My mother, Margaret Steptoe Kerse (pronounced Kearse) was born February 21, 1918. She was the fourth of seven children born to Thomas (Tom) Philip Kerse and Katherine (Kate) Steptoe Houchins. Kate was a nurse in a time when women traditionally did not have careers. Tom was an Irish Police Officer like his father. Both came from wealthy families at one time. In the beginning of the marriage, Tom had a gentleman’s gentleman to care for him. The family always had a cook and nanny to care for the children. They had a small yacht called The Lady Jane from which they swam and had their friends over for parties. Their father and grandfather held tours and dinner excursions on the Lady Jane to raise money for charities in the Richmond area where they lived. You might enjoy a blog post about the Lady Jane written earlier, by clicking on this link.
Mom was only four years old when a tragedy, her first (her mother’s fourth or fifth) hit the family! Mom’s older brother Bucky (Thomas Phillip Kerse Jr.) drowned in the James River! He was only eight years old, and Mom was half his age! She remembered it well however, and talked about it her whole life, so we knew it was a defining moment for her. Because of his drowning, she made sure we were all excellent swimmers, and she never let us go down to the James River, so close to our house, without adult supervision! That was her strictest, and one of her few rules! You can read the story of Bucky’s drowning in this blog post if you’d like. Mom’s mother Kate, my grandmother, was only 10 when her own little sister died. She was seven when their family home burned to the ground! Kate was 17, with five younger living siblings, when her mother, Evaline Langhorne, died in childbirth, and her father deserted the family to create another one. She must have been a strong woman, to have become a nurse while living with relatives, her siblings scattered, living in a city 300 or more miles from her beautiful mountain home where she was reared, in Patrick County, Virginia. These were the life experiences she brought to her own family, my mother and her siblings!
Mom and her sisters attended Catholic schools and St. Patrick’s Catholic Church where the whole family was involved. Mom used to say that one or the other of the seven of them was often in trouble, and had to kneel and pray for repentance so often that their Mom sewed kneeling pads inside their skirts so that their knees wouldn’t get so sore!
The depression hit in 1929 and my grandparents lost all their money, yet had to take care of their children! In January 1930, more tragedy hit the family. My grandmother Kate was shot in the head by one of her patients! He had been in a coma, and upon regaining consciousness, he thought she was the enemy, or that she was going to hurt him, and he grabbed a gun, one long in the room that no one knew was loaded. He shot my grandmother, then he died a few hours later, not knowing what he had done undoubtedly! But the family suffered, she didn’t die, but was forever maimed, not quite herself as the inoperable bullet affected her speech and thinking ability. My mother was 12 years old when this happened! Gracious! If we think of the time line of Mom’s life, age 4 her brother dies, age 11 her family loses money in the depression, and by age 12 her mother is shot and brain damaged. I am not sure just what was going on with her father during all of this, we heard little about him when we were growing up, even under direct questioning! I got the impression that he was pretty much absent, at least emotionally, and the second oldest sister, Katherine, aged 14 when her mother was shot, apparently took over the mothering/management duties for her four younger sisters. With all this adversity, the family could have been totally disrupted, instead, the sisters grew closer! You can see in the pictures above, they were often together. That continued all of their lives, so that their children, us first cousins, grew close also.
With this childhood in mind, what do you think my mother’s adult life might be like? Mother and her sisters were all intelligent women. Three of the five sisters finished college, Mom attended college for two years, She did not finish for various reasons, lack of money, war was looming on the horizon, and it may not have seemed that important at the time, although education was always important to her philosophically. I remember when she died and I was thirty, only a couple months from graduating with my Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology, I was devastated hat she died before I finished, because I knew how much it meant to her! My sister also earned a Master’s degree in Reading and Education, like Mom and her sisters; we were determined to be able to make a living.
Mom was 21 when her father died, I’m sure that affected her concentration at school, and probably made her think she needed to be at home taking care of her Mom. I wish I had realized all of this growing up, I’d love to have talked with Mom about it. Somewhere between their father and mother’s deaths, the family sold the yacht to a local judge, and they all left the Catholic Church! Leaving the church must have been a momentous decision! I did ask my mother about this a time or two, and she always said she told my Dad that she would become a Methodist like he was, if he promised to go to church every Sunday and to raise his children in the church! He must have taken that seriously, because that is exactly how we were raised! There is only one question, it just so happens that I realize now that Mom and her sisters left the Catholic Church earlier for the Presbyterian Church just down the street from where they lived. Was this due to the influence of teenaged friends, convenience, a crisis of faith? (That would certainly be understandable!) Just after her father died in 1939, Mom met and married my father, and my older sister was born in 1942, just before her Mother died in 1943. One would think she had her new husband for support when her mother died, but unfortunately he had already joined the army preparing for WWII duty. She had a new baby, and shared an apartment with some of her sisters whose husbands were off at war themselves. They were together when their sister Nancy’s husband was shot down in his plane over France and killed.
