The following is an attempt by Julie Kettle Gundlach, from the sources remaining—a friend or two, a memoir of the Kettle family, Barbara Kettle Gundlach’s scrapbook, her father’s memories and letters, her sister Janna, and her own recollections—to reconstruct the story of her mother, Barbara Kettle Gundlach, after she passed away in 1983.
These materials were reproduced here, with permission, from My Mother Before Me: When Daughters Discover Mothers, a book written by Julie Kettle Gundlach and inspired by Barbara Kettle Gundlach, which gives mothers a rare chance to share with their daughters and offers daughters a way to truly understand their mothers and can be found for purchase HERE.
* * * * * *
BY BARBARA JANE KETTLE GUNDLACH
25TH REUNION BOOK OF THE CLASS OF ‘35
Barbara Jane Kettle
Mrs. Herman Gundlach
Married: April 30, 1938
Children: Gretchen Rivet, 20; Martha, 18; Julie, 13; Janna, 9
Husband’s occupation: General contractor
Took a postgraduate course at Katharine Gibbs—did secretarial work for a plywood company. After a meandering tour of the U.S. and Hawaii, married and lived in Atlanta, where the two older girls were born. Spent World War II in Florida; Gunny joined us after service in Germany. Returned to Northern Michigan—Sportsmen’s Paradise of fact and fiction. Swimming, sailing, water skiing, landscape painting in the summer when we live on a lake. Winter brings record snowfalls, skating, skiing (hill with a tow handy a mile away) and hunting. Indoors, although anthropology major, I find my main interests are playing in a piano quartet and teaching French to grade-school kids—no economic gain but considerable intellectual gratification.
45TH REUNION BOOK OF THE CLASS OF ‘35
Barbara Kettle Gundlach
One Las Olas Circle
What have you enjoyed the most in the last five years?
Getting out of Upper Peninsula (Mich.) winters to Fla. And Hawaii—no boots, no scarves, no snow.
How are you spending your time now?
Feminism—NOW & WEAL activities plus creative idling—occasional landscape jobs.
Watching four daughters and three granddaughters struggle in a man’s world has kept me in a rage for ten years.
* * * * * *
BY JANNA BARBARA GUNDLACH
“My Mother, BKG”
Barbara Jane Kettle was born in Jamestown, New York, February 20 of—I think—1913 [it was 1914]. I know very little of her childhood; my overall impression of her was that she was a quiet, intelligent, pensive child. She told me she loved to read and was close to her father.
She didn’t express her feelings to me very much. I recall her being irritated about people’s ignorance and political beliefs, when they caused problems or suffering for others. Social injustice made her angry. She expressed worry and concern for her daughters’ futures and for the future of all women in society. She made me aware of the oppression of women.
Most important to my mother, I think, was that her daughters be independent of men and be content with their own accomplishments. She was candid about the realities of being a wife and mother. She warned me that falling in love is a state of temporary insanity and that child-raising is a state of permanent worry, that it is not as easy and romantic as we are led to believe.
She showed me that I had a choice where or not to become a wife and mother, and that I didn’t need a husband or a child to be happy. What I liked most was her kindness and wisdom and her concern for her daughters.
If my mother were alive, I’d ask her whether she would do things differently, if given a second lifetime; and I’d ask her what Hawaii was like in 1937. I’m sorry that as a child and teenager I never saw her as a person; that I was unable to help her when she was distressed; that I didn’t spend more time with her from the time I left home in ’67 until her death in ’83.
The most important influence she had on me is that I learned to appreciate and love Nature. If not for her, I probably would never have seen the beauty of plants and animals. I see her in the moon, the Hawaiian sunsets, the bugs on the lettuce.
* * * * * *
BY JULIE KETTLE GUNDLACH
“My Mother Before Me”
As for my own knowledge of my mother, although I could write a book about the myriad insights gained since her death, what I actually know about her life would fill only a page or two.
