A Letter From Grandmother to Grandmother

As I was looking through some old files inherited from my parents when they passed away, I found an interesting letter. Not earth shattering, but fascinating to a historian. It was a three-page thank-you note written in April of 1950 from my maternal grandmother, Sarah Wanda Reese Ashcroft, to my paternal grandmother, Nelsine Martine Sorensen Thurston. Since several of my sisters were too young to have remembered much about their grandmothers, I thought they would enjoy this, as would all of our children, who never knew their great-grandmothers.

Wanda didn’t like to be photographed; she felt her thick eyeglasses emphasized
her somewhat protruding eyeballs, the result, I believe, of an eye illness.
This drawing was made three years before
her note to Martina was written.

First, a little background. At the time the note was written, Wanda was 58 years old and living in Hyde Park, Cache Valley, Utah. She was the descendant of Welsh and English immigrant Mormon pioneers (with a little old-line American lineage having German and Scots-Irish roots). My mother said Wanda enjoyed entertaining, and often hosted social “teas” and club meetings in her home, which, by Hyde Park standards, was a very nice one. She also was active in political matters and hosted political discussion groups. I can’t recall at the moment whether she was Republican or Democrat, but my recollection is that whatever she was, her husband, Leland, was the opposite. I have the sense that my grandparents were well respected in the society of their small town (both had attended college and had taught school for a time, which was unusual in a small Utah farming community). My mother emphasized, however, that Wanda was the opposite of snobby—she went out of her way to invite and involve individuals in the community who might be looked down on and to help them in other ways as well. Wanda had fragile health and, although she gave birth to five living children, only two survived infancy. When her third child died, she adopted a baby boy.

I believe this photo of Martina was taken shortly after the note was written.
Martina had a slight build, no more than 5’5″ tall, which was
probably about average for her generation.

Martina (as my dad’s mother was called) was a 66-year-old Danish immigrant who had come to America when she was a 12-year-old to live with the family of a Mormon missionary who had served in Denmark. Martina had only a high school education. Shortly after she married Edwin Elroy Thurston she became completely deaf. She and Elroy had ten sons, seven of whom had served in World War II. They always struggled financially; such a large family to raise during the depression. Elroy had attended Snow College and was, for a time, the Richfield County Clerk. But a failed investment in a service station business during the early 1930s and an ineptitude for farming had resulted in his serving as a foreman on a CCC crew in the mountains during many of the depression years, leaving Martina to pretty much raise her ten sons on a daily basis on her own. At the time this letter was written, Nelsine and Elroy were living in a small home in Provo, where Elroy was a maintenance worker for BYU (in those days called “janitors”).

Wanda’s oldest (and only) daughter, Barbara, had married Martina’s third son, Morris, in 1941, nine years before this note was written. Both sets of parents were present at the marriage in the Logan Temple. Morris was 38 and Barbara was 33 at the time the note was written. They had three children, with a fourth on the way. They play no real part in the letter, but I just like to fill in the edges of the picture.

Apparently Wanda and her son, Vern (then 22) had recently visited the Thurstons in Provo. This was a “thank you” note that Wanda wrote, apparently a bit delayed from the normal, for which she apologized. Here, then is the three-page note:

I enjoyed seeing this note for several reasons. It is always fun to see the handwriting of one’s ancestors. It is also enlightening to “hear” them talk about daily events, the sorts of things that often don’t survive if they’re not journal keepers. I’m sure my wife and sisters, especially, will find Wanda’s description of what she served her club members to be interesting. Wanda says she served chicken a la king over pattie shells. I had to look that up. “Pattie (or patty) shells” are apparently pastry shells.

Chicken a la king over pastry shells

Thirty-two guests is a daunting number to have in one’s home. Although Wanda’s home was large by small-town Utah standards, it was far from a mega-mansion. It did have a good-sized sitting room just inside the front door, which could have seated quite a number of people.

The home of Wanda and Leland Ashcroft, Hyde Park, Utah

I thought it was interesting that Wanda addressed Martina as “Mrs. Thurston.” This is a formality we would not use today, but it would have been more common sixty years ago. Of course, Martina was eight years older than Wanda. I remember when I visited Grandmother Thurston I found it a bit difficult to interact with her. She was a willing communicator, and could read lips, but when she spoke her deafness and her Danish accent made her hard for me to understand.

As I reflect on my interactions, with Grandma Thurston, what stands out in my mind is playing Chinese checkers with her. That is where I was introduced to the game, probably at age nine or ten. Interestingly, some of my best-remembered interactions with Grandma Ashcroft were also across a game board. One summer, probably when I was ten or eleven, I was sent to Cache Valley to stay with my Ashcroft grandparents several weeks before the rest of the family came up for their regular summer vacation. I have great memories of that time: Of reading books from their library (Black Stallion books and S.P. Meek’s dog books were my favorites), of playing baseball with the local kids, of riding the Ashcroft’s horse (Old Chief) and of playing canasta with Grandma Ashcroft. She taught me the game and we played almost every afternoon while I was there.

