Claire Young LawsonClaire Elizabeth Young Lawson

Let me tell you about Claire.  Clara Elizabeth Young she was born but she always used Claire.  I believe her father was a farmer.  Good German stock, as they say.  It was somewhere in central Pennsylvania.

I know nothing of her childhood, as she never mentioned it.  But I assume that her roots are what gave her the strength of character that was so evident.  At some point she did nursing.  She worked as a milliner and also as buyer for a store in Altoona, Pa.  This latter job took her to New York where she went to plays and the opera.

Whether from childhood or later in her life, she was good friends with Anna Mary McClure Lawson.  Anna was the wife of Edmund Brehman Lawson, a Pennsylvania Railroad engineer.  They lived near Pittsburg but Anna, at least, had roots in Altoona.  At any rate, Claire knew the couple and their family.  She said she held their two little girls, Dorothy and Marian, when they were infants, the two girls that had lived that is.  In those days, death was a part of everyday life.  Of the six children that Anna and Edmund had, two died in infancy or early childhood.  Dorothy remembered a younger sister Janet in her crib and there was another boy, Earl who also died young.  There were also two older boys.

When the 1918 flu epidemic hit, Anna went to nurse her sick sister or the other way around.  At any rate, both died.  Edmund was now left with two teenage boys, Paul and Charles, and two very young girls, Dorothy and Marian.  As would be expected, Edmund looked to the familiar for someone to raise the children and fill the emptiness.  Anna’s friend Claire fit the bill.

New Family and FriendsClaire adored those little girls.  She said it was for the children that she married.  I hope there was also love.  She was a fairly independent woman for those days.  She was earning her own way.  But she was getting older.  And there were those little girls.  Whatever the motivation, she and Edmund were married.  As is often true, the reality was probably different from the fantasy.

My Aunt Dorothy, Dot as we called her, who was always interested in clothes and food, had certain memories of the wedding event.  After being married on Valentine’s Day, the newly weds came home from their honeymoon in Washington, DC.  The housekeeper, Minnie, made a special dinner of oyster bisque and baked shad.  When they retired to the parlor, Dot’s father asked her to bring in the box of candy that they had brought back from their trip and pass it around.  When Dot offered the candy to her new step mother, Claire said thank you but she would prefer to have one of the oranges she had seen in the kitchen.  Aunt Dot said she knew right away she wasn’t going to get along with this woman.

It’s a great story on Aunt Dot.  But the fact is Dot and Claire wouldn’t have gotten along no matter what.  Dot had had her father to herself for a while.  She idolized him; he could do no wrong.  Now Claire was the other woman.  When her father died within two years, they were to butt heads continually until Dot moved out in her senior year of high school.

In the meantime, Dot took note of some of Claire’s trousseau.  Claire and her sister Margaret had been milliners and Claire had also been a buyer who would often go to New York City.  She knew her clothes.  Aunt Dot describes a cream chiffon dress with cream satin appliquéd circles on the bottom and a satin cummerbund.  Could this have also served as the wedding dress?  Dot described a night cap made of French ribbon done in a spirals over the ears.

Dot also recounts the story told to her by Claire of one particular trip from her single days to the opera in New York.  I assume it was on one of those buying trips as her new husband was a strict Methodist and Claire gave up a lot of her pleasures for him.  At any rate Claire was wearing a gown of black lace over magenta fabric.  Suddenly, on her way into the show, her panties fell down around her feet and into the snow.  In one movement she stepped out of them, swept them up and into her muff and proceeded on to enjoy the show.

Edmund was a Methodist and Claire was Lutheran.  Claire remembers she gave up playing cards for him.  But when his religious convictions took Dorothy to task for dancing, Claire weighed in.

Edmund Lawson and Crew As an engineer on the Pennsylvania Railroad, Edmund was considered fairly successful.  They had a nice house and the little luxuries.  But that was not to last.  A year or two after remarrying, Edmund got onto a train he knew he shouldn’t.  He told the people in charge that the boiler was leaking.  They didn’t care -- they said to take it out anyway.  The pressure built up.  When it became obvious that the boiler was going to blow, Edmund pushed his fireman off of the cab of the train, saving him, but Edmund didn’t make it.

So there was Claire, a widow while she was still enjoying being a bride.  And there were the four children, stripped of another parent.  At Edmund’s funeral, little Marian, age 6 or so, was comforted by her brother Charles.  “Who will take care of us?” she asked.  “I will”, he said.  That was too much of a promise for a teenage boy to make, but Marian never truly forgave him when he and his brother Paul, not much later, left home.  You really couldn’t expect normally rebellious teenage boys to begin taking orders from someone they had only known for such a short time.  Marian would not see Paul or Charles again until she was in her forties.

I always wondered what many thoughts Claire had.  These weren’t her kids.  She could have palmed them off on a blood relative.  But I have a feeling that it never crossed her mind, or at least it was fleeting.  After all, those kids were a main reason she had married.

She got some compensation from the railroad.  A cousin of hers told her he would invest the money for her and he did.  He bought stocks that turned out to be a scam and not worth the paper they were printed on.  Now what was she to do?

She sold the house near Pittsburg and moved the girls into a smaller place at 2527 Beale Ave. in Altoona, a place closer to her family and to Anna’s.  The husband of Anna’s dead sister, Jack(John?) Robinson, also had remarried.  His child Margaret was cousin to Marian and Dorothy.  The two stepmothers kept that connection going.  Claire’s mother was also still in the area.

