Who were my ancestors and what were they like? Not just my parents and grandparents, but those who came before them. Most of us don’t ask these questions until we get older, probably because we’re too focused on ourselves to be able to see a connection between our lives of abundance and relative luxury with those of people who had to walk miles to school in the snow (which our parents forever reminded us), read by candlelight if they could read, and only ate what they could grow, raise, or barter for.
A few days ago, my husband came across a long-forgotten manila folder filled with thirty-five numbered pages of my mother’s family history, covering the years 1650 to 1963 (at 300 words a page, that represents about 30 words for each year), researched and written by a relative of hers named Pearl. I remember Pearl. She lived alone in a musty two-story house on the beach about four blocks from us, and was always happy when we walked down to visit her. She was older than my mother, but not as old as my grandmother and I never quite understood how she and my mother were related, probably because these are not things kids spend a lot of time trying to work out. In this blog post and in ones to come, I will share the most interesting tidbits I picked up from reading this collection of now-yellowed pages.
Today’s story is about another relative of Pearl’s (again I’m uncertain about the exact relationship), who lived a few miles from her and was a writer. What I learned from reading the family history was that her name was Elizabeth Rider Montgomery and that she and Pearl were both related to my grandmother on my mother’s side. I remember meeting her once and after this meeting reading a book she had published about eight years earlier titled “Three Miles an Hour.” An on-line biography says that from 1938 to 1963, she “was employed as a staff-writer for the text-book publisher Scott, Foresman & Company. While there, she was closely involved in the creation and development of the pre-primers and health texts featuring the ongoing characters named ‘Dick’ and ‘Jane,'” though it appears she was not credited with writing them. According to Wikipedia, the books lost popularity in the sixties although buyers enthusiastically went for reprints in 2003. I know from my recent experiences in a school system that these books are now widely scorned by educators. Whatever the current philosophy about reading instruction, everyone from my generation, at least one generation before mine, and probably one after will remember learning to read with the “Dick and Jane” series. And hearing those never-to-be-forgotten words, “See Spot Run. Run, Spot, Run” will instantly take them back to their childhoods.
Though Montgomery can’t take the entire credit for “Dick and Jane,” she is recognized for at least 65 works of juvenile fiction and non-fiction (mostly biographies), many of which are housed in the Special Collections Division of the University of Washington library. I hope to see them some day and learn more about her life and the lives of her parents. The family history says that “Elizabeth was born in the mountains of Peru,” so there is no doubt that her parents would have reminded her of how many miles they walked in the snow.