An old photograph in our family album, taken in the late 1890s, is that of the Wisdom family of North Cambridge, a suburb of Boston. The father and mother sit at a small table in a studio setting. The son, Edward is twenty-four, the oldest of the three children. The middle child, my grandmother Elizabeth, twenty-two, stands to the right of her parents. My great-aunt Ellen, on the left, is nineteen.
My grandmother had several beaus, but her aloofness and sense of propriety did not encourage a passionate proposal. After her twenty-fourth birthday, when she believed all hope was lost, she met Walter Cargill, an engineering graduate from the University of Maine with ambitious plans. She fell in love. When Walter visited her family for the first time, he met her sister, Ellen, younger and prettier, with a captivating figure. The sisters couldn’t have been more different. Ellen loved parties and dances. She took a childish delight in flirting with her older sister’s beaux.
Walter became a frequent guest of the family. Ellen’s allure triggered a dilemma on the part of her sister’s ‘gentleman caller.’ Like other young men when faced with two beautiful sisters, Walter couldn’t decide which sister was the woman for him. He continued to court my grandmother, his visits a convenient excuse to see her sister. When Walter decided in favor of Ellen, my grandmother was devastated, throwing the household into chaos. Her father made it clear that the elder sister had the privilege of being the first to marry. After several days of quarrels, sibling threats, and secret negotiations, the father came to my grandmother’s rescue and offered to buy a home for the couple as a wedding gift.
They married a year later in 1900. My great aunt swallowed her pride, hid her despair, and became the dutiful maid-of-honor. The brother, Edward, was best man. The wedding celebration was a lavish affair according to the Boston Evening Transcript:
The ceremony took place in Trinity Church on Copley Square with the reception in the nearby Lenox Hotel. At eleven stories, the Lenox is the tallest building in Boston and, built at a cost of over $1,000,000, is, without doubt, the most luxurious in the city.
Aunt Ellen continued to date a succession of young men. She was a modern young woman, more spirited and less bound by custom, assuming many more boys waited in the wings. What was the purpose of rushing anyway? She was having fun. But the stream of young men became a trickle. She held out hope for several years but soon she was at the age when a young woman must marry or have a means to support herself. She considered Walter as her lost opportunity and this loss rankled. The relationship between the two sisters cooled. Ellen moved out of her parents’ home, rented a studio apartment, and took a job as secretary to a clothing manufacturer.
When the Cargills returned from their honeymoon, Walter and Elizabeth moved into her father’s wedding gift: a sprawling Victorian house in Arlington overlooking the lake in Monotomy Rock Park. Walter became co-owner of a successful engineering supply company. During WWI, his company supported the war effort, exempting him from military service. A shrewd investor, he earned enough money to buy out his partner after the war. His salary enabled him to support his wife, a son Neal, and a domestic who cooked and cleaned.
My mother was born into this comfortable upper middle-class family in 1918. Neal, at that time, was already a teenager. Post-WWI, a woman with a teenage son was considered middle aged. Thirteen years between children lead friends to assume that Elizabeth’s pregnancy was an unwelcomed surprise. And an embarrassment. Family history tells the story of my grandparents attending the Congregational Church on Pleasant Avenue as they did every Sunday. It didn’t take long for someone’s wife to suspect a change in Elizabeth’s figure. “Did you hear? The Cargills are still having sex!”
My grandmother suffered from allergies and asthma which were particularly debilitating that spring. After learning that his wife was pregnant, Walter took her physician’s advice and sent her to live at a ranch in the hot, dry air of New Mexico. Aunt Ellen accompanied her. Walter remained behind to run his business and to care for his son.
Grandma never talked to Leslie or me about the train trip west, but Aunt Ellen spoke about it whenever we asked. The journey took six days. A spring blizzard roared across the plains stranding passengers and train in deep snow. She described how all the men got off the train with shovels to clear the icy snowdrifts off the tracks. Fortunately, the train ran on an embankment and the frigid wind helped clear the rails once the icy crust was broken. After two days the men had cleared a mile of tracks and celebrated with a banquet, cigars, and cards. Meanwhile, the crew attached a plow to the front of the engine. Building up a tremendous head of steam, the train roared off, making it to the next station five miles away. “The snow stretched as far as the eyes could see,” Aunt Ellen told us. “The snow crust looked like frozen waves. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
Outside Santa Fe, my great-aunt saw an Indian for the first time. He dozed in the sun on the train platform waiting for guests of the dude ranch where the sisters lived for the summer.
They planned to return in early fall in time for the November birth at home. But before their departure, the sisters received a telegram from their father: Sadly, Edward had died suddenly from the Spanish flu. Their father told them not to return home until the pandemic had passed. The pregnancy developed complications and the birth, overdue, proved difficult.
“I was born in a small hospital near the dude ranch,” Mom once told me. “Aunt Ellen said the doctor was kind, but old. He’d birthed over 4000 babies, not counting the farm animals he attended when the vet wasn’t available.”
“You lived on a cowboy ranch? But why out there?”
“Your grandmother needed to live in the desert for her health. Aunt Ellen quit her job and went with her. They returned to New England with me in time for Christmas.” Whenever Aunt Ellen talked about the return trip, she became quiet and sad. She returned to an empty apartment while Grandma with baby Harriet rejoined her family. Walter hired a nanny to take care of the baby.
Mom and her mother never enjoyed a close relationship. She always believed her birth had been an inconvenience. “No one talked about my birth in New Mexico. I only heard the story when Aunt Ellen told me.”
My mother was raised by a nanny until she was toilet-trained and able to dress herself. Her childhood had four compass points: a father whom she adored and idolized; a brother, Neal, she came to hate; a mother who swung between inattention and indifference; and her Aunt Ellen.
“I was always closer to Aunt Ellen,” Mom once told me. “She’d sit on the floor and play games with me. Grandma bought me beautiful dolls and a dollhouse with furniture, but she’d remain in her chair and watch me play with them. When I had a tea party for my dolls, I’d carry her teacup to where she was sitting. I never felt loved by my mother. She favored my brother Neal.”
I was in high school by then and found it hard to believe. At the time I failed to recognize the pain behind her words. She often talked about past injustices when she came down for a glass of wine and a ‘chat’ when I returned home late after a high school date. Tired from walking home I generally ignored her remarks but nodded sympathetically when appropriate.
Leslie recently made a casual reference about Neal abusing our mother as a small child. My eyes must have registered shock, because Leslie quickly added, “Oh, no, not that kind of abuse.” But it was abuse all the same. Neal, a teenager, didn’t see why he had to change his behavior because of a new baby sister. Shortly after Mom was toilet-trained, Neal thought nothing of entering the bathroom when she was on the toilet. He’d unceremoniously lift her off and sit her on the floor. He then unzipped and peed in full view, doing so, I imagine, without removing her training seat. When he finished, he put her back. Despite Mom’s protests, the nanny blamed her for making a mess, and, to make matters worse, punished her for lying about her brother.
Mom turned to her father for affection. He read the Thornton Burgess animal books to her every night and played with her when he had time. It’s important to note that playing with a young girl in the early 1920s was different from the way fathers play with their daughters these days. I can’t picture my grandfather playing horsey on the grass or scooping her up to fling her into the air. Nevertheless, he loved her, and this helped to make up for the distance between Mom and her mother. “I never understood what I had done to deserve this. It was just something that was.”
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