Saturday, July 30, 2011

Meeting Leona

"Ethel and Leona" Cousins?
I remember visiting Aunt Leona in her old Victorian house in Alameda, California. The family—at least those of whom remained—used to call the place “The Beanery.” It had been in the Bean family for years.

I was barely out of college when I met Aunt Leona—I, the newlywed, trying hard to make good impressions; she, hovering around the edges of the other side of life’s journey, dispensing with any further need for social niceties. What a picture we form of others when we are introduced to life first from the opposite perspective.

On our long drive to the Bay Area for a visit, my husband would invariably get lost, neglect to ask directions, and drive around in what seemed like interminable circles, before arriving at the forbidding, dark building. Inside, sequestered in her dingy kitchen, Aunt Leona would be waiting for us. I never understood—at the time, at least—why she kept the rest of the house shuttered up. The kitchen was not a comfortable visiting place. We would end up standing, as if at attention before the elderly woman, while we made our inquiries into her wellbeing.

She seemed so lonely, so reclusive, and yet so happy to receive these visitors who went out of their way to pay her a visit. In her gratitude, she seemed compelled to give us something. Mostly, over the years, whatever she gave us amounted to nothing more than what she had at hand at the moment. It often turned out to be things she couldn’t bear to throw away, because they still had some “use” left in them: an alarm clock, faded towels or tablecloths, sometimes even old toothbrushes. My husband always graciously accepted whatever was offered, having learned long ago that it was of no use to rebuff these gestures. For some reason, Aunt Leona felt that people would not come to see her unless they were rewarded.

It may seem idiosyncratic for someone to express gratefulness over the gift of a used toothbrush, yes, but then, when I first met Aunt Leona, she was well into her eighties. Her eyesight was lacking, due to her losing battle with diabetes. The disease had claimed much more of her than that, too, but her spirit was still spunky. How naïve we were at that young age to miss the signals that we’ve since learned to discern in seeing another person’s true needs.

What we saw, as we visited, was what people sometimes refer to as a “crotchety old woman.” There was no earthly way to have been able to turn the clock back so that we “youngsters” could see for ourselves the true being that this aged exterior housed.

But I discovered who she was—who she had been born to be—when I uncovered the few pictures bequeathed to her great-nephew, and by extension, now to me, from their hiding place on a closet shelf. I still don’t know much about this woman, other than what I knew personally from visits with her—I don’t even know the first name of her long-deceased husband—but I can let what I see now teach me that there was so much more to that person than my mental snapshots of first impressions when meeting someone at the end of her journey.

Leona on left, but who are the other girls?

Tomorrow: tracing Leona's life backwards, her heritage forwards.


  1. I wish I had the knowledge to spend more time with my elderly relatives before it was too late as well. I think many people that have gotten interested in their family tree realize what they have missed.

  2. The 2nd photograph of Leona with the two other girls is precious.

    I tend to have fond regard for the ancestors I've never met but when I think about some of the older relatives I knew when I was a child, I think I perceived them very much like you describe Leona. They seemed a little prickly, perhaps.

    Betsy Cross wrote a post ( in which she suggests that how we perceive our ancestors tells something about ourselves. For some reason her post came to mind as I was reading your post here.

    I'm glad you found the box of photos and can get to know Leona a little more. You can probably find her in the 1930 census, and maybe find her husband, too.

    You have a wonderful way with words.

    Welcome to GeneaBloggers.

  3. This was written before I entered the blogging world, so I didn't see it when it was originally posted. What a tender, thought provoking piece Jacqi. I'm glad you referenced it in your blog post today.

    1. Michelle, thanks for clicking through to check out this old post. It is one of my favorite remembrances of a not-so-favorite relative, a connection gifted to me by marriage. What an experience it was to learn to love Leona. In retrospect, that was a beautiful gift. My only regret is not learning it before she left us.


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