Sunday, February 26, 2017

I have an ugly Fannie

Fannie Potter abt 1884
It's nice to know we've come a long way in my mother's family and we have developed into caring, loving people. Our ancestor, Fannie Potter Willett, had none of those qualities, unfortunately. 

By all accounts, Fannie was a spoiled, self centered woman with a keen sense of entitlement. Her looks matched her soul, apparently. 

Homely. Man-ish, Mean looking. Hideous. Selfish. Down right Ugly. Those are just a few of the words my family has used in describing dear great-grandmother Fannie. 

In a previous blog I told you I liked to explore Buba's house in Swampscott when we would go up and visit. And how nearly everything in that house seemed mysterious and frequently scary to me. 

Fannie Potter Willett abt 1887
Buba's basement was number one scary place in the whole whole house. It was partially finished but smelled like wet dog and old wood. Buba had her washer and dryer down there and a finished room that was weirdly bright and sunny for a basement. It was completely furnished. I keep meaning to ask my mother more specifically about it, but I believe it was used as a more informal family room. I do remember seeing photos of my mother's wedding presents all displayed out beautifully in that room. 

Also in that room were photos on the wood paneled walls. Of really old people. Scary looking people with big eyes. Large portraits and photographs in beautiful ornate frames. I remember them so well because they all looked so serious and stern. Fannie was the one who stuck in my head the most. In one, she had a white, frilly dress and an enormous bow in her hair. I could see parts of my grandfather and mother in her looks...but she had a cold, mean stare that definitely set her apart from anyone in my family that I knew. 

Fannie and her wedding dress
My cousins, Leigh and Beth, have these portraits that hung in Buba's basement and I was delighted to see one of them hanging in Leigh's bathroom in her Vermont home of our Great-grandfather, John Howard Willett.  John was Fannie's husband.  It just cracked me up to see him hanging there in the bathroom. Leigh has a great sense of humor. 

We've inherited other photos of Fannie that are similar to the ones hanging in the living room that I'm sharing with you here. They give you a sense of her. As a child I was scared of her because the portraits were so enormous in that room that they were intimidating. Her eyes seemed to follow you around the room. But I wonder about her life and why she was the way she was. 

This is what I know.

My Aunt Jean remembered her and said the family really didn't see Fannie and her husband John much growing up. Maybe certain holidays. They lived in Boston for a long while, but then moved to New York City for the last years of their life. She and my mother and their parents were closer to Mark and Luta Shrum, who were kind and loving people. 

The Willett family on a picnic about 1905
Frances Estelle Potter (she would tell people her name was not Frances, but really Fannie. But her official birth records show differently.) was born to the prominent Potter family of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Her father was in the shoe business. She and her two sisters were raised in the best manner with no worries about money. She and John Howard Willett would marry in 1887 . One year later she would give birth to a stillborn son. He was never given a name. My grandfather, Harold Potter Willett,  was born in 1894. One year later, John Howard Willett, Jr.  as was born. He was called Jack. 

Fannie Willett in 1939 in NYC
Fannie was not a tiny, delicate woman. She was a large, brash woman who liked nice things. In a photo from 1905 you see the family out at a picnic--dressed up like it was Sunday church. 

Fannie was also not the maternal kind. She relied on their servant, Carrie, to take care of the children almost exclusively. My grandfather would say she was not an affectionate or loving mother. On Thursdays, Carrie's night off, she insisted on going out to eat so that she did not have to cook. She couldn't cook anyhow. On those nights the children were left to fend for themselves. They were not included in the dinner plans. Carrie, the housekeeper, took it upon herself to teach the boys some basic cooking skills so that on Thursdays they could make supper for themselves and their younger sister. 

I wonder how Fannie reacted in 1916 when John Howard telegrammed Harold who was a college sophomore at Indiana University and told Harold there was no more money left. John Howard's partner had embezzled all the money from their company. John later got a job selling shoes. Most likely with Fannie's father's influence. He got a job in New Rochelle. Fannie must have experienced a real change in her lifestyle. 

Fannie had three children, all who were very different as most children tend to be. Jack was reportedly a laid back man who worked with his father and went along his life with little fanfare. He did not go to college, as was expected of him. He married a woman named Mildred who was vivacious and outgoing. They stayed married for their life, but it was not a very happy marriage. She was frustrated with his mild manner. Although he and Harold were close in age and did things together when they were growing up, as adults they were not particularly close. They were cordial. 

Fannie's daughter, Jeanette, had a good life in NYC and a boyfriend. The family says that Fannie ruined Jeanette's young life by being demanding and guilting her into coming home and taking care of her. Fannie played sick and liked being waited on and Jeanette was the one to do it. Jeanette developed a "nervous condition" and then a pituitary gland tumor which my great grandfather, Mark Shrum, diagnosed. She died unmarried in 1945. My mother remembers her as being a very nice woman and thought it was sad that she died at only 44. 

