Maya Angelou said,
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
Margaret Agnes Kersten Whitehead or Marge as she was known had to be a very strong woman. Her husband of 24 years died in 1950. She still had two children in the home, Annette (age 15) and Larry (age 13) and one daughter who had already taken vows in service with the Catholic Church. She did have the support of her parents. However, they were aging. Her mother died in 1959, then her father the very next year. So, in the span of 10 years she lost some very important people in her life.
Meanwhile during those 10 years and until her death in 1967, she stood strong. We are now able to see this through some letters she sent to Chloe Whitehead, her sister-in-law. These letters are priceless because I am now able to learn a glimpse of her and my father and aunts.
One document that is more a sign of the times is document from the Probate Court of Cook County in regards to the two minors, Annette and Lawrence. Margaret had to go to court after her husband’s death and be appointed their guardian. According to my Aunt Viv, “she really had to take hold of life…get a job…and carry on.” Since we do not have any census records for the time period after my grandfather died, these letters help us know more about both her domicile and her occupation.
You can read my earlier post here: https://exploringbackwards.wordpress.com/2016/03/27/chicago-born-and-raised/
I wish I could include every letter because there are so many gems of affection and information, but I wanted to summarize.
1951 Letter-Address is listed as 7939 Champlain Ave. This is the location where her parents lived in what is called a “two flat.” It is a Chicagoan term for a two unit apartment building. My grandfather owned this two-flat. It appears that Marge and the kids moved into the upstairs apartment after Fred died. In the letter, Marge tells Chloe that Viv is back at Joliet and teaching. Larry is playing baseball at St. Rita’s high school.
Maybe my Dad and Aunt can chime in about the move…
1955 Letter-Address is listed as 7939 Champlain Avenue. She uses work stationary so we can verify that she is working for the Chicago North Shore System. She tells Chloe that she went on a tour of Yellowstone Park and the Grand Tetons. She doesn’t indicate who went with her. She also updates Chloe that Annette got her stripe for her cap (nursing lingo). Additionally, Larry has not been on a furlough yet. Larry enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduation in 1955. She also includes a post script note to her brother in law Joe about the Chicago White Sox doing well that season.
1957 Letter-This letter is hand written and does not specify a home address. Marge writes that they had a nice Christmas at Annette and Don’s house. Annette’s husband picked them up (presumably Margaret and her parents). She writes that her mother has arthritis in her neck. Larry was in NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) School and came in first out of 37 others. Larry is also a corporal. Way to go Dad!
1958 Letter-A typed written letter using the work stationary but does not specify a home address. She writes to Chloe that her daughter Annette is going to have a baby. It appears there were some problems with the pregnancy. She also remarks “we are just about through buying on our house.” It appears to me that since she talks about a lawn, she is referring to the house at 8638 S. Sangamon Street. She updates Chloe on Larry’s progress at school (Southern Illinois University) and that he will work for Ford over the summer.
1960 Letter- typed without an envelope. Marge advised that her father passed away on September 4th. He had trouble with his liver, etc. Marge was concerned for he was not answering from the bathroom. She had her son Larry (age 24), go check on him and he had died. She writes, “Now, for the third time in ten years I’m starting a new life – or I should say a new way of living.” She closes the letter by stating that Annette and her husband want her to come live with them. She writes, “But this is one thing I have always said I wouldn’t do.”
1963-Letter, typed. There is different letter head, “Norfolk Southern Railway Company.” She wrote to say how pleased she was that they were able to attend Larry and Betty’s wedding. She writes, “They (meaning Lacy and Odelle Sublett) are so nice and I am glad that Larry had the good sense to pick such a lovely girl.”
1964-Letter typed letter, same letter head. In this letter, she discusses that Betty and Larry have a little girl. Marge is happy that Betty has taken over the correspondence. She wrote, “she is so good about writing and Larry is the world’s worst.” Marge tells Chloe that she has had ups and downs in terms of her health. But she keeps working every day. She is 58 years old in this letter. She closes with “Yesterday was Fred’s birthday. It’s funny how you still miss them after so much time has gone by. Time dulls the pain, but you just never forget.”
1965 Letter, typed. It is written on the same letter head as previous. She writes to tell Chloe about the birth of Michelle. She wrote, “If Annette can keep Susan away from her long enough, I think she will live. Susan is so rough, from playing with Jeff, that we are afraid she will hurt her.” She also wrote that Betty and Larry went to Lynchburg for Christmas. “Kathy was queen and took over the place.” These two quotes are some of my favorites.
1966 Letter, typed. Letter is not on work stationary. It is dated April 14, 1966. Marge asks how Chloe is adjusting (Walter Joe Whitehead died 17 May 1965). She writes, “I hope you are becoming adjusted to your new way of life a little….It certainly takes time that is all I can say. By this time, Marge’s husband Fred had been deceased for 16 years. The letter goes on to describe the visit that my parents took to see her for Easter with Kathy and David. She writes, “The baby is adorable – in fact he is too pretty to be a boy. His hair is sort of reddish and has tendency to curl….he definitely has the Whitehead mouth.” She writes that Vivian (Sister Michelyn) is back in Joliet teaching. “She is always flitting around and I get to see her quite a bit. I never know when she is going to pop in on me at the office to be taken out to lunch…She sure has a lot of pep. I could use some of it.”
1966 Letter, typed. Letter is on Norfolk Southern stationary. It is dated July 14, 1966. She writes that she is still in her home on Sangamon. She writes, “The neighborhood is turning, our street hasn’t gone too fast.” She is worried about the market and loans. She remarks that Betty and Jim are coming to Chicago. Later in the letter she discussed the hot humid weather has almost “knocked me out.” She writes “I never appreciated my good health when I had it, but I’m thankful that I can still get around.”
Marge then makes a reflective comment, “As you have probably found out by this time you have to make a new life for yourself and it is hard trying to do it without your ‘partner.’ Nobody seems able to take their place. I know you can do it though as you are like I am, you KNOW you have to keep going and you do it.” It was sweet of her to give her sister-in-law these words of encouragement.
1967 Letter, typed. Letter is on Norfolk Southern stationary but also has her address in Sangamon. The outside of the letter Chloe has written “Marge’s last letter to me.” Inside Marge writes that she is slowing down. “What’s happening I think is that I’m getting old and slowing up…It takes me longer to do things now-a-days, especially with arthritis in my hands and feet. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” She updates Chloe that her mom’s sister (Gretchen Margaretta Stalhaber Dienfenbach) had come to visit with her daughter from California. Marge discusses that her Aunt is going blind and her memory has slipped. “She is so cute because she knows that her memory is failing and she tries so hard to remember who you are.” A side note, this Aunt went on to live until she was 100 years old! Marge updates Chloe that Larry and family were in again for Easter. She remarks that Annette and family are fine. She writes, “Susan was quite a fink for a while but she has snapped out of it and is just darling.” Now I know where my father got that word, fink.
Well, you might be asking why I wrote this post. I believe through reading these letters I have been able to see my grandmother come to life. What a strong woman she was. I have only known her on paper, as she passed away 16 months before I was born. The obstacles she faced in life were no match for her. Her letters show how articulate she was. Although the 1940 Census states she only finished 2 years of high school, Viv stated that she went to a school for business, learning typing and shorthand.
She became stronger through her battles and I wanted to share that with you. She was an independent resilient woman and I am glad that I have some of that DNA.
Until later, I will be exploring backwards.