Sunday, October 16, 2011

Theresa’s Letter: Just Warming Up

Knowing what you now know about John Kelly Stevens and his family woes, I’ll begin posting the rather lengthy letter from John’s widow, Theresa Blaising Stevens, which she wrote her daughter-in-law, Agnes Tully Stevens, over the course of one Sunday on June 30, 1946.

Regardless of all the information on this family that I’ve already divulged, the letter will still need some explanation. There is a lot to read between the lines, once you know the splat of the situation. I’m not only transcribing the letter, but also posting a scanned copy of the actual document, so you can get a flavor of this woman’s personality and condition as you see her handwriting for yourself.

I had to strike a balance between sensible editing and a hands-off policy when manners of speaking let her personality shine through. I tampered with some obvious misspellings, but only after my own internal struggle regarding how to present Theresa. While Theresa was most likely raised an English-speaking child, you have to consider that she was brought to America as a toddler and resided throughout her childhood in a household for which English was a second language. Perhaps that is why some of her expressions seem stilted—although I am tempted to attribute some of the other idiosyncrasies not to language barriers but to aspects of personality or condition.

There is an element of “old” and “crotchety” in her meanderings in this letter, although her occasional unusualness in self-expression may be more attributable not to the fits and starts of a now-petering-out affect of the aged, but to the shining-through of a still-enduring personality powered by pizzazz. Or perhaps it is just a jumble of all three possibilities.

Whatever it is, I’ll just let Theresa be Theresa and you can judge for yourself:

Dear Agnes and all the family,

It is now nine a.m. and it sure is hot. I went to (6:30) Mass, and was glad to get home again at 7:30. A lady brought me home in her old jalop of a car. The covers on seats are all rags, and you can hear the car coming a block away, but it is better than walking. I could hardly walk down, I feel like my breath is being choked and that my chest is growing together, I can hardly get my breath, then my feet and leg are in bad condition to walk to church, so I am glad to ride home in any old vehicle.

I do hope your knees are better this hot weather. It must be awful painful to be on them, but of course it is better to exercise them than to be sitting and no exercise at all. I am so sorry you have such a time getting the business in shape again. Poor Will, I suppose he was so sick he forgot a lot of things. It seems funny. When I stand in my pantry and say my meal prayers, (I eat in pantry) I notice my-self always looking out of window towards west to Chicago and over trees, and all at once my mind seems to see the cemetery and poor Will’s grave. It happens every day. I am glad that our dear Lord took him out of his suffering, as long as he could not get better. It would be terrible to have to lie in bed this hot weather and then also suffer all night and day. God rest his poor soul. (over)

Theresa wrote this letter, which I'll continue tomorrow, from her last residence at 1519 Oakland Street in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a comfortable though modest home on a tree-shaded street not far from the downtown area where her husband had worked for so many years. By now, you've probably figured out that "Will" refers to William Stevens, Theresa's stepson, who died in Chicago on May 10, 1946, almost two months prior to this letter and most certainly the instigation of the thoughts Theresa poured out on these pages. "Poor Will's grave" that Theresa saw in her mind's eye was located at St. Mary Catholic Cemetery near Chicago in a little town full of cemeteries known as Evergreen Park.

I have yet to obtain Will's death certificate, so I don't know what caused his passing or the suffering that Theresa mentioned. As to the unattended business details, by the time of the 1930 U.S. Census, Will had been listed as a Real Estate broker, although he had earlier sales experience in other industries, and this later business may have been in a different line of work, too. Whatever field he was involved in, his wife Agnes, herself a capable business woman and at one time a licensed insurance agent, was certainly up to the task of continuing the work.

The letter displays an overarching tone of deep empathy for Theresa's stepson's condition. Her daily thoughts of Will betray a concern well outside the realm of the stereotypical cast of stepmother, and make me wish I knew more of this different type of mother-son relationship. Theresa, after all, was the "only mother he ever knew," as I've been reminded by family members who've shared this history with me. No matter what her personality quirks or qualities, she held to a lifelong affection for this young baby once abandoned by the premature death of another young woman.


  1. This is also a reminder that back in the day (not so long ago) air conditioning just wasn't a in the home thing. The movie theaters and some rail cars had it - and I suspect when the heat got super beastly, a lot of folks like my grandparents, who told of going to the movies just to cool off didn't care much about what was on the screen.

    I hope you find out the cause of death (and that it makes sense - the called a lot conditions pretty strange names back then.)

  2. P.s., sometimes the cemetery keeps records of cause of death - a call to them might work.


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