Margaret Leona Wasson Windes
My Grandmother came from a large family. During the years between l870 to l888 James and Rachel Wasson had twelve children, eleven who survived. My Grandmother Margaret, born March 27, l880, had three brothers and seven sisters. The girls, Margaret Leona, Dora Belle, Cora Jane, Myra Vesty, Laura Edith, Lela May, Serena Amner, and Myrtle Blanche all lived eighty-four or more years. The boys, Elbert John, James Elmer, and John Edward, all died in their sixties. All of the children but two ended up on the West Coast--in California and Washington State.
At the Wasson Grocery Store one day in the fall of l900 Harry Rayl Windes and Margaret Leona Wasson met. Harry, who was out of college and visiting friends in Seligman, wanted to compare the Wasson Store to the Windes store in Washburn. And Margaret was a clerk and bookkeeper in her father's store, having assumed that job when she graduated high school two years earlier. Harry and Margaret began dating in October, l900, and three months later, January l, l90l, they were married in the First Baptist Church of Seligman. In January of l902, my father, Russel Rayl, was born. And in July of l903, a second son was born, Kenneth Wasson. From l90l to l9l7 Grandmother Margaret wore two hats: She was a mother and homemaker; she also worked in the Windes Store as a bookkeeper and occasional clerk, at first only a couple of afternoons a week, but then when the boys entered school, she worked full time. She was very much an early "business and professional woman."
When B.F. Windes died in l9l7, Margaret insisted that Grandfather Harry sell his interest in the store to his brother, while keeping the land holdings. She had tired of southern Missouri and wanted the two to travel. She was also worried about Harry's health, since he had developed a number of physical problems she attributed to the stress of business. She negotiated the sale for approximately twenty thousand dollars. They kept both the inherited fifty acres of rich Washburn Prairie bottom land and the farmland Harry had previously purchased. They leased the farming rights to a tenant farmer named Willard Ware, who farmed the nearly four-hundred acres for over twenty years.
Harry and Margaret then put the children in the public schools of Rogers, Arkansas, twenty some miles to the south, boarding them there for the school year with friends. And the two of them boarded the train in September of l9l7, in the middle of World War I, to spend the next eight months traveling and visiting relatives in the Great American West. Margaret Leona had brothers and sisters scattered from Spokane and Seattle, Washington, to San Diego, California, and she was determined to visit them all.
Margaret and Harry spent a month or more in Spokane visiting sisters Serena and Blanche, a month in Seattle visiting sister Dora Bell, two months in San Francisco visiting brothers and sisters in law, James and Nota, Elbert and Mabel, and numbers of nieces and nephews on the peninsula south of San Francisco. They visited another sister, Cora Jane, in Los Angeles for a month, and yet another, Myra Vesty, in San Diego. Today it is difficult to imagine such extensive stays with relatives, or friends, but apparently in the days of railroad travel, long visits were in order.
In April they left Southern California for a six week trip back to Missouri, which took them to Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. They stayed over a week in New Mexico, exploring that new State. They spent two weeks in Texas, San Antonio, Houston, Galveston, and Padre Island. Each night they got off the train and stayed in a hotel.
I was exceedingly close to my grandmother Margaret at the same time I was close to Bess. Granny and I got along splendidly, and we spent a lot of time together. The two of us more or less carved out much of Sundays to be together and do things together.
Margaret did not play the piano, but she had a grand "player piano" with hundreds of rolls of music, and I loved to put on a roll and sit on the bench pumping the pedals to turn the rolls and make the music. On Sundays, while she "did her nails" and wrote letters to relatives, I "played" the piano. (It was tragic that my sister Peggy, who hated the piano and never played it after high school, received ten years of piano lessons and voice lessons, while I, who adored piano, was made to play the clarinet and saxophone, both of which I cared little for. Pianos, I was told, were not for boys.)
Margaret was the only person in the family ever to set foot in any church. She liked to go to Sunday School on Sunday mornings at the Baptist Church, where many of her friends also went. And she liked for me to go with her. Peggy utterly refused, but I couldn't. So we would trot off at ten for Sunday School, and I would endure Miss Laura and the other vocalists singing in high tremolo, a vibration not even Carmen Lombardo could equal. They would sing to the accompaniment of the piano and organ with trills, quavers, and melodic embellishments, varying both pitch and frequency as often as possible. And they would sing the worst songs ever written: "I'm Headed for the Promised Land," "Love Lifted Me," "Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me."
