Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Nama, my independent spirit.

(Warning: Long. She was quite a character and I loved her. I promise future COG posts will be shorter.)
Having been in Santa Monica this last weekend, I have to write about Nama, my great-grandmother for my first Carnival of Genealogy post. Viola Schwendiman Romney Talbot Thomas (1901-1997) is my mother's mother's mother. She definitely fits the independent spirit theme. And I have alot of her in me.

L to R Grandma (Eila), Me (in yellow), Nama (Viola) and Mom (Pat.)

Viola grew up a daughter of Swiss immigrants in Teton and Sugar City, Idaho. The Schwendimans settled in Teton because the mountains reminded them of home. She was the only daughter in the middle of four boys and all six members of the family spoiled the little redhead with big blue eyes--even her younger brothers. Her father went into the hardware business and did extremely well. She said she never washed out a pair of hose because she would just go to the store and charge another pair. Anything she needed or wanted, dresses, candy, etc., she just charged at the store.

Her family had the first car in Sugar City--a Dixie Flyer. After her dad barely managed to drive it home from Pocatello it was the talk of the town for a long time. When they arrived in Sugar City, her parents came to the schoolhouse, parked outside and honked the horn. When the teacher saw her parents, Viola was allowed to leave school early and go for a ride. Later, at age thirteen, her father decided she should learn to drive the car. They had to put pillows behind her so she could reach the pedals. After a little practice, her Uncle needed a drive downtown and father volunteered Viola. She couldn't make the brakes work because they were stiff and she was so little, so she ended up running right through the front window of the drugstore. Dad must not have been too mad because he bought her a car of her own when she was only 14.

After High School Graduation in 1919, she went to Ricks College in Rexburg Idaho. She had lots of boyfriends, at home and at school. She became good friends with the College President's son, Marion G. Romney. When Marion's cousin showed up from Los Angeles to go to school, every girl on campus was a twitter about the new football star. But Douglas Romney (uncle to Mitt) fell madly in love with Viola and wouldn't let her see any of her old boyfriends anymore. She thought he was wonderful too but didn't understand why she couldn't be with her friends. When Doug disappeared to Logan Utah, leaving a note that he couldn't stay at school when the girl who he loved wasn't interested in him, she talked him into coming back and they both tried to be more understanding of each other.

Douglas Romney and Viola Schwendiman were married June 9th 1920 after Viola turned down three other diamond rings. She made her friend stay with her in the hotel room on their wedding night because she was too scared to stay with Doug. But they worked everything out and they had a blissful life even though they were very poor. After my grandmother Eila was born, a business partner absconded with the Romney family's business in Idaho and so the whole family packed up and moved to Salt Lake City. There, Doug and Viola built two Rootbeer stands which they sold when Viola's second child Douglas arrived. They used the money to pay off their home and buy a new car.

But tragedy struck when Doug's appendix burst on a business trip to Denver. Viola flew to his side, but only ended up bringing his body back home after he died. At that point Viola's world fell apart. She enrolled in Business College, and fought the family to keep her children--something a woman didn't do in the 20's. A friend moved his whole family to Utah to come take care of her and wanted to divorce his wife and marry her and wouldn't leave her alone. Then one day after school she returned to her apartment to find everything gone, her Step-Mother-In-Law had had everything put in storage and was commandeering her children. So when a friend set her up with Gifford Talbot who was visiting from California, she really needed the relaxation. After dating three weeks, he wouldn't return to California without her, and seeing how wonderful he was with her children, she married him. They called her family to let them know on the train ride back to California. When they met Gifford later they adored him. He took incredible care of Viola's children.
Gifford went to work for the Bus industry in California. At the time, buses were a major form of transportation, with sleeping arrangements and food served, etc. Viola wanted to help support her children so she ended up doing the books and banking for several Greyhound Bus depots. After Gifford died on 8 Feb 1946, Greyhound put her in charge of their Bus Depot in Santa Monica, California. They did lots of business there in the 50's with Hollywood tours and Airline tickets. She worked 18 hour days, 7 days a week and the business grew quickly. When they needed more space, Viola gathered her savings and sold her car and furniture and bought a 50 foot lot on 5th street, three blocks up from the Santa Monica Pier. She pestered the bank until they would loan her enough money to build a building--again something a woman couldn't do. Gradually, over the years, she bought more land and another depot, and built office buildings and etc. She ended up living in Mandeville Canyon with neighbors like Danny Kaye and Esther Williams.

I only knew Viola as Nama, everyone I knew called her that. Apparently my mother gave her that name as a toddler. She taught my mother to make a wish, lick her thumb and stamp her hand with it every time she saw a white pony. And she was always taking her grandchildren to drive in restaurants just like on Happy Days--roller skates and trays on the window. On their drives down the coast she always asked Eila in piglatin whether they could stop and get an ice cream cone.

In 1959, Ralph Thomas, the Vice President of Greyhound convinced Viola that he should become her third husband so he could take care of her and she wouldn't have to work so hard. They ran away to Acapulco and were married there. She traveled with him all over North America for work, working on her Santa Monica books in the back of the limo. They finally settled in Palm Springs, and enjoyed the Hollywood scene there. "Tommy" was president of the Palm Springs Shriners club and they traveled all over the world, throwing lavish parties, dining out with Debbie Reynolds and etc.

Nama didn't particularly like it when I came along. She absolutely did not like to be old enough to be a Great-Grandmother. Then I even made her a Great-Great Grandmother before she died. When younger, she always tried to pass herself off as Eila's sister when they went out. When her grandchildren came along, she would go out with them as their mother--not Nama. And when the Driver's License bureau mistook her 1 for a 7 in her birthdate, she left it at 1907 the rest of her life, even though it should have been 1901. That worked to her disadvantage in the end, because when she had her last heart attack, the hospital revived her and she lived a couple more weeks. They said they wouldn't have revived her if they had known she was 96 and not 90. My mother and I had been in California with her when she died and after making arrangements for a few days, headed home on the plane. Nama's body was scheduled to be brought to Salt Lake the next day to be buried next to her beloved Douglas. When the plane touched the ground, I turned to my mother and said, "It feels like Nama is home." She said she felt the same thing. Later we found out that her body had actually been on the same plane with us.

As you read the history she wrote, you can tell that she was dramatic and I think that some of the stories may be suspect. She remembered her life the same as she lived it--with a passion. But then, she created her life dramatically. So maybe it was actually as exciting as she described it. Maybe that is why she loved the Hollywood scene so much.

1 comment:

Janet Iles said...

Welcome to the genealogy carnivals. It is great to learn about our people's families.

Your Nama sounds wonderful and exciting and had many different experiences during her long life.

Thanks for sharing her story and the photos.