Tuesday, July 21, 2015


My grandmother, my mother and her sisters

My mother was the oldest of four sisters plus a cousin, all Pinkertons, who grouped themselves into the “older” and the “younger.”  Lou (my mother) and Vera (next oldest) were one set and Helen, Aliene and Nadine (cousin) were the young ones.  My mother saw herself as a kind of patron and mentor of the youngers, sometimes a little oppressive, and -- as a mother -- fit me more into the “youngest” sister group than as a child.  

Like a lot of women my age, I’m sorting mementoes of the previous generation and trying to understand what ought to be done with keepsakes after my death.  At my mother's death there was a small box of letters from the Civil War which went to my brother.  Some were from Andersonville, the horrifying prison for captives. 

Yesterday I found a little packet of family letters, including one addressed to “Miss Helen Pinkerton, Roseburg, OR,” postmarked September 23, 1929, and written by my mother.  I hadn’t known it existed.  It can’t have been mailed much before the death of Helen, aged 14.  It must have been returned to my mother after Helen died.  Helen and Vera were in high school and Vera drove them in a Model T on a rutted muddy road.  This time they were returning in the dark from school to the family prune orchard in the remote part of Roberts Creek valley (nearly a canyon) when they failed to see another vehicle bogged down and unmoving.  

When they crashed into it, Helen’s head went through the windshield, cutting her throat.  She didn’t die there.  The hospital thought they had saved her, but overnight the stitches deep in her throat failed and she bled to death.  Vera was so deeply traumatized that she stayed out of school for the next year.  She became a nurse, was head of surgery in Great Falls when WWII broke out and then served overseas in Rheims and London.  “The Crimson Field” now playing on PBS is very like her story.

My mother, Lou, was also deeply affected.  She gave me the middle name of Helen and I was often scrutinized to see if I might be like Helen.  In this early letter, this first year of my mother’s truncated college career, she was in Albany at the denominational school that would become upscale Lewis and Clark in Portland.  For room and board, she was helping her aged grandparents.  Housework was hard in those days, so it was not exactly a lark.   

But then their daughter’s marriage began to break up and she came home with two little children.  The little girl slept with Lou and was disturbed enough that she wet the bed.  The girl tried to hide this by sprinkling the wet sheet with Cashmere Bouquet bath powder, which my mother loathed forever after.  She turned her back on the little girl and forbade talking because she was already exhausted.

This family had almost no coping and consoling skills except attending church.  Pop’s church was Presbyterian, very righteous, but his wife’s girlhood church had been Baptist, a warmer sort of place.  The family, of course, attended Pop’s church, but since the Baptists were next door, the mother sometimes gave a pretext and slipped over there.

When Helen had died, her Pop had forbidden the family to admit the death, just to pretend she was not in the room.  Denial and secrecy were conventional in those days.  I never heard anyone speak of clergy coming to comfort the family.

When my mother was dying -- a retired teacher now much more trained about children’s feelings, she regretted what she considered ruthless behavior.  (I agreed.  That’s the way she treated me, too.)  But hearing that she was ill, the little girl -- now grown up -- came to visit to thank my mother very much for being such a steady, warm rock when she was a needy child!  That silent turned back had been a comfort to her.

Part way through her junior year, Lou had to quit college for lack of tuition money, even though her father had rented her a mule and a field and bought a sack of seed corn which she raised and sold.  It wasn’t enough money, he said, since the Depression was grinding everyone down.  She discovered many years later that there was a family-entitled scholarship which he hid, probably because it was through her mother’s family which didn’t approve of the marriage, feeling that he was beneath their prosperous standards.  (They had been owners of a precursor of Pendleton Woolen Mills.)

The ambivalent husband of Lou’s cousin came on a visit at some point, maybe trying to save the marriage or maybe to complete the divorce, and for some reason Lou took the children and went with him to a nearby lake for a picnic.  Whatever actually happened, she was accused of lallygagging with the man, which deeply embarrassed her.  She was a very innocent girl. She couldn’t have stayed long after that.  We never had much to do with that branch of family.

I benefitted from this mixed experience.  My role as an “assistant housekeeper” was mixed, sometimes oppressive and other times hardly mentioned.  At some level I chose not to participate in romances, though I had intense fantasy crushes.  My school work was easy and my mother was impressed by my IQ.  (I wasn’t.)  While I was in high school, she went back to school at Portland State College and we graduated at the same time.  Because I had a scholarship, I went to Northwestern University where my life was centered on theatre, nothing like my mother’s girlish math major, but she made sure I had what I needed since she was now teaching elementary school.  She enjoyed my graduation more than I did.

My marriage was more problematic but at least I didn’t marry a Hatfield.  She was the only Pinkerton girl who didn’t. The problem with the prune orchard was that the market was low, but more importantly, it turned out that the well was not productive.  Half a century later my aunt was still cautioning me not to buy land with a bad well.

A typescript of the letter is below the scans in case they're too hard to read.

Lou (Lucy Pinkerton) in Albany to Helen Pinkerton in Roseburg.

Post script at the top:

PS.  I got up at 6 o’clock this morning and built the furnace fire.  I did most of the wash Mon. and all of the ironing Tues.  So I am working some.  Lou

Sept. 22, 1926

Dear little sis again:

I be pretty busy right now.  How be yourself?

That is getting to be a pretty tough neighborhood you live in.  I guess it was a good thing papa wasn’t there, too.  But I do think Alex should be put somewhere where he could be watched and made to behave.

We are all fine except that Grandma has a bad cough.  She said she thought he had blown her brains all out and torn her diaphragm to pieces.

There are lots of nice girls going to school.  I guess I like all my teachers fine so far.  I have an awfully funny English teacher.  I can’t understand more than every other word or two.  He talks so fast and has a kind of broque.  I suppose I will used to him though.

The YWCA gave a tea this afternoon from 3 to 4 o’clock.  I met lost of the girls then.  They are all so friendly.  There was one girl by the name of Velma Hatfield.  I guess Hatfields are just like prunes.  You can’t get away from them.

Mr. and Mrs. Greene are giving a reception tomorrow night for the whole student body.  The initiation party is next Friday night.  We Freshie girls have to wear green hair ribbons 2 in. wide.

I haven’t been to the fair yet.  I may go tomorrow, tho, for I haven’t any recitations in the afternoon.

My teachers haven’t assigned any work much yet.  I guess they won’t until we get all received.

Did they catch any venison?  Well I must get to bed -- Love from Lou

No comments: