Being resilient, Emigrating to America from Wales, Faithful Living, Family ties, Having hope about the future, How to get a hand up, How to start with nothing, Learning from our ancestors, Life in Winslow Arizona in 1930

Building the Ladder, Starting to Climb

We recently trekked west in the general direction of Route 66 for a winter sojourn in Arizona. The journey was filled with the ghosts and memories of my mother’s parents who grew up in Iowa in the shadow of World War I, finished their schooling and got married in the 1920’s, then hit the high, unyielding wall of the Great Depression.  With a baby on the way, they joined thousands of others headed west in search of work.

From this side of the story, I can tell you that they were resilient, adventuresome, optimistic, and robust, with a peculiar grace that sanded off sharp corners that worry might produce. They were not temperamental, argumentative, or condescending-although I do clearly remember my grandmother, when frustrated, saying in a peculiarly clipped way, “Isn’t that the LIMIT?”

They were kind. My grandmother was particularly creative and resourceful. Her mother Sarah, my great-grandmother, was born to a family of Welsh slate miners in Blaenau Ffestiniog, Wales, a hard-scrabble life at best. In the 1880’s, Sarah’s family emigrated through Ellis Island to Illinois, then on to Williamsburg, Iowa to farm the fertile, loamy black dirt of the Midwest. From slate to soil, from roofing the tenements of London to feeding the new Americans. Dust to dust. 

My grandmother Ella, Sarah’s third daughter, was born in 1902 into a farm life that did not suit her. She was a reader and a dreamer, with an early flair for drama and fun, and music and pageantry. Once, when she just couldn’t put down a book, she climbed a tree to read instead of doing her farm chores, “tickled” when no one could find her. She became a teacher, one who was much-loved by her students over a 50-year career. She was also a writer-today we’d call it a side-hustle-so apropos for the hustler she was. She produced hundreds of Sunday School circulars and 5 novels for young adults. Ella was the first in her family to go to college. To work off the farm. To seek out opportunities to develop her skillset and shape her character. She took almost any work she could find after she married (In 1928, Iowa did not allow female teachers to be married, so she lost her teaching job). She taught piano, was the camp director at Crystallaire Camp for Girls in Michigan, and directed the girls’ choir at her Congregational Church for nearly 30 years.

But it was Ella’s time in the American southwest that really made her who she was. My grandfather found work in Gallup, NM with the Santa Fe railroad, then was transferred to the Winslow, AZ office in 1930. My mother was born at the doctor’s office above the drugstore (yes on a corner in Winslow Arizona!), and they lived in a little duplex that is still there. What a time they had exploring New Mexico and Arizona! Long car trips, picnic lunches, keeping a shotgun in the car to fend off rattlesnakes. Arizona toughened them up for the long decade ahead.

My grandparents planted seeds and set down roots for a family tree that has cultivated three generations of “can-do” people. A daughter who was one of the first female chemistry majors at her university. A grandson who became a merchant marine captain on a supertanker. A granddaughter in the first generation of Ph.D. females in exercise physiology. And now the great-grandchildren have accepted the family mantle of hard work, deep faith, optimistic outlook, and plain old grit.  True, each successive generation had more privilege that the one before it. But my grandparents themselves began with little but dreams in the high desert of Arizona and the humility of moving back in with Ella’s mother in 1934 when work on the railroad dried up.

I have been nudged into thinking about where resiliency comes from. Surely it is a gift from the same God who promises us a hope and a future. But our inherited outlook also comes from the people he sends us to show a way. How else does one family go from the abject poverty of Welsh mines to the hardscrabble work of farming, to college, then graduate school, and even to sea? To becoming a professor, a published author, an energy expert in France? And all in just a few generations? 

This is not pie-in-the-sky pride at having a ladder to climb or from climbing it resolutely. It is about the faith and diligence and persistence it took our forebears to build the ladder.

From there they reached down to successive generations for a hand up. At my grandmother’s funeral, we were stunned by the dozens of people who told us stories of how Ella had influenced the trajectory of their lives. That’s the other half of the story-it wasn’t just Ella’s immediate family who benefitted from her drive. She mentored and influenced hundreds of children out there who came to believe in themselves and wanted to be just like her. She had that rare ripple effect that seeded generations of hard-working, civic minded people. Just think what she might have accomplished today as a social influencer.

Are you a ladder-builder? Ready to set it up, make the climb rung by rung, then turn around to give a hand to the next climber?  What a world we could have if we all did that.

Thanks for reading along,

J.A.P. Walton

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