Searching for Little Grandma Ellen

There are stories out there in Genealogy Land that I can’t seem to crack. It’s a bummer that I started this in my ’60s, several decades after everybody croaked. I now have to rely of half-remembered comments my mother made; my mother being the only adult family member I had close contact with, and due to her personal issues it was best for me to keep my distance from her for the first sixteen years of my life.

What my grandmother did not know, what nobody knew, was her parents had a dirty little secret too! Well, maybe not really “dirty”, I have an idea much more was behind their decision to lie.

Anyway, the lie about who “Little Grandma” really was, began when Great Grandpa Morgan Bollinger (maybe got a letter and) left California and (took a train? rode a horse?) to Missouri to marry his childhood friend, my Great Grandmother Ellen, and brought her out to California.

Grandma Ellen may have built a story around the trip west, or it could be true. My Brother John told it in great detail, as it came from her lips.

“It took several days on wagon, and Indians watched them from hilltops as they passed through Indian lands and about a “Big Fort” in the distance, which John figured may be Ft. Laramie in Wyoming!”

For three years I searched for my C. Ellen Lee of Missouri’s family history, never dreaming I was looking under a radically altered name.  Then I got a letter from Lee relatives who must have observed me scratching around online.

They sent me full details of my great-grandmother Sarah Ellender Lee.

There was no C. Ellen Lee.Morgan and Ellen Bollinger kept her background, whatever it was, a secret that lasted well over a century.  I did see in her obituary that a “brother” attended her funeral, and he lived at that time (1941) in San Jose. And I’m hoping there may be descendants in his line.

I have been down so many wrong streets for a couple of years, and each time I scratched my head and tried to reach back fifty years to conjure up all the stories Mom told when I was small.

I loved the stories of The Olden Days, when she lived in San Jose with “Little Gramma Ellen”.

I never heard about her husband,Morgan, a well-off “orchardist” specializing in peaches in San Jose. I find that a little disturbing, this man who walked through her home, but was not in her life.

I seemed not to notice the fact that mom was a toddler in her grand-parent’s adult household, growing up with her teenage aunt Meta and uncle Bert. Her stories were only about Little Grandma, her surrogate mother. Nothing else.

Mom introduced me to Little Grandma through (selective) memories from “The Olden Days”. The days just after the turn of the 20th century and the kind of stories that moralize. For instance, sometime Mom did not listen to Little Gramma’s warnings about playing inthe barn  AND she got chili pepper powder in her eyes AND she couldn’t be first angel in the Christmas Play! 

Little Grandma was considered “short” probably about my height, 5 1/2 feet tall, and fair, like me. She was the mother of 3 striking black haired young Amazons, and one tall, blonde son.
Mom’s birth mother was my “Nana”,

She was the middle daughter, typically the child who gets lost in-between the fabulous first child and the adorable last baby.

But her name was Lulu, and she certainly lived up to her name . She married often, gave two of her three children away, and apparently lived for fashion and studio portraits of herself.

I’m certain the world, like myself, began to breathe again when Nana made her departure. According to her Death Certificate, she died in a psychotic episode. I could have predicted that before I hit kindergarten, had I known what  psychotic meant.

It was wonderful when Mom spoke of her childhood with her grandmother. She called the era “The Olden Days”, and her eyes lit up as she relaxed in reverie. I never questioned why she did not live with her mother like her little sister did.

It seemed normal when she spoke of Nana and her little sister Helen visiting every Christmas Day,without fail,and how very much Mom looked forward all year long to seeing them.

They lived just one hour by train in San Francisco.

My mom never recovered from that split, I can clearly see that. How worthless she (and her bother, who was shipped to the other grandparents) must have felt. Her faults make good sense. Ultimately mom did what we all must strive for: to be good enough.


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One thought on “Searching for Little Grandma Ellen

  1. a terrific story!

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