Sunday, September 10, 2017

Discovering Grandparents and Remembering Them on Grandparents Day 2017 (september 10, 2017)

National Grandparents Day is a secular holiday that has been celebrated in the United States and the United Kingdom since 1978. It is scheduled in the U.S. for the first Sunday after Labor Day in the month of September and it is proclaimed annually by the President of the United States.  In 2017, National Grandparents Day is today!

The establishment of Grandparents Day was an act of determination and persistence by a woman from Oak Hill, West Virginia named Marian McQuade.  At the urging of Ms McQuade, Senator Jennings Randolph of West Virginia authored a resolution in the U.S. Senate to make grandparents Day a national holiday, but it died in committee. Ms McQuade would not let the defeat stop her and after the Governor of West Virginia proclaimed an annual Grandparents Day for his state, Marian and her supporters went on a campaign to get the governors and other elected officials in all fifty states to follow the lead of West Virginia and proclaim their own Grandparents Day.  By 1977 Ms McQuade and her supporters had obtained proclamations from forty-three of the fifty states.  She saw to it that Senator Randolph got a copy of each proclamation. The Senator then re-introduced his resolution with support from many of his colleagues and on August 3, 1978 President Jimmy Carter signed legislation forwarded from Congress to establish the first Sunday after Labor Day as National Grandparents Day. The stated purpose of the holiday is to "honor grandparents, to give grandparents an opportunity to show love for their children's children, and to help children become aware of the strength, information, and guidance older people can offer."  

In the spirit of honoring my grandparents today, I am adopting a prompt from Marian Wood's recent adaptation of Dianne Nolin's 2017 Grandparents Day Challenge. I too am going to remember my grandparents today by recounting some things I only learned about each of them from my genealogy research in the years since they passed away.

I am lucky to have known each of my grandparents. Being the eldest of my generation, I have actual first-hand memories of all of them that run deeper than a couple of my three siblings and my twelve first cousins. Indeed, since my paternal grandfather died when I was not quite six years old, five of my Tew cousins and my youngest brother were not even born when my Grandpa Tew died. My maternal grandfather died when I was three months shy of turning ten years old. Of my six Carpenter cousins, three were born after my Grandpa Everett died and one was only eight months old. Moreover, my youngest brother was only nine months old when our mother's father died.

Therefore, based on the above facts, it is safe to say that of my twelve first cousins and my three siblings, only my sister, the older of my two brothers, and two cousins (5 of 16 grandchildren when I am included) have any real memories of our common grandfathers; the others were either not born or under three years old when the common grandfather died. And it is due to my interest in family history and genealogy that certain facts about my grandparents are now known and accessible to me and to my siblings and first cousins. This has made it possible for all of us to come to know our grandparents in ways that go beyond any individual, first-hand memories that survive in the few of us lucky enough to have known our grandparents.

Ruth Eaton [Cooke] Carpenter circa 1926.
Ruth Eaton [Cooke] Carpenter, my "Grandma Ruth" was born on September 8, 1897.  Two days ago was the 120th anniversary of her birth in Attleboro, Massachusetts. She died in March 1979 in Woonsocket, Rhode Island at age 81when I was married and less than a month from turning 27 years old. I knew her well and visited with her at least annually almost my entire life. She was an expert gardener and knew by sight and call every bird species that inhabited her area of Rhode Island. She was Salutatorian of her high school graduating class and had a definite interest in family history leaving many notes and letters about her Cooke and Carpenter families. But in all the time I knew her, I never ever heard her mention any siblings other that her two older sisters, Helen and Lois (who I also knew). At least two decades after Grandma Ruth died, I discovered in the records at least two facts that were previously completely unknown to me.

First, my grandmother had three other siblings who died as young children; one brother named Russell, who was born four years before her, died at 13 months old of cholera infantum; a sister named Dorothy, born two years after her, died at age six of typhoid fever and purulent otitis media (severe ear infection) at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston; and another brother (also named Russell) was born in 1902 and died at 26 months of tuberculous meningitis. I later learned my grandmother always said if she ever had a son she would never name him Russell. Her only son was named David Otis Carpenter.

