Life Story Interview
Interviewed by Kym Dakin
March 5, 2004
Life Story Interview
March 5, 2004
When I was born, it appears we were going through a period of prosperity after the war, that would have been in 1921. I was born on August 15th. And then after that we went through the Depression of course. I was born at home, apparently. I just found this out recently, in pursuing a passport. Everyone thought I was named after my Aunt in Georgia, Mary Elizabeth. The sister who preceded me was born at the hospital and the sister who came after me was born at the hospital, but Betty was born at home we found out! We don’t know why exactly. Must have happened quickly! Also, they forgot to put “Elizabeth” on the birth certificate, so I am really Mary Gaynor. And that caused me some problems. I’m the seventh of eight children, four boys and four girls, and we lived in a little white house on Fairfield Avenue in Shelton Connecticut.
The thing I remember about that house was one Winter when we had, I don’t know how many feet of snow, and my brothers built tunnels out to the road, we crawled through them, and the milkman came on his sleigh and delivered daily milk. Shortly after that, we moved to another house – a lovely big house in a different neighborhood, and I am surprised that my father could afford it, because he was head of the inspection department at Sydney Blumenthal’s. They made fabrics like velvet and velours, and my sister Eileen and I had lovely little coats made from them, with fur collars. Anyway, one afternoon, we all went down to look at the new house. It had a large porch out front; I have a picture of it. The thing that impressed me was a swinging door that went from the dining room into the butler’s pantry. So apparently, the former owners had help….and I always remember that swinging black door. But when we moved in, things changed. It wasn’t like an elegant house anymore. It was a house full of kids! So that’s where I lived for all of my childhood. We used to sit on the porch and try to name the makes of the cars that would go by: Ford and Chevy, maybe Buick and Pontiac.
The Depression didn’t really affect us as kids, because everyone was in the same situation, but I do know that my father took on an insurance selling job in addition to his regular job and…I can’t imagine selling insurance during the Depression, He was always working, and very much wrapped up in the politics of the town. He was on the Board of Education, he was the Police Commissioner, he was all kinds of things; a councilman, so we had people going in and out for conferences and things quite often. We kids didn’t know what was going on.
My Mother was a Saint. She worked so hard. We had dinner every noon when my father came home at twelve o’clock – a big meal. And we always had linen tablecloths and napkins. She had a big ironer in one of the alcoves and she did all the laundry and ironed it. I’ve never seen an ironer like it since. It had a great big roller and she sat down…and she would press her foot down and it pressed the cover down and it would roll the tablecloth through. She was a homemaker. She had taken care of her mother before she died, whom I never knew. Her father was German and came to this country as Wheeler the Hatter, and he made felt hats. He had four wives. So the first one was my Mother’s mother, whom he divorced, which must have been most unusual at that time. Then he married again, and they lived in Georgia and this wife was killed in a trolley accident. He married again, and I think the third wife was the mother of two more children: Mary Elizabeth, the one I was named for, and Ferry. They lived in Georgia, and are still alive. They were half sister and brother to my mother but they were more like nieces and nephews. Then, his fourth wife and my Mother were very good friends, and contemporaries, you might say. So he was quite a guy. I only remember meeting him once. We had a picture taken when he was visiting, but I’m sure he died when I was quite young. Mother was English and German.
We all got together with a few relatives for Thanksgiving, and there was a big traditional high school football game right across the street from us. While we all went to the football game, poor Mom was home preparing a huge meal. I’m not sure my mother enjoyed cooking, but she certainly did a lot of it! She would phone in her order to the local butcher, and it was always delivered and we all remember that the egg man and the milk man and the ice man all enjoyed coming in and talking to Mrs. Gaynor. So she did have breaks in her day, but she didn’t have any social life to speak of at all.
On St. Patrick’s Day there was always a minstrel, I forget where that was held. There were always made-up black people in it and they danced and sang and pounded on tambourines and told jokes jokes jokes! And there was a lot of music and these were people that you knew that were dressed up and performing up there. I’m sure they don’t have those anymore!
