about the time of that war.

She died of infection after the birth of her last child. One of the few memories her daughter had was of her baby brother falling out of his crib, which was the kind on the floor, and her mother crawling across the floor to comfort him but without the strength to put him back in.

Ethel Grace Cochran (Aged 40 in this 1925 photo, so born in 1885) was that daughter. Her birth mother was replaced by a stepmother who dominated and mocked her, particularly for her teeth. They were “long” teeth and “Sarey” (Sarah) called them “horse teeth.” They were also rotten and when Ethel was a young woman she spent months in Portland having them seen to. She and her daughters all had bad teeth, so that their mouths and faces were changed by false teeth. Ethel found great comfort in Portland where she stayed with sympathetic friends and attended the First Baptist Church downtown which had a strongly pastoral minister.

Ethel was insecure and I know nothing about her education. She chose a fiery but underachieving husband, John Pinkerton, whose family had come on the train from Illinois after their sons were grown. Originally the family was prosperous, but the first wave of building boom passed. Then they never quite had enough money but they were truly in love. John’s projects fell through (notably a prune orchard in a narrow valley without a good well) except for his building skills, so he was often fulfilling contracts away from home, leaving Ethel in that remote orchard farm with her four girls and a lot of chickens. He was a force in the Presbyterian congregation, but Ethel sometimes managed to slip next door to the Roseburg Baptists, who were more forgiving. When the girls grew up, she was on the farm alone until she developed abdominal cancer at a relatively young age and after many years of struggle, she died.

But one story about her is that the women of the neighborhood and her family were gathering in Deer Creek Valley, over a set of steep hills from Roberts Creek, where the family farm was. For some reason, her ride didn't come, so she walked -- a distance of some miles. At first anger propelled her, but then as she realized she was really doing it, she developed high spirits! At the gathering she was much admired, partly out of guilt, no doubt.

Lucy May Pinkerton
(in 1925) at age 16 in Roseburg, OR.

Lucy was her father’s “right-hand man” and seemed to be destined to be a career girl who brought money home and made her own way in the world. She yearned for the city and the big surge of things. She attended Albany College, which eventually became the upscale Lewis & Clark in Portland, and that suited her very well! Forced to stop college because of the Depression, she managed to return in 1953 and graduate in 1957 from Portland State college with a lot of Korean War veterans. She had married at 29 and had her children during WWII. That’s when her teeth were fixed. Her dentist was better than that of the others.

Her husband, Bruce Strachan, was a traveling man like her father though far more educated. He was a “prairie humanist” and admired such folks as Margaret Sanger or Bertrand Russell. His family considered him an “intellectual” -- had an MA in ag econ. In the early years of the marriage he was exuberant, fun-loving and affectionate. In 1948 he suffered a concussion in a car accident which I believe caused his personality to change. After that, things seemed stuck so far as his fortunes were concerned, which is why Lucy, even then a force in the PTA and the League of Women Voters, went back to school for a teaching degree and taught for seventeen years. Then she was retired for longer than that and took many trips around the world.

Lucy also had cancer: breast cancer about the time she went back to college, and then a blood cancer that shadowed her last five years between 1993 and 1998. More about that in another entry. She definitely felt the lost relationship with Lucy Jane, for whom she was named, and named me Mary Helen for her sister who was killed in a car accident as a teenager.

Mary Helen Strachan (in Browning, MT, about 1968, aged 29) This was as thin as I ever was as an adult. I was married to Bob Scriver by this time, but divorced in a couple of years. No children, on purpose. The early loss of my great-grandmother and oppression by the "wicked" stepmother meant that my grandmother was insecure at mothering. My own mother "mothered" as though she were her father, which meant she was pretty harsh. I decided not to continue the inheritance.

My face is very like the line of “moms” but my teeth (square but less troublesome and the beneficiary of a LOT of dental work) and hair (red and bushy, but now white and thinning to bald) were my father’s. I made my way through a series of exciting jobs and a colorful marriage until I retired early to write in the village of Valier, MT. I never made a lot of money, and greatly disappointed my mother who wanted above all for me to be secure and prosperous. I earned my BS in Speech Education with her help and my MA and MDiv for the Unitarian ministry with her disapproval.

I write. She said if I wrote about her and her family, she would come back and haunt me. If I'd married in the normal course of things, there would be two generations after me, but their thin phantoms stand alongside my mother. They don't quite haunt me, but I think about them once in a long while.


Rebecca Clayton said...

I really enjoy your family history posts. I've been sorting old photographs, trying to make a coherent story from scraps and fragments. What you do is fascinating and inspiring. Thanks!

prairie mary said...

These posts come from two sources. One is having the family photo albums at hand and needing to preserve them somehow, maybe not through family.

The other is a class I ran for a year in Kirkland, WA, where there was a group of older women who wanted to meet in the afternoon. Many of them had amazing family histories, so we got a huge roll of paper and took turns drawing and explaining our families, genealogy style. We looked for time relationships, twins, repeating patterns, changes over generations, and so on. Often very revealing, even to the person whose family it was.

Prairie Mary

Caitlyn said...

I really enjoyed this post; thank you!

Anonymous said...

Although our two families are most different, the story of you and your fore-mothers is hauntingly familiar to me. You are women, and women seem (in my mind) to share a past of great similarity. Thanks for writing of your family, chancing the haunting by your mother.
Cop Car

Bitterroot said...

I often think about my great-grandmothers and great-great grandmothers - pioneers in the Missoula and Great Falls areas. I think about their strength. Your posts about your family are fascinating.