Thursday, November 27, 2008

My Grandmother the Candidate

My grandmother picks strawberries at Windswept, circa 1950.

As far as I know, my maternal grandmother's only living relatives at this point are a cousin I've never met, my brother and myself. She was not an especially cuddly, doting grandmother, but I got along with her pretty well as a child. She was a bit of a rebel and an adventurer, a modern woman of the 1940s, more or less. I wish now I knew a bit more about her. She moved away from DeWitt, NY circa 1968-1970, just as I entered my teens, so we never really had anything like an adult conversation.

I was thinking about her today as I chatted in the dog park with a woman who was a feminist of the 1960s. She said she grew up watching 1940s films in which women went out and did things and had romances, unfettered by parents or children. Think Katherine Hepburn, but she named several other major actresses of the day, who "weren't especially pretty" but were strong, adult characters. That was the impression of adult life my new friend grew up with, only to encounter something very different when she got there herself. "I saw all my friends rushing into marriage and children," she said, "and it didn't seem right to me. That's supposed to happen at the end of the movie, not at the beginning." Welcome to the baby boom. My friend went her own way, traveled, had a career, and eventually got married. Twice.

Thinking about strong women of the 1940s, I tried to tell my friend about my grandmother, Flora D. Johnson, the first woman in Onondaga County to run for Congress. But I had my chronology all mixed up and couldn't keep straight what happened when. Tonight I looked it up, both on my own web pages and in other sources, including The New York Times. Here is what I know of her story:

The two Floras, circa 1940s.

Flora Missellier DuFour was born June 28, 1895 in Stratford, Connecticut, the daughter of Charles Edwin DuFour of New Haven (Jul 27 1867-Feb 6 1950) and Mary Adelaide Beardsley (dates unknown). She married Ambrose Alexis Johnson of Scranton PA (Sep 12 1891 - Aug 18 1950), with whom she had her two children, Flora M. Johnson and my mom, Ruth Anne Johnson (originally Ruth Louise Johnson). As a small child my mom, who looked a bit like Shirley Temple at the time, tap danced in the street and was given money by strangers, much to her parents' mortification.

Ambrose Johnson owned a small machine tool company, for which the elder Flora was Vice President. The two daughters also helped out in the office. There may have been trouble in the family even then, though, because I'm not sure Ambrose was around when Flora and her daughters lived at Windswept, a farm in Tully, NY. Mom told me that sometimes other farmers would bring them vegetables to eat. Flora and her daughters picked their own strawberries. I gather that my mom and grandmother didn't get along very well, but I only have the vaguest idea why.

My grandfather, Ambrose Johnson. As he was dying of cancer,
he tried to bribe my mom not to get married.

A member of the Democratic Party, Flora ran for the Congress of the United States in 1940, the first woman in the history of Onondaga County, NY to do so. She was successful up to a point, becoming the Democratic nominee for Representative at Large. According to The New York Times, Eleanor Roosevelt was scheduled to attend a reception and tea at the Hotel Astor in her honor on September 24, 1940. But Flora lost in the general election, reportedly due to personal scandal - which is to say, the local newspapers reported she was having an affair. She got a divorce from Ambrose (a Roman Catholic) in Reno in 1943, and in 1944 she married Thomas Ballantyne. Ballantyne had this second marriage annulled in 1948, and the court ruled she was still married to Johnson. Ambrose Johnson died of cancer two years later. Flora retained the name Ballantyne on correspondence for decades thereafter, but finished her life as Flora D. Johnson.

Flora in her officer's uniform, probably well after the War.

It must have been shortly after her run for Congress that my grandmother enlisted, becoming an officer (a WAVE or a WAC, I don't remember which) in World War II. After the war she was a licensed real estate broker in Dewitt, NY (1950s-1960s). My Aunt Flora, a civil engineer, lived briefly in Guam, got pregnant, came home to live with her mother and gave the baby, my cousin Vereene, up for adoption in 1954. (I'm not sure of the order of events, where my Aunt Flora got pregnant or when she moved in with her mother.) At some point after that, my aunt worked on the Interstate Highway System.

Once she was single (and possibly before that) my grandmother frequently visited Europe, especially Venice, where she once shared a flooded hotel with playwright Thornton Wilder. She brought back a fair amount of Venetian glass and jewelry, very little of which remains among my mom's effects. Sometimes my aunt was with her on her overseas adventures.

I remember the two Floras as living together at the end of a street in DeWitt, near Clark Real Estate and not far from Grandmother's favorite place to eat, Howard Johnson's. I remember visiting overnight once, and Grandmother made me lumpy Cream of Wheat, which I loved. (I upset my mom asking for lumpy Cream of Wheat thereafter.) For Christmas one year she gave me a drink and wet doll, which I didn't care about because that was the year I got Chatty Baby. Around 1965 she gave me her 1941 printing of Winnie the Pooh and an 1868 book called The Cricket's Friends. She kept dog biscuits for the cocker spaniel next door, which tied me to a tree one day by running around and around while I cried out for help. She took me to Tully once to pick strawberries on what remained of her land there, which by then was heavily overgrown. On the way back we ate at a diner, possibly my favorite restaurant at the time, the Orville Barbecue. That's when she introduced me to ice tea. And that's pretty much the extent of my memories of her.

The two Floras moved to Fairfax, VA in the late 1960s or possibly 1970s, where Aunt Flora continued her career until health issues forced her to retire. They moved to Cocoa Beach, FL (1977-early 1980s). My grandmother had a series of pacemaker operations in the 1970s. She died in Florida on July 6, 1984.

I have questions now that can't be answered by paying $3.95 each for PDF copies of old newspaper articles. Was she a New Deal Democrat? It seems likely, and good for her. It doesn't sound as though she was much cut out to be a wife and mother, although the two Floras got along well as mature adults. What was the issue between her and my mom? Why did she risk a seat in the House of Representatives by getting involved with another man? Why didn't she and Ambrose get along? When the the family live at Windswept, and was Ambrose with them at the time?

I guess I'll never know.



Astaryth said...

What a cool story!

Hope you guys have a Great Turkey Day!

Martha said...

What a great story Karen!
Happy Thanksgiving! Hugs! :-)