My blog today will be introducing you to my grandmother, otherwise known as Gra Gra, one of my three leading ladies as was mentioned in my first post. She was assigned the name by my eldest brother and later discovered that the word “gra” was a Greek derivative for the word “love”, this being learned within the context of completing a Crossword puzzle. Gra Gra was thrilled to think her grandson had been smart enough to create this name that would turn out to mean “love love”.
Back in 1891, on this date of September 12th, she was born as Bertha L. James. Her life went on to span the course of 92 years until her passing in the early morning hours of February 4th, 1983.
She grew up in the Foxpoint section of Providence, Rhode Island. Her parents were Martha Ella (Carr) James Cady and George Lang Parkhurst James, both are pictured below.
In 1896, at the age of five, her parents were divorced and at the time there were two younger brothers, Lionel and Howard. The court ruled for Gra Gra and Lionel to reside with the father and the baby Howard to reside with their mother. Three years later, in 1899, her father was remarried to Susan Henrich. From this second marriage, two sons were born–Vincent and Lester.
After completing the fifth grade, my grandmother found it necessary to leave her education in order to help support the family. Her working day, in the mill, consisted of ten to twelve hours with her earnings for the week being a mere $4.00.
Even though her classroom education had come to a halt, she never gave up on her inner thirst for knowledge. She was an avid reader and studied a variety of subjects. In a published article, while in her 80’s, she referred to the benefit of learning from others, those she felt to be smarter than herself.
In 1905, her family moved from Providence to the Clyde section of West Warwick. Soon afterward, Gra Gra joined the local Riverpoint Congregational Church where she was an active member for the following 78 years.
Over time, my grandmother was quite the poet, an animal lover and greatly enjoyed her gardens. Her family was very musical and so it was that she played the piano, the ukulele and Hawaiian guitar.
In 1915, she married my grandfather Thomas William Watts “Pop Pop” who she always affectionately called Bill. They are pictured here together, I am not sure of the exact year of this photo.
Gra Gra was the most selfless person I have ever known, devoting her life to serving others. She was a well-known 4-H Leader for many years and was part of the 4-H All Stars. Prior to WWII, she directed local Minstrel shows. Once the war hit, many of the young men in the area headed off to war so those show productions ended. In later years, she would fondly tell me stories about the various costumes as we examined them from a large trunk in the basement.
My featured postcard today is of the Kent County Memorial Hospital, located in Warwick, the postcard itself was printed by the printcraft shop from Cranston, Rhode Island. This hospital was chartered in 1946 and first opened its doors in 1951. My grandmother was a volunteer at the hospital from the time those doors first opened until the mid-70s, this was some time after she had become legally blind making it too difficult to read. She was a member of the hospital auxiliary and I can remember when they held an annual fundraiser where there would be a large tent set up on the front lawn and my grandmother would serve as a fortune-teller of sorts–using her set of tarot cards.
I have at least two plaques that were presented to her from the hospital for her volunteer work there. The following quoted item (shown below) is from a type-written speech that is attached to the back of a plaque from the Thirteenth Annual Meeting of the Corporation, held on Tuesday, November 19, 1963. The front of the plaque itself says it is an Award of Appreciation for 2,000 hours of unselfish devotion to Volunteer Service.
The second plaque is in recognition of 20 years of Volunteer Service to Kent Memorial Hospital, presented in 1971.
Bertha began her volunteer and auxiliary service at the opening of K.C.M.H. She is one of the first women to be assigned to the information desk in the old business office, and has moved with the desk to each of its new locations. Wednesday afternoon and Mrs. Watts at the Information Desk have become synonymous, and on the rare occasion when she has been unable to report on that day it’s just hard to believe.
Because of her many other community activities she has a wide circle of friends in Kent County, and the information desk on her day, sometimes has the appearance of a ‘homecoming reunion’. She has also had much experience working with teenagers, and has ‘adopted’ many of our Candystripers, with whom she continues to keep in touch as they pursue their careers.
She has served on the auxiliary board in various capacities, and worked on many of the auxiliary projects. And, like all the women being honored tonight, she is a dedicated, loyal supporter of K.C.M.H. and my friend and neighbor for more than fifty years!
Read and presented by Robert E. Quinn of the United States Court of Military Appeals. He is also a former Governor of the State of Rhode Island.
Gra Gra was known as the “lady with the braids” as she had worn them crossed over in a circle upon her head for over fifty years. Many young folks called her “Aunt Bertha”.
The picture on the left is of my grandmother and parents, taken some time after 1941.
When I was a very young person, Gra Gra was always very heavy-set in weight and I felt she was a bit stern in demeanor. The turning point came when I was about the age of nine, she had a slight heart attack, lost a lot of weight and we became much closer. It was from about this timeframe, I started spending a lot more time with her, staying over on weekends and school vacations. In the beginning, I think it started as me trying to help her but in the end what enrichment she provided to my life was so much more–she became my sanctuary and always listened without judgement.
The photo on the right was probably one of the last pictures taken of my grandmother and to me this picture, taken in her kitchen, is worth a thousand words.
So many conversations were had at this kitchen table, she passed along so many stories of her life–many were repeated over more than a few times. Even the objects in the picture hold so many memories, the “blue” sugar bowl that would have been sitting on the lazy Susan along with the orange and fiesta green salt and pepper shakers and the sterling butter dish with the little holder for a butter knife. On the counter, in the background, is the pedestal cake stand that may have been harboring a goodie or two. The large double-doored cupboards with a matching set on the other side of the window were filled with dishes, I think there were three, maybe four, sets of dishes–many were collected from the movie shows that gave them away, one piece at a time.
My grandmother followed the “spring cleaning” routine, meaning each spring we would work together taking down the dishes from each shelf row at a time from the cupboards and hand washing each item. The same was done with all the nicknacks located on the whatnot display. During spring school vacations, we also spent many hours raking leaves from the huge yard and garden areas.
She used to tell stories of when she was a child in school and the teacher each day would write a different saying on the board, things like “honesty is the best policy” and “things done by halves are never done right”. Most of these little sayings were taken to heart and “rules” my grandmother lived by over the course of her life.
What a life it was…and so in honor of her birthday, I have explored just a few pieces of her life. In future posts, I will explore other details and explore more genealogy for both her Carr and James ancestors.
Thank you for reading, watch for my next post which should be my introduction to Grandma Julia, another leading lady but whom I did not have the pleasure to meet in person but yet have learned a little about from reading some of the family postcard correspondence.
Until next time…