Saturday, January 8, 2011

Memoir: The Earliest Years, Part One: Those who came before

First published on Open Salon, JANUARY 6, 2011 1:00PM

Why now?

I  just celebrated my 72nd birthday, and have decided that it is none too soon to begin fleshing out my personal memoir, bits and pieces of which are already written, but with huge gaps remaining. As the old saw says, "I am not getting any younger."

As a child I was usually called "Little Monte" since I was a "Junior," or "Monte Gene," because my middle name is "Eugene." A brief glimpse of my early childhood was first introduced to my Open Salon readers in the final installment of the series "A WWII Romance." There we saw a melodramatic, but all too true, tale of "Monte Gene," then 6, being secretly lowered through a window by his uncle into the arms of his mother, Wilma, followed by a quick automobile run for the county line.

This "kidnapping" was the culmination of a bitter argument between his mother and his maternal grandmother, Lola, with whom he had lived most of his life up to that time. Wilma had remarried, over the vehement objections of her mother, to a young man named Alva Galemore. Al was to Lola nothing more than "poor white trash" and she had vowed to never give Monte up to go live with the newlyweds, even if it meant a court fight.

My life up to that time had been relatively uneventful from my point of view, but, from the perspective of the other parties involved, a center of controversy from the start. And it is there that my story really begins, long before I could have any actual memories of the history or the events.

However, all of the parties to my earliest years were eager, through the years that followed, to convince me of the truth of their versions of my earliest years. And, out of that cacophony of biased opinion, as I grew older, I pieced together my own version of my earliest years. That my version may be wrong in this or that detail is likely the case. But that the quilt that I pieced together from these multiple memories molded my understanding of human nature, family dynamics, my identity, and of life itself cannot be denied. That, of course, is a mixed blessing.

None of the key parties to this earliest story are alive, save me. And there is little that can be remotely called "evidence." There are, of course, a few photos, some crude information, what I have been told, and my personal memories which go back to about the age of three.

I am told there are those folk who remember their first birthdays, but I claim no such extraordinary abilities. And I only know that my memories go back to about three because there are pictures of me inscribed as taken at "age three" at events about which I remember details not in the pictures. Before that there are pictures, but I remember nothing about them other than what I have been told.

Before the Memories

But we must start even before my memories, because earlier events shaped those who shaped me, and I have distilled from them some background of those people who were vital to my formative years.

My father, of whom I have only the vaguest memories prior to age 12, was Monte Eugene Canfield. The version of my birth certificate filled in by the doctor, gives me that same name, but another certificate, the official state version, lists me as Monte Eugene Canfield, Jr.

In any case, there is some undocumented genealogical information on the Canfield side so we will start there. There is no genealogical information on my mother's side.

According to family records, my particular branch of the Canfield family emigrated from England to New England in 1639. My direct ancestor, Matthew Canfield, was born in 1604 and died in 1673. Later generations emigrated From New England, first to eastern Ohio when Ohio was a territory, part of the Western Reserve, and, later, to Kansas territory.

[Ironically, by shear accident, I have retired into the same eastern Ohio area of the early Canfield emigrants, some 60 miles southwest of the city of Canfield here in NE Ohio. I had no clue that there were Canfields in Ohio until after we moved here in 1997.] 

Some 9 generations following Matthew Canfield, my paternal grandfather, Leo See Canfield, was born in June, 1892. He married my grandmother, Ola G. Montgomery, in 1915, and died in Dec, 1918 at Scranton in eastern Kansas where he owned a small town newspaper. While the records do not say why he died, that was the year of the great flu pandemic that originated in the US in Kansas, at Ft. Riley, and killed over 1/2 million people here in the US, and 50 to 100 million world wide.

My father, Monte Eugene Canfield, the first of two sons, was born in 1916.

My father's mother's maiden name was, as noted above, Ola Montgomery. I know nothing of her background other than that she was born in eastern Kansas. After my grandfather died she gave birth to her second son some three months later, my uncle, Leo. My father was then about 2 1/4 years old. In spite of those dire circumstances, rather than give up the family newspaper, and knowing nothing of the newspaper business herself, she determined to learn the trade and run the paper and print shop. This she did. She later went on to become a highly respected member of the press establishment in Kansas.

My mother was born Wilma Lee Elaine Allensworth in eastern Kansas, in 1923. In those days her friends called her "Willie." She hardly knew her father as he deserted the family when she was a very small girl and she was raised by her mother and her second husband, William Isaiah Isaacs. Bill Isaacs owned three small coal mines in Osage County, Kansas and they lived in Burlingame, Kansas, some 30 miles south of Topeka, and 6 miles from Scranton.

From the time Wilma's mother, Lola, and her stepfather, Bill, combined their two very large families, Bill Isaacs was known to Wilma as "Daddy," as he was to all of Lola's children. Wilma was given the name Isaacs as her family name, but Lola's older children were offered the choice and all chose to be known by the name of Isaacs. I did not even know that Bill Isaacs was not my grandfather by blood until I was a much older child and by then could not care less. I idolized him.

My maternal grandmother was born Lola May Barnes. I know nothing of her family background other than that there was an alleged ancestral relationship to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, one which my grandmother was not interested in discussing. She told me, in no uncertain terms, that her family was part of the "free state" pioneers in the days of "Bloody Kansas." I judiciously never pursued that line of thought with her.
The Importance of Ancestry
The truth is that within my own family our ancestral pedigree was not very important, except for a small interest shown on the Canfield side. The general conviction on both sides of my family was that people earned their place in society by dint of hard study and/or hard work, preferably both.

As for myself the only thing I think is interesting about this little foray into my family background is that all the associated names are English in origin. I make no more of it than that.
And, I have little interest in the importance of "blood" beyond a sense of love and obligation to my immediate family, and, even then, "blood" cannot not define my immediate family.

The fact is that the man who had the most influence in my earliest years was my "step" grandfather, Bill Isaacs; the one who raised me throughout my public school years was my "step" father, Al Galemore, and the one who helped me most through my college years was my biological father's "step" father, Sam Shade.
All of those men treated me with unequivocal love as one of their own.

I have a sense of unconditional love and devotion to their memories today. They were my heroes, my mentors and my role models; and I loved them shamelessly and passionately. And I think of and miss them to this day; especially my ("step") Dad, Al Galemore.

Next: Wilma and Monte Sr. marry. And I am born, not in Kansas, but in the Oklahoma panhandle, a harbinger to an itinerant childhood.