Tuesday, July 12, 2016

My Grandmother was a Mail-Order Bride by Marion Ekholm


Today my grandmother Ethel Eleanor Humphrey would have her own Reality Show. During her teenage years, she asked a fortune teller about her chances of marriage and was told she’d marry three times.

Ethel was a beautiful woman and had many boyfriends when she moved from Maine to Connecticut. She was seeing a Mr. Usher, her boss in the factory where she worked, when Mr. Fox asked her for a date. Despite both being involved with other people, Grandma agreed to go out with him. Mr. Fox planned to marry a woman who rented the upstairs of the duplex his family owned. When he took Grandma to his home, she saw his fiancĂ© in the upstairs window. The woman looked so sad, possibly believing Grandma was stealing her betrothed. Not wanting to ruin this poor girl’s life, Grandma stopped seeing Mr. Fox and eventually married Mr. Usher.

While the Ushers were a wealthy, prominent family, Ethel came from very humble beginnings. They had four children and when my Uncle Charlie was about six months old, my grandfather died of pneumonia. This left Ethel in a dire financial situation, dependent on her husband’s family.  


Front row Ruth, Bob & Pearl (my mother). In the back Ethel holding Charlie
Today’s online dating might seem as though it’s the original way to hook up with a stranger for intimacy and possible marriage. Not so. A hundred years ago, my grandmother accepted a proposal of marriage through the mail and traveled from Connecticut to Montana to marry her second husband, Mr. Ferguson.

According to my mother, who was around six at the time, it was a horrible experience. The widowed Mr. Ferguson also had four children. He treated his own well, buying them ice cream when they were all out together, but nothing for my mother and her siblings. He died after six months of marriage. Ethel returned to Connecticut with her children, leaving Mr. Ferguson’s with his relatives.

Ethel struggled, having at one point to put both boys in an orphanage for a period of time, something they resented for the rest of their lives. Grandma liked the country in the summer and preferred the city in the winter. Their constant moves may have had something to do with an inability to pay the rent, but it also meant my mother often started in a different school each fall.

I have one memory of a man Grandma dated when I was about four, a Mr. Pepper. He and my grandmother showed up one Easter with this wooden doll cradle painted blue, filled with candy. Grandma could never afford to give us gifts, so I knew it had to come from Mr. Pepper. When I learned Grandma planned to marry again, I was delighted. They had been dating for a while, so imagine my surprise when a different man joined her at the altar.

When Grandma learned Mr. Fox had lost his wife, she contacted him and their romance continued where it had left off. Mr. Fox, who had none of the warmth and friendliness of Mr. Pepper, became my grandfather. After approximately thirty years of a contentious marriage, the two ended up in a nursing home. By then Mr. Fox was blind from sugar diabetes, and Grandma had difficulty walking due to a car accident. Since men and women were kept in separate quarters, I doubt if Mr. Fox even knew his wife was there. The last time I saw her, Grandma told me she already had a new boyfriend.

What about your relatives? Do they belong on a Reality Show?

13 comments:

  1. That is one amazing life! It would have been hard on the kids, but back then a woman didn't have a lot of options. And whatever the decade, being a single mom isn't easy. I feel a little bad for Mr. Pepper, though. LOL!

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  2. What an interesting life your grandmother lived. My family is too boring to be on a reality show, but my husband's family...

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  3. Marion, I love your story--for many reasons. My grandmother's name was Ethel and she went to a fortune teller every Friday at 3:00. A devout Christian, nothing stopped her from that appointment. My mother's family was bigger than life and I've always thought they deserved a motion picture. No one would believe the things they did!

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  4. Marion, what a fantastic family history. Sad in some ways, but your grandmother was a strong woman. And I think you resemble that photo of her. Do you know how she became the mail order bride? Was it through an ad in the newspaper? If so, it's interesting that a man in Montana advertised in the East. Did all of it effect your mother's relationships with men? Just wondering.

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  5. Marion, what a story! Sounds like Ethel did what she could to keep the kids together and go on - had a sense of adventure about it, and sometimes that works out well, and sometimes not. My family story is long and complex, filled with some really admirable people, and a few others you just have to give the benefit of the doubt. Hard to know what I'd do in the same situation. Cool, stuff, though. You should write a book!

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  6. Marion, what a fantastic story! You've got the makings for a great book, but maybe add a happier ending for Grandma. Sounds like she loved the idea of romance but could never quite get there. Thank you for sharing!

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  7. What a fascinating story, Marion, and so well told! I agree with Carol's comment about the potential for a book but with a HEA.

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  8. My goodness,Ethel had a hard life, but it sounds as if she did the best she could, under the circumstances. She was a strong woman.

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  9. Wow, that's quite a saga, Marion. My dad had five brothers and sisters so we were quite the clan when I was a kid. I still miss being close to all my cousins. Your Ethel's story is amazing. I can only imagine how tough keeping her family together was. And being a mail order bride?! This reminds me of Sarah Plain and Tall.

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  10. Oh Marion! What a story! She could definitely have her own reality show now days. When I was researching my husband's family for our family tree, he had a great-grandfather that would settle in a town, marry, have a bunch of kids and then disappear. Several years later, he would be in a different town with a new wife and more kids. This happened several times and to my knowledge, he never divorced any of the women. This story horrified my mother-in-law and she refuses to discuss it. She says it's too embarrassing. I wonder what would've happened if he'd ran into your grandmother during his travels. I think they were both looking for something. We could've been cousins, lol!

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  11. What a story--and thank you for telling it to us.

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  12. Thanks for sharing this terrific story, Marion!

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  13. Marion, this is a wonderful story about your grandmother. Oh, the choices women had to make back in the day! My dad's mother was married twice, and near the end of her life, lived in a nursing home where she said she planned to find my father a "steppin' daddy'."

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