Mom showed what a strong woman she was all her years. She went out and got a job, using the typing and business skills she’d learned in college. Mom made sure her daughters could type as well, so that we would be prepared to get a job if need be. She typed well, fast, and accurately. She typed her way right into the mortgage business, ended up getting her real estate license, and had a successful career in realty and mortgage. From age 24 to age 37 she had four children, two girls and two boys. We would have run her ragged, except when Dad came home from the war, they moved in with his mother who had recently lost her own husband. Grandma stayed home with us kids once we were in school, so that Mom could work. Mom was a rare breed, a true career woman in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s!
When I was a young child, b. in 1949, Mom always walked about two miles back and forth to catch a bus to work –sometimes we walked with her! When she was 36, my sister was 12, my brother 8, and I was 6. My younger brother had not been born yet! Thirty- six and she finally learned to drive a car! She surprised us all when she bought her own car after passing her driver’s test! I remember, it was an old, rounded, 1954 Chevy, brand new at the time of course! She was so proud of that car, and my older sister was so proud of her! We lived on a hill, so our driveway was steep. One afternoon, a neighbor named Nancy and I both got in the car to wait for Mom to take us to Brownie Scouts! We must have been playing around and knocked off the emergency brake or something, because suddenly the car was rolling backwards down the hill! At that time, there was nothing across the street but woods and a creek. I remember that Nancy and I both jumped out of the car, and ran into the house screaming, “Momma, Momma, the car is rolling backwards down the hill! Momma, momma…!” LOL By the time we all got outside, of course, it was across the street, in the woods, all the way into the creek! Her new car! LOL Mom didn’t fuss at us, didn’t cry, just said something about being more careful and not being in the car without her!
Mom was very creative and playful when she had the chance. She and my Dad played bridge every week with different friends. She created doll clothes, and played cards with us. My sister remembers how she loved to make special treats for the neighbor children at Halloween! She would dress up in a costume to deliver the treats at the door as well. I have pictures of her in a Halloween costume with my older daughter Ali. Unfortunately, she had passed away before my youngest was born. We loved hanging out with Mom, because she was fun!
I remember that sometimes we would find Mom up alone, in the middle of the night, just sitting in the dark and quiet. I asked her once why she did this, and she said she was “practicing for when I am an old lady and blind!”–thus walking around in the dark! I now suspect she was seeking some alone time in a household with 7 people including 4 children, a demanding husband, and a mother-in-law! During my genealogical reseach I have also learned that there was an inherited disease that caused blindness that ran in her side of the family. Retinitis Pigmentosa had blinded 15 people in earlier generations!
Unfortunately, when Mom was just 50 years old, she had a severe heart attack, I ended up doing the same when I was 50–not the inheritance I wanted! My sister had gotten married a couple years before Mom got sick, my brother one year before, and I was a sophmore in college. My younger brother was only 12. Mom had to quit work, and quit driving, and had her wings severely clipped. It hit my youngest brother the hardest of course since he was still at home! She lived for 12 years however, dying at age 62, after nine more heart attacks!
Mother was highly respected and liked by her boses, coworkers, neighbors, and those at church. She was friendly and always tried to help others. She was a natural born leader who taught Sunday school, organized Bible School for the children, and generally took care of everyone and everything. In fact, she served as Superintendant of Sunday Schools at our church for many years! She also had liberal leanings politically, and taught her daughters to follow along through modeling. She worked at the polls because she believed in the right to vote so strongly. She also believed in Civil Rights for people of different races long before it was a popular subject. She believed it was important to take care of those who were poor, who had less than you. She thought it was a sin to have money in your pocket if another person was going hungry. I try to be like that today. Mother put her beliefs into action, cosigning loans for people who needed help buying a house or car. Delivering food and clothes, she was a busy woman. She was a free thinker, very open minded, and almost a bit bohemian. When she died, the church was full of mourners singing her praises. We heard story after story of how she had helped someone or another, how she had changed their lives for the better! The church even placed a stained glass window in her honor in the women’s Sunday School Class! What an honor!
Obviously I loved Mom dearly, she was individualistic and special. We were lucky to have her!