Esther Yemm

Esther, 1908

Esther, 1908

My mom’s maternal grandmother, Esther Yemm, was born January 7, 1879 in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, England. Her parents, Richard Yemm and Esther Cooper, had six children (three boys and three girls). Esther was the oldest and the only one without a middle name. Esther was always known as Tot to her grandchildren, but how she acquired this endearing nickname is lost to memory.

From all accounts, the Yemms were an average Forest family. They were poor, as were their neighbors. Esther’s father was a coal miner while her mother minded children and home. Esther attended school until the fourth grade and undoubtedly assumed the role of helping her mother with her younger siblings. As per custom, at age 13 Esther was sent away into domestic service. As a maid-of-all-work, Esther’s duties would have included menial chores such as filling and cleaning lamps, carrying coal, tending fires, emptying ashes, and boiling water for laundry. The 1901 England census shows Esther in the service of Gloucester accountant John Barnett, his wife Sara, and their three young sons. Gloucester was only twenty miles from the Yemm home on Worrall Hill, but it must have seemed a world away without the time off or means to visit her family in the Forest. However, Esther’s Aunt Polly and her family moved to Gloucester in the mid-1890s and perhaps Esther was able to spend time with her cousins now and again.

On July 10, 1906, at the age of 27, Esther boarded the RMS Saxonia, bound for America. She stepped off the boat in Boston on July 19, 1906. Five days later, July 24, 1906, Esther married her sweetheart, Arthur George, in the parlor of his parents’ home in Brereton, Illinois. Arthur, a coal miner from the Forest of Dean, had immigrated to the United States in 1903, followed by his parents and siblings in 1904. It’s hard to imagine how Esther and Arthur orchestrated their romance and rendezvous long-distance, but theirs was not an uncommon story. Esther and Arthur settled in Cuba, Illinois (pop. 2,019). Esther was surrounded by familiar [Forest] faces in her new home, including her brothers Joe and Steve who had emigrated from England in 1904 and 1906, respectively. She would never see her parents again.

In April 1908, Esther’s first child, Ruby, was born. The 1910 U.S. Census shows Esther, Arthur and Ruby, along with Esther’s brother Steve, living on Sixth Avenue in Cuba. However, in May 1911, Esther was granted a divorce from Arthur on the grounds that he had abandoned her for a full two years prior and was still absent (indicating he left when Ruby had barely turned one). Family lore is that Arthur left his family to go west in search of work. In his absence, Esther worked as a maid at the Cuba House hotel to support herself and little Ruby.

Cuba House hotel where Esther worked, c. 1911

Cuba House hotel, c. 1911

Arthur eventually returned to Cuba. He and Esther remarried on March 7, 1914. Their son Kenneth was born in February 1915 and daughter Eileen was born September 1916.  Esther’s youngest sister Dollie arrived in the United States on the eve of Eileen’s birth. Eileen and Dollie share the middle name Blanche.

Esther with Ruby, Kenneth and Eileen, c. 1920. Esther had this portrait of her family taken after Arthur died to reassure her parents in England that she was doing fine.

Esther with Ruby, Kenneth and Eileen, c. 1920. Esther had this portrait taken after Arthur died to reassure her parents in England that she and her family were doing fine.

Sadly, on December 13, 1918, Arthur died in the Great Influenza Epidemic. Esther was also taken ill but survived. Just shy of her fortieth birthday, Esther found herself widowed with three young children. She supported her family by taking in boarders, cleaning houses and doing laundry. Esther commanded respect from her children and insisted they attend church every Sunday. She realized the importance of education and saw to it that all three of her children graduated from high school.

Esther, c. June 1930

Esther, June 1930

Esther’s father died in 1921 and her mother died in 1933. In 1937, soon after the birth of her first grandchild, Esther sailed to England to visit her sister Florence. Esther’s trip coincided with the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. London was abuzz with visitors from around the world. Florence wouldn’t have missed the event for all the tea in England. Esther, on the other hand, chose to forego the crowds although she surely followed the coronation proceedings, which for the first time ever were broadcast on the radio. During Esther’s five-month visit, Esther and Florence took the opportunity to visit family, friends and their old home in the Forest of Dean. The trip would be Esther’s last visit to England.

