These are my dad’s parents on their wedding day. April 19, 1919.
They were married in New Holstein, Wisconsin, at my grandma Mariele’s parents’ home. Isn’t her jacket the most gorgeous thing you’ve ever seen? The long row of buttons down the bottom, the roses in the lapel, and the jaunty hat all combine to make this a vintage outfit I would love wearing, even now.
My grandma was a nurse at Beloit Hospital during the Great Flu Epidemic in 1918. She had finally convinced her old-fashioned German father to let her go to town and become a nurse during the war effort. He had wanted her to stay nearby, marry and have babies, but the nation needed good nurses, so she was allowed to go.
Before the epidemic, there was a patient she was exceptionally fond of who had a heart condition, my great grandma Zora. Zora’s very attractive son used to come to visit her in the hospital. Mariele took notice. She sent him a valentine from a secret admirer, and he found out who sent it. They began dating, and the rest is history. Grandma Zora died in January of 1918, and they were married the next April.
My grandpa Ford looks like one of those tough guys in the old gangster movies. My husband calls these “Say, Fella” movies. Because the guys all talked like that back then.
My cousin Kurt told me a story about my grandpa once giving a guy an improvised tracheotomy with a pool cue at some pool hall in either Rockford or Beloit, and then taking it on the lam up to Canada when he thought he was a wanted man, but the family pooh poohs this story. He swore that my Uncle Bum (yes, that was his nickname…shut up!) told him this story and that grandpa had told it to him. Turns out he didn’t actually kill the guy, although he thought he had. When his mother was on her deathbed, his father summoned him back to Beloit, and he saw the guy around town, just probably moving a little slower.
I love old wedding pictures. You can see so much light in newlyweds’ eyes; it’s the happiest time in their lives– so much potential, so much hope for the future. This photograph sat on the stereo at my aunt Hope’s house for many years, and I would just sit and stare at it, fascinated by the couple in the picture. Was it any wonder I ended up writing a huge genealogy of this side of the family?
My grandparents began their married life in Beloit, living just down the street from Ford’s widowed father. They later moved to Chicago and its environs. So much hope for the future, and then the Depression hit. My grandfather lost his job and they ended up moving to Winnebago Avenue, which my father called “Cockroach Boulevard.” My aunt Hope always insisted they were poor, but they were happy.
My grandmother had nine children, of which my dad was number eight. He showed up smack in the middle of the worst of the Depression, in 1932, and my aunt Judy followed him two years later. My grandfather later got a job at International Harvester as a die sinker and he retired from there.
My grandma always had an innate sadness to her because she lost her daughter Joan (they pronounced it Jo-Ann) on April 19, her anniversary. From then on, it was never a day to celebrate, only to mourn. Two of her daughters came down with scarlet fever at the same time. My aunt Zora recovered. My aunt Joan was not as lucky. They had to go to a contagious disease hospital because grandma was pregnant with my aunt Loie at the time. But every day, she’d go to the hospital and keep vigil for her girls. The nurse said “Why do you come when you can’t see them?” “Because they’re my daughters!” Grandma would snap, unable to believe anyone else wouldn’t do the same.
I never got to meet my grandfather. He died six years before I was born. My grandmother died when I was five and a half, so I barely remember her. But I remember her old and frail, and wracked with the ravages of the diabetes she contracted during one of her many pregnancies. Not beautiful and hopeful as she looks here.
I want my genealogy to honor their memories, like so many others in our family. No one has ever paid tribute to this family before. My grandfathers, uncles, and other relations were almost all farmers or menial laborers. We were poor, but we were proud. We were Smiths.