Elementary, my dear… 
In the Days of Camisoles and Bloomers

At 18, gently bred city-girl Helen Medora Richardson did not yet know where babies came from. “Shall I tell her, or will you?” her groom asked his future mother-in-law.

I don’t think my grandmother was ever introduced to a bra. But, if she had been, would she have burned it? By any stretch of the imagination, could she have been termed a feminist? Whatever would she have thought of “The Silence Breakers” who were given the 2017 Time Magazine “Person of the Year Award?”

Helen Medora Richardson was born in 1878 to a genteel California family. Her father, the assistant postmaster in San Francisco, wrote poetry and hobnobbed with the likes of Bret Harte and Joaquin Miller. Her mother had been raised in Mexico City in an expatriated Southern family and taught her eldest daughter to arrange flowers, cook fancy desserts, sew a fine seam, and little else. Obviously, ending up at “the jumping off place” in Oysterville, Washington, was not in the plans for the gently bred Helen Medora.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine what was in my great-grandmother’s mind concerning her daughter’s future. Shortly before the lovely 19-year-old Helen and my 21-year-old grandfather-to-be were married (after a suitably long courtship and engagement), Harry found it necessary to go to his future mother-in-law with a rather delicate problem. “Helen,” he said, “does not yet know where babies come from. She needs to know that before our wedding. Either you tell her, or I will — though I prefer it would be you.”

I’m not sure how the rest of the conversation went except that Harry did mention that his own mother had never faced such a problem. His sisters, after all, were farm girls and they knew all about the birds and the bees.

Whatever ensued, Helen and Harry were steadfast in marriage for the next 57 years and were devoted parents to seven children. As Helen’s chronic “female troubles” compounded with the birth of each child, I wonder if it ever occurred to her to ‘just say no.’ What meaning would “a woman’s choice” have had for my Granny? And, what if her last child (my mother) had not been born?

When they moved from East Oakland in 1901 with its gas lamps and trolley cars and all the amenities of “the gay 90s,” Helen hoped it would be for a short time. Instead, she was in Oysterville for the duration — at “the end of the known universe,” as she called it, without electricity or indoor plumbing until 1936. She never complained. She adored Harry and she was of the generation that believed a woman’s fortunes were tied inexorably to her man’s. Whatever was best for Harry was best for her and their family… “till death do us part.”

Helen was content in the knowledge that her place was in the home. She became an accomplished cook and seamstress, she played the piano and mandolin, she guided her children in their intellectual development, wrote poetry and short stories. She became Harry’s unofficial secretary/assistant during the years he served in the Senate in Olympia as well as for the 40 years he served as justice of the peace in Oysterville.

I think about my grandmother quite often these days and wonder what she would have to contribute to the many conversations regarding sexual harassment. Despite her Victorian upbringing, she was not oblivious to the possibility of untoward behavior by the opposite “gender.” (And what would she have made of our free and easy usage of the word “sex?”)

I know for a fact that she was ever vigilant with regard to her own daughters. When Grandpa Espy, the patriarch of Oysterville was in his dotage, he began to have “an eye for the ladies.” Occasionally this became a problem, particularly for the younger women of the family. His grandfatherly hugs were just a bit too amorous; his comforting pats a bit too lingering. As long as he was in Oysterville under the watchful eye of his third wife, “Aunt Kate,” he behaved himself. But out of her sight, he was not to be trusted.

If Grandpa was feeling up to the journey to Astoria or Portland, perhaps to do some doctoring or take care of a little business, family members quickly spread the word. The girls and women made themselves scarce or, if necessary, enlisted one of the male relatives to do escort duty. On more than one occasion, Helen wrote to her eldest daughter, who was a student at Portland Academy: Just heard [grand]Father is going to Portland. Don’t “go out” with him at all. Have a previous engagement or have to study — anything, but do not go.

I can hardly imagine what my grandmother would have to say about the finger-pointing and accusations that are spewing forth from every corner these days. “How do you think we came to this, Granny?” I’d like to ask. Would she, in turn, ask, “How did these women find themselves in such compromising circumstances?” Or perhaps she would wonder about their upbringing. “What were their parents’ expectations — for them and for others?”

In 1915, when her 16-year-old daughter, Medora, worried about a rather brazen newcomer to her boardinghouse, Helen wrote: One thing you have not lived long enough to realize (and tho it is so, I never will know why) is that all masculine gender old and young will play with a frivolous girl. Often a fine lad will associate madly with a girl, who if his sister chummed with, would make him indignant. But this is always a superficial attraction. In their hearts they do not respect these women. Often a physical infatuation exists, but rarely a fine man either loves or marries his butterfly toys.

My grandmother died when I was a sophomore in college — 1954. I adored her and had spent more time with her than with any other adult except my parents. We shelled peas together, read books together, talked politics together… but, as is always the way, there are so many topics now, 60-some years later, that I would love to have broached. Topics that would never have occurred to either of us at the time.

“Granny, what do you think of co-ed dorms?” I might have asked had she lived a few years longer. And what would she have said? Would she have responded with one of her gentle questions — “to what purpose, Muffet?” (That was what she called me, always, as in Little Miss…). Or would I have asked what she thought of the latest clothing styles for women? Or, maybe a question about how she and Papa counseled their boys so that they grew into manhood with great respect for themselves as well as for the girls and women in their lives.

Hindsight is always easy. So, apparently, is revisionist memory and revisionist history. Or so it seems to this octogenarian whose memory goes back a long way… but a little differently.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.