Sex, Lies, and a Great Deal of Agitation in the Family Tree

Posted in Family Stories

Young people always believe that they have invented love, romance and sex.  Yes, well, their parents must have had sex once or twice in order to conceive them, but after that, ick!, it is awful to contemplate.    But love and romance, and all the attendant emotions, both good and bad, have been rampant in every generation, including the lives of your ancestors.   I have often thought that if I were ever going to write a romance novel, I’d start with the story of my Grandmother Glenn.

Claudia Johnson was born September 30, 1885, the youngest of six siblings. It was said she was spoiled, as youngest daughters often are. It may or may not have been true, but certainly she was high-strung, as the saying went in those days.  The family lived on a farm, not far from Dahlgren, Illinois, a small town in Hamilton County, Illinois.  She had a brother, Charles, and four sisters, Nancy, Della, Allie, and Lottie.  Nancy and Lottie married, but Della and Allie did not, and Claudia was determined that she would not be an old maid like them. She was tall and attractive and probably quite elegant in appearance.  Luck appeared to be with her when she became engaged to a promising young man from Dahlgren.  He aspired to be a doctor and took the train daily to Mt. Vernon, IL, to study medicine.  Whether it was the doctor with whom he was studying or someone he met on the train, a well-to-do man offered to help with his education and/or set him up in practice if he would consent to marry his daughter.  The offer must have been too good to resist.  The engagement was broken and Claudia was jilted.   She was devastated.  In a small town of less than 200 people, the prospects were limited.

There was one eligible widower, however, Charles H. Glenn, only four years older than her, with a young son. He was the proprietor, along with his half-brother, of the local dry goods store, certainly a good match for a girl from the country.  She marched herself into the store and made sure he noticed her and soon she was his bride.  The census of 1910 shows that their household included Charles, 28, Claudia, 24, Paul, the step-son, aged 8, Frank J. (my father) and Thelma, 6 months.  Three years later, another daughter, Mildred, was born.  She now had what she wanted, a successful husband, a nice house, three children of her own and a step-son that she loved.  She wasn’t too much for housework, according to her daughter Thelma.  Thelma remembered  that the children were often put on the lookout to watch for  their father returning from work in the late afternoon.  As soon as he was sighted, they had instructions to run in and set the table so that it looked like dinner preparations were at hand.

The first tragedy struck sometime around 1914.  Paul had been sent to a boarding school in Missouri.  Word came that he had died suddenly of illness (perhaps meningitis).  This was a blow to the family, but the other children were healthy and happy.  There were no more children, due to Claudia’s decision that she was not going to take a chance of being pregnant again.  There was a close bond between Charles and his son, my father Frank.  When I was growing up, my father often told the story of running away when he was a teenager.  He and a friend decided one summer that it would be fun to “ride the rails.”  They hopped a freight train looking for adventure.  The friend soon lost his courage and returned home, but my father kept going until, some weeks later, in Texas and out of money, he telegraphed his father, asking for money to come home.  The money was sent.  When he arrived home, his father came to pick him up at the train station.  “On the way home I waited for him to say something. I felt guilty and was ready for any punishment he wanted to give me,” he told us many years later, “but he never mentioned it, then or any time later.  I guess he figured I had learned my lesson.”

Claudia was happy with her life and her children.  Probably unknown to her, however, there was trouble in the marriage.  Maybe it was a result of her decision to leave the marital bed, or maybe it would have happened anyway, but Charles became involved with another woman.  The story goes that the woman eventually became disenchanted and moved away to St. Louis to put an end to the affair.  Charles, using the excuse of a buying trip to St. Louis, found her and went to her apartment, demanding that she open the door.  When she refused, he pounded on the door and made so much noise that the police were called and he was arrested.  Somehow, he managed to be released, probably on bail, and returned home.  By this time, Frank and Thelma were in college at Southern Illinois Normal School in Carbondale, IL (now known as Southern Illinois University.)  Thelma was engaged to Hubert Gibbs and the whole family was scheduled to attend Hubert’s graduation the next day after Charles’ return from St. Louis.   While they were in Carbondale at the graduation, the story of Charles’ arrest broke in the newspapers.  Claudia’s half-brother, also named Charles, arrived on the train to tell him he was in the news and the papers had reach Dahlgren.