Second, my grandmother's mother died at age 34 almost exactly two months after her second son named Russell died. My grandmother was not yet 7 years old. In 1926, my great grandfather, Walter W. Cooke (my grandmother's father) remarried at age 56 a woman who was 38 years old. My grandmother was 29 years old and the next year my mother was born less than two weeks before my grandmother's new half-sister (technically my mother's aunt) was born to her father and his second wife.

Everett Shearman Carpenter
Everett Shearman Carpenter, my "Grandpa Everett" was born on February 22, 1891 in Albion, Rhode Island.  He died in Providence, Rhode Island on January 6, 1962 at age 70. He was Valedictorian of his high school graduating class and graduated from Brown University with a degree in engineering. There were at least two facts I learned about my grandfather from my genealogy endeavors as an adult.

First, my grandfather had an older sister, Ruth Ann Carpenter, who he was very close to and who married one of his Brown classmates, Ira Knight. Ruth Ann died of birthing complications at age 31 just twelve days after giving birth to her one and only child, Richard Carpenter Knight. I never heard my grandfather mention his sister and since she died before my mother was born, my mother never knew her.

Second, during World War I my grandfather enlisted in the Army and was posted at Watervliet Arsenal in upstate New York. He was at Watervliet in March - April 1918 and suffered what was called "the grippe." He was hospitalized as the 56th man out of 360 to succumb to the high fever and aching of the illness. On April 1, 1918 he wrote a postcard to his mother to explain the situation and assured her that he was again marked as fit for duty after a fever of 103, a "stomach out of order," and a nice rest. What he and his mother did not know is the he and most of the men at Watervliet were lucky ones who had just survived the first wave of what would prove to be the deadliest pandemic in world history (then and now). What was not recognized at the time, is that the 1918 so-called "Spanish Flu" arrived and spread in two distinct waves. The first wave took place in early spring of 1918 and it caused severe illness with high fevers, aches, and gastrointestinal distress. It was the second wave that began in August 1918 that became horrifically lethal and was capable of suddenly infecting and killing a young, healthy man or woman within 24 - 36 hours. Modern estimates are that the lethal 1918 influenza pandemic killed between 50 and 100 million people world-wide including about 675,000 in the United States.  My Grandpa Everett was one of the early survivors who subsequently developed some degree of protection against the lethal second wave of the disease that arrived just a few months later.

Arnold George Tew, Sr.
Arnold G. Tew, Sr., my Grandpa Tew, was born on October 15, 1896 in Central Falls, Rhode Island. He attended Phillips Andover prep school and studied at the University of Virginia before transferring to and graduating from Dartmouth College with a degree in chemistry. He died suddenly on February 28, 1958 while on a business trip in Berlin, Connecticut.

There are at least two facts I learned about my grandfather from my adult genealogy pursuits.

First, and very similar to my maternal grandparents, I learned from my genealogy research as an adult that my Grandpa Tew was one of five children -- four boys and one girl. He and his older sister Edna were the only children to survive beyond two years of age. Edna was eleven years older than my grandfather and in effect was like a second mother to him when their father was hit by a train and died in 1903 when she was 19 years old and my grandfather was only 6 years old. I never heard my grandfather or my Grand Aunt Edna ever refer to their deceased siblings Charlie, Henry, and John. Their deaths were in the era before the so-called "miracle drugs," the antibiotics that made so many childhood diseases and other infections survivable.

Second, I knew as a child that my Grandpa Tew was lame because I never saw him without a cane to assist him with walking. When I was a teenager and young adult I was told by my father that his father's lameness was caused by a knee injury suffered during sports when he was in prep school. The  truth turned out to be that he had a knee malformation that was congenital.

From the time he was a young teenager at Phillips Academy, my grandfather was a prodigious writer. He often wrote several letters a day and expected prompt return correspondence.  He suffered disappointment and even resentment when he failed to receive mail and he commented on whether or not he got mail almost every day.  [I think he would have been an avid user of email, Twitter and social media had he lived in this technology rich age!] In addition to letter writing, my grandfather kept a Line-A-Day diary while he was at Phillips Andover and several years ago I was gifted his diaries. I read the the diaries meticulously and painstakingly transcribed all the entries. One striking aspect of his diary prior to June 1913, was the very sporadic and always casual references to his mother and older sister.  He was wrapped up in school activities, his social life, being a sports fan, and the rush to become an adult, so he showed little day-to-day time for or interest in his immediate family.