We went to church every Sunday. I was raised Catholic. I’ve since changed, and the year that I was ready to go to school, they built a parochial school and the congregation was pressured into sending their children to support it. So Betty was sent to St. Joseph’s School – I think that was the name of it. And all my brothers and sisters went to the public school right across the street from home. And I had to walk about a mile. I don’t know how I did that as a little kid, but I did. Went through the eighth grade. I don’t think I was educated any differently really. In those days it was all reading writing and arithmetic, and that’s what the public schools had and that’s what we had too. I don’t think there was any difference really. I was the only child in my family to go. I don’t know why that was. My younger sister didn’t have to go. She was delicate I guess. She went right across the street. I didn’t really think anything of being taught by nuns. We just accepted it – they were your teachers and you minded whatever they told you. I think maybe the discipline might have been better in a Catholic school. It probably depended on the teacher. They had tennis courts and playgrounds at the school right across the street and I certainly participated in those. My siblings didn’t tease me or anything (about going to another school). Of course, by that time my older brothers were away, and there were less of us. My oldest brother was in college. He went to Georgetown to become a dentist when I was probably a teenager. I think there was about a two-year difference between siblings, although there is only a year difference between Eileen and me. And in spite of going to a different school, I hung around with Eileen and Elsie Wilde, the girl across the street. The town had good community Ed programs.
I do remember riding on the running board of the teacher’s car, and how he let us do it, I don’t know. But one day the car was still going and I jumped off, not realizing I would have to keep running, and I fell and skinned my elbow, my knees, my nose – everything you can imagine, but we used to have fun down there. That was the beginning of my love of tennis, which I still have. I learned as a child, and I still play.
In high school, I remember the gym teacher. I remember the English teacher, mostly because she was so strict! And the school principal at one time boarded at our house. That’s another thing my Mother did – was rent a room or two. All those kids – with one bathroom – how that ever worked out….but this Mr. Kingsley – he didn’t live at our house when I was in high school, fortunately. Later on he did. He became the Superintendent of Schools. He was a bachelor, and when he died, he left a million, maybe more than a million, to the school…and yet he boarded at my mother’s house! Wasn’t that amazing? He was a very serious man, scholarly.
After high school, I worked for a little while, but then I took courses at the University of Connecticut at New Haven, and then I transferred to the University of Connecticut campus. I had two years, not all on campus, and that’s where I met Bob. He signed up for the air force and then we got married.
First two years of college, I took pretty general courses. There again, we were still in the era where you got married and you didn’t have a career. I remember not being able to cope with French! And I remember sociology for some reason as one of the classes I liked. I did have thoughts of being a social worker at one time. It just seemed like a good choice of career.
When I first met Bob, he sought me out. I came to campus in the middle of the year, and he would see me in the cafeteria. And actually we met in the coatroom one day. And then we started dating. So that’s how it happened. He seemed handsome and personable. He was a cross-country runner, played tennis, we liked the same things. We started going together and getting married just seemed like the natural thing to do. He was already in the service at that point, and I was working in Connecticut. It was during the war, with gas rationing, when I went to Florida with my brother, Frank, and Bob and I were married down there. We went to New Mexico, Albuquerque, we went to Idaho, Casper Wyoming, a year in each place, and Florida. He was in the anti-sub patrol, in the Caribbean, and so I came home. We wrote letters, too many! They were up in the attic of this house I described, and one day….all the kids liked to go up into the attic and explore, and a couple of my nieces were very quiet for a long time, and my Mom went up and they were reading all my letters – my love letters! And they still mention it! I guess they enjoyed them!
So Bob was discharged from the service and we came to Maine. He had majored in Forestry. He was a pilot, and so his thought was to come to Maine and combine them, well, he said they weren’t ready for that, and it didn’t work out. But we liked it up here. One day he went to the Chamber of Commerce looking for…why he went there, I don’t know, but there were no employment agencies at that time, looking for work, I guess, and he met Joe Drummond, who was a son-in-law to Mrs. Gyger on the Foreside and she was looking for a caretaker. So he got that job. And we had a little house in back of Mrs. Gyger’s on Rte. 88. Her son has since told me that when we arrived in this big black Packard that we had bought in Florida (it’s all big cars down there), he looked at that and thought – “He won’t last more than a week”. (Laughing) But he obviously did last more than a week, and he also worked for Governor Hildreth on the Hildreth Estate down the road – he was caretaker for both of them. He enjoyed the work, and he was pretty much on his own. He never had to punch a time clock or work for someone else in that respect. He was independent. And then he started a plant stand on the Foreside, down the road apiece – Bob’s Plant Stand on Stonyridge. He probably didn’t have a sign. He did some landscaping, and he grew plants, and all the kids in the neighborhood gathered around and used to come up to our house and play basketball and football and that kind of stuff. They all remember Bob and Betty. And from the plant stand he eventually went into antiques. He was self-tought. He did the buying, we used to keep them in the barn at Gyger’s, and dealers would come and – not very many, but we did sell to dealers. That’s how we furnished our house, I suppose. So then Mrs. Gyger died, and we had to move, and that’s when we built this saltbox house. By that time, we had our kids – first Jim was adopted. He is deceased. He had problems, mental problems, he committed suicide when he was in his forties. And then Barbara. But they grew up on the Foreside. There were not many kids in the neighborhood.
