ON BECOMING WHO I AM . . .
If life is as I believe a becoming, then every part of my past is
a part of my present and-is becoming a part of my future. How, from
millions of remembered moments shall I select those bits and pieces
which represent my life? At best, it will be a mere fragment but
which fragment? How do I choose to be remembered by those who know me least or most?
I cannot begin at the beginning for I was not there in that
instant when two selves flowed together and made possible the
beginning of my becoming. Those two selves I know well. She was
twenty-two, full of dreams. He was thirty-three and full of dreams,
dreams of building a home, a family. They still knew grief for a boy
child born too soon had never lived outside my mother's womb. At the
time, they were living in a second floor apartment in a small town in
North Warren, Pennsylvania, beside the Conewango Creek.
My mother was the hostess for a large family Christmas dinner in
1906. She was awakened in the early hours of the morning in pain
which she recognized as preliminary to my advent. I arrived in the
early morning hours of December 26 and was from that time referred to
as "the one who arrived too late for Christmas".
It is with the indelible clarity as if it were my own memory that
I recall my mother's description of the first summer of my life as
idyllic. On any clear summer day when the early chores were done and
my father was off to work with his lunch pail, she would settle me in
my basket in the prow of her rowboat along with a book, some sewing
and row to a favorite spot under a willow tree where she would drop
anchor and there she would sit through summer hours watching me,
talking with me, sewing probably clothes for me or for herself or
reading a favorite book. Often she said she would take lunch and
spend the day, the gentle rocking of the boat keeping me very happy
and content. Those are the memories which come back to me so vividly
that sometimes I even believe that I remember. It was as she told it,
the happiest summer of her life.
Who were these parents? Who is this person whose mother was a
sensitive, disciplined child of a Methodist family with very strict
ideas of what the good life is? It included hard work, avoidance of
the evils of dancing (which my father loved), of cards, of movies,
alcohol, whatever. She described herself politically as independent
but always voted republican.
Who is this child whose father was a staunch supporter of Eugene
B. Debs through all of his campaigns, who could have danced all night
eight nights a week, as he told me sometimes who did not gain but in
many ways was success because he gave me the kind of love and support
that made me feel I belonged in the world, who was a ventriloquist, a
kind of Pied Piper, one who always took time to walk with me in the
woods, to make jokes, to tease me out of a pout, whom I found myself
taking care of because he often drank too much from the time that I
was eight or nine years old? I grew up with these two loving people
who always let me know that I was loved and cared for.
My father saying, "Anything you do is okay", in his actions and
the way he was with me; my mother, a disciplinarian who always had
time to sit and talk with me as I was growing up should something
trouble me, who sat with me on a couch or in a chair and taught me
poems, painting vivid images as she went over the lines until I
learned from her, I believe, to love the imagery of poetry, who was
willing to run out with us children and play in the mud after a heavy
rain. This was a rare combination.
My father was in turn a carpenter, a fine wood finisher of
pianos, a landscape gardener, worker in the mill, worker on the
railroad, salesman and during the depression he was unemployed for a
long period of time at which time my mother went back to school. My
mother had graduated from high school with a business course and was a bookkeeper before she was married. She finished requirements for her
Bachelor's Degree in two years and then began teaching the one or two-
room schools in the small towns about Jamestown. That was in the
My little sister died of diphtheria when I was two or three years
old. Essentially I was called an only child and yet our household was
never or very rarely without children, young people other than myself,
living there as part of the family from both my father's side and my
mother's side and friends of mine who were having difficulties and had
no home to live in while they were finishing high school. So I grew
up really as a child among many, changing the siblings from time to
time as they needed.
All of these additions to our family threw a great deal of
financial responsibility onto my parents who were struggling without
such additions and yet they handled it with such care and apparently
so easily that I remember very little conflict and heard no talk of
The Early Years
The year immediately following our move to Jamestown and my
father's search for work was the year that marked the end of dreams
and brought the death of my sister, Lucille; the beginning of my
father's continuing search for work suitable to his health; a year in
which all the childhood diseases were packed into one winter for me.
It was a year of despair for my mother and although unaware of it at
the time, I later learned that it was the time when my father began
drinking heavily which was the main cause of friction between my
One of my clearest memories of that disastrous year was of my
lying in a white enameled iron bed with sides that moved up and down
and my father bringing home to me a tiny white rabbit with pink ears,
pink nose, pink eyes, a real live baby rabbit in a tiny grape basket.
