What I learned about my family from reading the newspaper

The Westerly Library just finished digitizing nearly sixty years of The Westerly Sun, my hometown paper, so far from 1893 to 1950, a few years before I was born. There’s a lot there for me, since both sides of my family have fairly long roots in the area.

My maternal grandmother’s family moved to Potter Hill, a little north of Westerly, in 1904, a fact I learned from finding my great-grandmother Carrie Spry’s obituary in the Sun archives, and my father’s family moved to Westerly from Springfield, Massachusetts in the late 1920s. There is a rich lode of material on both sides of my family now available online, not because they were particularly notable or public people — one set of grandparents was a postman and a housekeeper, the other a pharmacist and a homemaker — but because a small-town newspaper is a bit like a community bulletin board. It seems that every school performance one of my parents took part in is chronicled there, not to mention every time my grandmother or one of my aunts went back to Springfield or Chicopee for a few days to visit family. It’s a particularly fun rabbit hole to go down. I shared the link to the archives — here it is — with my cousins, and they’ve had some fun with it too. My cousin Steve even found out that his mother, my Aunt Martha, was making $520 a year (ten dollars a week!) as a secretary to the Town Clerk in 1949.

I’ve learned a lot from the archives. Carrie Spry — who only lived to be 48, according to her obit — ran a sewing circle in 1912:

And taught an apparently quite popular dance class in 1915:

In general, I get the impression — news to me, since my mother never knew her own grandmother and rarely talked about her grandfather — that the Sprys’ home was quite the destination in little Potter Hill:

Makes me want to learn more, and now I’m going to try to.

Sampson and Carrie’s daughter Winnie, my maternal grandmother — born Winifred Spry, then after marrying Otto Findeisen in 1915 at the age of 18, Winnie Findeisen, and by the time I knew her, Winnie Enterlin, having taken the name of a long-departed second husband — was in my memory a slightly portly, apron-wearing, pie-baking old woman (in her late fifties when I was born, so in fact some years younger than I am now) who was a cook and housekeeper for the pastor of Our Lady of Victory church in Ashaway, where she’d grown up, living in a room at the back of the rectory. She lived until she was 92 and I was 35, in her later years with one of my aunts and then in a nursing home with dementia.

Grandma Winnie seemed very old-fashioned to us, introducing us to sweet tea with milk when she babysat for us and a devotee of westerns and Marlin Perkins’ Wild Kingdom animal show. After she died, I came across some pictures of her as a teenager, one posing in a cornfield (probably taken at a county fair) with a come-hither look, and another in a baseball uniform leaning on a bat. You’re probably not supposed to think this about your grandmother, but she was kind of hot. In her teen and young adult years it seemed Winnie lived a complicated life. For some of my mother’s childhood she would mysteriously disappear for stretches of time.

From left to right, Winnie as Norman Rockwell Grandma, with my adorable sister in her arms; Winnie at the bat; Winnie in the cornfield

What I never knew much about was her youth. I was told that she left school early to work in the Ashaway Line and Twine mill, and that seemed to suggest to me a hardscrabble existence. But apparently, like (and mostly because of) her mother, she seemed to be pretty musical, which was nowhere in evidence in her grandmotherhood. Indeed her parents’ home seemed to be the venue for salons in a pre-radio, pre-TV era, pre-internet era where if you wanted to be entertained, you had to make it yourself. It’s a little hard to jibe that with going to work in a mill at 14, when she was singing duets with her sister Margaret at a Sunshine Club concert:

And as a soloist one Saturday night in 1906, when she was nine.

After childhood, Winnie doesn’t make many appearances in the Sun — once hosting a bridal shower for a friend, and in the summer of 1949, in a small item about a short vacation she and my mother took to Block Island:

I’m amazed to learn that my mother flew to Block Island. She hated airplane travel, but it seems she hated ferries more.

I heard a lot over the years from my mother about that trip, which must have loomed large to a young woman who’d never had vacations, and whose mother was not always around or very attentive when she was. But I always heard it was a high school graduation gift. According to the Sun, it took place a full year after my mother finished Stonington High School in 1948, the delay a small mystery.

Winnie and my mom, at left, with some people they met on Block Island, bluffs in the background, right.

My mother herself appears in the Sun archives rarely, and usually on a school roster of some kind. It seems when she was a small child she was in a fashion show, which may help explain why twenty-five years later she signed me up as a model for a few local children’s clothing stores, Jack and Jill and Tiny Town.

