Sunday, November 15, 2015

Virginia -- A **Revised** History

Herself c. 1930
Virginia was born into an Indianapolis matriarchy on November 14, 1911. Her birth took place in her mother's room next to the dining room of a large, rickety 1870s farmhouse on North Sherman Drive, once the farthest eastern edge of Indianapolis. The house had no electricity and only the most rudimentary indoor plumbing; it would burn down in 1914 and would be replaced with a fire station which is still standing.

Virginia's grandmother Ida and Ida's sisters Nora and Lillian attended her birth. The boys -- Ida's 21 year old son Ralph, and Nora's 17 year old boy Harry -- were upstairs in the attic garret they shared. Ida, Nora, and Lillian were widows.

Edna, Virginia's mother, was not a widow, not yet. She was married. At least she said she was. According to her account, she and Larry (or "Riley" as he was known) were married by a Marion County judge in 1907 when Edna was 17. She and Larry (or Riley) never lived together, however, as his situation -- he said -- didn't permit of it, and it's doubtful that Ida, Edna's mother, would have approved in any case even if they were married.

In fact, Ida didn't know her daughter was a married woman until she started showing her pregnancy around April of 1911. Edna had never said.

Finding out who the father was was no easy task for Ida, though she had a suspicion it might be the nice-looking conductor on the streetcar line Edna took into town each day to get to work at the bank where she was a telephone operator.

As it happened, Larry (or Riley) was the conductor and he was Virginia's father. When Edna told him she was pregnant with his child one morning, Larry told her that if it was a boy, he wanted it named Virgil. If a girl, then Virginia, the feminine form of Virgil.

Larry (or Riley) was reading the Aeneid at the time, and he was quite enamored of the saga of the Trojan War and the founding of Rome the Eternal City. Virgil, he thought, was the acme of poets, for whom there was no rival.

Larry's brother George was an accountant and the manager of the bank branch downtown where Edna worked.

Despite his literary bent (or maybe because of it), Larry (or Riley) was the black sheep of the family. His father was a Civil War veteran of the Indiana Volunteers, and he held a minor veteran's pension clerk position with the federal government. In addition, he served as the publisher of the Lebanon (Indiana) Patriot newspaper, the Parliamentarian for the Indiana State House of Representatives and later on as the Indiana State Land Clerk. He was well known and well respected throughout the central Indiana region, and his sons were considered bright and good boys, all six of them.

As soon as the family moved from Lebanon into Indianapolis, however, in about 1890, Larry (or Riley) started getting into trouble, trouble which would dog him the rest of his rather short life. Larry's troubles would also affect Virginia for the rest of her much longer life.

Larry's (or Riley's) mother -- Virginia's grandmother on her father's side -- was a Lawrence descended from the Lawrences of New England, and she had a notorious tendency of putting on airs. Ida, Virginia's other grandmother was no slouch when it came to putting on airs herself for she liked to claim that she was a "direct descendant of Marie Antoinette." Her regal bearing and her widow's weeds should have been proof enough, but Ralph, her son, chose to mock his mother's pretensions to royalty -- until he found out about Princess Snowflower.

Snowflower lived in the 1700s in Cape May, New Jersey, where Ida's people were from. She was the daughter of -- or possibly the granddaughter of, or even maybe the sister of -- Nummi, the chief or "king" of the local Lenni-Lenape (Delaware) tribe. She was baptized Prudence Eldridge and married Benajah Thompson, something of a Cape May grandee and gadabout. They had children, one of whom, Manley, was the father of Rebecca who was Ida's grandmother.

Ralph found this out on his own through the Piersons who lived in town. Ida never mentioned it. She might not have known, truth to tell, for Snowflower was in the male line of her ancestry.

The male line is always problematical in a matriarchy.

Virginia was born into a matriarchy, and Virginia would keep the matriarchy going for generations after her. In fact, so far as I know, it's still going strong. Virginia's daughter had daughters, and Virginia's great granddaughters have daughters of their own who will no doubt have daughters far into the future.

Among the things Virginia didn't know about her father was what he looked like. She may never have seen him at all, but later in life she would say that she only had vague memories of him because he died when she was five years old and she had no photographs of him. She believed her father was killed in a streetcar accident in Indianapolis, but that isn't quite what happened. He left Indianapolis after the streetcar strike of 1913, before Virginia's second birthday. And she never saw him again -- presuming she ever saw him at all.

Larry (or Riley) moved to St. Louis where an older brother was living and working as a printer and Linotype operator for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Larry took work as a switch man at the Chicago Northwestern railroad yards in North St. Louis. He married a 17 year old German girl and in 1914, she had a daughter Helen. He made a new life for himself, and so far as anyone knew, he never returned to Indianapolis.

