“…and never a damn Yankee!”

May 28, 2017 | 0 comments

Helen Medora Richardson – 1896

To me, my grandmother, Helen Medora Richardson Espy, has always symbolized the women of her generation.  Her parents had lived through the Civil War and, in many ways, she was a product of that turbulent time, as much as if she had lived through it herself.

Helen was born in Mexico City on May 28, 1878.  Her mother, Annie Medora Taylor, had grown up there after fleeing the war-torn South with her own parents and brothers. Young Annie had a fiery disposition and was fond of saying she would ”never marry a short man, a blond man or a damn Yankee!” And, of course, she married a man who was all three – Daniel Sidney Richardson, Secretary of the American Legation in Mexico City.

Dan had been born in Massachusetts and had moved to California at age four.  He could not have been more opposite Annie in temperament or sensibilities, but love is love and it was ‘at first sight’ for them both.  I imagine they had intended to live the better part of their lives in Mexico City as members of the American diplomatic circle, but on the death of Dan’s father in California they had to return there to take care of his sisters.  My grandmother was then a year and a half old and, so the story goes, was carried on a litter from Mexico City to Guadalajara where the family boarded a sailing ship for San Francisco.

Helen Richardson – November 24, 1897

Helen was raised according to her mother’s Southern sensibilities.  She was taught to arrange flowers, set an elegant table, cook fancy desserts and instruct the hired help.  She played the mandolin, wrote poetry, read copiously, and enjoyed attending musicales and theatrical performances in the sophisticated City by the Golden Gate.  When she met California College student Harry Espy of Oysterville, Washington, and they fell hopelessly in love, it never occurred to either of them that their lives would take them away from the genteel life Helen had always known.

In 1901, four years after their marriage, Harry’s mother died and Helen and their two eldest children accompanied Harry ‘home’ to Oysterville to assist his aging father.  The move, they thought,  would be for only a short time.  “We’ll be going home soon,” she assured the youngsters.  “Home to Oakland.”   Meanwhile, they were as close to the ends of the earth as young Helen could imagine — no gas lamp-lit streets, no running water, no trolley cars or convenient shops and markets.  And no hired help to be had.

But for the next fifty-three years, Helen cooked and cleaned, tended animals and gardened, and ‘made do’ mostly without help except, perhaps, for a few weeks after each baby was born.  She raised seven children, assisted Harry with his work on the dairy farm and with his duties as a State Senator (one term) and Justice of the Peace (forty years).  She managed things when Harry was bedridden for several years after a farm accident and survived on mostly cabbage and canned beef during the Great Depression.  The only poem I know that she wrote after leaving California was on the occasion of her 17-year-old-daughter Medora’s death.

Helen and Harry Espy’s 50th Anniversary – November 24, 1947

Though Oysterville was a far cry from the life she was expecting, I don’t think she ever complained.  She adored her husband always, and she never wavered in the belief that ‘home’ was by his side no matter what.  With regard to Oysterville – as she aged, she sometimes likened herself to Byron’s “Prisoner of Chillon” who grew to love his prison cell and even to prefer it to the outside world.  Somehow it’s fitting that her birthday coincides with Memorial Day Weekend.  We’ll be taking flowers to her today — up to the Oysterville Cemetery where she rests by Harry’s side forever more.

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