Monday, May 11, 2020

Viola Schwendiman Romney Talbot Thomas #ResilientRoots

Viola Schwendiman Romney Talbot Thomas (or Nama as we called her) is larger than life in my family history.  I've written about her here before.  Perhaps it is because she is straight up my matriarchal line, or perhaps it is because she had such a dramatic life, perhaps it is because she is the great-grandparent I knew the best or perhaps it is because she had many similar life experiences to mine, I feel very connected to her.  I've felt even more connected to her lately.  I've added the following photos to my desk last week, to help me feel her strength in this challenging pandemic time.  

Nama and her mother Ethel Schwendiman on the left, later in life.  The last pictures we have of Douglas with baby Doug and Eila on the two outside photos in the triptych. The only photos we have of Viola and Douglas together in the center of the triptych.  

I've been reading the history my mother wrote about Nama again with adult eyes.  Eyes who have been through alot more of life's messiness than the last time I approached her story.  I remember my mother interviewing Nama for this history on her porch when I was probably about 8 years old.  I was mesmerized with Nama's story telling and the amazing life she had.  But I never saw the depth of what she went through until recently. 

Last week, my mother and I took a little trip to see the houses where this part of my family history played out.  This house in particular was so moving to me. 

I don't know who lives there now, so I'm not going to record the address here, but it is in our family records.  It was here that Nama lived with two young children, Eila and baby Doug, when her husband Douglas left for a business trip to Colorado.  On that business trip, Douglas died of a burst appendix.  Nama was able to get to him in Colorado and say goodbye, but when she returned to this house, she was a widow at the young age of 26.  That event forever changed the course of our family.  Douglas was the great love of Nama's life, a faithful father and industrious community member.  He had saved $10,000 in a little canister in this house, and left Nama all of the information on his insurance and accounts when he died in the spring of 1928.  They had paid off the house and a car.  One would think this young widow was set, but Nama didn't know how to make it through the pain. 

Whittier Church, site of one of Douglas' funerals
Douglas had two funerals and the whole community mourned for a life cut short, a young widow and her two children who were not old enough to remember their father. 

Yale Church, site of one of Douglas' funerals
What I never noticed in her history, before now, was that when she came home, both her father and her father-in-law promptly borrowed $2000 each from this young widow to help with their own dire straits and never paid her back. She was unable to go back home and have her parent's help and her mother was a week away by letter. Her Mother-in-Law whom she had adored had died shortly before and Nama didn't get along with her new Step-Mother-in-Law. No one wanted her to go to work because mothers just didn't do that in those days.  And she had no support when she decided to go to business school.  She had a friend who helped with babysitting. But for the most part she was on her own as she navigated how to move on with life and especially the grief she had for her fatherless children.

When Gifford Talbot, her second husband came along, it seemed that he could help her get out of all the problems she was dealing with. Beyond all the other issues she faced, she also had the husband of one of her friends trying to marry her.  She said in her history that "I would have never married him in this world or the next, I don't think." But she married him after only knowing him for three weeks.  Her step mother-in-law fainted when she told her, and she only told her parents afterward.  He was good to her and her children and my grandmother adored her step-father.

Apartment building where Nama again heard the devastating
news that her second husband had unexpectedly died.
Gifford and Nama were planning to move to Phoenix in 1946.  Gifford went ahead and moved for work and bought a house in preparation for Nama to follow.  This time, the president and vice president of the company showed up on her doorstep to inform Nama that Gifford had unexpectedly passed away.  At age 44 she was instantly a widow again. 

My mother said that she remembers Nama always saying that she "needed a Miltown." Nama was always anxious that something else hard was coming her way and I really understand why.  When you go through something so shattering, out of your control and unexpected at a young age, it gives you an unsettling fear about what is coming around the corner.  I have a similar fear from similar circumstances but I'm working to deal with that in more constructive ways.  I also am thankful for more of a support system than Nama had.  She went on to have a happy life and worked through everything to be wildly successful in business.  I'm working on creating that strength too.

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