I expect to see more of her in the paper when they digitize the post-1950 archives, as she did some modeling herself as an adult, and threw herself into various parish committees and local clubs.

On my father’s side, a few complicated family dynamics to get out of the way. My dad, Phil LaMarche, was raised with his three younger siblings from the time he was six by his uncle and aunt, Paul and Bina. They’d moved to Westerly from Springfield in the late 1920’s for Paul to take a post as pharmacist for Vars Brothers. Paul and Bina had three older daughters, and when they took their nieces and nephews in, they doubled the size of their household in the middle of the great Depression. Paul’s brother — also Philip, as indeed I am, via my rarely used first name — had married Bina’s sister Alice in 1923, and they lived in Fall River, Massachusetts, where Philip was an optician (they were sons of a physician, my great-grandfather Georges Tancrede LaMarche). But Alice suffered a series of breakdowns in my father’s early childhood, and was committed in 1931 to the state mental hospital in Northampton, where she spent the next forty years. Philip, it seems, couldn’t cope with parenting four children under six by himself, so the kids went to live with Paul and Bina.

For some years Philip would visit his children in Westerly from time to time, but eventually he stopped coming, and as far as anyone knew, was never heard from again. I had no idea he or my real grandmother existed until I was in my mid-teens, after Paul (who we called Grandpa) had died. Sleuthing that my cousin Steve and I did about 25 years ago determined that back in Fall River he’d gotten a younger woman pregnant, and they put the child of that union in foster care until one day they picked her up and got on a bus to Los Angeles to start a new life, and he lived and worked there until he dropped dead one day on Wilshire Boulevard at the age of 78 in 1972. I know a lot more about my missing grandparents and my grandfather’s second family, but that’s a story for another time — maybe buttressed by the archives of the Los Angeles Times.)

From left to right, a visit to Westerly by the elder Philip, putting his thumbs in my Dad’s ears; Paul the photographer; and behind the counter at Vars.

I always had the impression from my father that he saw his father rarely after he moved in with his aunt and uncle, and that he disappeared soon after. But the Westerly Sun records a number of the senior Philip’s visits to Westerly, one as late as Christmas of 1940, when my father would have been 16.

The Sun sports page seems to have gone in for man-on-the-street interviews, and in one about the 1942 World Series, Paul predicts the Yankees will beat the Cardinals (the Cardinals won in five games):

and favors Louis in the Joe Louis/Bob Pastor heavyweight bout of 1939 (they went 11 rounds before Louis knocked out his opponent, so Paul is one for two in the predictions department):

I remember Grandpa Paul as an avid amateur photographer, and a number of his appearances in the Sun are about prizes he won through the local Camera Club:

My father always said his family moved a lot — whether to beat the rent collector or for more space for seven kids I’m not sure, but over the years he pointed out at least half a dozen houses to me where he and siblings and cousins lived. Not only does the Sun chronicle several of these moves:

And at least one classified ad has Paul looking for a larger space:

My father seems to have been a joiner in high school and regularly appears on event planning committees. Here he is the emcee, whatever that entailed, of Christmas Eve midnight mass:

And here he is on the committee for a Mardi Gras gala put on by the Fortnightly Club, whatever that is:

He was a pretty good basketball player, a gene that got lost in the generational transfer to my brother David and me:

My dad kept this photo of his playground baseball team on the wall, and so do I. He’s second from the right in the back row, next to his lifelong friend Chick Connors. My uncle Jerry is in the front row on the far left.

I was particularly intrigued by two items involving my Dad. In one, at the age of 12 he’s spending the weekend with friends in Providence:

I have no idea how he would have made friends in Providence or who they were. Even when I was a child in little Rhode Island, Providence — forty miles away — was a big trip made only on special occasions.

In the other, Dad and his cousin John Methe, visiting from Springfield, were robbed when Methe’s car was broken into on Atlantic Avenue in Misquamicut. My father would have been about 16 at the time. Methe lost a signet ring and my father ten bucks, which would have been a lot of money for him at the time.

Another mystery that may never be solved, since all of the people involved, like all of the people mentioned above (well, except my brother and sister and cousin Steve) are dead. One reason I am so drawn to these newspaper archives is that as far as I know none of my ancestors left much behind in their own hand. I have a few Christmas and birthday cards from my grandparents, and just a few short notes from my father — a postcard he sent from a business trip, a piece of notepaper accompanying a news clipping he thought I’d like to see. Those no longer with us live a bit in these newspaper pages, even if they reveal little of themselves and raise more questions than they answer. And for that I am grateful.