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After Sunday School, I would go back to Granny Margaret's, and listen to Harry read me parts of the Sunday morning St.Louis Post-Dispatch. As I have suggested, Harry wouldn't go near a church himself and always had a number of sardonic comments to make about the Baptist Church when Granny returned home, comments which would inevitably trigger a mild quarrel between the two of them, which didn't last very long at all. The three of us, and sometimes Peggy, would then have Sunday dinner together. Granny would do her nails, and at about one-thirty she and Harry and I would be off for a Sunday afternoon drive to see relatives. Neither her family nor his was as obsessively close as many families are. Harry saw his brother and sisters on Saturday nights or Sunday afternoons. Rarely did either family have get-togethers, or dine at another's home. They simply loved those Sunday afternoon non-suffocating short visits, which left all family members free to pursue their individual interests the rest of the week. Even as close as Russel and Bess and Harry and Margaret had to be because of business and children, they never dined together except on holidays, and never partied together. They did take summer evening rides in the country together, and occasionally Sunday afternoon rides. Harry and Margaret and I would drive to near Neosho to visit Granny's Aunt Laura and Uncle Isham and daughter Pearl. Isham Collier had been sheriff of Newton County, Missouri, for twenty years, and Aunt Laura was the cook at the county jail.
We would drive to Joplin to visit Granny's sister Aunt Lela and her husband Uncle Wiley, who had been a miner in the lead/zinc mines near there but who had been forced out of work during the depression. Cousin Jean was one of their children. I particularly enjoyed our trips to Joplin. After a Sunday afternoon dinner, second cousins Jean and Beryl and Neva and I would go downtown to the large and ornate Fox Theatre for the two-thirty movie. Some Sundays we spent the afternoons in Garfield, Arkansas, at the home of one of Granny's nephews, James Murray and wife, Pansy. And some Sundays we just drove around, like to Blockade Hollow near Seligman so named because the retreating Southern Army in the Civil War, led by General Sterling Price, cut down trees to impede the chase of the Union soldiers.
My close relationships with grandfather Harry and grandmother Margaret also ended during this time of rapid changes. As I discussed earlier, Harry died in early January, l942, of the effects of heart disease and drugs. He asked to be allowed to die on his "sleeping porch" at the Cassville home, and he did.
Harry believed he had left his Margaret enough money so that she would never have to worry. What he didn't know, nor did Margaret, was that Russel had cashed in Harry's insurance policies a year earlier in his unsuccessful attempt to save the stores.
I will never forget the night Granny found out she had only five thousand dollars, rather than fifty thousand, and the sadness that became a part of her life for a very long time. She decided, at age sixty-two, to sell her home, move to Spokane, Washington, where two of her sisters, Serena and Blanche, and their families still lived, and go to work. She sold the house within a month and left for Washington that March, and I felt a very great loss.
In Spokane Granny discovered how difficult it was, even during the war years, for a sixty-some year old to get a good job. And so, for the first time in her life, she got a birth certificate. She altered family Bible records, and used the altered version to get a certificate showing her age some ten years younger than what it was. She then got a job at the J.C.Penney store in Spokane as manager of the women's ready-to-wear department, and worked there five years, until mid-l947, managing to save most of her salary during that time.
Her absence for that long a time was probably due, in part, to anger toward her son Russel. The insurance that she would have received had he not cashed in the policies, would have, properly invested, given her a substantially different life the rest of her years. She could never understand how her son could have done such a deed, even to stave off bankruptcy, without consulting both her and Harry. Nor could I. Only after her five year absence was she able to begin a new relationship with him in l947. As for me, I missed Margaret very much during those years. She was never very happy being away.
The guiding principles behind the behavior of that dyad called "my parents" continued to be deviousness. There was a stupid unwillingness and inability to talk openly and honestly with each other, thereby at least attempting to make rational choices. To compound the family difficulties, my Granny Margaret had moved to St. Louis, to an apartment very nearby.
Margaret, by now, was a sad and lonely figure. At seventy-five she had finally stopped working, and retired on social security, one-hundred twenty dollars, plus a military pension, another one-hundred twenty dollars, Uncle Kenneth had left for her, plus a small annuity from J.C. Penney, where she had worked from l942 to l955. (Penneys still thought she was ten years younger than she was, since she had falsified her birth certificate in l942 to get her wartime job in Spokane.)
Granny was in remarkably good health, but she was simply all alone. Her own son saw her rarely, even though she now lived next door. She and Bess continued to dislike and distrust each other, and they rarely saw each other, and when they did, they ignored each other. Granny knew nobody at all in St. Louis, and she should have moved back to Spokane with her sisters when Uncle Ken died in late l953, rather than moving close to her son, who constantly "borrowed" money from her meager savings to pay his own bills. But she made bad choices, as older and alone people often do. And there she was alone in St. Louis.
I did whatever I could do to keep her company that summer, since nobody else in the family tried, including my self-centered younger sister, Patti. I visited Granny each morning for an hour; I always dropped by for a few minutes late at night when I got in, because Granny never went to bed until two. And I spent a lot of time on Sundays at her apartment. I took her to church, a Presbyterian Church close by, and she and I had "Sunday dinner" together after church. In the afternoons I would take her to Forest Park. We would go to the zoo, or the gardens, or the art museum, and then we'd go to a movie about four o'clock (which she insisted on paying for), and I would take her home about six, just before she collapsed.