Already distraught by the rejection of his mistress, embarrassed by the scandal and what it would do to his family, Charles somehow acquired some strychnine and swallowed it on the train ride home.  Strychnine is a terrible, lethal poison, usually fatal within two to three hours, but perhaps he did not take enough.  He was violently ill and the family took him to the hospital in Mt. Vernon as soon as the train arrived.  He lingered for several days before dying.  During that time he apologized to his family and assured them that they would be provided for.  The store was doing well and there was a life insurance policy.  Claudia was beside herself, with grief, embarrassment, fear of the future.  But it wasn’t over.  The family returned to Dahlgren.  When they went to the store they found it ransacked and unmanned.  Charles’ half brother and co-owner of the store had taken everything he could, including all the money, and had run off to Florida.  The business was destroyed.  At this point, it appears that Claudia collapsed.  Whether she had a nervous breakdown, or not, she was totally unable to cope.  My father, at age 19, had to take charge.  Then, to make matters worse, the insurance company refused to pay the death benefit, citing the suicide clause.  It was necessary to go to court to fight for the insurance and the children had to testify, their mother being unable to appear.  Eventually, they got a small settlement and were able to sell their house and pay off their debts.  Claudia was totally without a way to make a living, much less pay college expenses.  The solution they found was to buy a house in Carbondale where she could take in student boarders.  My father went back to school but had to work as a janitor to pay his way.

This wasn’t a romance novel where everyone lived happily ever after. This tragedy had a long lasting effect on everyone in the family.  Claudia, who had never been emotionally strong, now began to exhibit more signs of instability.  Today, she would have been diagnosed as bi-polar and would have easily been treated with medication.  Then, she was just disparaged as being either “too high” or “too low” emotionally.  Her mood swings were hard for her family to adjust to.  My father went from being a college student financially supported by his family to being the head of a wounded family and had to find a way to support himself and finish school while handling his mother’s affairs.  After his death, I found a packet of love letters he had written to my mother, who was his college girlfriend at the time.  In them, he offered to release her from any promises she had made to him, saying that he understood that she would not want to be associated with someone like him with such a scandal in his family.

Claudia maintained the rooming house in Carbondale for a number of years.  I remember going there as a little girl and playing in the back yard with my cousin, Barbara, Thelma and Hubert’s daughter.  There are snapshots of us in the back yard, showing a large two story house with a basement.  At some point, she sold the house and took a job at MacMurry College in Jacksonville, IL.  She probably found the job through her sister, Lottie and her husband, Joe, who lived in Jacksonville.  Later, she moved to The School for the Deaf, also in Jacksonville. Both jobs included room and board, a single room in a dormitory for workers.  I think she worked in the kitchen in both places, quite a comedown for the well-to-do wife who never liked to cook. She supplemented her income by sewing dolls and selling them.  The most popular were Raggedy Anne and Andy and monkey dolls made from socks.  I never see those dolls without thinking of her. Sometimes she came to visit us and stayed for a week or two at a time.  Eventually, she died in a nursing home in 1978.

My father never told me anything about his father’s death.  I found out from my Aunt Mildred when I was 15 years old.  I had my driver’s license and drove my little Nash Rambler around southern Illinois, burning up the roads.  One day, I went to Mt. Vernon and visited my Aunt Mildred.  In the course of our conversation, she dropped the bomb that my grandfather had committed suicide.  I was astounded.  She gave me no details and I raced home to confront my father.  Of course, I was 15 and everything was all about me.  It never occurred to me that it was an emotional subject for him.  As soon as he walked in, I laced into him.  “Why hadn’t he told me that his father had committed suicide?  I had a right to know about something like that in my family background, etc., etc, etc.”  For the first and only time in my life, except for a couple of gentle spankings when I was very little where he suffered more than I, he hit me.  He slapped me so hard that he knocked me into the refrigerator. That woke me up.  At that moment, I knew I deserved it.  For the first time it occurred to me that my father had feelings, too.  To this day, I can visualize every minute of that encounter.  I see every detail of that kitchen.  I know where I was standing and how he looked at me. I think it was day I began to grow up.

Years later, I found out the details of my grandmother’s life from my cousin Barbara.  Her mother, my Aunt Thelma, had not been so reticent in talking about her father’s suicide as my father had been.  Having reached an age where it was no longer difficult to think about sex and scandal in the lives of our parents and grandparents, we instead felt only sadness for our grandmother and the dreams she had realized and lost.