Monday, August 1, 2011



I didn't have either of my grandmas in my life for very long. My dad's mother, who lived in Colorado, died when I was 6, and this grandma, my mom's mother, died when I was 11. But this is how I remember her looking: very grandmotherly, I thought. She was 62 when she died, and I am now 76 and I don't think I look nearly as grandmotherly! But perhaps my own little grandchildren think so. It's hard to see oneself as old.

Jessie did not have the easiest of lives. Her father, Joseph Clinton Davis, deserted her mother, Nellie Stevens Davis, shortly after Jessie was born in Kansas. In 1887 her mother met James Eungard, a railroad man, and after securing a divorce, Jim and Nellie moved to Pueblo, Colorado, where they married. Sometime before this picture was taken Jessie took sick with typhoid fever and she lost all her hair. This photo has been in our family for many years and I was told that Jessie's hat covered her bald head.

As with many railroad families, the Eungard family moved from place to place, sometimes in Kansas and at least once to Oklahoma, where her stepbrother Chester Eungard was born. In 1900 the Eungard family was enumerated in Wichita, where Jessie was shown as 15 years old. By 1905, the family was in Caldwell, Kansas, where she met and married Byrd Worthington Ryland, the youngest son of James A. Ryland. In 1906 her first child, a son named Nevalyn Eugene Ryland (called Bob) was born.

She and Byrd would go on to have 6 more children besides Bob: Florence Vivian, Virginia Louise, Marie Eleanor, Byrd Worthington Jr., Hugh Sterling, and Marjorie Ellen.

There was a problem in the marriage, however. Byrd Sr. couldn't settle down. In the course of the marriage he couldn't seem to stay in one place for very long, uprooting the family while he tried to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He apparently was not in good health and often the move was between Caldwell, Kansas, and Colorado Springs. But there was something else wrong besides that. In 1929 Jessie filed for divorce, in the Complaint noting that "Since the marriage of plaintiff and defendant, defendant has been extremely and repeatedly cruel towards plaintiff..." Later in the papers it notes that "Defendant is not a fit person to have the custody of said minor children." The divorce was granted, and instead of alimony, Jessie accepted a cash settlement and the farm property in Mulvane, Kansas.
By 1929 the three oldest children were out of high school and on their own. Grandma Jessie took the four youngest to the farm and attempted to make a go of it there. I can remember as a child being told that Jessie raised chickens and children, and loved them both. But in the picture below, a snapshot, you can see that life was not easy for her.

To make matters worse, in 1930 the farmhouse caught on fire and burned to the ground. Jessie took the children to her aunt's house in Wichita, where they stayed until she got on her feet again. About this time her son Bob, who had gone to California to become a movie star, encouraged her to come out where he could help her. Grandma asked my mother, who was in Colorado Springs working at a photography studio, to help her with the children on the trip, and in late 1930 they headed to California. I am not sure where in her life the picture below actually belongs, but I like to think that this is how she looked when she began her great California adventure, putting her divorce and her farm loss behind her.

California was in the grips of the depression like the rest of the country, and since Bob's movie career had failed to materialize, the little Ryland group - Jessie, Virginia (19), Marie (15), Bert (11), Hugh (9) and Margie (4) did their best to survive. Jessie used her settlement money to buy a little ice cream shop in North Long Beach, which failed. She then worked at a farmer's roadside vegetable stand, did some odd jobs as a live-in attendent for old people - and my mother took care of all her little siblings. The four younger children always had a very close relationship with my mother, because she was their de facto mother for those really tough depression years.

For many years various family members lived together in Long Beach in a big old house while Bert and Hugh served in WWII. Florence's husband was overseas also, and she and her baby daughter came to California for a while. As things got easier financially for the family, Grandma's cheery disposition took over and in spite of working hard each day, she went dancing at night and certainly must have captured some of her lost fun! She met and became engaged to a fellow dancer and plans were in the making for a wedding when she was felled by a heart attack at age 62 and died.

I have always felt that Grandma Jessie had a tough life. Of course I didn't know much of this when I was a kid, but being raised around all my aunts, uncles and cousins we of course knew some of it. But I will say this for the Ryland Family: None of us second generation kids ever heard a bad word spoken about our Grandpa Byrd. The siblings may have talked among themselves, but they were completely close-mouthed about family matters to their kids. All that I learned about my Grandpa Byrd, who died in 1935 just before I was born, was from my own genealogical research.

Many years later after my own mother died, I asked my dad if he knew what the problem was with Grandpa Byrd. He said my mom never would tell him. But he assured me that for his money, Jessie was the best woman he'd ever met, next to my mom, of course. He said that Jessie cried something awful when she learned that Byrd had died in Colorado. He said he figured she really, after all those years, carried a fondness in her heart for him, the father of all her children.

No comments:

Post a Comment