In the mid-1940s, Esther married Jim Grindle, a recent widower and old friend from the Forest of Dean. They lived in Jim’s comfortable home in Cuba, where they kept a large vegetable garden and tended numerous fruit trees with the help of the resident cat (first Judy, and later, Sam). My mother loved visiting Cuba and remembers looking through the Sears catalog with her Grandma Tot for Buff Orpington chickens (an English breed that became popular in the U.S. in the early 1900s). After the war, Florence traveled from England to visit her family in Illinois. In 1949 she came to live with Esther and Jim.
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Esther with daughter Eileen and granddaughters Sharon (left) and Carol (right) at Glen Oak Park, c. mid-1940s

Esther with Eileen and granddaughters Sharon (left) and Carol (right) at Glen Oak Park in Peoria, c. mid-1940s

Esther on Grand View Drive in Peoria, c. mid-1940s

Esther, c. mid-1940s

Esther (second from left) with Joe, Florence, and Jim Grindle, c. early 1950s

Esther (second from left) with Joe, Florence, and Jim Grindle, c. early 1950s

Jim and Esther Grindle, c. mid-1950s

Jim and Esther Grindle, c. mid-1950s

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Esther on Waverly, c. 1961

Esther on Waverly, Sep. 1961

When Jim died in 1956, Esther and Florence moved to Peoria where Ruby lived. Eventually, they moved to a small house on Waverly Avenue where they lived together (with Timmie the cat) until Florence’s death in 1974. Esther continued to live on Waverly for the next five years with her friend, Ruby Slater.

Esther and Florence, Oct. 1968

Esther and Florence, Oct. 1968

Esther faithfully attended the First United Methodist Church in downtown Peoria. On her one hundredth birthday, the minister, Dr. Ira Gallaway, invited her to speak to the congregation. Esther held court at the celebration and to the mild alarm of the parishioners, she began her speech, “When I was born in 1879…” Shortly after she turned 100, Esther moved to Ohio to live with her daughter, Eileen. She died there on January 25, 1980, at 101 years of age. Esther retained her mental faculties until the end. She was buried in the Cuba Cemetery, where three of her siblings and both husbands rest.

Esther's signature, 1956

Esther’s signature, 1956

Esther, c. mid-1970s

Esther, c. mid-1970s

Grandma Tot is the only great-grandparent I really remember. She was small in stature and changed very little in appearance over the last forty years of her life. She wore housedresses covered in floral prints for everyday wear, a suit and a proper church hat on Sundays, and always the sturdy black oxfords. In contrast with Florence’s “Queen’s English,” Esther spoke with the Forest dialect, which persisted despite living in the United States for over 70 years: “I’m gonna ‘it you over the ‘ead with an ‘ickory ‘ammer ‘andle!” She was devoted in her faith and could quote chapter and verse from the Bible. She sweet-talked her parakeet, Jimmie, and could coax a wild chickadee onto her finger for a treat. I remember her windowsills filled with African violets and her flowerbeds filled with tulips. I appreciate that, despite a life that was often very hard, she had an optimistic and generally cheerful spirit. Her family loved her “Englishness,” and Esther loved reminiscing about her childhood. She recounted the exploits of the family dog, Jip. She described how her brother Joe was cited for “furious peddling” through the village. She recalled the first time she saw a banana and how very peculiar she thought it. So many stories!

When my mother, aunt, cousin and I visited the Forest of Dean in May 2015, we all felt her spirit.

Esther in 1979, 100 years old!

Esther in 1979, 100 years old!

I raise my cup ‘o tea and toast dear Esther!

12 thoughts on “Esther Yemm

  1. What a wonderful story about your great-grandmother! I feel as if I know her thanks to the way you weave the details of her life into her narrative. Thanks for sharing another family member with the rest of us, Cousin.