He brought it home for me as my companion and I remember that that
rabbit was a companion, a playmate for many years. I look back on
this as another way of my father telling me how much he cared for me
and I know now that it was particularly at a time when my mother had
felt that there was little in life for her to live for and my father
and I were probably closest in that year.
Our next move was to a three-room house which my father built
only a few blocks away. One of my happiest memories was hearing him
tell with pride that he and I had built the house. I sat on the plank
or the two-by-four to keep it steady while he sawed. Another strong
memory is the Christmas when someone told me that there was no Santa
Claus. I remember sitting on my father's lap in the living room, my
mother beside us while they together explained that there is a Santa
Claus, that they were Mr. and Mrs. Claus and they gave me gifts
because they loved me.
A third incident which seems significant in my early life was the
experience brought to my mother by a door-to-door salesman. It seemed
that I had a very active imagination and would come running in, tell
my mother stories that I saw a big bear in the front yard or I saw a
tiger run across the lawn or I had seen fairies and birds on the
ceiling of my bedroom and she was explaining to me one day that these
things are not so and that I must not tell things that are not so.
She was interrupted by a knock on the door and a man said,
"Pardon me, ma'am. I feel that I have been eavesdropping but
I heard you scolding your little girl for telling things that are not true and I wanted to
say to you that my sister used to do the same. She had an active
imagination and now she's writing short stories for magazines and
publications and I am delivering items from house to house. So, be
patient with your little girl and encourage her imagination."
It seems important to note that my mother listened to the advice
of the salesman and that she, from that point on, actively encouraged
On the Farm - School Days
They sold the house my father had built to buy a farm, although
my father had no experience as a farmer. He worked early and late
with the help of my mother's father, Grandpa Dorn, who had a farm
nearby, but it seemed that one bad year followed another. He
contracted with a local creamery for buttermilk and developed a milk
route in the neighboring town of Warren, Pennsylvania which he hoped
would supplement the family income. There was a year of drought, a
year of torrential rains in which crops could not be harvested and
finally a year of heavy frost which killed the cash crop. The only
time I saw my father cry was one morning in early fall when he looked
out of his bedroom window and saw the leaves and tassels from the corn
hanging limp from a devastating frost. We moved again.
During those years, my mother's mother died at our house and my
grandfather continued on his farm. For me, the farm years were years
of freedom and roaming in the out of doors. My constant playmates
were my rabbit and my dog, Dash, a black and tan short-haired shepherd
who had been patient enough with me to teach me to walk and
who went everywhere with me and my rabbit, to take my father
or those who were working with him lemonade in the summer
or their lunches and simply to roam through the pastures and the orchards.
Our second year on the farm also marked the beginning of my
academic life. It was not until the January after I had become seven
in December that my mother felt it time for me to go to school which
was a one-room school about a mile up a steep hill from our house. I
remember it as a time of some interest and excitement and that I was
promoted at the end of June to second grade with the suggestion that I
might skip a grade, but my mother opposed it.
During the following two years, children from neighboring farms
gathered at the crossroads near our house and we walked four miles to
a four-room school house in good weather. In wintertime, parents took
turns loading us into a horse-drawn sleigh for the ride to school. It
was on the long walk home in fall and spring that I stopped at my
grandparents farmhouse where Grandma Dorn had an inexhaustible
supply of sour cream cookies, milk and custard pie.
In many ways, she was a remarkable woman. At the age of twelve,
when her mother died, she assumed responsibility for the household.
Her father must have been unusual for his time, making it possible for
her, the one girl in the family, to attend Oberlin College for two
years. After mothering her younger brothers, she had seven children
of her own, five of whom survived to adulthood.
My mother had been my teacher before I went to school. I had
learned to read, to tell time and to pick out notes on my mother's
organ. From my mother, I also learned what happens in a thunderstorm
which was very exciting. I had learned something about the stars. It
was a wonderful place to star watch. There were no lights to
interfere. From my grandfather and my mother I learned much about
plants, flowers, how they grew, fruit, orchards and animals on the
farm. I had a favorite colt whom I loved to romp with when he was
small, who later partially ate an Easter hat of mine.
I remember that my mother often had what she called a sick
headache and that she took medication, patent medicine I suppose at
the time. I'm sure no doctor prescribed it for those headaches. She
must have been under a great deal of strain through those years,
although I never guessed it at the time.
As I relive through memory the early part of my life, I again
become aware that I have a strong visual memory to an extent which I
can hardly believe and yet I know it's true. As far back as two and
three, I remember distinctly the floor plan of that house. I could
draw it, I believe, almost to scale and would be willing to have it
tested against the actual house if it still exists. The same thing is
true of the three-room house that my father and I built and of the
farmhouse in which I lived during the years I have just described.