He was killed in a switching accident at the yards, his body essentially cut in half when a refrigerator car rolled into the freight car he was standing by. He was killed on December 19, 1916, and was buried on December 23, 1916, at the Friedens Cemetery in Bellefontaine Neighbors. Virginia recalled his funeral (though she remembered it as being in Indianapolis), and she remembered meeting his other family at the funeral. She remembered most of all the scandal Larry's other family caused her mother when it was discovered that Larry (or Riley) had married and fathered a child by another woman in St. Louis.

By the following summer, Edna was packing up to move to California with her new beau, an old friend of Larry's (or Riley's) who proposed marriage and a complete change of scene and lifestyle.

Ida was not amused, not a bit, but Edna considered her other options and figured that moving to California with Leo and Virginia was the best available. It would finally make an honest woman of her, a thoroughly honest woman as Leo did not have another wife or family somewhere else, and he made noises about adopting 5 year old Virginia as his own daughter. He never actually adopted her, but he allowed her to use his last name and always referred to her as his daughter.

Virginia did not know about her half-brother Virgil who was also born in 1911, to a woman, or rather a girl of 17, named Julia. Virgil was born in March of 1911, just about the time Virginia was conceived it would seem. Larry (or Riley) made no pretense of marrying Julia as he had with Edna. He was, he said, "already married." Julia and Virgil would have to make the best of it.

Neither did Virginia know that her mother, Edna, had filed for divorce from Larry (or Riley) in August of 1912, a divorce that was not granted -- because it was determined that Edna had never legally been married to Larry (or Riley). The marriage certificate she presented in court was ruled invalid because at the time, Larry (or Riley) was still legally married to his first wife Maud, aka Mary and May, the mother of his first three children, George, Florence and David.

Nevertheless, after Virginia's birth, Edna with Ida's help blared the fact of her marriage to Larry (or Riley) throughout the city with the intent of bringing shame and disrepute on Larry's family. In the end, Edna gave up her crusade against her erstwhile (non)husband's family and left town for California with her soon-to-be new husband Leo and daughter Virginia.

The household on North Sherman Drive broke up soon after Edna's leaving,  perhaps due to the scandal mongering both Edna and Ida had been engaging in. Ida and Ralph moved to Chicago where they lived together, mother and son, until Ida's death in 1941. After Ida died, Ralph married but had no children. Nora moved into a little house on the outskirts of town, living with a family who had befriended her years before. Lillian took rooms in a converted mansion in town, three large rooms where she lived in semi if somewhat tattered splendor till she died in the late '40s.

Edna, Virginia and Leo did well in California, where Leo quickly found work in an auto dealership in a little coastal town. He started as a mechanic in 1917 and became the garage and service manager in due time. They lived well, certainly better than anything they were likely to know had they stayed in Indiana.

Virginia grew up thinking she was Leo's daughter, but when she was a teenager, her mother told her that no, her real father was dead, and explained that Leo was her step-father. Edna explained the funeral that Virginia barely remembered, and she told her the story of her father's other family and the scandals that ensued. Edna didn't tell Virginia everything, but she told her enough to shatter her concept of who she was. From that time onward, Virginia was never entirely sure about her origins because she never knew her biological father, and her step-father, though a kind and generous man, was no substitute for her real father.

There was so much Virginia didn't know about her father. Even though in later life she would meet with one of Larry's sons by Maud named George, and they would talk about their father for hours, she would find out little. The stories were many, but the truth was hard to discover. Larry (or Riley, which is what his son called his father) had left the household when George was just a boy of four or five, and his memories of his father were dim. He wasn't sure of what had happened to his father -- except that he had left and then he died. Virginia's stories about her father's funeral and the other wife and daughter he had were new to him. He had no idea. Some of the things he told her were new to her as well.

Virginia grew up determined to be independent, but she married twice, first to a Texan who had grand dreams of a future in the oil business, dreams which he realized only after she divorced him. Then, after a sojourn in the Women's Army Air Corps, she married an Iowa lawyer for reasons that only she knew. After spending a couple of dismal years in Iowa, Virgina fled back to California where she lived the rest of her life as independently as she could possibly manage.

Virginia was my mother, of course. This **revised** history, written on her 104th birthday is partly creative non-fiction, since I had no way of knowing any of the main characters who were long dead by the time I was born. Until recently, I didn't know many of them existed, and I knew far less than Virginia did about her biological father -- and she knew practically nothing about him. Some of what I've since learned is astonishing -- and much of it isn't included here. But a good deal of what I've learned helps me to understand some of the aspects of my mother's life, beliefs and behavior that never made much sense to me.

I think I may even understand them better than she did.


  1. I have notes from the Pierson reunions. I am also descended from Benajah and Snowflower's son Manley. Interesting story.