Several years before her death my mom gave us all a copy of A Memoir of the Kettle Family, but I didn’t read it until a few days ago. In it is the obituary of Mrs. Laura Kettle Gray. My mom had written on the clipping: “I saw this grandma, my father’s mother, only once. And her maiden name was Hoyt, tho’ one would never know!” I discovered some fascinating things about my mother’s family; for instance, her great-grandmother grew up in a house next door to what had been Sir Isaac Newton’s home. My mother’s uncle Joseph, who prepared the Kettle memoir, writes, “As a boy visiting my maternal grandfather in England, I played in the orchard, maybe under the very tree from which Newton’s apple fell!”
Joseph goes on proudly to write that back in America during the Revolutionary War, his mother’s great-grandmother (my mother’s great-great-grandmother) was the only woman to remain behind in town when the British army was approaching. The Battle of Lexington was fought the next day, and with her daughters my great-great-great-grandmother went on to the battlefield and helped with the dead and dying.
Mom’s Memories of Home
My mom did tell me a few things about herself. She spoke of the harsh winters in Jamestown and on Lake Chautauqua, New York, and how it was her duty as firstborn to look after her two younger sisters. More than once she mentioned a particularly traumatic cold day, when—mittenless—she had to accompany her sister home from school. I saw “more than once” because I remember having tried several times to discover why the incident had been so traumatic. She’d only say that in the dark and cold, she feared for her sister’s safety, which was in her young hands. Her brother “Bud,” to whom she was very close, was never a problem. They shared a similar—wry—sense of humor.
As a teenager, she was traveling on dusty roads in the country after a date, when her car overturned and she was besieged by a gang of thugs. Somehow, crawling in the moonlight through a field of high grass, she escaped to a farmer’s shack. Her father comforted her when she arrived home.
He used to wake her up in the morning by tweaking her big toe. He’d whisper, “Bobbie”—her nickname until prep school, when it became “Kets”—“time to get up.” Mom described her father, Arthur, as a kind and gentle Unitarian intellectual who read to her in the attic.
Her mother, Ida Ellsworth Kettle, was quite the character and never cared about what people thought. I remember her stockings, rolled at the knee, and her artist’s studio above the shed on Lake Chautauqua. Ida had been Arthur’s secretary at the bank. One day in the vault he embraced her and proposed. As the story goes, it was a “Pygmalion” affair; twenty years Ida’s senior, Arthur sent his fiancée to finishing school.
In Mom’s junior year at Radcliffe, her father, thinking he’d lost everything during the Great Depression, died suddenly of heart failure. Earlier he had dragged himself out of bed to feign excellent health over the phone to brokers and creditors. It turned out that his major investment, Gurney Corporation (which became Marlin-Rockwell, a company that produced a shock absorber for the early Fords), pulled through the Depression unscathed. The dividends from what finally became the company TRW helped support my grandmother, their four children, and even some of the grandchildren through their lives.
When I was in high school, my mother cried about her father a couple of times. Many years later, when I asked her why she had cried, she said he would love to have known that she had married my father, and that she was always sad the two never met. She wished her father had known she was “well taken care of”—an incongruity, I thought, compared to her intense desire for independence.
Mom said in her parents’ eyes she could do no wrong. She was considered beautiful, smart, and perfect. Her story stopped there, but I always presumed it must have been a shock to find herself at times depressed or unhappy or unfulfilled in later years.
Such a bright, witty young woman! I remember the day my mother’s 1928-9 scrapbook was unearthed for the first time in her daughters’ lives. Later, my sister told me that Dad wept when he thumbed through it; he said to my mother, “I’ve ruined you!” It wasn’t until after my mother’s death that I was moved to peruse that scrapbook, which became my cherished source of information. Like my father, perhaps for the first time I saw my mother as a person.
I always told people that both my parents were charismatic. In fact, I would show my friends a photo to prove they were “Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.” Once, however, my father told me my mother was very shy when he met her. She had no confidence, he said. That I could not imagine. Yet it did fit with her statement, “I was taken by your father’s gregariousness. He had It.” I remember being surprised that she didn’t see herself as having It.
Now I remember that she did tell me she was shy as a girl and found it impossible to “small talk,” not because she was above it, but because she “didn’t know how.” It was beneath her dignity to exploit people through flattery or to be manipulated by flattery. She was genuine—honest and sincere. Ironically, that is why some people found her to be intimidating. Yet she loved, accepted, and understood the very people who seemed to be exasperated by her demeanor and ideas.