When we adopted our kids, there was a social worker involved, Mrs. Small. We used to go into her office, and she used to come out to our house and interview us and say “We will let you know when a baby is available”. It probably took over a year of waiting and interviews, and then we went in and visited and saw the baby! We went in the next time and brought and then Barbara home. I think Jim was in a foster home for about six weeks, but for Barbara, it was less, and with Jim, there was a note that came with him – “He demands a lot of care and time” or something like that – and that was all I knew about taking care of babies! (Laughing) So we just learned by experience. I was pretty young when we adopted them. There was no family around. Our family was all in Connecticut, and it wasn’t that easy to travel. No air conditioning in cars, no superhighways. We didn’t get to see them very much, especially my family, which was a little further away. Bob’s family came from Putnam, Connecticut and mine came from Shelton, down near New Haven. And Bob was always addicted to work, and he could never take the time. Or if we went down, he had to get back, so we didn’t visit that much, but they would come up occasionally.
(Regarding Catholicism) I think I was blinded by love and I thought Bob knew everything. And he didn’t intentionally influence me, but when we came to Maine, it was just easier not to go to church. (Laughing) And he never said anything, but I know his family were all Protestant, and Republican and you know…. And, uh, how shall I put it? They didn’t exactly disapprove of me, but they probably wished he had married a Protestant. But eventually, I just got out of the habit. I don’t think I ever went to a Catholic church in Maine. Then eventually, we both started going to the Foreside Community Church, and the kids went to Sunday school there. I suppose it was having the kids that got us to go back to church. That was just a little church – just a little community church.
Bob passed away a year ago this past April.
He had a plant stand over here on the Middle Road– a big one. Well, not a big one but I mean he spent all of his life in it. (Laughing) He spent all his life in the garden and so – it was a Cash and Carry stand out front with a cashbox. It became famous I must say! (Laughing!) He’s kind of a character. He had good plants – good quality and he grew perennials and cut flowers and he sold zinnias in the summer, and he had a lot of customers who would stop and then they kept coming back. I don’t quite know what I mean when I call him a “character”. He was actually an introvert, but he loved to garden, and he spent all his time out there and he knew everything about gardening, and so people would come to him for advice. He would give it willingly and he lived by the Boy Scout rules I guess. He never had to lock the cashbox the first few years, but eventually he did, which is too bad. But he did that on the Foreside too, come to think of it. He sold plants, and all the boys (in the neighborhood) watched it for him – instead of stealing from him – they watched to make sure nobody else did! He had a sense of humor (that drew people to him). He loved his grandkids. They enjoyed each other. He taught them a lot actually outside – digging worms and he used to play sports with them, ball, or whatever, and he had a good relationship.
Barbara was a senior in high school when we moved to this house. Barbara and Jim both went to the Cumberland high school on the bus. Mrs. Gyger’s children lived right next door. I belonged to the Garden club and stuff like that, I was always an active person. There were never any thoughts about the adoptions (in the neighborhood). I knew all the mothers. Bob Walker started developing the area on the Foreside right across from Stonyridge road – or, I can’t think of the name of that road – Long Meadow – and all along in there, and then up along Stonyridge Road and so things changed. A lot of development when you think about it.
I don’t think (the political situation in the 60’s) impacted our family at all. I suppose we were cushioned somewhat by our neighborhood, and where we were. One thing that came about was the hippie era, when the kids were in school, and drugs were introduced into society, and things were pretty bad in that respect – that was always a worry. I think Jim must have gotten into it. I remember some friction around the Vietnam War, but not to where you felt you could do anything about it. We’re still helpless in that respect. I remember (Civil Rights, Women’s Liberation) but they didn’t seem to touch our lives. We are much more aware now about these things. Maybe at that time we were just too busy taking care of the family, taking care of everything.
