As this book developed, I saw that I couldn’t explain my mother’s behavior without explaining her mother’s behavior, and her mother’s behavior didn’t make sense unless I told about her mother, my maternal great-grandmother (b. 1857). That woman was at the root of all my mother’s problems.

My great grandparents, George and Hannah Wilson, 1882

My great grandparents, George and Hannah Wilson, 1882


Chapter Five, The First Cinderella

In 1857, four years before the American Civil War, Hannah Oliphant, my mother’s grandmother, was born in Aspatria (pronounced Spatry), an English village on the border with Scotland. The people there were still wearing wooden clogs as late as the 1940s. When a train stopped at Aspatria, the conductor would shout, “All those wearing clogs loup out.”

George MacDonald Fraser, who served with men from Aspatria in Burma during the Second World War, says they were “descendants of one of the hardest breeds of men in Britain, with warfare (if not soldiering) bred into them from the distant past.” They were unsentimental, unforgiving, deeply loyal in a tribal way, brave—and ready to steal anything. “Nothing too hot or too heavy,” was their motto.

They scorned a man who was “windy” and were suspicious of those, like Fraser, himself, who were “educated.” One of them told him, “Ye knaw, Jock, fo an eddicated feller you doan’t ’alf talk soom crap.” Their synonym for “brave” was “mad.” To an outsider, their dialect was incomprehensible. Fraser says that their version of “Have you seen a donkey jump over a gate?” would be, “Est [hast thou] seen a coody loup ower a yett?” delivered in a harsh, rasping growl. He described a mate of his as typical: “lean, dark, wiry, speaking seldom and then usually in the harsh derisive fashion of the Border. An outsider would have found him wary and decidedly bleak, and marked him down as a dangerous customer, which he was; he was also remarkably kind and, when least expected, as gentle as a nurse.”

This would apparently serve as a fair description of my great-grandmother. I was six when she died and remember overhearing my parents discuss whether or not I was old enough to attend her funeral. Too young, they decided, and I was glad. Dead or alive, that woman scared me.

When I was a toddler, I was told to give her a hug. I balked. Mother pushed me forward. I held my ground. Nothing I have learned since suggests my aversion was unjustified. I have to assume that she could be unexpectedly kind and gentle. She married a good man. He must have seen more to her than I did.

Certainly her daughter Bessie, my grandmother, who was, I am told, much like her, could be unexpectedly kind and gentle. But when she was, she acted as if she was afraid she would be mocked for her “softness,” or, worse, embarrassed by gratitude. At any sign of affection, she blushed and became mute.

Hannah and her sister, Mary Ellen, were orphaned when they were very young and raised by an aunt or a grandmother. Whoever it was “had no finances.” So when the girls were eleven or twelve, their guardian “put them into service” at Brayton Hall, a large English country house that was a mile and half from Aspatria. Hannah became a scullery maid, “a very drab.” Mary Ellen was probably a scullery maid as well.

Photo of Brayton Hall

This is where my great grandmother came from—in a sense. Her name was Hannah Oliphant. She and her sister were orphans. At the age of twelve they were “put into service” as scullery maids scrubbing pots and pans with sand at Brayton Hall (shown above) a place much like Downton Abbey. It was was up on England’s border with Scotland.

The butlers and lady’s maids of England’s great country houses were well fed and relatively comfortable. The under-servants were emaciated and sickly. Their work was never done. They slept in attics, basements, or on cots in pantries. In some of the great houses the servants were expected to “give room,” meaning to face the wall if they met their mistress or master in a hallway. But scullery maids never had to do this because they never went upstairs. They were out of sight, out of mind. Persons of no significance. Hannah, however, did not intend to put up with this kind of life. In her heart of hearts, she was a version of Cinderella waiting to pounce on a prince.

During her time as a scullery maid, the Baronet of Brayton Hall was Sir Wilfrid Lawson, who was said to be the leading humorist in the House of Commons. His estate covered an excess of 6,500 acres. Besides the residence, it included an eight-acre lake, a well-timbered park, stables, and farm buildings. He also owned eight tenanted farms in close proximity to the estate, two commercial market gardens with glass houses and related facilities, numerous dwelling houses, cottages, accommodation lands, and plantations.  Entering the house, visitors passed into a large hall, two stories in height with a balcony on one side supported by marble pillars, a large fireplace, and a beautiful tiled floor. Leading from the hall were passages and staircases to a number of reception rooms and bedrooms, all elaborately furnished in a common theme. For example, there was the Ash Room, where all the furniture was made of ash, the Maple Room, the Ebony Room, the Bamboo Room, and the Sheraton Room.

Among Hannah’s meager possessions was one book, Jenny’s Geranium, which promoted temperance. It was often given as a prize for Presbyterian Sabbath School attendance. Lawson, a fervent temperance advocate, may have had his butler distribute copies of this book to the younger servants.

It is the story of a little girl who finds a potted geranium on a rubbish heap, takes it home, waters it, and puts it on a sunny windowsill. When it blooms, her father tries to barter it for gin, but is shamed into vowing to stop drinking. Moral: Never trust a man who drinks. Hannah didn’t need any instruction in this respect. She didn’t trust anybody.

According to my mother, Hannah was 14 when she met George Wilson, “her prince,” at a village fair. He was good looking, ruddy, and short—not much taller than she was. And he was not from “around thereabouts.” He was from the south, which doesn’t help much. All England is south of Aspatria.

At the time, George was a student or apprentice at a place called the King’s Tailor Shop—location unknown. He learned to be a tailor, picked up a few Latin phrases, got the names of England’s kings by heart, and memorized a few passages from Shakespeare’s plays. But circumstantial evidence suggests that the bard’s words did not set fire to his imagination. It took the stories in the twopenny weeklies to do that, stories like “Deerfoot of the Prairies, “The Scalp Hunters,” and “Mahaska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter.”

My mother said that George told her he was in Aspatria because he and some mates were gypsying about from one village fair to the next in order to compete in athletic events. He gave her three pewter trophies he said he’d won at those events and told her his specialty had been the broad jump.

George spoke civilly to Hannah, and they “walked out together.” He went back to see her—probably more than once. I know he was there on February 15, 1878, because on that date, he took her to the Quadrilles Class Ball at Noble Temple Hall. Hannah was 21. She saved the program, and I have it before me. The dances included reels, circular waltzes, quadrilles, gallops, polkas, the Highland Schottische, the Varsoviana, and the Sir Roger De Coverley. I don’t know what happened between them. Did George make a promise? In any case, Hannah became convinced that they would marry.

But in the following months—no word from George. Hannah seethed for a while. Then, upon making inquiries, she learned from one of his sisters that slippery George had gone off to America. She wheedled his address from that same sister and, closing her ears to the voices prophesying disaster, bought a steerage ticket on a sailing ship bound for Toronto.

I have read accounts of immigrants falling to their knees when they sighted land, or singing, or rushing to the rail and declaiming in their own language. I can’t imagine Hannah doing any of those things. She was not one to “let herself go” until she had a target and a purpose. “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”—that was the all in all of her.

Tiny, ignorant, frightened, frightening, and brave, she had George’s address, but there was a whole country to miss him in—a country that was far larger than she had imagined and whose people and customs were much stranger than she had been told. My mother told me that her mother told her that Hannah did not let George know she was coming. Maybe she was afraid he might slip away again. I have no idea how she managed to get herself from Toronto to Kansas City and to find George, but find him she did, and, reader, she married him.