Certainly, her scrapbook did not reveal a shy young woman. She was a member of the Pretenders’ Dramatic Society in high school. She played the “flapper daughter” in All the Horrors of Home, and there is a newspaper review of their performance of Tweedles by Booth Tarkington:
Miss Barbara Kettle was the charming and beautiful Winsora.
In the margin she has written, “N.B.: It doesn’t say anything about my great acting ability.”
And there are blurbs from the society page (“Barbara Kettle just arrived, accompanied by her usual band of admirers”), oodles of match covers, party favors, bridge tallies, dance cards, invitations, and letters from suitors.
My dear Barbara:
I don’t suppose you know me but that don’t make much difference, it don’t take long to get aquainted. You don’t relize how you attracts men’s attention and how much I worship you from head to foot. I have a car and will take you any place you say. You can never tell what fate will do.”
Fred D. 3d
P.S. I am a nice fellow and good and clean.
My father is quick to say that no one ever broke up with Barbara Jane Kettle. But, alas! Like most of us, my mother had to deal with the occasional fickle lover. On the next page of her scrapbook is a letter from her boyfriend’s college roommate at Chapel Hill:
Something has happened to Bill lately. Maybe the charms of the Southern girls have something to do with it. At the beginning of the year your snapshots adorned walls. Bill raved of you night and day, mostly at night, when I was trying to sleep. About three weeks ago, after he’d met a certain girl who seemed to attract him, he talked less of Bobbie Kettle and had more dates. The climax came today when he returned from a fast weekend spent in this young lady’s company. Your pictures came down, and Bill spent the afternoon and evening wasting a lot of paper composing letters to the former object of his affection. I’m doing all I can to dissuade him from getting hooked. You are too sweet a girl, Bobbie, to have him forget you like this. Love is too beautiful and wonderful to be affected by a mere matter of eight hundred miles.
Best of luck, Bobbie.
Falling In and Out of Love
On the back of a photo of Billy Bliss and “Bobbie,” my mom wrote, “I had sworn not to be taken in a sentimental posture—hence my face.” (She’s sticking out her tongue.) And at the bottom of a note from yet another suitor saying, “Dearest, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you—Yours, Robert Doolittle,” my mom replied, “Darling: Oh, year?—B.” Next to that is a clipping she saved, called “That Absurd Performance Called Falling in Love.” I do recall my mother having told me how “crushed” she was when her first love broke up with her when he went away to college and met somebody new.
It seems that Miss Barbara Jane Kettle struggled against succumbing to romantic delusion. Yet by all reports she fell madly in love with “Gunny,” my father.
I remember hearing a story about my parents’ first meeting. She said she was always attracted to the intellectual types and adored Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest. But at Radcliffe she was fixed up with my dad, a Harvard football captain, with whom she was “not particularly impressed”; she didn’t like “jocks.” Nonetheless on their first date—a blind date junior year—she had to sit on his lap, which she said was “squishy and cozy,” in the rumble seat of a car. From that moment, she said, she was “a goner.” My dad has always said she’d have been happier with an Ashley Montagu.
So far, the other information I’ve learned about my mother is from her girlhood friend, Anna Fern Sherwood from Jamestown. In response to my recent inquiry, Anna Fern sent me the following letter, which moved me to make the twelve-hour round trip to see her:
I’ll be happy to tell you some things, not all I know, as that would be a book in itself. When your mother was born, I thought she was the greatest thing that ever lived, and I immediately adopted her in my mind. I used to haunt the Kettle house for a chance to wheel the baby carriage.
Barbara’s birthday was the day before her father’s, and they were so much alike. He was a rather reserved, dignified gentleman to meet. But when you got to know him you realized how highly educated he was, and what a marvelous sense of humor he had. He also was a keen observer of all that went on around him and was an exceptional business man. Both he and Barbara loved to read, and they used to have some great discussions together.
I was married in August 1929 just before the stock market crashed. Everyone had money and spent it. I had 22 parties and showers given for me. At a Country Club dance the night before my wedding, Barbara was the “Belle of the Ball.” My cousin, quite a playboy about town, told me he thought Barbara was one of the most beautiful girls he had ever seen—and he considered himself quite knowledgeable about beautiful women.
