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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Portrait of a Lady


My Great Aunt Alberta celebrated her 104th birthday in October. Born in 1910, the youngest of five girls, Alberta remembers  clearly her days on her parent's farm, in Greene County, four miles west of Paton, Iowa. For the past five years, Alberta has been living in an assisted living complex near the home of my Mom, her niece. When Alberta  recently fell and broke her back, it was clear that she needed to move to place where more round the clock care was available. I flew out from Ohio, charged with the assignment of finding that place.

In the photo below, Alberta is the little one sitting on the wagon next to her dad, Frank Leslie Walker.

Alberta's dad, my great grandfather,  raised hogs and Black Angus cattle. Upon returning from Chicago, he always brought his girls special presents, such as gold watches to wear. She recounts the chores she and her sisters did, told me about the  hired hands that sat down to lunch in the kitchen, the pranks of hiding in the hayloft and on and on. I could have listened for days!


  In the process of packing up her belongings, I came across many photos and other memorabilia of hers.  "Hey, Alberta,"I would say,  "I just found your high school book, what can you tell me about it." and off she would go, telling me tales of her early childhood.  She was the first to go to a brand new one room school house, just across the street from her farm. She said it was extra special because it had a hallway where you could leave your muddy boots instead of tracking them into the school room! Her chalkboard slate is still among her possessions. She remembered that the school teacher would board at her farm when the weather made it too dangerous to travel. She drove a Model T into Paton, taking her sisters and other neighbors to high school.


I found photos and this inscription inside her senior year memory book. In 1926, Alberta was 16 and Doug Hawn was 14. I mention this because Alberta and Doug reconnected in 1986 at a high school reunion and got married in 1989, the last of her three marriages. I never ask her personal questions, but, I wonder what it would be like to have to adjust to three different men-it is exhausting to contemplate!

 Below is a page from one of her many travelogs. The earliest such diary I found was written when she was 11 years old and traveling to Yellowstone. Her father and his brother would leave the farm in the capable hands of hired help each summer for a few weeks and set off for a trip with their families-camping in their  Willis Knight car. They had three tents and also used a haystack canvas cover over the car. Alberta mentioned to me that she has been to all 50 states, and I found her notebook, entitled  "Capitals I have Been To" among her papers.

Below is the first page of her journal from her 1929 trip from Iowa to California and Canada.


Alberta and three  of her sisters, including my grandmother, Blanche,  graduated from a business college in Des Moines, Iowa, affectionately referred to as the 4 C's: Capital City Commercial College.   Her oldest sister, Evelyn, went to a teachers college nearby. Alberta became a secretary for an insurance company and eventually rose to the position of executive secretary to the president of the company. She can still read and write shorthand, and many of her recipes require that knowledge! Alberta and her sister, Iola, lived in an apartment in Des Moines and  traveled back to the farm on weekends. I asked Alberta how she met her first husband, Bill Work, whom she married in 1936 at the age of 26.  Iola, by this time married to an electrician, Ray McLaughlin, introduced her to a fellow worker.. When I asked Alberta about Bill, she told me with a smile, that he was quite a good dancer and they went dancing every weekend. His sister taught him how to dance, she added!

Bill was stationed in Hawaii during WWII, and they moved to San Gabriel, California in 1954  where Bill found work as a claims adjuster for an insurance company. Alberta retired and spent several years traveling with Bill throughout California on his assignments.

When her husband passed away, she moved to Los Angeles, to live near two of her sisters( my grandmother, Blanche, and her twin sister, Bernice). Bernice, and her husband, John, built a summer home in Leisure World, Laguna Woods, California and after Bernice passed away, Alberta married John Krafft, the widower of Bernice and moved with him to Leisure World.  It was with John, a former college basketball coach and investment broker, that she traveled the world. Several cruises took them to China, Singapore, the Netherlands, and more- all recorded in her journals, scrapbooks, and photo albums. My grandmother, Blanche, also was quite a traveler and she and her husband lived in Tehran, Iran, and Saigon, Viet Nam, in the early 1960's where my grandfather worked for the U.S. Government. They, too, traveled the world as well as many parts of the United States. I don't think I got those travel genes, although Alberta thinks I did when I mentioned the motorhome I recently purchased!

After John passed away, Alberta married for the last time in 1989. Doug passed away at the age of 96. Their wedding photo is below.


I'm pleased to report that Alberta is settling into her new home and her visitors are treated to a gracious smile and bright eyes and invited to sit awhile and talk of current happenings or reminisce about days gone by.  My brother filmed a brief interview with her last year, seeking memories of Thanksgiving and Christmas.  You may watch it if you wish, in a separate blogpost, entitled, Alberta's interview.