Beginning with his June 11, 1913 diary entry, my grandfather began referencing a Dr. Abbott in Portland, Maine who had agreed to see him for a consultation two weeks later. [The full story of my grandfather's solo trip to Portland for consultation and eventual surgery is provided in a post dated July 11, 2013; it can be read here.]  Through my grandfather's diary entries I learned the true nature of his disability and the very poignant and heart wrenching story of his lonely attempts to have his congenital knee defect corrected by painful surgery. His writing was also instructive and served as a reminder that teenage boys are teenage boys no matter what era they live in.  They are caught between the yearnings of and for manhood, yet they are still vulnerable to the loneliness and angst of immaturity.

One diary entry provided here will capture some of what my grandfather was enduring alone in a hospital in Portland, Maine in 1913 for what proved to be unsuccessful surgery .  .  .

July 6 :            Pain, torture & homesickness  Oh but I’m in awful suffering!  Can’t sleep, can’t sit down, can’t stand up!  It’s enough to drive me crazy!  I telephoned to mother to have her come up to-morrow or I’d leave here.  I’m all alone in pain!  I’m in Hellish agony!  I took some dope pills to quiet me, and finally they injected some cocaine in my arm.  Frank Hammond and Dick Richards came in for a few minutes in the evening to see me.  I am glad now I’ve undergone the operation but I would never do it again!  I sat out on the piazza for a few hours in the evening.

Huldah Antonia Hasselbaum
Huldah Antonia Hasselbaum, my Grandma Tew, was born in Providence, Rhode Island on July 16, 1898. She died on January 3, 1983 at age 84. She and her siblings were first generation American.  Both of their parents were from Germany and yet none of the children could speak German as it was forbidden in the house in order for the family to assimilate as soon as possible. My grandmother's father, Anton Hasselbaum (1857 - 1916) became as successful businessman in Providence, Rhode Island with a wholesale liquor business and bottling plant. He died before Prohibition passed and his business would have been devastated.

The most surprising fact I learned about my grandmother from my genealogy research involved her siblings. My grandmother had five siblings -- one brother and four sisters (including her twin sister Josephine). The eldest of the five daughters, Mary, married Dr. James E.F. Henry on September 19, 1910 and their one and only child, Dorothy Henry, was born almost exactly three years later on September 20, 1913. Mary died less than a year after Dorothy's birth. I never heard my grandmother refer to her older sister Mary or her niece Dorothy. I also never heard her refer to her sister Olga and I never met Olga (who died in 1970). While I heard my grandmother mention her only brother, Oscar (who died in 1974), I never met Oscar either. I only met my grandmother's twin sister once and I have no memory of her at all.

While all of the discovered facts about my grandparents could appear to be negative aspects of their lives, eventually knowing about them made my grandparents more human to me. It makes sense that grandparents would not discuss with grandchildren matters that caused them pain during their lives, but knowing that their lives involved hurt, disappointment, alienation, and loss made them less remote and fallible .  .  . and therefore more human and understandable from two generations away. I miss them all and wish I had known them all better when they were with us.
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All photographs are from the personal collection of the author.

The Grandparents Day word heart is from Valley Falls USD #338, Valley Falls, KS at

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Copyright 2017, John D. Tew
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  1. What a lovely post, John. Thanks for sharing these stories.

  2. John, what you learned about your grandparents' lives is quite moving and puts them into the context of the overall family and of history as they lived it. Thank you so much for this very touching post.

    1. Thank you again for being the one who prompted this approach to celebrating Grandparents Day and remembering my grandparents!

  3. Nice post, John. You put a lot of thought into this. I'm still wondering why I never heard of Grandparents Day ever before!

    1. Thank you for commenting Heather! I enjoyed writing this one.