Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Yes, I had TWO Grandmothers

I've blogged a bit about my grandmother Helen Lyon Hawkins, but I haven't yet talked about my other grandmother, my mother's mother. She was amazing, also.

Her name was Susan Larkin Thomson--and the first amazing thing about her was that she was named after my great-grandfather's first wife, but she was the daughter of his second wife. My great-grandmother must have been amazing too, to let him get away with that!

Susan was the oldest of seven (or was it eight?) children, all but one girls. She was what her generation called a Great Beauty. Here is a picture of her as a young girl of about 14. The picture is from 1894.

She was very self-assured, not to say bold. When she was around the age of the picture above, her younger sister Virginia, who had been given a camera for Christmas, was asked by a spinster living across the street to take a picture of her deceased sibling, who had never been photographed while alive. Virginia was afraid to do it, but Susan took the camera and the photograph. The spinster rewarded the girls by leaving them each a three-carat diamond earring in her will. My great-grandmother confiscated the earrings, saying the girls were too young to have them, but eventually the daughters of Susan and Virginia got rings made from the stones, a generous present of another of their sisters, Holmes. I would have the ring today, but it was stolen from my mother--ripped off her finger by her cousin when she had a seizure and was rushed to the hospital.

But I digress. Susan grew up, and was presented to Society as the first modern Queen of the Veiled Prophet's Ball in St. Louis. Here is a picture of her as Queen in 1900. I always loved this picture, and my grandmother holding the crown of her office slightly behind her back. I still have the crown--it is purple velvet, with pearls forming sections all around it. It is rather tired now--but then, it is 111 years old! Her pin, a wonderful gold dragon and crown set with rubies, diamonds, and pearls is a treasured heirloom.

I always got the impression that my great-grandfather was something of a rascal where women were concerned, despite being A Pillar of Society (he was a founder of a bank and a hospital and the zoo in St. Louis); however, nothing was ever mentioned by my grandmother's generation in my hearing. Anyhow, Great-grandfather had strict rules where his children were concerned. One of these rules was that any suitor for the hand of one of the daughters had to have $1000 in the bank--a lot of money in those days. Only one of the daughters ended up unmarried--and it was said that my grandmother tried to help her elope with the postman, but the escape went awry, and Aunt May, poor soul, had to live to almost 95 without the love of her life. Aunt Holmes, whom I mentioned before, married a doctor, who turned out to be an abuser. He beat her so badly she lost the baby she was carrying, and came back to live under her father's roof as a divorced woman (something of a disgrace in those days).  Susan backed Holmes up when she wanted to get a job to support herself and her father objected; women in his family did not work (horrors!). And divorced women should stay indoors away from the gaze of society. Anyhow, Holmes got a job at the men's handkerchief counter at Stix, Baer and Fuller, the famous St. Louis department store. She was spotted there by a young man who was undeterred by the divorce and the disgrace of the working woman, and who was apparently in need of many, many handkerchiefs. By that time, Susan had married a young Cavalry officer, my grandfather Alex. Susan made sure that Holmes got to marry her young man (he turned out to be a millionaire, owner of Funsten's Pecans, and they were happily married for forty years, until his death), in spite of my great-grandfather's reservations. Susan bought Holmes' trousseau, as her father refused to so it, and Aunt Holmes was always grateful to her.

This is my grandfather Alex, taken in 1919 at the end of World War I. As you can see by the eagle on his cap, he was by then a colonel. He was in France when the word came through about the Armistice: he received the telegram announcing it, as he was Chief of Staff to the General in command. He was quite an amazing fellow--but his story has to wait for another time. Right now I want to finish up Susan's story--or at least as much as I know of it!

As the wife of a Cavalry officer, she needed to know her way around horses, and I have a picture or two of her on camping trips. She could ride a horse, and was also a crack pistol shot. She won a pistol contest or two.  My mother told me.a story about a time she and Susan were travelling the back roads of Kansas at twilight in their Model T Ford; Mother was driving. They came upon what looked like a road block up ahead. There were sinister-looking men around the block, and so my grandmother hauled out her trusty Colt .22, and rolled down the window. The road was quire rutted, my mother said, and Susan, with the gun pointed out the window of the bouncing car, asked, "Anne, do you think it would be fair to use both hands?" The road block turned out not to be bandits, but a fallen tree and workmen trying to remove it--but in the dim light, it had looked dangerous. Luckily, Susan didn't fire a shot.

Here is a picture of Susan taken in the late 1920's. She has on jodhpurs and boots; I am assuming my grandfather took the picture--he was an avid photographer.

Here she is camping, but I am not sure of the date...I call this her bag lady picture.

I think I'll stop here for now--there are more stories to tell, though, and I'll be back soon to tell them. --Nan

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