Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

Ila mae


Clouds hung low over Highway 50 as I drove westbound toward Chase County one October morning. Leaves were beginning their brilliant farewell.

A few days earlier, Ila Mae Whitlock who lives near Elmdale, had called, saying that she had stumbled across a few pages of family history in her mother’s handwriting.

“I don’t know where this came from,” she said when I arrived, handing me a thin stack of time-softened paper. “I’ve never seen this before.”

Ila Mae, 91, has been writing down her own memories, too, and she shared those with me as well. Ila Mae is my first cousin once removed; her mother, Anna, and my grandfather, George, were siblings.

We set those written notes aside and I listened as she talked about her own family. I knew her parents, Anna and Ira Spencer, from my childhood trips to Arkansas. My grandparents and three of my grandfather’s siblings lived in the Fayetteville area at that time. Yes, they had all been born and raised in Kansas, but they all kept moving between the two states – and so my mother was born in Arkansas.

Ila Mae was born in Harveyville, Kan. Her father taught there and then in Lawrence before the Spencer family settled down in Elmdale for about 11 years. Ira taught manual training (shop), and was also the school’s coach.

Her father had an inherited eye disease and his vision began to fail. He had difficulty with the paperwork involved in teaching. It was then, 1937, when Ila Mae was 14, that her family moved to Arkansas. “My parents couldn’t afford a farm in Kansas, so they moved to a farm near Fayetteville, close to the university, so we kids could go to college.”

Ila Mae didn’t stay in Arkansas forever; she had her heart set on a boy from Kansas, Merle Whitlock. They were married in 1942 and raised their family on this farm near Elmdale.

Ila Mae shared with me a few of the stories of her childhood. There was the time when her parents had to scrape Metholatum off of her sister, Lois, after her brother, Stanley, had found a huge jar of the goop and spread on her. They were just little kids, and Stanley had seen their mother applying the ointment, so he was simply copying behavior.

She told about the time Anna, her mother, boarded a train for Topeka to have cancer surgery. Ila Mae was about 4 at the time. I’m sure a lot weighed on Anna’s mind as she traveled to the hospital, leaving four young children at home. Anna’s own mother, Julia, had died when Anna was 14. Seven children, aged 1 month to 18 years, were left behind with Julia’s death in 1907, and the kids were separated, passed around to live with family and friends.

Julia had emigrated from Denmark when she was just 16. Here, she met Anton, also from Denmark. They married in 1888 and settled in Sheridan County to raise a family. At some point they moved into Hoxie, at least in part for better schooling for their children.

After Julia’s death, which was followed by the death of her infant, the family’s goals for education could’ve easily fallen apart. Despite poverty and family separation, higher education remained a goal.

My grandfather and his brother, Fred, lived in a tent while attending the Normal School at Ft. Hays. They reportedly lived year-round in that tent on campus, and raised vegetables for food. Of the siblings, Cora, Anna, Fred, and George all became teachers.

Visiting with Ila Mae opened a portal to the past. Her stories carried me to a different time and place. Anton had always been just a name to me, but Ila Mae had known him personally. In his old-age, Anton lived with her family. As a youngster, Ila Mae was aware that Anton was dying, but one day the tone in the house changed, and she knew. “Daddy held me in his lap and told me that Grandpa had died, and I cried and cried and cried.”

Hearing first-hand memories is the best way to understand the landscape of one’s family, to learn the hills and valleys of triumph, of tears. Family history depends upon the sharing of stories – someone to tell them, and someone to listen. Thank you, Ila Mae.

Copyright 2013 ~ Cheryl Unruh

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