By J. L. Starkey (aka Martin Farris)
“We’re all traveling through time together, every day of our lives. All we can do is do our best to relish this remarkable ride.“– Tim, “About Time”
What is the most on-brand thing you did as a child?
That question made the rounds on Twitter earlier this year, and the answers were hilarious and heartwarming. My answer was easy, thanks to an ancestor who didn’t exist.
In the mid-1980s, my best friend and I were struggling to create a pseudonym for a play we’d written for the middle school talent show. In a moment of inspiration, I exclaimed, “We should use the names of our ancestors! My great-great-great-great-great-grandmother was a Farris…let’s use that!”
So it was that the fictional Martin Farris was born, in what Twitter would call “the most on-brand moment” of my youth.
We won second place in that talent show, and we won a few acting awards the following year, thanks to Martin Farris. He took an early retirement, but the 52 Ancestors Challenge has made him reconsider that decision.
You see, Mr. Farris wrote just one play, and that play was entitled “Reunion,” which happens to be this week’s prompt.
I just love it when things come together so perfectly, don’t you?
Martin Farris has been on my mind during this “Reunion” week, and so has my great-grandmother, Gertrude Virginia Baugh. It seems fitting that Mr. Farris wants to write about the incomparable Gertrude. After all, she was quite a character!
Wait…wasn’t her name actually Anna Gabriella? But it was changed because of a family argument, or something like that, and –
Oh, Gertrude/Anna…how I wish I could have a real reunion with you. I’ve written about the worst year of your life, but I haven’t told the rest of your amazing story. That will change today, thanks to a well-timed 52 Ancestors prompt…and Martin Farris.
It’s about time, isn’t it?
Anna Gabriella or Gertrude Virginia?
Born in 1889 to William Baugh and Melcena Millison, Gertrude Virginia was a rock, to put it simply . In today’s terms, she would be referred to as “that total badass who took no prisoners and ate fear for breakfast.”
Her zest for life and her laid-back attitude is the envy of her descendants, although they think it’s unfair that the “worry gene” seemed to skip her altogether. In her youth, she was short and petite – two traits that a certain tall great-granddaughter did not inherit. As an adult, she couldn’t turn her head because of a neck problem – a trait which that same great-granddaughter did inherit, much to her dismay.
Raised in the post-reconstruction era by parents from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, she would tell her grandchildren stories about visits with Grandpa Baugh in Richmond, where she would play with the Confederate money he had stashed in his home.
Her dedication to helping others began around the time of those visits, perhaps because of Grandpa Baugh’s influence. By the time she was eight years old, Gertrude was already holding fundraisers and volunteering in Chicago .
Nothing slowed her down, and she never met a stranger. She adored her husband and children, she was dedicated to her church, and she was a model hostess on Bunco nights. She also despised three things: slavery, racism, and smoking.
She dabbled briefly in genealogy but shelved that hobby when she discovered that she had two birth certificates but was not a twin. According to records, she was originally named Anna Gabriella, probably in honor of her grandmothers, Ann Bass and Gabriella O’Neill . She didn’t know why her name was changed, but a family argument and a bit of drama may have been involved. Enough of that, already. If there was one thing Gertrude didn’t have time for, it was drama.
She had an attitude and an air of confidence…oh, did she ever. She once threw a hard times party, never suspecting that her electricity would be disconnected for nonpayment on the very day of the event. Undaunted, she simply told her guests that she was leaving the lights off to give the party a “true” hard times feel. No one questioned that logic. This was Gertrude, after all. She was not a woman to be trifled with.
She was classy, confident, and tough as nails. Life is all about choosing one’s battles, and Gertrude chose hers wisely.
It was a skill that she would call on far too often during her lifetime.
Happiness and Struggles
Author Mark Manson wrote that happiness “…requires struggle. It grows from problems. Joy doesn’t just sprout out of the ground like daisies and rainbows .” Gertrude probably would have agreed with those words. She lived a life so filled with struggle and tragedy that her descendants wonder how she survived it all.
A happy marriage helped. On 5 December 1908, she eloped with Charles Hansen, much to the surprise of neighborhood gossips and reporters . Gertrude must have had a few friends at the newspaper office, because the elopement story contained an erroneous wedding date of 5 October 1908 . A correction was never issued, which turned out to be a pretty good thing. The story probably put to rest any rumors that started when, seven months after the actual wedding date, the newlyweds welcomed their first child, a girl they named Florence Ernestine .
Sadly, Florence died at just four days old due to a congenital malformation. At a time when Gertrude should have been celebrating the start of a new life, she was planning a funeral for a baby taken from this world much too soon.
Life was not fair. During the summer of 1909, Gertrude was all too aware of that fact.
Gertrude and Charles found strength in each other, and they adjusted to a new normal. The next summer, they welcomed their second child, a girl named Florence Virginia .