There are many photos of Fannie. She loved having her photo taken. My cousin Leigh is the keeper of those photos and has shared them with me. I'd like to think there is a reason she was the way she was. We may never know for sure. 

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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Meet Martha Lee

My mother hated the name Martha Lee. And she lived her life avoiding it whenever she could. I remember my grandmother sometimes calling her M.L. She felt that was much better than the grating “Maaatha Lee” they would address her with in their thick Boston accents. As an adult she would be known as Lee

M.L. held by her mother, Jeanette 1928
Her new friends at her new high school, Kendall Hall boarding school in New Hampshire, began calling her Willey.  This, reportedly after an impressive demonstration by my mother of belching out the entire alphabet at the lunch table one day.

 A demur Martha, she was not. This girl needed a cute name.

Willey, short for her last name, Willett, had a gregarious personality and many friends at this school. This was a pattern that would repeat herself for my mom’s entire life. Everyone always loved when she was at a party. But as for this school, it was a place her parents had sent her to “straighten up” after her and her best friend, Phyllis, repeatedly skipped school and hung around various places in Swampscott, Massachusetts. Mom would come home at the end of the school day and my grandparents had no idea she wasn’t showing up for class. Occasionally the truant officer would stop by the house. He was a friend of my grandfather.

“Harold, you’ve got to get that girl to go to class.” The officer would tell him. My grandfather would shake his hand and tell him he would get control of it all.

Sometimes Mom and Phyllis would hop the train to the Boston Garden to watch a hockey game. Neither had an interest in hockey, by the way. But this was 1942 and young men on shore leave from navy vessels passing through the Boston Harbor would take in an afternoon game at the Garden. Despite my grandmother telling her daughter to never, ever, take a cigarette from a stranger because it could have something “funny” in it, Mom and Phyllis were double trouble and liked flirting with the young men. And yes, smoking their forbidden cigarettes.

The fun came to an end one day when they decided to skip school and hang out by the local grocery market in the center of Swampscott. 

According to Mom’s version of the story, Phyllis suddenly jumps to her feet.

“M.L.! It's your mother, coming this way!” Phyllis exclaims.  They both spot my grandmother, coming up the street on foot, to go to the market.

Supposedly, my grandmother turned at all the commotion the frantic girls were making and looked over just in time to see her daughter and best friend diving into the nearby shrubs…their skirts flying.

Mom said my grandmother walked over alongside the shrubs and sighed,
“M.L. you come out of there right this instance!”

Mom says she and Phyllis popped up, knowing they were really in for it now. My grandmother had had enough.

Martha Lee about age 12, 1940
My mother adored her father. The feeling was mutual. While my mother’s older sister, Jean, was dainty, scholarly, demur and classically pretty, Mom was more along the lines of an early version of Carol Burnett. She was skinny and gawky with a wide, gummy smile. And she was not in the least bit interested in school. My grandfather secretly loved that about her because he had been a horrible student himself. He was more interested in chasing girls and having fun. Some of the stories in his own past mirrored what his favorite daughter was doing. What goes around, comes around was rearing its head to Harold Willett if there ever was a time.  It was all innocent fun, he probably thought, thinking back on his own youth. He was now a successful insurance salesman. He straightened up just fine.

But my grandmother was not having any of this. SOMETHING had to be done about these girls traipsing around Boston doing unladylike things.

The fathers called a meeting. They had gotten together to talk over the situation. Both sets of parents and the girls sat in the living room of my grandparent’s house on Lewis Road in Swampscott.

“Girls, we have made a decision. Your education is important and you can't keep dodging school. You come from good families. We are sending you both away to an all-girls boarding school.” My grandfather reportedly announced.

Martha Lee High 1946 graduation
Mom and Phyllis were absolutely delighted. They would have adventures in a far-away place! How fun would that be?

The parents were puzzled by the smiles on the girl’s faces. This was a punishment. What are they so happy about?

My grandfather was the first to figure it out.

“Young ladies,” my Grandad lectured to them, “You do understand you are not going off to school TOGETHER, don't you? “

Apparently my mother’s face dropped. Phyllis looked confused.

Grandad continued, “We can't even trust you two in the same state. M.L, you will be going to New Hampshire.” Phyllis’ Dad was sending her to a school in Vermont.

Mom remembers still not quite getting the whole picture of it. So she asked a question.  

“But Daddy, what is there to do in New Hampshire?” She remembers asking.

“Exactly!” all four parents answered in unison.

Mom loves telling that story.