Sunday, April 1, 2012

Carnival of Genealogy, #116: Picture and Memories of Elizabeth Foss McPherson

Elizabeth Alfreda McPherson nee Foss
circa 1918, Crow Wing Lake, MN

Thank you, Jasia, for the topic of a Picture/Story for Women's History Month, 16th Carnival of Genealogy topic. When I started this project, nearly a month ago, I thought that this would be a SNAP.  I knew that I was going to use the picture of my Grandmother McPherson, and I had a fair amount of information about Elizabeth Alfreda McPherson, nee Foss. After nearly three weeks of struggling with pages of facts, sometimes repeat pages with the same fact, I still have not gotten to the heart and soul of the story about this grandmother of mine. So now I am going to talk from my heart and soul and perhaps reach a connection with Elizabeth Alfreda.

I think I would have like a more personal time with my grandmother. Unfortunately, my earliest memories of her centered around driving from Klamath Falls to Anderson, California, for Christmas dinner. The trip was arduous with about 150 miles of curves that snaked down through the canyons roads that left the towns of Weed and Dunsmuir in the rear view mirror as we climbed out of the canyon to Redding and finally to the little town of Anderson. These weren't great trips; leaving our Christmas tree and all the presents for a two hour drive with periodic stops with my sister or I throwing up along side the road.

When we finally arrived, my cousins and I were in a world of play, far from the grownups. My grandmother, while I am sure she loved us grandchildren, her joy was heaped on her adult children --- there were ten of them, all independent, energetic, and boisterous. She would cook and bake and hover over them. Their family was a card playing bunch, but she seemed to live for the meal times when the cards were put away, the table set and she could minister to her children.

By the time I was eleven or twelve, my Klamath county cousins and I would spend spring vacations in Anderson with my grandparents. However, the memories of those days center mostly around my California cousin and his friends. Another memory I have of her is a visit I made to see her when I graduated from high school. I drove my car down to Lake Shasta where all of my senior classmates were all to meet, but I decided instead to visit grandma and grandpa in Central Valley, which was on the way to Shasta Lake. I don't remember very much about that visit, except that it seemed important that I make the visit. I never saw her again; she was dead six weeks later. Some say she never recovered from my father's tragic death two years before.

Somehow, I want to reconcile this image of the aged grandmother of my childhood, with the vibrant 36 year-old woman in the above picture. At this time this picture was taken she had been married for over twenty years, and had born nine, and possibly 10 children, with three more to be born in the next seven years.

She had been ill a few years before with some mysterious malady that left her paralyzed for "13 months." Some said it was polio, but there was not, to my knowledge, any after-effects that usually follow that disease. At the time of her illness, she and her family lived in northern Minnesota. Her husband Jabez, bundled her up in an overstuffed chair, loaded her and five of their then six children (a newborn baby was left with her mother-in-law) onto a train and headed for a hospital, which was most likely in Madison, Wisconsin where her parents lived. During this illness, she also gave birth to my father, as well as losing a daughter to pneumonia. According to family stories, the doctors told her that she would never walk again, at which point her husband took her home to start his own process of rehabilitation. He insisted that she eat dinner at the table, even if she had to be hand-fed; for months, he walked her back and forth the length of the room with him holding the broomstick and walking backwards, she grasping the broomstick and struggling to move her legs forward. And walk she did. They returned to northern Minnesota where they lived on farms around Crow Lake; she had four more children while living near Crow Lake, which brought the total number of living children to nine. She seemed to have a fairly close relationship with AxieAxie Root, an Indian midwife who was brought to attend to her during birth of at least three of her children. In fact, the birth certificate for one of the daughters showed the child's given name as Axie (which evidently was later changed or "corrected."

From the letters of my Uncle Ralph, who was her oldest son, I have images of an energetic, hard-working woman who cleaned, cooked, canned and cared for her family; images of her harnessing the team of horses in the middle of night, in a snowy, cold Minnesota winter, to drive to the train-stop in the middle of no-where to pick up her husband, who periodically had to take jobs away from home to make ends meet. She would brave the snowy Minnesota weather to board the train to travel to Wisconsin to tend to her ill mother. Her children seemed to be in agreement that she would do anything for her family. Often I have heard her younger daughters call her a "saint." though I never understood what them meant, other than she lived for them.

Another facet of her life that I have come to appreciate is how close she and my grandfather were. From the time she was a new bride, she would travel across state after state with him. Some women would follow their husbands, but complain about their husbands and what they left behind. Somehow, my grandmother seemed to take it all with her, from Wisconsin, to Iowa, and back, on to Minnesota, then to California and back, three times no less, and finally traversing several times the length of California to southern Oregon and points in between. I have called my grandparents "wanderers." Although that term may not do justice to them, the two of them were always together.

When I started this piece about Elizabeth Alfreda McPherson, I was searching for her, for her story, for all that I missed not really knowing her when I was a child. Even now, the picture of her in my mind tends to clear, then cloud up with the unknown, but I feel closer to this grandmother of mine than ever before. I can feel her love of her family and her Jabez, and theirs for her, that carried her through the more than fifty years and thousands of miles --- and that is enough for me.

~ ~ ~

© Joan Hill, Roots'n'Leaves Publications


  1. What a remarkable woman. Thanks for sharing her.

    1. Carol, as always, I appreciate the reading and comments, especially so on this COG --- I just dinna know where I was going with this story --- the mist was heavy around me with little clarity.

  2. I think you cleared the mist to bring us a fascinating story of a brave woman. I had a glimpse of your own pain, losing your father, visiting your grandmother then losing her. This was the story of a devoted couple and their love. perhaps her illness left her with a need to tend her children whatever their age. Great story!

  3. Pauleen, glad you enjoyed the story of Elizabeth. It was a hard story to write. I knew her when I was growing up, and yet I dinna know her at all. I am so grateful that my Uncle Ralph was such a great letter-writer and helped to give her greater depth than my puny childhood memories.

  4. I have lots of thoughts after reading this post, Joan. It is so touching and well-written. Your words lead me through your struggle to come to terms with your memory of your grandmother and others' knowledge of her.

    Your Elizabeth sounds like a woman who was very devoted to her family and especially to her husband. She sounds like a strong, adventurous woman, willing to sacrifice a lot for her family. And those moves! Wow.

    I think children who aren't able to spend time close to their grandparents miss out on a lot. It's possible that as a grandmother, as a woman living physically distant from her grandchildren, she wasn't quite able to bridge the time, distance, and years to make a connection and have a personal relationship with each of them. Plus, having a large group of boisterous children at her home all at the same time when she was older probably didn't foster an environment for individual attention to each one. Not to mention that kids will be kids and like to play together. I'm sorry you missed out on not getting to know her better.

    About the polio: though she may not have had the usual/typical after-effects, it is possible that she did, indeed, have polio. I had a teacher many years ago who appeared completely normal and yet had survived the disease.

    A wonderful post, Joan.

  5. Nancy, thanks for the very thoughtful comments. Sometimes, it seems that I have to see my words through the eyes of others before they make sense to me. Your comments reminded me that although she had 10 children, she only had 10 grandchildren of which only one lived in close proximity to her --- and the largest families were those of my dad (with 4 children) and an uncle(with 3 children). I was thinking about that the other nite, and it struck me as odd. Thanks again for the thoughtful comments.

  6. What an amazing woman! Great Post!!