Claire really couldn’t go back to being a milliner or a buyer or any job outside the home.  That just wasn’t done when you had kids.  So she did what she could, she took in boarders.  The attic became the bedroom for the girls.  That left Claire with a bedroom and two to rent out.  Imagine 5 people and one bathroom.  But they made do.

Claire Marian DorothyThe girls were expected to contribute.  They helped with meals and housekeeping.  Dorothy remembers one Sunday after church, she and Marian were told to run along home and begin to heat the prepared meal for the boarders so it would be ready to serve when everyone got home.  They put the heat on under the mashed parsnips.  Somehow, in washing something, the lye soap they were using squirted out of Dorothy’s hands and into the heating parsnips.  The heat of the liquid started melting the soap.  They had a difficult time getting it out.  They never mentioned what had happened and everyone ate the parsnips.  I wonder what that says about the taste of parsnips.

Marian had been too little to know what material things had been lost when her father died.  But Dorothy remembered.  She had been her Daddy’s princess.  Dresses had been made for her.  She remembered the luxuries like Oysters and candy that her father had brought back from his trips.  Now, like Cinderella, she was relegated to the attic and had to do manual work for this stepmother.  She didn’t really see, or didn’t want to, what sacrifices Claire had made for them and how hard she was working.  When she hit her teens and got a job in Woolworth’s she complained bitterly to relatives that she was expected to hand over half of her salary to her stepmother.  She didn’t understand that the income from two boarders wasn’t enough to feed and cloth two girls.

Marian also remembered working.  By age 12 she would get a quarter for scrubbing neighbor’s kitchen floors.  She would always hand it over to Claire without a thought.  Though younger, she understood why.  She had been too young to know she was a princess so she never felt the come down.
Finally, as a teenager, the conflict got too great and Dorothy moved out.  She finished high school living with a friend.  Maybe not related by blood, but Dorothy had the same perseverance as Claire.  She got herself into College and got a teaching degree.  After some years of teaching, she returned to school and got a Masters degree in social work.  Dorothy is another story by herself so I will leave her for now.

Claire got Marian through high school.  At some point after that, Marian ended up at the Children’s Seashore House in Atlantic City.  This was a place for very sick children.  The sea air was considered beneficial.  This was the depression so any job was welcome.  Marian remembered that she and her friends would visit different churches each Sunday.  It was free entertainment and she learned about other people.  The one place they didn’t’ go to was the Holy Roller Church.  They stopped by the door and heard the sounds coming out.  This one seemed to scare them.

Marian as nurse Claire came down to Atlantic City and told Marian she needed to make some decisions.  She probably pushed or at least urged Marian toward a nursing career now that she had experience at the Seashore House and seemed to like it.  So they ended up enrolling Marian in the nursing program at Abington Hospital in Abington, Pennsylvania.

Now both of Claire’s girls were situated.  Yes, Dorothy had reconciled with Claire though there was always a bit of tension, at least for Dorothy.  Claire continued to take in boarders and maintained herself that way.  I believe both girls sent money occasionally.  I know Dorothy provided the bulk of Claire’s income in later years.

When I was between the ages of about 7 and 14, I would visit Claire, my grandmother, for two weeks in the summer.  I was the most docile of the three of us, so Grandmother could handle me and it was one less child for Mom to have to keep track of.  This is when I would hear some of the stories about family.  But they came grudgingly and Claire never cast herself in any special light.  After all, you did what you had to do.  But you can imagine how things had been.  Even at that point in her life, she used the backs of the envelopes of incoming mail for grocery lists.  She washed out the plastic bags that bread came in to use for food storage long before “baggies” were on the market.  Good old German frugality was the order of the day.  I remember her telling me that an inch or two of water in the tub was quite enough for a bath.

She still had one boarder left, Tessie Wise.  Tessie was a dressmaker and so rented one room for a bedroom and one for a sewing room.  It was Tessie who gave me some of my first sewing lessons.  They seemed to get along well over the years.  As wonderful as I always thought Claire E. was, she did have an old prejudice that just wouldn’t go away.  Tessie was Catholic.  She liked Tessie and Tessie’s brother Leonard was so very good to both of them.  But that old time religion, where each sect thought it was the only right one, was hard to break away from.  She really believed that many of the children in Catholic orphanages were products of priests and nuns.  At about age 12, she made me promise that I wouldn’t marry a Catholic; there lay ruin.  Yet outwardly, she treated everyone well.  Tessie must have put up with an occasional unthinking remark.  But they seemed to be friends.

In later years, it was the unmarried Dorothy who shouldered the burden of getting repairs done to the house on Beale, hiring housekeepers when Claire could no longer do things herself and finally, reluctantly, moving Claire into a Lutheran nursing home.  Dorothy’s social work training really came out.  She said and did all the right things with her stepmother.  Claire had taken in her own mother in her last years so part of her really didn’t understand why Dorothy couldn’t do that.  But Dorothy, after many years in an efficiency apartment, had only recently moved up to a one bedroom where she worked in Washington, DC.  She just couldn’t do it.  Claire accepted, even if she didn’t like it.

And so it was in that nursing home that she died quietly one day.  Claire was one of those everyday heroes.  There were and are so many.  They do the best they can with what they have.  They take responsibilities seriously and they love the best they know how.