A center to one family's universe

Today (April 12) marks what would be the 106th birthday of my maternal grandmother, Ella Kimberling. She passed away in 2001, a few weeks shy of her 97th birthday.

I tend to start looking at old photos of her around this time. One photo, which I had ignored for years, seems to represent her importance to my family.

Ella Kimberling with daughters and grandchildren, Christmas 1962 - May.jpg

This photo was taken, judging from the children present and the background, around Christmastime 1962. It features my grandmother in the center with her two daughters standing on either side (my late mother is on the right, my aunt Mary is on the left) and six of my grandmother's seven grandchildren. (I would not make an appearance until Christmastime of 1965.)

I view this photo as a kind of planetary system. I see my grandmother as the person everyone revolves around. Her daughters seem to be hovering about her. And, in turn, their children are revolving around them. The orbits, as you can best call them, are rather eccentric since none of the children are over the age of four and toddlers are well known for not wanting to pose in a stance that their cousin could interpret in some scientific way forty-eight years into the future. Grandma apparently captured my brother Tom into her own orbit.

My grandmother was not someone you would have expected to be so important. She came from a rather poor background, growing up in St. Louis, the oldest daughter in a large Croatian family. (The photo below doesn't even include all of her siblings. She had one sister who was born 20 years after her. Grandma is the girl on the upper left. There would be nine children overall.)

Ella Zuzenak holding brother Victor along with brother Adolphe.jpg

Grandma, born as Jelena Zuzenak, and then later Anglicized in part to Ella, dropped out of school after the fifth grade (or possibly eighth, she wasn't too clear on this) to go to work to help out the family. She started off doing piecework, making dresses. She would later get a job in the Fleischmann's yeast factory, wrapping cakes of yeast for resale. The 1920 Census listed her profession as "wrapper."

While at the yeast factory, she met a man named Walter Hitchcock, a salesman for the company. Walter and Ella quickly hit it off and married. Grandma was able to flee the unpleasant home that her own mother, an often critical and always bitter woman, had created.

But, life with Walter would not be pleasant for her. Although she had two children with my grandfather, it was not a happy life. Walter was a drinking man, a very hard drinking man especially after injuries curtailed his semipro soccer career in the St. Louis area. Many of the jobs Walter held were for company teams looking for him to fill out their rosters.

In 1932, Walter Hitchcock fell down a flight of stairs (for mysterious reasons) in a speakeasy in St. Louis. He died of a skull fracture from the injury. This left my grandmother as a single mother with two young children in the throes of the Great Depression.

She was forced to move back in with her mother, who would help look after the children, while Grandma had to go find work. ("Grandma" was about the only name we ever called her. My family is not creative in the nickname department. "Bob" represented a radical leap in creativity in my family.) Eventually, she got a job working for the Veterans Administration as a clerk, which would pay her a decent wage.

In 1960, my parents decided to move out to Los Angeles from Breese, Illinois, where my father was running a dairy farm. My aunt had already moved out to Los Angeles. So, my grandmother packed up and moved out West as well.

Like many people who have moved to Los Angeles, my grandmother reinvented herself. She was no longer the poverty-sticken single mother, living paycheck to paycheck. She was now Grandma. She was part of two families that were much happier than anything she had experienced before in her life. She had grandchildren to look after and dote on.

Grandma became the center of two families' universes. She lived with my family for most of her life in Los Angeles, although her other daughter lived just a block away. At holiday dinners, when all the families came together, she was the center of attention. She was a benevolent dictator in the kitchen, cooking up anything on demand. However, most of my demands did not extend pass wanting a grilled cheese sandwich. Or sandwiches, to be precise, because if you asked for just one, she assumed you wanted two. Potato chips would be added without any question either.

In her honor, I'm going to make myself some grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner tonight. I've got the processed American cheese food slices ready for the occasion. (I always like my food to have the word food inserted into its name so I know it's really food.)

What I miss the most about Grandma is the connection to the past. I've always been in love with history. The only thing better than reading about history is experiencing it. And through Grandma, I could learn about what it was like to live through the Great Depression and two World Wars. I learned that the Croatian kids in St. Louis were picked on by the Czech kids. I marveled at how she got excited each month to get her World War I widow's pension check (she had remarried after my grandfather died) even thought it was a trifling amount. I always know what day Franklin Roosevelt died: her 41st birthday.

In 2001, Grandma more or less just faded away a couple weeks before her 97th birthday. A series of small strokes combined with a failing pacemaker took away much of her strength and mental sharpness in her final months. Fortunately, for most of her life, Grandma was a treasure trove of information about life and family lore.

I don't know if Grandma ever expected that she would still be remembered this way after so many years. Yet, I've written about her before. The story of her life always draws me back in. It is very much a story of America as well as a story of Los Angeles, her adopted home.

Happy Birthday!

Ella Kimberling, late 1950s - Cover.jpg

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