Over thirty years ago, I embarked on a journey... to find and meet my natural mother. It didn't happen quite as I'd planned or hoped for. I found her - but she'd already been dead for many years.
As it turned out, she had been adopted, too, though not as a baby and since her only surviving family (two older adoptive brothers) were uncommunicative - one was an alcoholic and though he was willing to speak with me, his memory was as if blanketed in a very thick fog - the other simply refused any contact whatsoever - I decided to search for her natural parents.
The same day I found out that my mother was dead, I also found out that she'd had three more children after I was born. After their mother's death, they had been adopted by one of their father’s relatives. I determined to find them, too.
Sometimes, to arrive in the present, one must first travel backwards. Having no other choice, that's what I had to do.
When she was five years old, my natural mother Nancy Lee Crane was taken from her mother by the county and tossed into whatever the foster care system was in 1937. The reason cited for this was that her mother was "contributing to the delinquency of a minor" because she was (allegedly) living with a man to whom she was not married.
When I met my grandfather way back in 1976, he mentioned something about a prostitution charge as well, but I have not been able to verify that - and since he was in the Navy and their marriage was the shotgun type and he didn't really stick around after the ceremony, I have my doubts about that… and it doesn't matter to me anyway, other than as just another detail in the story.
There's no denying that Grandma was a bit of a hottie for her day and that her hormones raged like an out-of-control forest fire. She and her two older sisters liked to go to the picture show, they liked to drink, they liked to smoke and they liked boys - a lot.
Here's Grandma with a boyfriend in 1930 when she was fifteen:
Cute, huh? She and her sisters liked sailors. They didn't live too far from the port of Los Angeles and what better place for Depression-era girls to have a little fun and maybe meet a potential husband? That's exactly what Grandma's eldest sister did... she married a sailor - with her father’s shotgun aimed right at the center of his back. (Their first child was… umm... "pre-mature" - but unusually hale and hearty.)
Here's Great-Auntie Billie, the next sister, in 1929 when she was fifteen:
There's something about her eyes - don't you think? So… arresting… so languorous. (Billie's given name was Minnie but she didn't like that so she changed it.)
Back to Grandma Jerrie. (Her given name was Juanita but she didn't like that so nicknamed herself Jerrie.) Here she is with the same boyfriend in the next picture in the series - did they even have photo booths back then? I guess so:
Shortly after her older sister's wedding, Jerrie found herself in the very same predicament - pregnant by a sailor (a friend of her new brother-in-law) and unmarried. It was very early in 1932. It was the Depression. I can only imagine what it might have been like for for my great-grandparents... another daughter pregnant but, with no husband, still their responsibility... and soon, another mouth to feed. My great-grandfather, John Albert Davis, had recently lost his shoe repair shop… and then, in the midst of this family crisis, a far greater one occurred - he suddenly died of a ruptured appendix at the age of 48 in the spring of 1932.
To his credit, my then 21-year-old grandfather Jim did do the honorable thing and married 16-year-old Jerrie a few weeks after her father's death, though apparently it took some convincing. Jim was from a prominent Nova Scotia family and Jerrie's family were mid-western Dustbowl farmers (although their pedigree was just as long and every bit as impressive)... but he did step up to the plate. (More about him later.) His ship put out to sea a few days later and he was gone for months and months. Even if things had been under better or even ideal circumstances, it was not a great beginning.
Here they are in 1933... Jerrie - who looks so happy - with Jim and baby Nancy, who was about 6 months old:
According to what I know from my late Great Auntie Doris (Grandma's younger sister - who liked her name and kept it) Jerrie adored her child - in fact, the entire family did - they all doted on her.
Here is young Aunt Doris in 1934 holding 2-year-old Nancy Lee:
And here's Jerrie with Nancy:
And Nancy again in 1936, shortly before she was "removed" from her mother's care... she was four years old here:
Losing her daughter very nearly destroyed Jerrie. And it really doesn't make sense that she did - my mother was adored by her aunts, her uncle and her grandmother, as well as by her mother. She was very well looked after - it wasn't easy, not by a long shot, in the middle of the Great Depression - but there was always food on the table, a few toys to play with and Shirley Temple-like clothes to wear. It appears that my grandmother's only "crime" was in being a free-spirit in an up-tight neighborhood and that someone reported her comings and goings and the visits from her friends to either the police, Social Services (or whatever they were called way back then) or both. Great-Aunt Doris told me that it tore my grandmother apart when the authorities took her little girl away.
Here she is in 1939... two years after Nancy was taken from her...I recognize the sad and empty look of depression...
She tried to dull the pain of her loss with alcohol, parties, lots of men, lots of cigarettes and even more alcohol. She never had another child and I've often wondered why this was, because she was most definitely a very sexual being who was never without a man in her life, and though it certainly existed, birth control was, I think, sometimes problematic to obtain. So… folk medicine potions maybe? Lots of abortions, perhaps. Or secondary infertility. Anyway - she didn't.
I don't know much more about her than this... I wish I did.
This portrait was taken sometime in 1943. The sadness in her eyes of several years earlier seems to be gone now and replaced with something almost vibrant... perhaps she was in love again. I hope so.
My grandmother Jerrie died in early August of 1970... exactly one week to the day before her 55th birthday. I had graduated from high school that June… and had turned 18 three days before her death. I had just been given my adoption file and didn't even know her name yet.
She died of a particularly nasty kind of cancer... of the tongue and throat, according to the death certificate… caused (medically) by over 40 years of chain smoking and heavy drinking.
All rights reserved. ©Deborah Rykoff Bennett 2007
Labels: adoption, family history, genealogy, search