I know she dearly appreciated what I did for her that summer, and especially looked forward to our Sundays together. She would say, "Now if you have anything else to do, don't worry about me," and I would say, "My love, considering how many of your Sundays you gave me when I was a young boy, the least I can do is give a few of them back to you." The very sad thing, of course, was that, once I left in September to go to Northwestern, nobody else in the family gave a damn enough to take Granny anywhere. Patti left for Springfield and Drury College (She wouldn't have done anything for Granny anyway.). And Bess and Russel were too involved in their own problems to worry about Granny Margaret.
In l956, at my sad recommendation and prodding, Granny did indeed move back to Spokane to be with her two sisters, Serena and Blanche. And she stayed there until her sisters died. She returned to St.Louis in late l959 to be close to her son, and after his death in January of l960, she moved back to Springfield, Missouri, where Bess, Peggy and Patti once again made her feel very much alone.
Back in St. Louis, I convinced Granny Margaret that she had no other choice but to follow Bess and Patti to Springfield, or return to Spokane, Washington, to be with her sisters. We found her a place on East Cherry in Springfield, and moved her there from St. Louis. She lived there, and in Spokane part of each year, until l965 when my companion, Ralph, and I moved her to Kansas City.
San Francisco in the l960s seemed to attract a number of curious friends and relatives who had inhabited my other lives. My grandmother, Margaret Leona Wasson Windes, flew down the Saturday before Thanksgiving from Spokane, Washington. She had more relatives and friends in the Bay Area than I had ever imagined, and we managed to see almost all of them during her week there.
Grandmother Margaret had not been in San Francisco since l9l8 when she and my grandfather spent a summer touring the West, including a month in San Francisco visiting her two brothers and their wives, Jim and Nota and Elbert and Mabel. She was anxious to renew memories, spend some time with the relatives and see "the new sights," like the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County.
We had scheduled a Thanksgiving Day with all the relatives, and I had invited both Aunt Mabel and Aunt Nota to dinner on Westgate. Those events left some time for me to act as tour guide for Grandmother's return to the Bay Area.
She was, at eighty years of age, still a spry one with a curiosity about everything. I took her to one of my classes, and she ended up asking questions. She met a number of my friends and quizzed each one endlessly. We parked on the north side of the Golden Gate so that she could, at least, walk out on the bridge to experience that bridge first hand. She had to go to the DiMaggio's, I think it was, at Fisherman's Wharf, for crab and sourdough. And she simply had to have dinner at Ernie's. By Thanksgiving Day I was exhausted, but she was not.
Granny's family, the Wassons, as we recalled at the beginning of this journey, had migrated to the American West in great numbers at the beginning of the century. They came to Spokane and Seattle, to San Francisco and Oakland, and to Southern California.
My grandmother's two brothers in the Bay Area, Jim and Elbert, had left southwest Missouri for San Francisco in l902, shortly after they married. By l960 both were deceased, but their widows and children and grandchildren still lived in the Bay Area. Uncle Jim had worked for the Oakland Tribune from l902 to his death in l944; Uncle Elbert began working for the Salvation Army in San Francisco the year after he arrived and ended up directing its San Francisco program for many years. He died in l952 of a heart attack while on an errand of mercy. He was, I am told, much loved and appreciated. Their widows, Aunt Nota and Aunt Mabel, who were also eighty years old in l960, both carried on very active lives. Nota Roller Wasson lived in an apartment in Oakland across from Lake Merrit. She, too, had worked for the Oakland Tribune until she was seventy, as a rewrite person in the newsroom.
It was my very great pleasure to host a dinner for these grand elderly ladies at my place on Westgate on the Sunday night after my grandmother's arrival. My new little friend and "houseboy," Davey Simon, had agreed to help me plan the evening and serve the dinner, and clean up the place afterwards, and Davey was a jewel, or as a Thurber cartoon put it, "a goddam jewel." Granny, Mabel and Nota simply adored him, and he was as soothing to them as Ovaltine.
I picked up Aunt Mabel and brought her out early, to visit with Margaret. I offered to pick up Aunt Nota in Oakland, but she would have nothing of it and preferred to take the bus and streetcar. She even climbed Westgate Hill from the streetcar stop, "faster than a picnic mare," as she phrased it.
I had a big fire in the fireplace and served wine and dip and crackers and chips, and the conversations began. These three grand ladies, who were born in l880 in Seligman, Missouri, who grew up together, who went to the same schools, and who married within a year of each other, had simply a divine evening of wonderful sharing, their first evening together in forty-two years.