Getting back to the letter, I thought it was nice that Leland had painted a couple of rooms of the house and “had everything clean” when Wanda and Vern returned from Provo.

Wanda mentions that she is going to Salt Lake with her son Harry to General Conference, and hopes that Leland will be able to join them for the Sunday session. I found it interesting that Harry wanted to go to the Northwestern States Missionary party; he had returned early from his mission not long before this because of a “nervous breakdown,” as my mother explained it.

Sadly, in 1954, four years after this note was written, both of my grandmothers died. I feel fortunate to have known and loved them both.

What about this note (and surrounding story) do you find interesting?

12 thoughts on “A Letter From Grandmother to Grandmother

  1. What I find amazing is that she had 32 guests, and the amount of food she made and fed them! Wow! what a lot of work! I’ve been in the sitting room, but don’t know where 32 people would fit. I’d love to know which sister and what “drama.” I assume she means “dramatic reading.” But, yes, the best part is just being able to hear Grandma in first person, since I never got to know her well.

  2. Thanks so much for this wonderful essay about Mother. It brought back so many memories of growing up in Mother’s and Dad’s home. We were blessed beyond measure. Mother was always interested in helping others. If Mother wasn’t home when I arrived from school, I knew she was probably helping someone else — many times Sister Lowersen, who was not known for her housekeeping skills and considered by many “undesirable” in Hyde Park society.” I would go down the street to meet Mother carrying her scrub bucket.

    When Nancy and I were dating I brought her to Hyde Park to church. Several women came up and warned her about what a hard role she would have to compete against my mother because she was such a marvelous homemaker and cook. Nancy was quite intimidated by her future mother-in-law’s sterling reputation.

    One time I heard that Grandma Ashcroft told my Dad, “Leland, you have to do something about Wanda. She had that Lowerson woman in her home.” Dad laughed and said to his mom, “Is that all?”

    Thanks again, Morrie, for sending this. Keep in touch! We love to hear from you.

    From Nancy: I heartily agree with Carolyn — I panic when I have eight guests for dinner — 32 boggles my mind!!!!

    Vern & Nancy

  3. I think it makes my Grandma more “real” to me. I’ve struggled to keep up with things to do – which she did too. I have often wished I could do more also. It’s not definitely clear – but I assume she didn’t hear the reading because she was working in the kitchen. I think that this is neat, because it helps me see that truly generations are related – for I too have those same concerns. I’m definitely glad, though, that meal preparation today is somewhat easier!

  4. Mom told me they were Democratic Teas. When I mentioned to a friend here that I thought it was odd that Grandma was a Democrat and Grandpa a Republican, she told me that in order for Utah to get it’s statehood they had to have approximately the same number of each party represented. She said people were assigned to be one or the other to fill that requirement. Do you know if that is true? Anyhow, I understood that Grandma was quite the cook & hostess, and never left anyone out, often having back to back parties if she couldn’t accommodate everyone in one day. To host a party of that size, considering the fact that she made everything from scratch including Angel food cake, and she did not have many of the conveniences we do today is amazing.

  5. It would have been quite a feat to prepare the food for so many people. Remember, Grandma didn’t have the large double ovens that some have today. In fact, as I remember the kitchen, it was quite small and the appliances were small by today’s standards as well.

    Of course, she clearly had help and I’m sure some of the food was prepared in the kitchens of her friends. Still, not an easy thing to pull off.

    I, too, would like to know which sister did the “drama.”

  6. Mary Kaye: It is true that shortly after Utah was admitted as a state, Church members were encouraged to populate both major parties. I do not think that there were formal directives to even out the numbers, but clearly Church leaders did not want it to seem that the Church was only for one party.

    That sort of political power play hadn’t worked real well in Nauvoo nor was it appreciated by the nation at large in pioneer Utah.

    Church members today seem to have forgotten that lesson. Utah is the most Republican state in the nation and Mormons are the most Republican religion in America. And, as we know, Mormons are tending more and more to be on the right-wing fringes of the Republican party.

  7. Wasn’t Grandma the chairperson or something like that in the Cache Valley Democratic party? I think Cache Valley, and Uath in general, was largely Democrat. I remember several years ago reading that the Democratic party itself has changed a great deal, leaving many of their “old” members’ values behind. That put them in the Republican camp by default. That article was not authored by a Mormon and quoted from a pretty wide swath across the country.

    On a different note, I saw the house again after Viola died and was astonished by how limited the kitchen was. It was obviously custom built because the counters were so short. The last time I had seen the house was when I was about 6 years old when it was MUCH larger. Incredible how things change after 20 years. 😉

  8. You are correct, Stephanie. We are related through two lines. Charles Leland Ashcroft, Wanda’s husband, was the grandson of Henry and Mary (Glover) Ashcroft. He was also the great-grandson (on his mother’s side) of James and Eliza (Reeder) Hurren, through their daughter Emma.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the story.

  9. Vern & Nancy: Sorry I didn’t post your comment earlier. It somehow got stuck in the approval queue and I just found it.

    Vern – you were apparently with Grandma when she visited Martina. Do you have any recollection of it? Any details you can call to mind?

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