Maude Murphy was born October 15, 1887, to Wesley and Phoebe Murphy of Hector, New York, a small rural farming community at the southern end of Seneca Lake near the better-known town of Watkins Glen of auto racing fame. These days Hector is part of the burgeoning Finger Lakes Wine Region. In a love letter written around 1906 to a young man named Earl Phelps, Maude writes that her mother has found and read Earl’s recent letter in which he said his parents don’t much care for her family. Maude’s family lives with her mother’s parents most likely the result of her father’s drinking and ne’er-do-well ways which Maude prays daily he’ll find the strength to overcome. Earl’s parents consider the Murphys too poor and unstable to allow their son to be involved with Maude.
Maude’s mother Phoebe, embarrassed and offended by this characterization, counters by offering to pay for piano lessons if she’ll stop seeing Earl. Apparently unswayed by piano lessons Maude writes:
Darling, nothing will get in the way of our courtship, I know one day we will marry.
They married on February 6, 1907. Maude and Earl are my great-grandparents. How did I learn this story? Ten years or so ago I was home visiting my parents in upstate New York and as I walked into my bedroom shortly after arriving it felt like I’d suddenly stepped into an overstuffed used bookstore, an unmistakable odor of musty old paper permeated the air. In plain sight, under the window near the foot of the bed was the likely source, a tattered cardboard storage box. I dropped my suitcase, opened the window, and bent over intending to haul the smellbox down to the basement. But first, curious to see what might be inside, I lifted the battered top. Inside were dozens of small books of varying sizes, a disintegrating black photo album with loose photos floating around among the pages, several old notebooks, and three well-worn scrapbooks… Maude’s diaries, scrapbooks, and other family artifacts.
Tucked among the books was her 1906 letter to Earl. Earl had obviously kept the letter and Maude too considered it worthy of keeping all these years. Maude lived until 1974, I knew her quite well, as well as one could really know an aged great-grandparent. I was in college when she died.
Thrilled by this discovery I immediately sat down and began looking through the box. The earliest diary was from 1910, the last 1974. The diaries reveal the day-to-day details of farm life.
Their primary crop was Concorde grapes (juice and jam grapes) but they also had a peach and apple orchard. Earl died in 1957, three years after I was born. Too old to work the fields they sold/lost the farm in Hector around the time I was born. Earl’s parents Arthur and Harriet originally owned the farm. Maude and Earl moved into the “big house” after Arthur and Harriet could no longer work the farm. I’ve been told by my mother, who spent lots of time at the farm as a young girl, that Earl never recovered from that loss, farming was his life. He tragically died in a mental institution, most likely suffering from depression and dementia.
Earl and Maude had three children: Helen, Donald, and Arthur. Helen, the oldest, a striking beauty as a young woman, married a rather goofy-looking Roger Coles, a self-taught engineer who worked at IBM from its early days. They had two children, one was my mother Nancy. My grandmother Helen lived an upper-middle-class life as a housewife and mother, something I suspect in hindsight was never quite her ambition.
Donald Phelps was a big strapping fellow who fought at the Battle of the Bulge in WWII. He had his own farm and after the war became the local postmaster. Arthur Phelps was an ordained minister and a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. In the 1960s he worked as a cabinet maker at MOOG synthesizer factory situated along Cayuga Lake. He likely made the synthesizer cabinets for some of my favorite keyboardists of the era including Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman among others of note.
Maude’s diaries contain few personal reflections. The love letter is the most personal of her writings. Her diary entries primarily recount what happened day-to-day. A typical entry from February 18, 1927.
Awful cold day. Earl and Oscar [Maude’s brother] drew [cut and haul to the ice house] the last of the ice from the lake this morning. In the afternoon Earl finished tying vines in the lower vineyard. I swept the house [with a broom] made two loaves of bread [wood fired oven] and a batch of cookies. Earl’s parents came for supper.
In a few sentences, she offers a glimpse into the rigors of eking out a living farming from the time of the horse-drawn plow until tractors tilled the fields. Earl often did work for others, including his father and neighbors. He worked as a substitute rural delivery mailman on occasion. They pieced together a life by hard work, selling whatever they could grow: grapes, peaches, apples, eggs, and butter or laboring for others. In later years their son Donald delivered hay often as far away as Long Island. One diary entry notes Donald delivered hay to the Bronx Zoo.
In addition to her commitment to her diaries, Maude was apparently a meticulous record-keeper. In the box was small spiral notebook where she recorded every expenditure made between 1964-67 … bobby pins: $.30, stamps: $.74, church supper: $1.25, heating oil: $25… literally everything.
My mother acquired the box from her cousin Donna, one of Donald’s children, with me in mind. I’ve always been fascinated by family history so my mother knew I’d want them. I returned to Washington State with the box of diaries and other artifacts. I didn’t want to just hang on to them, leave them in a box to pass along to my kids who may or may not care about them. I felt I needed to do something with them but what it was I didn’t know.
The diaries are filled with my post-it notes marking entries of interest for one reason or another. For instance on November 9, 1960 the day JFK is declared the president-elect she was clearly worried about a Catholic president.
Yet, in her scrapbooks are many pages of newspaper and Life Magazine clippings of the Kennedys. The scrapbooks mostly contain pages of newspaper clippings marking weddings, funerals, local calamities, and other events. Family milestones are also noted.
There’s this one from 1956:
“Eighteen months old Peter James Serko of Union has nine living grandparents. Quite unusual to say the least. Mr. and Mrs. Earl A Phelps of Burdett are great-grandparents. What a happy time and how spoiled would little Peter be if he only lived close to every one of them.”
…now that’s what I call news!
Now the diaries sit in my office in a box, I am their keeper. A faint whiff of musty paper still draws my attention now and again. It reminds me that I am who I am because of those who have come before. The content and outcome of that heartfelt love letter written in 1906 has led to me and now my children and grandchildren.
Meanwhile, another Catholic president sits in the White House. I’m not worried.