Over the next two decades, Gertrude gave birth to seven more children, and she dedicated herself to her family. But a perfect life was not in the cards.
In 1927, her youngest son Robert died just sixteen hours after his birth due to a heart defect commonly called blue baby syndrome at the time . In 1930, her husband died of lung cancer at age fifty; just one month after his funeral, her seven-year-old daughter Shirley died of diphtheria.
Life wasn’t fair. Oh, how Gertrude understood that. Still, she went on living and tried to find happiness amidst her struggles.
By the time she turned 42, Gertrude was widowed with five children living at home. Her husband’s small military pension would not even pay the light bill, and she had no other income.
There were hard choices to be made during that time of sacrifice. Her daughter Mary quit school and became caregiver for her siblings so that Gertrude could re-enter the job market after a 22-year absence. It was the height of the Great Depression, and she found herself competing with younger, more experienced candidates in her job search.
Again, she was undaunted. She took a friend’s advice and shaved a few years off her age to secure employment. Her struggles lessened, and her happiness returned. There were weddings to plan, grandchildren to welcome, and gatherings to attend. Gertrude embraced it all.
But tragedy was not finished with her yet.
Gertrude’s daughter Florence suffered from headaches for most of her life, but in the spring of 1942, they suddenly became unbearable. Florence was ill and in pain, and some family members noticed a change in her personality.
Surely the illness was treatable, if not curable? Gertrude may have asked that question as her daughter’s condition worsened during the summer of 1942. Did she hope that – just this one time – life would be a little less unfair?
By autumn of that year, Gertrude had her answer, and she found herself facing another unimaginable tragedy.
On 7 November 1942, with Gertrude by her side, Florence died at age 32 . An autopsy revealed that a brain tumor may have been to blame for her mysterious illness and sudden death, but the information provided no solace to her family. Her death left three small children without their mother, it left a grieving husband without his beloved wife, and it left a devastated mother without her daughter.
Things weren’t supposed to happen this way. But life wasn’t fair. No one had to remind Gertrude of that.
How did she do it? How did Gertrude keep on living? Where did she find the strength?
Her descendants don’t know the answers to those questions. What they do know is that Gertrude was a survivor.
She adjusted to countless new normals, and she found happiness in what remained.
Gertrude knew a thing or two about choosing her battles, and she chose the things that mattered. She laughed, she loved, and she took nothing for granted.
Most of all, though, she knew that there were no guarantees in life.
- “Illinois Births and Christenings, 1824-1940,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:V2LH-HCM : 10 February 2018), Gertrude Virginia Baugh, 17 Jan 1889; Birth, citing Chicago, Cook, Illinois; FHL Film 1,287,884.
- Chicago Daily News, Chicago, Illinois, 2 Aug 1897, p. 8, col. 6. Retrieved from genealogybank.com.
- “Illinois Births and Christenings, 1824-1940,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:V2L4-DSG : 10 February 2018), Anna G Baugh, 17 Jan 1889; Birth, citing Chicago, Cook, Illinois; FHL Film 1,287,733.
- Manson, Mark. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***: a Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. HarperOne, 2016.
- “Indiana Marriages, 1811-2007,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:KDHQ-FQS : 10 December 2017), Charles H Hansen and Gertrude V Baugh, 05 Dec 1908; citing Porter, Indiana, United States, Marriage Registration, Indiana Commission on Public Records, Indianapolis; FHL Film 005014498.
- “Additional Locals,” Suburbanite Economist, Chicago, Illinois, 1 Jan 1909, p. 4, col. 5. Retrieved 25 Mar 2017 from newspapers.com.
- “Illinois, Cook County Deaths, 1878-1994,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:N74Q-ZBX : 8 March 2018), Florence Ernestine Hansen, 25 Jul 1909; citing Cook, Illinois, United States, source reference cn17589, record number 91, Cook County Courthouse, Chicago; FHL Film 1,239,837.
- “Illinois Deaths and Stillbirths, 1916-1947,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:NQ6W-GDL : 9 March 2018), Florence Virginia Robbins, 07 Nov 1942; Public Board of Health, Archives, Springfield; FHL Film 1,953,841.
- “Illinois Deaths and Stillbirths, 1916-1947,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:N3C3-TJ8 : 10 March 2018), Baby Hansen, 29 Aug 1927; Public Board of Health, Archives, Springfield; FHL Film 1,877,973. (See also: “Illinois, Cook County Deaths, 1878-1994,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QLYT-P62P: 18 March 2018), Hansen, 29 Aug 1927; citing Chicago, Cook, Illinois, United States, source reference, record number, Cook County Courthouse, Chicago; FHL Film.)
- “Illinois, Cook County Deaths, 1878-1994,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q2MD-5Y8V : 18 March 2018), Florence Virginia Robbins, 07 Nov 1942; citing Chicago, Cook, Illinois, United States, source reference , record number , Cook County Courthouse, Chicago; FHL Film.