Okay, I lied. I lured you in with promises of witty stories, and this one is certainly unlikely to even bring a smile to your face. But even happy books may have a sad chapter. This is one, and you have to know all of this to appreciate everything that will come after.
When my mother, Ezra Mae Wild nee Gaul, was born in Louisville, on February 6, 1913, her family lived in a shotgun-style house at 1106 Lydia, in the area known as Germantown (appropriate, since our genealogy quest found that many ancestors came here from Germany). Mother and I, and my husband and daughter, went to Louisville in 2007 and took this picture of the house as it appeared 90 years later:
This shotgun-style house was on a neat street in Germantown. The first room was a formal parlor with horsehair-upholstered Victorian furniture and a player piano. My grandfather, George Gaul, liked to relax on the settee while my mother pumped the player piano. Behind the parlor was a dining room which contained a large sideboard displaying a collection of cut glass. The kitchen was beyond the dining room. It had a pot-bellied stove for cooking and for heating the water used for bathing, which was drawn from a cistern. The house lacked indoor plumbing, and the family used a two-seater outhouse in the back yard. Baths were taken in a washtub in the kitchen. The parents had a bedroom, and my mother and her sister, Evelyn, and their grandmother, Josie, slept in what was used during the daytime as a sewing room. The Gauls were happy in their nice little home.
One late June evening in 1918, when Mother was not even six years old and her father was only 42, he died of a heart attack in this house. Ninety years later she remembered it with clarity: She and Evelyn were playing outside, “in the light of a streetlamp.” (It hurts me to realize that she remembered that detail. She must have felt that the light went out of her life that night.) Their mother, whose name was Easter but who was affectionately known as Eassie, ran from the house, screaming. The coroner came and laid George out on a scissors-style casket stand there in the Victorian parlor; Ezra Mae crawled through the supports and sat cross-legged under her father’s body. Two days later they had services there in the Lydia Street house at 2:00, and then proceeded to Rivers Memorial Church for a funeral at 2:30.
Two years later, Easter married Ben Miller, a man Ezra Mae and Evelyn had never met until the day her mother introduced him as her husband. Understandably, the girls were not happy with this man who was intended to take their father’s place, and they let that be known. They were “mean” to him, she said, refusing his offer of a quarter for a kiss.
That relationship really never had time to develop: Nine months after the wedding, in September of 1921, Easter died of what the death certificate termed “pseudoleukemia.” In other words, she had some of the symptoms of leukemia (her severe nosebleeds and weakness being two) but did not actually have the characteristic changes in the blood cells. One cannot help but wonder what a modern diagnosis or prognosis would be. Unlike George’s death, Easter’s was not sudden, and the two little girls were aware of her sickness; Evelyn said she had to stay home from school a lot to take care of her mother. Like George, however, Easter was taken from the world at a young age – she was 43.
Ben disappeared, driving away in a wagon with a table and Easter’s portrait and, presumably, the five dollars she left him in her Will. Easter’s Will, written one week before her death, was also very specific in its directions regarding her daughters: The house on Lydia was to be rented or sold; Josie was to be the children’s guardian and receive $40 per month from these funds for their expenses until the age of 21. She wanted Evelyn and Ezra Mae to have the personal property she and George had worked for and acquired, going so far as to name these items:
one wooden bedstead, three mattresses, ten bed blankets, sheets and quilts, four feather pillows, one feather bolster, one White sewing machine, one dresser, one washstand, eight straight chairs, three rocking chairs, one parlor set of three pieces namely one settee and two chairs, one gas cook stove, one coal heating stove, one set of silver knives and forks, one set of assorted dishes, two rugs 9 ft by 12 ft., ten pairs of lace curtains, seven window shades, one player piano and all my wearing apparel.
Shortly after the parents’ deaths, others in the family made a decision that I have never been able to understand, even though I know that in the early decades of the twentieth century there were a lot of orphans in the country. In 1900 there were close to 1,000 orphanages in the U.S., housing 100,000 children; in post-WWI years, those populations swelled. The house on Lydia and everything in it was sold — only three photographs and one wedding ring were spared — and my mother and her sister were put in the Methodist Orphan’s Home on Fifth Street in Louisville.
Until they graduated from high school, Ezra Mae and Evelyn lived in “the Home,” as they referred to it for the rest of their lives, and it was not so sweet.
Mother’s memories and Evelyn’s journal left lots of tales for me to tell — even some light-hearted stories that might truly be jest among us.