The same is true of every house which I have lived in and it seems
that if I have traveled, stopping at various places for a meal or
overnight, that I can find that place if it's still in existence when
I go back months or years later. I am including this in my story
because I believe it is significant in view of the struggle in my
recent years since a vision problem has become a daily reality to me
and I'm having to shift from the visual sense more and more to the
Growing Up in Venturetown
We moved from the farm to a small oil refinery town, Venturetown,
not far from the place of my birth and near Warren, Pennsylvania, the
center of my father's business. It was during the years in
Venturetown that my life shifted from that of a carefree child with a
great deal of freedom, few playmates but plenty of time to roam and to
imagine and to dream, a time when I was unaware of the problems
around me to the beginning of a very adult part of my life.
By this time, my father was drinking quite heavily and often
would come home from a day's work with little or no money. He would
need to go to bed and sleep a lot. I was aware that my mother was
worried and angry. And then, my mother encouraged me to go with him
whenever I was not in school in the hope that my presence in the truck
on the milk route would deter him from stopping too long at the hotel
bars and restaurants that were his customers.
I remember clearly on occasions when I was about nine or ten
years old, driving the truck home from Warren to Venturetown, which
was a distance of about five miles, managing to get the truck into the
driveway and down a rather steep grade to the place where we kept it
and telling my mother that we were home. At the time I don't remember
any special strain about it except that I was always a little bit
scared that I wouldn't be able to reach the brakes or stop when I
wanted to as I perched on the edge of the seat to do it.
By childish inference I began to assume that women are the strong
ones and men are not dependable. Maybe they don't have the same kind
of feelings that women have. My dream picture of my father began to
fade. However, he was still, in his better days, a charmer, the Pied
Piper of the children in our neighborhood. Our house was always the
center of the Fourth of July fireworks and my father took great care
in being sure that it was a safe Fourth of July. When there was an
oversupply somewhere, he would come home with a great amount of
goodies - watermelon, cantaloupes and all kinds of fruit, perishable
goods. We would feast and share the feast with our neighbors. That
we could feed our friends but not always ourselves was a cause of
great resentment to my mother. With fine-tuned selectivity, I do not
recall deprivation during those years. My mother I assume was a good
manager. She was a good cook and I felt well cared for and secure
The second tragedy of my life was the death of my loved dog,
Dash. As I reminisce, I find it very interesting that I do not
remember the physical pain of my illnesses, even of my bout with
polio, but I do remember the pain of the death of my rabbit and the
death of my dog.
My playmates at that time were the boys from my mother's Sunday
school class which she always taught. We used to play down at the
refinery, get warm wax, make things with it and chew it. I remember
those days as being pleasant for the most part.
It was then that my father gave me permission to invite anybody I
chose to come to my mother's birthday party. I proceeded to write
invitations, put them in the mailboxes of all the neighbors, inviting
the family so that my parents were completely overwhelmed on the night
of my mother's birthday party. As I remember, it was an exciting
evening with a lot of lights and food and a lot of people, a lot of
laughter and a very pleasant memory.
The two-and-a-half years spanning from nine through eleven were
truly growing up years. We lived in two different homes. I recovered
from polio. I had my first lesson in male anatomy by playing doctor
with my cousin who was two years older. I learned from my mother that
I was not to play that way anymore which threw a kind of mystery
around the whole subject of sex and made it all the more interesting.
To be sure I told no one of my new interest.
From all of the experiences of living in those rapidly growing up
years, one of the bitter disappointments of adult reality came from
the learning that although a burning barn that burns on more and more
brightly through a whole afternoon is important and tremendously
exciting, it is not a legal reason for being absent from school. It
resulted in my first note from a teacher to my parents telling them
that I had transgressed.
The sounds, the sights, sensations of those years are so clear
and alive in my memory that I find great difficulty in moving on but I
am about to enter a period of stability, moving into full blown
Coming of Age
It began when I was twelve years old and we made our final move
in Jamestown to a house which my father and the local United Brethren
minister together remodeled from a storefront with a one-slant roof
to a comfortable bungalow, our permanent home until I had finished
college and had begun to teach nearby. It was our eighth homeplace!
