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