Monday, May 25, 2020

Memorial Day 2020

I never knew my maternal grandfather, William John Gilpin, Jr. as he died before I was born, yet I’ve been thinking a lot about him this weekend. There was the annual Memorial Day visit to his grave at Quabbin Park Cemetery in Ware, but even before that, I had found his 1936 federal income tax form in a box of family photos and documents in the basement.

IRS Form 1040 A records that he made an income of $1,886.49 as a machinist at National Equipment Company, of which he paid $28.38 in taxes. Though small, it is important to remember that not only was this 84 years ago, but it was also the middle of the Great Depression, so having a job and any income was a plus, and he had held several different jobs in his lifetime, including selling insurance for Metropolitan Life when the job required him to go house to house picking up payments during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. Fortunately, he never got sick.

It was indeed fortunate because my grandmother, May Reid Gilpin, had died very suddenly the year before. She had been ill when he left for work in the morning, and when he came home for lunch, she was dead. That story demands more time than I have here, but suffice it to say that the events of that day changed the family forever.

My grandfather was left the sole parent for my mother, Vera, age five, and my aunt, Gertrude, age nine. Taking care of and supporting them became the focus of his life. This sometimes meant the girls had to stay with family while he was away working.

By 1936, the date of the tax return, he was living in his sister Alice Moffatt’s home on Revere Street in Springfield. There he shared a room with my mother (age 24). (By that time my aunt was married and living in Vermont).  Aunt Alice’s four adult children also lived there. Elmer worked at the US Armory, while Sally, Emma, and Harriet worked at the two big department stores downtown.

I know there were conflicts with that many adults living in one house, and my grandfather could have chosen to move, but his priority, as always, was his daughters. Aunt Alice was his older sister and took a sort of parental attitude toward him, and as the mother of four girls, she felt she knew what was best for them. Education was wasted on girls, she insisted.  After all, her girls didn’t need an education to sell handkerchiefs at Forbes and Wallace or women’s dresses at Steiger’s.

But my grandfather ignored her advice and sent both my mother and my aunt to Bay Path which prepared them to become a secretary and a teacher, respectively. He knew all too well that life can change in a minute and that you need to be prepared to take care of yourself.

I wish I had met my grandfather, but I suspect many of the qualities he had were reflected in his daughters. They were both dedicated to their families and raised children to be responsible and independent.

Maybe if I get serious about cleaning the basement, I’ll discover more treasures, maybe find out more about the names on the cemetery stones.

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