On October 24, 2015 my grandmother, Virginia Shoemaker, turned 90. We had a huge celebration, with her family coming home from all across the US. She was over the moon thrilled. She loved being the center of attention and even more she loved being around so many people that she hardly ever gets to see. The day of her birthday she told me that she didn’t sleep a wink the night before because she was just so excited.
Because I love history, and preservation, and stories I decided my grandmother’s 90th birthday would be the perfect time to sit down with her and talk to her about her life. So on the morning of her birthday she and I and my mom , Gloria, sat together in my mom’s kitchen with cups of tea and reminisced about days gone by.
The following are a few excerpts from our conversation which I recorded using the StoryCorps ap. My grandmother is hard of hearing so I’ve edited some of this to take out the What’s? and the Pardon Me’s? and the Who now’s?
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Lee Center, Illinois. I was raised during the Depression era. And my folks lived in my great aunt’s house. Her name was Ada Dewy. And she owned a little house in Lee Center. And we were allowed to live in that house for many years without paying any rent…We thanked the Lord because our needs were supplied. Dad worked on the farm and my mother took care of us children. They kept coming, one after the other. So there was eight of us all together.
What was everyone’s name?
Okay the oldest one was Rose Mae, and I was second, I was Virginia Ilene, my sister Hazel Bernice. Then it was Richard, and Bonnie, Lucille and Paul and Esther.
Did you have to help out around the farm when you were a little girl?
Oh we were always [helping]. My mom was very organized. We had chores to do. I did…we had certain chores to do like it was our duty to…I am trying to think what our duty was…Different days we did different things. One thing was…we carried out…our port-a-potties.
Like bedpans of chamber pots?
Yeah. Chamber pots.
So you didn’t have any indoor plumbing?
No we never had, we never had running water. We were the running water! We carried it in and heated it on the stove.
Did you all have certain times that you took baths? Would you do it once a week?
We, well, we usually got a bath once a week. And we huddled around…in the wintertime of course…we huddled around the stove. And stood behind the stove and took our shower…took our bath. It wasn’t a shower. We took a bath.
Tell me about when you first met grandpa?
Okay, we met him in church. And we used to…become very good friends. Our family did. My mother was very social like. She loved to entertain and she liked the Shoemaker boys and so she invited them over. So we had them at the house quite a bit. We played a lot of Ping-Pong.
How old was grandpa when you met him? Do you know?
How old was grandpa? Well he was a teenager when I first met him. I think. Anyhow, cause when we got married he was about 13 years older than I am. But he was a wonderful husband.
Mom says she thinks he was about 11 years older than you.
Oh yeah. 11 years.
When did you start dating? How old were you?
I don’t know, they came to the house a lot and…I tried to think about that the last little while about when I really started dating him and calling him a date. We got to sitting together in church and then just got so I knew him better and better…we were real good friends, our personalities clicked. And we had a good time together. My older sister married one of the boys.
Rose. She married Ray. And I think the Shoemakers were afraid they were going to marry all the Dale girls.
Do you know what year it was when the two of you met?
Gloria: Mom, I think you told me you were aboutnine years old, maybe, when you first met dad. So he would have been like nearly 20 when you first met him. Could it have been about 1935?
Virginia: Yes. It could have easily been. Our friendship just grew and grew because as I knew him better, I got to like him better.
Did you ever think that when he came over to your house that you were going to marry him?
Well he came quite a bit because the Shoemakers and the Dales were pretty good friends.
Did you get married before the war or after the war?
No. He was in the war. I wrote to him in the service. We weren’t married until afterwards. We got married in 1946.
And where was he stationed during the war?
He was in, well one of the places was Bougainville in Fuji. He thought he was never going to get to come home again. He really got lonesome and homesick over there. Thought they were never going to end and send him back home.
Didn’t he get Malaria as well?
Yeah he got Malaria and Dengue Fever too.
Did he come home after that?
No they didn’t send him home. Just Doctored him. But I guess he got the chills so bad he shook.
I’ve heard that happens with Malaria. How long was he overseas?
Over three years.
And you wrote letters back and forth the whole time?
Oh yeah! We wrote letters all the time.
Do you still have the letters?
No, I threw them away when the kids got into them.
Yeah! That would have been interesting to keep but I never did.
So he came home and you guys got married in 1946. What do you remember about your wedding?