From then on Barbara always had loads of boyfriends. She liked some, others not so well, but I don’t think she was ever really in love until she met your father.
My Dad’s Input
In recent days my father has become a newly tapped source of information. For instance, he asked me whether I knew that my mom, who had her Red Cross swimming certificate, saved a man’s life at Panama City Beach when my dad was stationed at Tyndall Field during World War II. It’s interesting that she had told me the story of a drowning man, but never that she was the one who saved him!
Over the phone my dad has filled in some blanks for me. For instance, those creditors my grandfather talked to on the phone were conservative Republicans. Arthur Kettle, as a lone liberal Democrat in Chautauqua County, championed the working man’s cause. As long as he was strong and vital, he could always ward off his enemies. Like vultures, they were always presaging his downfall. We have a photo of him from 1920 riding in a convertible with FDR, who was running for Vice President. My dad also said that FDR, as President, had approached my grandfather as a possible appointee to the Supreme Court. And according to a clipping in the family memoir, Arthur had also turned down an invitation to run for Mayor of Jamestown. It’s incredible to me that my mother and I didn’t talk more about her illustrious father.
My dad has also sent me some intimacies—letters and poems my mother wrote—saved for many years in his bedroom dresser:
February 16, 1929
Well, consider yourself lucky. I have finally found a second to write to you. I have been rather busy lately with music lessons, Spanish lessons, pledge meetings, editoring, and a French play squeezed in somewhere. Thanks loads for the darling jewelry. I wrote it to a banquet that night with my black velvet. You really have no idea how positively stunning, my dear! Also thanks for the maple sugar candy. Bud and I hogged it all. I bought two new records, much to Dad’s disgust. Also a good-looking necklace, which took what money I had on hand. Maybe I can worm some back allowances out of him. No progress in Victrola, radio, or new house.
A newspaper article on the death of her father says that at one time before the Depression he was a multi-millionaire. He was not an ostentatious person, sometimes to the exasperation of his family, as he was afraid the children might be kidnapped if his wealth were apparent.
The letter to her mother concludes:
A minister stayed to supper with us tonight. Here’s hoping he doesn’t stay and talk all night. I’ve got a heavy date with Bob Doolittle. Don’t forget to let Billy know you’re in vicinity. He’ll show you a hot time. One wow of one sure keen time.
My dad just called tonight to tell me that at the fiftieth reunion of the Class of ’35, Barbara’s old friend Ros from prep school and Radcliffe, said, “Barbara was the smartest girl in our class,” to which another classmate replied, “I don’t remember seeing her name on the Magna Cum Laude list.” Ros said, “But she could have been.” The classmate replied, “Oh? Then why wasn’t she?” “She fell in love!” Ros impatiently exclaimed. My dad said that when he and my mom were at Harvard together, they would pay the milkman 25 cents to ride the milk wagon around Cambridge before my dad would deliver my mom to her dormitory—“at the crack of dawn.”
Among the mementos my dad just sent me were two letters my mom wrote before leaving on the ship for Hawaii. We children had always heard the story of how Mom got only as far as Honolulu on her trip around the world, when she decided to return to my dad in the States; so it was great fun reading these letters.
Nov. 2, 1937
Mission Beach, California
Your question (am I dating?) practically brings tears to our eyes because no matter how one scorns the race of men, they are awfully handy for getting places, and how are we to find such handy articles—! We are cold-blooded sight-seers and have encountered no debaucheries since we left the Ellsworth clan (Mother’s relatives), which was strictly en famille. I feel like an old family woman, or something, now. I wouldn’t know what to do with a “date.” Kid stuff, frothy, unimportant—guess I’m too serious about you.
All my love,
October 30, 1937
I am getting very tired of not having you with me, Gunny. Even when I’ve got my mind off the thought that it won’t be “soon” that we’ll be together, I keep wishing and wishing that you could answer all my thoughts—haven’t got over the habit of making remarks to you when you’re not around. So there is really not even fun for the moment except out of sheer stubbornness! It is my turn to read a mystery story, so to close, with much love,
Her Gifts to Me
Otherwise, I know my mother only by her influence—far too extensive to go into here. She taught me a love for so many things—to mention a few: Gershwin, Sinatra, and “Lucy Ricard”; foreign languages, the study of “Man,” which later expanded into a passion for feminism; music, which she played on piano, especially classical and jazz; comedy and drama (she loved Sid Caesar, Ernie Kovacs, George Sands, Alec Guiness, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Diana Riggs); dance—ballet, modern, ballroom (she used to madly fox trot around the living room, teasing my dad about being a lousy dancer); modern art and architecture; the tantalizing mix of skepticism and romance, science and mysticism; the beauties and forces of Nature and the greater Cosmos.
