A woman of substance

They say that circumstance makes heroes out of many of us. Risking your life to rescue someone who is injured or wounded would frighten many of us, comfortable as we are in the cocoon of our civilian lives. For a soldier in battle rescuing a fellow wounded soldier is just doing your duty. The medals for bravery come afterward.

There are many quiet heroes among us. I would like to introduce you to one you will not find in the history book: my wife’s paternal grandmother, Lillian Savannah Bowden. I will not use her married name, which she carried for most of her life. However, I will honor her by using her maiden name: Bowden. Like a soldier rescuing a comrade in battle, Lillian’s story is remarkable too. At the same time, it was not that remarkable at the time, given the poverty that wrapped up much of America in the midst of the Great Depression and the many lives such extensive poverty warped.

Lillian Savannah Bowden

Here is a picture of Lillian in her prime. Born in 1896, she appears to be a young woman age sixteen or so. I imagine this picture was taken shortly before the start of the First World War. She is strikingly attractive so I have little doubt she had many suitors. If she made a big mistake in her life, it was marrying her husband Robert. Their family, consisting of five daughters and one son, lived a respectable life in Flint, Michigan. Prior to the Great Depression, her husband had a contract with the city to put in sidewalks. When the Great Depression struck, he was out of a job. He ended up drunk and abusive much of the time. In a time when virtually no one got divorced, Lillian and Robert divorced. Robert left Lillian holding the bag, trying to support six children with minimal job skills in the midst of the Great Depression.

Many people in this situation would collapse. Maybe people were made of sterner stuff, or maybe motherly love triumphed all. Regardless, Lillian suddenly had to become the breadwinner as well as play the role of both mother and father. Her solution involved a lot of working from home doing sewing and laundry, which except for sleep meant working virtually all the time at Depression wages. Like many during the Great Depression, she occasionally needed a little charity to get by. She raised her six children, but at best, they were one step ahead of poverty. Despite her extreme circumstances, she raised her children in love. She never remarried.

She realized that her children needed both education and a faith. Flint, Michigan came complete with an Adventist school. It was there that her three youngest children were educated as well as learned a faith. (The other children were already in high school by that time.) One of those children is named Patricia Adelaide. She is the fifth of the six children. The sixth child, the only boy, Robert grew up to be the father to my wife. His sad story is chronicled in this recent entry. While Robert grew up acting out his father’s vices, the rest of the family grew up poor but with good values. The younger children embraced the Adventist faith. Patricia, or Aunt Pat as my wife and I know her, remains a devout Adventist to this day. Much of her career was spent working for the Adventist Church.

Last weekend we paid a brief visit to Aunt Pat and her husband Paul, whom we had not seen in more than a dozen years. Now 78, half crippled and with five stints inside her, Pat has clearly seen her better days. Yet the faith she learned in the Adventist school in the 1930s still fills her with joy, certainty and solace. At their house on a reservoir in Pennsylvania, we were pleased to meet four generations of their family, most of whom we had never met. Many of these grown up children came complete with spouses. There were two adopted children in the brood.

I had exchanged emails with Pat and in the process learned more about her family and her mother. The family does not have much in the way of historical pictures of their family, but during our visit, Pat shared what she had. The husband of one of her grandchildren was kind enough to scan these pictures and provide them on disk to us before we left. I have printed a number of them out. Soon the following picture of Lillian Savannah Bowden will be gracing our family portrait gallery.

Lillian Savannah Bowden, as a grandmother

My wife’s father was the exception that proved the rule. There are certainly medical issues in that side of my wife’s family. I know now where my wife’s problems with arthritis and weight come from. Breast cancer also runs in her father’s side of the family. Pat lost a daughter to breast cancer fourteen years ago. Another daughter has had two breasts and part of her colon removed due to cancer. Despite these misfortunes, Pat, her offspring and extended family are a remarkable bunch, at peace with themselves and imbibed in a faith that gives their lives meaning and living prosperous American lives. They are good and kindhearted people. Now I also know (a bit to my surprise) where this side of my wife comes from.

Lillian Savannah Bowden, may she rest in peace, deserves full credit for the remarkable children that she raised. She stood by her six children when circumstance threw the worst at her. Somehow, she filled them with love, faith, spirit, reverence and generosity. Her daughter Pat, many years later, even added a PhD to her name.

Outside of my little entry about her, her life will likely only be a fading memory for the family. She deserves more. So here is my small attempt to immortalize Lillian Savannah Bowden. Lillian was not alone in triumphing over great adversity, but her work was remarkable nonetheless. I wish I had had the pleasure of knowing her. However, in a way I feel I do know her from her remarkable daughter and the four generations we met this weekend.

Lillian, you done good.

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