Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"If you would be wise or rare, pick your Grandmother with care."

Call me a Luddite--I admit it--I do not have a Twitter account, and I do not Tweet. Chirp, maybe, on occasion, but no tweeting. One has to draw the line somewhere.

I cn cndnse wth th bst of thm, but I just don't want to.

I get this obstinate streak from my paternal grandmother. She was the kind of person, as my Uncle Forrest once said, who would not have invented the automobile until everybody had a horse.

Her name was Helen Rich Lyon, originally, and she was the granddaughter of a nineteenth century poet and activist, Helen Hinsdale Rich. I have tried to find out more about Mrs. Rich's activism, but there isn't much out there; I am guessing that she was a suffragette, and involved in things Jane Addams would have encouraged. The introduction to her second book of poems has a brief bio:

"Mrs. Rich is a daughter of pioneers in the northern wilderness of New York [which is why she was later known as "The Poet of the Adirondacks"], where her father made his clearing and built his log house eighty years ago....[Charles Goodrich Whiting is the writer--and this is in 1897.] Her educational advantages were small so far as schools were concerned. She has taught herself, and has been taught well by the best teachers, books, and the association of thinking and cultivated minds....the great activity of her life in humanitarian causes has gone on without ceasing.
"Her present home is Chicago, where she is valued according to her desserts, is concerned in important interests, and affiliated with liberal and advancing minds in religion and social economy."

The poems themselves, while garnering critical acclaim in her day, are very old-fashioned in tone, and are often strained by the need to rhyme. I sometimes wonder what her work would be like if she were writing today--her ideas were quite advanced, even if her style was not.

Helen Hinsdale Rich, right, and her daughter, Mary Rich (Lyon)

Helen Hinsdale Rich  in 1897

Anyway, the point is, she was my grandmother's grandmother, and some of her rubbed of on her namesake, my grandmother.

Helen Rich Lyon was a clever and independent child, and by her own admission, very stubborn. She told me once that she reported to her mother, a gentle widow raising three children on her own, demanding to be spanked. "You said you would spank me if I played in the irrigation ditch, so spank me now, because I going to do it."
Helen Rich Lyon in 1881

She is about a year old, one side or the other, in this picture. I have one other picture of her as a child, taken when she was two. She is wearing the same dress, I think, or at least the lace trim is the same. You can see that this two-year-old was destined for Great Things, can't you?
Helen Rich Lyon in 1882

The next picture I have is when Helen was 18. By then she was what they used to call a "belle," and soon would go to work for a newspaper in St. Joseph, Missouri, her home town. She did not graduate from High School, she was fond of telling me (especially when I was in high school and despairing of passing my physics course), and it didn't hold her back any. As any of my many cousins who lived on occasion with their grandmother and her daughter, Quail, NOTHING ever held her back any. She was, I am positive, a Force of Nature.
Helen Rich Lyon at eighteen

Of course, if you are as lovely looking as she was, you will have suitors, and she did. Many of them. But eventually, she settled on two: Frederick Washburn and Harry Hawkins. Of course she couldn't marry them both--but she could, and did, get engaged to both of them. By then she was to meet the families, and in the throes of her dilemma she wrote to Harry's mother that she was "in the worst trouble a girl could be in." Well, you can imagine what happened next: Harry's Mother, Anna, wrote back that she was to come at once to St. Paul, and "if Harry is in any way responsible, we shall see that he does the right thing." Baby clothes were gathered, and a nest was prepared for the poor unfortunate to whom Wrong Had Been so Cruelly done. Of course, it was all for nothing. My grandmother was, in spite of any other shortcomings, a truly moral Victorian woman. The "worst trouble" she had been in was a fight with her mother over her two fiancees. Frederick turned out to be a rich meat packing executive; Harry turned out to be a poor man who was often gulled by business partners whom he trusted too much. Guess which one my grandmother married?

I'll tell you next time. But right now, I should tell you that the quote in the title is from Stephen Vincent Benet's book of patriotic poems, A Book of Americans.

1 comment:

  1. My aunt Helen Elizabeth Rich hitchhiked across the USA in 1925, stopping in Chicago to visit her aunt. Who would that be?
    Richard Brewster
    Cutchogue, NY