Last, but not least, as I describe in the introduction, she inspired this book. She herself was always going to write. With my help, she had turned the third bedroom into an office, and she kept enormous clipping files—Watergate, the Supreme Court, the Equal Rights Amendment, the Nixon Administration (later supplanted by the Reagan Administration), “First for Women” (the first female high school football player, the first woman in space, the first women to visit the Yale Club). After our mother died, my sister and I had to dismantle her bedroom and office. It was a poignant moment when we removed and read, one by one, each yellowed clipping tacked to her large corkboard, which was reserved for items marked “Immediate Attention.”
I also came across a bluebook English exam dated 1933, her sophomore year at Radcliffe. Actually, there are two books full of beautiful, flowing fountain penmanship on “Lyric Poetry of the 17th Century.” Later as a “housewife” and for no particular reason other than her own enlightenment, she wrote a paper on “The Suite Form” and also on “Spanish and Portuguese Music.” I remember her telling me that she would go into a “trance” when she wrote exams and papers and that later on she couldn’t believe she’d known all that material. The same thing has always happened to me.
One of the things my mom and I did together at our “slumber parties” was to come up with topics for articles or ideas for books. When I was nine, I wrote a novella, which she typed and submitted to a publisher. She’d always encouraged me to write; in fact, just today I ran across a letter she wrote me when I was ten and away at Girl Scout camp. Any grown child will understand why I kept that letter for thirty years:
We just love your letters—you are a very neat and clever child!
Ahead of Her Time
Barbara Kettle Gundlach, born on the cusp of the Victorian and the “flapper” era, was a modern woman. It was not easy for an unconventional person to live as a wife and mother in the fifties and early sixties, and even later, in a small town. Although she always said that the people were friendly and that she had a lot of fun, nevertheless, it seemed that hardly anyone there understood her, a fact which to this day makes me sad and sometimes resentful. Gently, unassuming, unaffected, she was her own defense. I think people mistakenly believed that she was cool and invulnerable. Like her father the virtually lone liberal in a bastion of conservatism, she was the butt of a lot of ribbing.
In later years, she found allies in the National Organization for Women, the local chapter of which she helped to found; and the women in her consciousness-raising group, of course, came to know her well. From conversations with them, Sam Oliver, the minister conducting her memorial service, was able to glean the kind of life she faced without succumbing to artifice. To quote part of his eulogy of her:
She was an able, even brilliant woman, one whose competence covered a broad range of interests: music, art, literature, religion, social ethics, philosophy—so much more; and it was not just an interest but a knowledge of these things, an understand of them, that gave her the ability to speak with some authority.
Unlike many who are given the gift of great intellectual capacity, Barbara didn’t advertise it. Indeed, there were times when she preferred not to show it at all. She had the unique ability to affirm and lift up those around her, to inspire them, to move them, to liberate them, to give them a vision. Some have said that in many things she was ahead of her time, that the things she was thinking about and the causes that commanded her attention were sometimes issues that most of us were not ready to address—at least, not yet.
I think it is important to say that many people did not know Barbara well. There was a private, personal, contemplative part of her life which she shared only with her family and good friends. It was not an easy kind of thing to maintain, but she was able to do so, sometimes at the risk of being misunderstood. It was this private part of life where her husband and her children and her close friends were able to know her as the woman she was, and it is there that the deepest, most significant memories are lodged—memories of the love, the laughter, the sharing, those moments of deep meaning.
When my mother died, our family friend Joan Monberg sent us all a copy of a letter Joan received upon her mother’s death. It was from my mother:
Our hearts know we must outlive our parents,
but our minds are forever tied, somehow.
There are so many regrets and anger and love
unexpressed; but, finally, only dear memories.