Saturday, May 21, 2011


     My paternal grandmother was Nelle.  Nelle Madeleine Winans Clark, to be exact.  She was born on May 18, 1897 in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.  When Grama was born, there were no airplanes, no cars (except for interesting experiments), no rockets, no radios, no televisions, no computers.  Electric lights were still somewhat of a novelty, as was the telephone.
     Her father was a brick layer, who didn't have much work in the winter, and as there were 11 children in the family, there wasn't much money to go around.  They ate a lot of potatoes, which Grama always said was the reason she was a bit heavy.  Too much starch, she said. 
     When she graduated from high school in 1915, she went to the Normal School at Valparaiso, Indiana, to learn to be a teacher.  She taught for a year or two, and then found that being a secretary brought in more money.  Strange how some things never change...
     She met a young man named Loris with a devilish smile and a tall pompadour and they fell in love.  He took pictures of her and pasted them to a notebook, which he kept all his life in his World War I army foot locker.  They were married in October of 1923, and in that same foot locker is a kewpie doll with a bridal outfit that stood on the cake.  On their invitation it says that they would be "at home" to visitors by December, in Dayton, Ohio.
     It wasn't an easy life they had.  My grandfather had left school in the 10th grade to help his family survive.  He was a genius at "tinkering" - could build and rebuild engines and had a knack for industrial design, but he had no formal education.  He worked numerous jobs, trying to find something that fit his unique talents. Once he started his own business, only to have his partner vanish with the proceeds.  Nelle got a job at Wright Field, in the steno pool and he got a job in the fledgling air conditioning business.
     They wanted children, but the years passed by so did the stork.  Eventually, a doctor told her she would never be able to have a child, so she threw herself into her work.  She started at the bottom of the steno pool at Wright Field in 1924 making $960 a year.  The years went by.  They wanted to build a house, but by then the Depression was in full swing, and they knew it would be a challenge.   And then - a miracle happened.  At 37 years old, she was pregnant.  My father was born on July 3, 1935. 
     Despite her dream coming true, Nelle still had to work, because Loris was still struggling to find a full time job.  She had worked her way up to Senior Clerk (CAF-5, making $2000 a year).  Then my grandfather was offered a wonderful job in Silver Springs, Maryland.  Even though it meant losing her place at Wright Field, they made the move to Maryland.  Four months later, the job disappeared.
     Nelle started back at her old job, Jr Clerk/Steno 2 on Sept. 13, 1938.  Loris found a job at Master Electric at the very bottom of the business, pushing a broom, doing odd jobs, sorting and filing.  But they were the generation that bred the men and women who would fight WW II a few years later, and they did not give up easily.  By 1945, when she was finally able to quit and stay home to raise my dad and be a housewife, she had worked herself all the way up to Administrative Assistant, making $2900 a year.  Loris had worked his way up to a full fledged position, dreaming up new ideas and getting patents on them.
     This was the last generation that could do this.  This was the American Dream in the late 1800's and early 1900's - the self-made man and woman who started with nothing and ended up with a house, a garage, a family, and a roast in the pot every Sunday.  Nickle paperbacks told the stories a hundred different ways and kids believed, truly believed, that you could become whatever you wanted with hard work and a good attitude.  Magazine articles, sermons from the pulpit, stories in schoolbooks - all told the tale.
     Nelle passed away in 1970.  The upheavals of the 60's had already swept away that bright and shining generation and replaced it with anger, sarcasm, cynicism, and greed.  While I'm not sorry that discrimination against women and people of color also fell by the wayside, I do feel like we're holding a collective bathtub and wondering where the heck the baby went.  Where did the good stuff go? 
     GIGO.  It's a computer term.  It means "garbage in, garbage out".  An easy concept to grasp - shovel garbage intoanything - a machine, a computer, your soul, and garbage will spew back out.  However, I think it could also mean "good in, good out".  Read those writers who have good, uplifting things to say, and your world will come out uplifted.  Magazines in Nelle's era were full of articles that taught a clean and steady way of being, and a clean and steady world existed. 
     People ask me why I live surrounded by things from the past.  The answer is - they make me feel good.  They evoke that era gone by, and help me to be better at living up to Nelle's world.  I hope when I see her again someday, she'll be proud of me.
Grandpa Loris wrote "A Flower Among the Flowers"  ca. 1921

Loris mustering out in 1920.  The war ended before he could get "over there".

Donovan Lee Clark, my dad, about 18 mos.

1139 Oakdale Dr., Dayton, Ohio, around 1940.  My very best memories of childhood are from times in this house.

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