by Janet Brigham

The postcard was nestled among the other belongings of a relative who died this summer at age 95. The relative’s family sent it to me because it ap- peared to be written by my maternal grandmother, Sibyl (1886-1960). I have known Sibyl’s handwriting since I was about five years old, and I knew this was not Sibyl’s handwriting. I thought the handwriting might be that of her husband, my grandfather Clement, whom I met only once. I quickly pulled up a digital copy of a letter Clement had written to Sibyl and saw that the handwriting was un- mistakably his. Why, I wondered, had Sibyl not written the postcard herself? She was a self-sufficient woman who rarely asked anyone to do things for her. The postcard’s date of July 3, no year visible, raised the possibility that her hands were occupied because she was preparing or preserving food. Southeastern Idaho’s crops from early July can include apricots, beets, beans, berries, cherries, and cucumbers. Baking bread also can be a consuming and messy project, along with laundry and other household unavoidables. Whatever Sibyl might have been do- ing, the certainty is that my grandfather, who otherwise was “haying” (according to the postcard), wrote out the message and addressed the postcard as if it were from Sibyl. What makes that interesting is that, like many families, theirs was battered by poverty and lack of available work. Whenever this postcard was written, it was before Clement left home to find work during rugged economic times.

The lore and the facts

I heard several stories from family about life dur- ing that period of time preceding and during the Great Depression. I was able to substantiate some of the stories:

• For lack of just a few hundred dollars, the family lost their farm in eastern Idaho, where they grew apples. I substantiated this by locat- ing bank files documenting the situation, starting from a banker’s business card found in Sibyl’s papers. The Idaho State Historical Society tracked down the bank records.

• Clement ventured away from home — as far away as the southwestern United States — to look for work when he could find none in southeastern Idaho. An indication of this is that in 1937 their eldest son married a woman who was born in Texas and, in the 1930 U.S. Census, was living in New Mexico.

• The Depression and the years preceding it were exceedingly difficult economically, and many families struggled to survive. Sibyl bar- tered her nursing and midwife skills for food, services, and goods.

When my mother was an adult, Sibyl told her that in exchange for a doctor’s help as she gave birth to my mother, the doctor asked her to wet-nurse an infant whose mother could not nurse. That was the economy of those early decades of the 1900s.

Sibyl often said that her most salient memory from that time involved sitting at the sewing machine with “a naked child standing at the other end.” She sewed things that these days we would only buy; after she died in 1960, my mother inherited her numerous unfinished sewing projects, some of which were passed on to me. When, in graduate school, I needed a new bathrobe, I finished a corduroy one that Sibyl had started sewing decades earlier.

• A great-aunt told me that when Clement left to go find work, he had $2, gave $1 of it to Sibyl and the six children, and took the other $1 to find work, along with their eldest son. I have- n’t been able to substantiate that with family documents and will have to rely on the great-aunt, a matter-of-fact woman who, as Sibyl’s younger sister, was one of Sibyl’s confidantes.

• After a few years, when Clement tried to re- turn home without having found long-term work, Sibyl would not take him back. Letters between the two of them, much later given to me, documented the end of their marriage. Information I have helped others research about their families has indicated that this was not an isolated case — similar circumstances split at least two other families I’ve studied. I have searched for research substantiating this phenomenon. Author Stephanie Coontz, in her recent book Marriage, a History, de- scribes the effects of economic problems on family cohesion.

• My mother said that her father left the family when she was about six years old (about 1925) and never returned. My great-aunt told me in the 1970s that Clement wanted to re- turn, but Sibyl was so weary from raising and supporting the children without him, she would not let him come back to the family. Some years later, I was given family letters indicating that he had wanted to return but was not welcomed back. I told my mother what I had learned. She had not known he had wanted to return. She had only known he left and never returned. When he died in 1956, she did not travel to Southern California for the funeral.

What important information emerges from this one postcard? Without context, little. It is a postcard that promises a letter in the near future, says “the boys” are “haying,” and plans for a future visit. On the surface, it indicates little more than the fact that they had a field of hay. July in southern Idaho would have been an appropriate time to cut, dry, and bale hay, since the hot, arid climate enabled drying hay. We don’t know just what equipment they had to accomplish this. Farmers in some communities shared equipment and helped with each other’s har- vests. It would not be impossible to learn some of this information from local and county sources , but this might not be the focus of the research.

What did concern the family — and in some waysstill does — was the relationship be- tween the two parents. It seems likely that they were in the same location when Sibyl dictated the postcard and Clement wrote it out. Perhaps when she was in the midst of a messy project, he came in from haying, cleaned up for lunch, and took her dictation so the postcard could go out in the day’s post. That’s only a guess, of course. By the 1930 U.S. Census, they were spending at least part of the year apart. By the 1940 census, they were sepa- rated and perhaps divorced. Letters he wrote her in 1945 indicate that he was trying to reconcile. They divorced, and he remarried in 1949. The facts that help us bracket a time period for the postcard are that “the boys” (in other words, not just Clement) were haying. Sibyl referred to “theboys” in other correspondence as those who were doing early-morning farm work outside. If the term refers to her husband and older son(s), that would date the postcard to some time between 1925 and 1935.

Family historians long have been advised to learn the historical context of their ancestors’ lives as a way to gain understanding. Library advocate Kevin Arme explains: What is historical context?

Historical context is the elements that permeate the lives of every living person; the local history of where they were born, the events that may have shaped their lives, and the living conditions that often can provide some measure of explanation about who they were as [people.]( context-for-genealogy-research-what-your-ancestors- surroundings-say-about-them/)

Much of the genealogical value of this postcard is in its context, not its manifest content. Learning that July was haying time in southeastern Idaho is not a discovery. Seeing that people communicated by postcard in the early twentieth century also is not a revelation; only recently has long-distance voice communication been affordable.

Instead, what we learn is that this couple, who had six children but later divorced, was together enough to cooperatively connect with a relative. It may show a level of comfort, not a level of tension. It also may reinforce a statement by Sibyl in her later life that even though she didn’t want to be married to Clem- ent for the rest of her mortality, she wanted to be with him in the afterlife. Understanding the context of family content can be accomplished through a systematic approach. One such approach — and many exist — is a “world cultures model,” which suggests interpreting infor- mation through several aspects:

• Historical • Economic • Social • Beliefs • Politics • Aesthetics

(Details developed at Stanford University are at World+Culture+Model.ppt) Looking at families in context can enrich our un- derstanding and help us see people and events through their eyes. That’s particularly helpful when our lives, cultures, and obstacles differ considerably from theirs.

Seeing Families in Context