Barbara had beautiful big blue eyes- she was a really cute little baby. With both my kids, it seemed as if they were really happy – had lots of fun, until school started. They both had this very very strict teacher up in Cumberland for Kindergarten, and that was their introduction to school. And in that era, to us, the teacher was always right, and if you came home…if the kids came home and said something was wrong – we would say, “Well, what did you do?” And I think really that they got off to a very bad start because of that. A lot of people in Cumberland would know who I mean, but I won’t mention names. It was discipline – she would shake the kids- and you know, slap them and put them in a corner and all that kind of stuff and even if it didn’t happen to them, they saw it happen to others. I do remember Barbara clinging to the bedpost not wanting to go. I think it (their attitude about school) improved over the years – they had some lovely teachers – in second grade they both had a really nice person. Barbara ended up going to the vocational school, I mean as part of her courses. They would go on the bus for a few hours and she took architecture and maybe art. And she ended up going to the art school in Portland (Maine College of Art). That was the first year it was certified, and you got a BA. So she did get a BA from there. She majored in Photography. She’s a good photographer. She did do it commercially for a while. She worked for a couple of advertising agencies. I don’t think she actually did photography for them, but that got her into it, and she did some of her own photographing – interiors – like our antiques, our inventory. But then she went to work for UNUM and did something entirely different. She has two children. So I’m a Grandma – which is lovely. They are just lovely – the joy of your life. Hillary is now 14 and Dillon is 12. It’s great to have them nearby. We’ve been close by ever since Barb was married
I took care of Hillary one day a week. I think we had more in common, Barbara and me, once she started raising kids. We would talk about it – if the kids were sick. We saw quite a bit of them when they were young. They used to love coming over here, to “the farm” as they called it.
We had a pretty good life. I’m more of a people person than Bob was, and I like lots of activity. And I also love to travel, and he didn’t. But I guess you build your life together and really, he was a self-made man – didn’t inherit a lot of wealth or anything so he worked hard.
I’ve had one trip to France. I hope to have more. It’s now or never when you’re 82! I hope to take another trip. Bob did go on one (Elderhostel) with me, but I don’t think he enjoyed it especially. And we went to England with his brother and his wife one time. He didn’t enjoy that. He just didn’t like to travel.
With my friend that I traveled with, we talk about going to Mexico. We went to Guatemala together, to a mission, and she had sponsored a child. It was a wonderful trip. So we wanted to go back to Mayan country and see the ruins and so forth, but we didn’t get on it quickly enough, so I’m not sure that’s going to come to fruition. Oh I would go anywhere! (Laughter).
I get great satisfaction from having been a mother and a grandmother. I don’t think I’ve had any great accomplishments except staying healthy and fit. That just came naturally – just genetics. I never smoked. No I never smoked. Tried it of course, and burned my eyelashes (Laughter). This was in high school, and my sister Dorothy was working in Hartford and my other sister was going to school in Hartford and living with her and I went visiting, and for some reason I was left alone in the apartment and I tried my sister’s cigarettes. I’m sure they knew when they came back.
And we were always busy, active, had to be productive. I like flower arranging. I’ve worked in the florist business, for florists for 50 years or so. I started with Harmon and Barton’s when they were up by the Lafayette, when the kids were at school…no…I was working before that, because I stopped when I had the kids. It was Harmon’s at that point – in the 1950’s. And then when we had children, I didn’t go back to work until they were in school. And then I went back to work for Harmon’s. It was Bob Nelson who owned it, and then Steve Barton, from the Bartons who owned it. I can’t remember how long I stayed there but I was there for a long time. So then I decided to retire, but then I needed something, so I went to Falmouth Flowers and I worked part-time and now I’m at Maine Medical in the Flowerbox. It’s a full-service florist – it’s really busy. I volunteer there two days a week. And I have another day at the soup kitchen at St. Vincent DePaul, which is very interesting. I go in every Tuesday to serve lunch. I like the group I work with in there – some of them are special needs people. The regulars come in for lunch too and I get to know them. I’ve been doing that for about four years or so. At this point in my life, there is nothing more I really yearn for. I would just like to stay here as long as I can.