They quickly recreated a series of acts and scenes depicting life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth Centuries. They told story after story about families, friends, local characters, fellow students, teachers, the arrival of the railroad in their small town, happenings at the old Wasson Store in Seligman and the old Windes Store in Washburn, trips to St. Louis and Kansas City, parties and church and school events, carnivals and reunions.
Their stories of small town life and the difficulties and joys in moving from that life to big city life were enjoyed by everyone. It was certainly my last opportunity to listen to people raised in the nineteenth century compare life then with the l960s. They were to do a repeat performance Thanksgiving afternoon. And if I had only been able to record those hours of conversation, I would have a book that would fascinate nearly every reader. Tant pis!
But let me return to that Thanksgiving, l960. On that day all of Margaret's relatives converged on the Seagrave's home in Pleasant Hill for one last historic description of the culture of nineteenth century America and the Great San Francisco Earthquake.
Twenty eight relatives were there, including Margaret, Aunt Nota and Aunt Mabel; Phil and Marilyn Rich of Redwood City and children (He was an engineer for Lockheed); Charles and Lessie Baldwin from Berkeley, with their two very handsome children (Charles taught at UC Berkeley.); Maud Ivy Hobson and her teenager, Sonny. (Maud was a widow who worked at the very nice restaurant on O'Farrell where she had met Tony Musni. She was a family member by her first marriage. Sonny was actually her grandchild who came to live with her when his mother abandoned him.); Mabel's older daughter, Franny, who came with her husband, Joe Markham, and their children. Joe was a reporter for the Chronicle. Fran brought several scrapbooks of memories of Richard Nixon, Bill Knowland, and Goodwin Knight; she had known and loved them all and wanted us to do the same. Staunch Democrats Mabel, Nota and Margaret paid as little attention as possible.
The Thanksgiving feast was indeed bountiful, and after the mid-afternoon dinner, the three ladies of our touring company continued their journeys into the past for the enjoyment and edification of the collected family. We listened for more than two hours to this trio, after which Mabel entertained everyone with half an hour of "silent movie" music, followed by half an hour of her favorite tunes from the "talkies."
She accompanied her own music with narration and occasionally asked the group to sing along, which we did. Mabel was surprisingly up to date and included "You've Got To Have Heart," (from Damn Yankees) and "Just in Time," and "The Party's Over" (from The Bells Are Ringing).
Sometime while desert and coffee were being served, Cousin Don and his father, Lloyd, got into an unfortunate fight and Don went to his room in tears. When I could get away I joined him, and we talked for awhile about the problems. He asked me if he could come back to San Francisco to Westgate with Granny Margaret and me, and I said of course he could if his mother didn't mind. JoEm thought it a very good idea, and Don packed a few items for the weekend. About eight that evening the party ended, and I assembled my group for the trip back, which included taking Aunt Nota to Oakland, Maud and Sonny to their apartment on Van Ness, Mabel to her place on Haight, and Margaret and Don back to Westgate.
The day had been a rousing success and one of my most memorable Thanksgivings. Again, I regret very much that we were on that occasion without a video-camera and a voice recorder. What a shame that all those memories were not frozen in time.
As beautiful as this l966 holiday season was, there was within me a deep sorrow. Granny Margaret, who was eighty-six, and who had suffered a stroke in November, died on December 8th at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City.
She and her four sisters had lived into their eighties and all had died within four years of each other. Granny was my great heroine, loving and kind, brave, generous, and honest with herself and her world. She was a Protestant who believed in Love, Compassion and Justice, not hatred, and never tried to impose her beliefs on others. In one of her last letters to me she admitted that the earth was not all that better a place in her eighty-seventh year than it had been in her twentieth one when she married Harry R. Windes:
"All the senseless pain we have inflicted on each other during my years here I can never understand or justify or forgive. I would like to believe that during the next eight-six years people will learn to love each other, for that's what my religion has always taught--Love Ye One Another! But I just don't see religion and human nature agreeing on the same goals, which is what they would have to do and what they should do. So, I guess I am a pessimist, but it makes me blue to say so. For years, during Roosevelt, I had some hope that we could all care for each other. But the Great War II ended all that. I don't know why so many people are so mean. It's not the world I would have create had I been given the power to create. And it seems to me it's just going to keep on getting meaner and meaner. Who cares anymore about love and taking care of others. Even the churches don't."
I talked to the family about Granny, and I read the above excerpt from her letter. I poured everyone a glass of white wine, turned down a glass for Granny, and quoted from old Khayyam: "One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies; The Flower that once has blown forever dies. And when Thyself with shining Foot shall pass among the Guests Star-scattered on the Grass. And in thy joyous Errand reach the Spot where I made one--turn down for me an empty glass."
We'll never forget you, Margaret, nor your bravery!