Well they wouldn’t let me do anything. They wanted me to rest all day and be rested up. They didn’t let me do anything. But when I first got my dress I was surprised that I could get a dress. But I don’t even remember now where I go it.
Mom’s got a picture of you in your wedding dress.
Oh my goodness gracious there I am! Well our pastor’s wife made my vial. She fixed it up for me. She bought some of that white tooling they called it. And she made my vial and she just looked my bouquet. The florist made that but she thought it was beautiful. They did a good job.
Where did you get married?
The old Alliance church. Community Alliance. It was on 5th and Ottawa in Dixon. It was called the Tabernacle then.
And you got married on a Sunday, right? After church?
I think we did. I think they dismissed church early so we could do our service. So I could get married on the 23rd of June, my folks anniversary. Everybody could stay that wanted to stay.
Did you go on a honeymoon?
Yes we did! We went to the Wisconsin Dells. Yeah we did, we went by bus. And came home by bus, of course. But after we were married Rose and Ray drove us around. They were already married. They drove us around town.
With tin cans on the back of the car?
I don’t know. Someone might have tied tin cans. Who knows. I don’t remember that part. We had a reception.
Did you have cake at the reception?
Oh yeah. We had a cake. The cake was made at the bakery. We had a cake made. It must have been during sheep sheering season because mother could help with the bills. We had to have a cake and we had other expenses. There was white sheeting, as it were, and we sewed it together and made a long train for us to walk down. For the wedding walk.
Did your dad walk you down the aisle?
Yes, my dad walked me down the aisle.
Did you have any bridesmaids?
Yes, I did. Hazel was one. I might have had only one.
What do you remember about your children being born?
Well I don’t know. I was sick with all of them when I carried them. I wasn’t very happy pregnant. But I wasn’t disappointed. I loved all my kids very dearly.
What were your children’s names?
Beverly, Gloria, Jimmy, Carl, Christine. James. My Jimmy. You know I was trying to think the other day, I don’t remember what Jimmy’s middle name was.
Gloria: It was Hervey.
Virginia: Oh yeah James Hervey because that was dad’s middle name.
What do you remember about Jim? If you want to talk about it.
I don’t know what to talk about Jim. I can remember when he said he accepted the Lord because something was said about what they do and he says “I don’t do that anymore.” And so I knew then that he had turned his heart over to the Lord and I was thankful for that. But…
Gloria: He was a good little athlete.
Virginia: Yeah, he liked sports.
Gloria: He won, do you remember they had a punt, pass and kick when he was like in 7th grade? And…
Virginia: Yeah, that’s right and he won.
Gloria: And he won the whole district or something. He got a Chicago Bears Jacket. It was pretty cool.
Virginia: He liked sports.
Gloria: School wasn’t his favorite. Do you remember what you thought or what it was like when I think it was the pastor from Eldena that kind of came and told us all about the accident. Do you remember your reaction? Were you at work? I was at work and you guys all came and got me.
Virginia: Well they came and got me at Montgomery Ward.
Gloria: Yeah, and then you guys came and got me.
Virginia: It was a very sad day. Of course you almost collapse. I didn’t really but I just broke down of course. I felt very bad. I just wanted to get home to my family. The rest of them. (Crying) You wanted to be with them.
The store manager was Mr. Friend. And he asked to drive the funeral car that I was in. He was very nice to us.
Where Was the funeral?
At the old Alliance Church. The same one we got married at.
And what year was the accident?
Gloria: 1966. September of ’66. Right after school started.
Virginia: Yeah because they was taking a dreg home from the school ground and I think the janitor evidently was hard of hearing. He didn’t hear this train coming. I can remember Jean Greece the neighbor telling somebody, running in and telling somebody something terrible has happened. When the train hit the…hit the…
Julia: Hit the truck.
Virginia: Hit the dreg that the kids were on.
Gloria: Well, they were in the back of the truck, weren’t they? Or something?
Virginia: I don’t know. But it got them all.
How old was Jim in September of ’66?
A month from being 13.
I’ll stop my write up here. Not to be sad or morbid or leave it on a sour note. We went on to talk about the rest of her children. Especially my mom since she was in the kitchen with us. We laughed a lot. We talked about their move from Eldena, Illinois to Dixon, Illinois when I was a little girl, the death of my grandfather in his late 70s and the renters that lived with my grandmother after his death. I wanted to record these few passages here, her wedding, the death or her oldest son, because they are her story and have shaped out she lives her life.
-Julia Nusbaum, creator