The first stirrings of adulthood surfaced during a conference
with the minister at the time I was considering baptism, accepting the
doctrine of the church and becoming a member. I said to Reverend
Hanks, "I'm sorry but I cannot join this church because I do not
believe in original sin. I do not believe that people are sinful and
I don't believe that they are born in sin." It was a genuinely adult
conversation we had in which he confided that he too did not accept
every part of the doctrine of the church but that it was a
congregation of people generally of like mind and faith who were
helpful to one another and therefore he had chosen to make it his life
work. With that understanding I was baptized, joined the church and
became very active in the Sunday school, young people's work and in my
later teens was named a lay minister in the church which lasted until
near the end of my college years. My social life, which centered in
the church, was rich, satisfying, pleasant, although severely
circumscribed by the accepted lifestyle of other members of the
church. I had many friends, both among the young people with whom I
worked and with the adults who were leaders in the organizations.
My social life in high school was limited by the restrictions
which I accepted. I didn't attend dances. I did go for sleigh rides,
enjoyed the more informal kinds of activities, was on the debating
team (the only girl on the team) and was coached by my Grandfather
Dorn who was living with us at the time.
At the same time, an older schoolmate introduced me in a limited
way to the world of vaudeville. He wrote two or three acts for which
he received a contract and in which I played the "straight man." It
gave me an opportunity for some experience in ad-libbing. It seemed
like a very intriguing thing to do and not so different from the kind
of support I had given my father when, on many occasions, I was his
assistant in an evening of sleight-of-hand and magic. It was all done
in the spirit of fun and I enjoyed it but my parents objected and so I
did not further pursue a vaudeville career even for fun.
My Grandma Cooper, who lived with us for a short time after she
retired as housekeeper for a prominent family in Jamestown, was a
round, usually jolly woman, with a Maine accent who had a very quick
temper and a very warm heart. When she laughed, she laughed all over
and I always thought of her when I read the Christmas story about St.
Nick whose belly shook like a bowl full of jelly when he laughed. She
was a comfortable woman whom I loved and who baked the best New
England baked beans I ever tasted. It was from her younger daughter,
my Aunt Nel, that I learned that my father had been her favorite among
her five children and therefore resented by the others. I never knew
my Grandfather Cooper who died before I was born. A card which I
still have in my possession announced him as "an eclectic physician."
During my fourteenth summer, my mother went back to school
working toward her teaching certificate at a state college. While she
was away, I became the homemaker and wage earner for the family with
the help of my father's garden and my grandfather's small flock of
chickens which he kept in a barn nearby.
In my junior year in high school, we as a family realized that we
would need to find a college where I could get scholarship aid and
loans and my mother would need to qualify for a steady income. It was
at that time that she went to the president of the major bank in
Jamestown whom she had known from previous business contact, to ask
him for a loan for my first year of college. It seems like a shocking
question at the present time but his question was, "Why is it
important for your daughter to go to college with the financial
situation you have?" My mother's rejoinder was, "Is your son in
college?" When he answered, "Yes," she said, "My daughter is worth
just as much as your son and she has a right for the opportunity to go
to college." She got the loan.
For two years following my high school graduation, I worked to
save money, augment my mother's resources and engaged in house-to-
house selling of Real Silk hosiery. I remember how desperate I was
for the job which promised to pay even more than a school teacher's
salary for a good sales person, possibly up to $40-45 a week. When I
saw the advertisement in the paper, I applied. The trainer who was
interviewing said to me, "You applied for this job? I advertised for
a man much less a kid of a girl." Immediately my anger flared up. I
kept it to myself but I was determined that I would show the man I
could sell. So, we had the interview. He worked for a very long time
trying to sell me some Real Silk hosiery and I was the customer in
this role playing. I offered every objection I could think of to get
every kind of answer I could from him until finally he said, "I give
up. You have the job." And I was in. In my mind it made the
difference between going to college and not going to college.
My parents' graduation gifts were a beautifully bound bible, a
wrist watch and a huge wardrobe trunk, the first tangible evidence
that I was leaving home. A real tinge of sadness still persists as I
remember that Grandpa Dorn did not live to see me go to college. It
had been a great joy and hope for him. He had been one of the rare
ones of his time who had completed the Jamestown Academy when few
people did that. He confided to me in those last years that no matter
how long a day he worked on the farm, he never went to sleep without
first reading for an hour. I don't know the source of his materials
but he was one of the best read men or women I ever knew and he was a
purist in the use of the English language. He believed in honest
work, that if anything was worth doing, it was worth doing well.
This is part of the heritage he left my mother and me.
And so it was on one night in September of 1926, a naive nineteen
year old who had spent her entire life within a radius of 25 miles,
went to bed in the upper birth of a pullman car and found herself the
next day in a dormitory room of Lebanon Valley College in Annville,