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    • Cousin Mary, you have no idea how much your sharing photos, letters, and your own family history posts have inspired me to capture what memories I can of these beloved family members. Thank you!! xo

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  2. Pennies….lots of pennies. She saved her pennies for me and when we would take her to the store (A&P), I would fill my mouth and pockets with gumballs! I can’t believe the house on Waverly was so small. Our Christmas presents hidden downstairs behind the furnace. Aunt Flo’s rhubarb growing in the “garden”. And to this day, when I think of her I smell green beans being cooked.

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    • Master Andy, thank you for sharing your vivid memories…these are awesome! I remember the steep basement steps with no risers, the wringer wash tub, the honeysuckle vine outside the back door, and odd cookies in tins (by odd, I mean different from the sugar-laden Oreos and such we were used to!). xo

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  3. Loved this story of Grandma Tot. As I remember she was called Tot because she was such a little tot when she was very young. At any rate she was always Grandma Tot to me. My first memory of her was in Cuba and looking in the Sears catalog for these memorable Buff Orphington chickens. We never purchased any but sure spent time looking in that section of the catalog. (No TV). In that same time frame I remember her getting me all dolled up to ride with George Baylor in the surrey with the fringe on top to the town square of Cuba. I was so excited and impatient when she had to have me looking just so. I think I was just 3 or 4 years old when that happened. I also remember her glorious garden and the red raspberry patch we invaded as soon as we got out of the car when visiting her and Grandpa Jim. I spent quite a few summers with her and Jim and never was quite ready to go home when my parents came to pick me up. Always just one more week please. Once again great job Terri!! Love, Mom

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    • Mom, thank you for sharing these memories. I can see where your tomboy self would have loved spending time in little Cuba with your beloved Grandma Tot. Wish we had a pic of you in that fringed-top surrey! Love you!

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  4. Great job Ter! I remember the same things from Waverly as Andy. The basement, the dinners, garden, sitting by that front window listening to hymns (that part not very fun)! I remember her and Aunt Flo talking to people at the same time, like the other one was not even there, and their accents were so different. So the best was when she lived with us in Champaign. I guess she was in her very late 90s and she was making a lot of “housekeeping” and “cooking” mistakes like making pies with salt instead of sugar…you get the point. But we never wanted her to feel bad so we ate her food best as we could and told her how good it was. She would wash the dishes and Mom would have to rewash them but we wanted her to feel useful. One night after dinner she was standing at the sink in her striped bathrobe and Mom walked behind her and heard her muttering, “Well I don’t mind helping out but I don’t want them making a slave out of me!” Hysterical. Loved all the pics, so many memories. Thank you for another treasure. Love you!

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    • Lor, thanks for sharing these memories…hearing yours and Andy’s brings back more of mine! Love love love the story of her doing dishes. She was probably thinking back 80 years when she had to do dishes for Mr. and Mrs. Barnett and those boys, haha! xo

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  5. Honey, you have done a very skillful job condensing 101 years into an authentic snapshot of our Grandma Tot. Two memories in particular still make me laugh out loud. When she spent several months with us, and in fact, celebrated her 99th birthday during that time, I found her intently reading a sexually themed article in Cosmo magazine. When the article was continued in the back of the magazine, she very carefully turned the pages to the correct place and continued reading! Never too late!!!
    I also found out it was possible to be very annoyed with her at age 99 when she pointed out the wallpaper border in my kitchen was the wrong color lot! I was sure no one had noticed!
    Also interesting that Eileen will celebrate her 100th birthday this year.
    Thank you for bringing Grandma Tot back into our lives in such vivid detail.
    As always, job well done!
    Love, Aunt Carol

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    • Auntie, thank you for sharing these memories. I loved really thinking about Tot and remembering, and hearing the memories that everyone shares is so fun–it reminds me of how unique we all are and that what “sticks” is different for everyone. The Cosmo story is funny–no leaving Tot behind! Thanks for pointing out, too, that Eileen will turn 100 in 2016. Nanny still goes to the Cuba class reunions, and (naturally) she is the only one left in her class, although not so long ago, there were a couple of others. Maybe it’s the Cuba water…
      Love you!

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