When I arrived at the Kowloon dock, I could see my grandmother’s searching face over the top of the rail. Just over 5 feet, only her head was visible, but there was nothing timid about her posture. When she saw me, she smiled broadly and waved. She had just celebrated her 73rd birthday and had stopped to visit me in Hong Kong on her trip around the world – always by P & O Orient Lines (this was her third cruise).
While I had always regarded my grandmother, Elizabeth Jones Stage, to be a strong, independent woman, it didn’t really hit me until that moment the significance of her trip. In 1961, not many women of her age traveled alone, let alone embarked on a trip like this. I’m sure that the fact that I was not at all hesitant to travel half-way around the world to spend my junior year attending college in Hong Kong came from my grandmother’s genes.
Anxious to show her my home for the year, she unhesitatingly boarded the Kowloon-Canton Railway for the ride into the country to see Chung Chi College and meet my friends. Although I can’t remember, I’m sure I didn’t have her sit in third class as I normally did. We ended her one-day visit by taking a sampan out to the Floating Restaurant for dinner, where where she tried chopsticks and they took a picture of the two of us,
and printed them as postcards. I have a copy of the one I sent to her a few weeks later as my Christmas greeting to her. The postcard is addressed c/o a woman in New South Wales, Australia – undoubtedly someone she had met on an earlier cruise.
On a postcard home to my parents she assured my parents that I looked wonderful and wrote, “Had a grand lunch here with Judy.”
While in Australia, she took an unplanned trip to Tasmania – a fact our mother wasn’t aware of until Gram returned home.
At a stop-over in Egypt, she rode a camel, and brought home 3 souvenir camels which now sit proudly in my living room and will one day go to her namesake and fellow adventurer, my niece Elizabeth Burk McCuller, born three months before Gram died.
“Since I have become an adult”, Elizabeth laughs, “Mom always tells me I’m just like her.”
The unplanned excursion to Tasmania was not the first time she took the opportunity for adventure. “When she took her first trip to England through the Panama Canal,” Chris recalls her being fearless, “she went on an excursion to Venezuela. Mom was shocked when she got home and told us about it.”
Her great-grandson, BJ was able to visit with her until he was six, and then our family moved out of state. She died when he was nine; however, as he was growing up his admiration increased. “The stories of her as a world traveler were very inspiring to me,” he recently reminisced.
She took her first trip in 1958 – just months after Grandpa passed away. “I am going to England to tell Joe’s family,” she announced to her stunned family. She’s already figured it out. She would take the train to Montreal and then board a ship and land in Southampton. I remember putting her on the train in San Bernardino to start her trip.
She definitely wanted to make an impression!
In addition to tracking down Grandpa’s family, she visited her relatives in Newcastle and Gateshead. This is when a cousin’s daughter wanted to be Chris’s pen pal. We still haven’t identified exactly who she is and refer to her as ‘the girl in the polka dot skirt.”
She traveled each year after that. The trip around the world in 1961 when she stopped off to visit me in Hong Kong took a lot out of her. It was her last trip. It was four years later when she got a pacemaker.
While she sailed from Montreal on her first trip, on subsequent trips embarked and returned from San Pedro just south of Los Angeles.
“One time my mom and I went to pick Gram up after her cruise,” Cousin Barbara recalls. “We waited until everyone had gotten off the ship – and no Gram. She had fallen and broken her wrist or arm and was in an office, not too happy. We finally got her back to the car and drove her to Mom’s house. I’m glad I was there to be able to help.”
When she returned from her first trip to England, she decided she didn’t want to maintain her large yard in Yucaipa and took another courageous step by moving into the first Leisure World Retirement Community in Seal Beach.
In 1975 when Mom and Dad moved to Coeur D’ Alene, ID, they moved into a duplex with an adjoining unit where Gram could be close by. My family was living in the Seattle area then and I remember us driving over and visiting all of them. She wasn’t there long, passing away Apr. 4, 1976. For the rest of her life, Mom felt guilty about going home to have dinner with Dad and not being there when Gram died. It would not be until our own Mom was on hospice that I learned from the hospice nurse that some people don’t want anyone to see them go and will deliberately wait until family leaves to die. Our Mom did the same thing to us.
Besides being adventurous, Gram was willing to venture into uncharted territory in her constant quest to seek a better life.
Born in 1888 in a colliery village in NE England, she always aspired to make a better life. She never disclosed her humble birth place to her children. It was only through Chris’s genealogical research that a copy of her birth certificate was found, but couldn’t find North Brancepeth Colliery on a map. It wasn’t until 2001 that Chris and I finally learned its exact location, with the help of newly-found Stage cousin Alan, and visited the remaining few buildings.
As a result of the Education Act of 1880, children through age 10 at this point in history were required to attend school. That was not true of the earlier generation. Her father, Thomas Jones, who labored during the day below ground in a coal mine, and then attended school at night to learn to read and write must have set the example of taking matters into your own hands to improve oneself. Neither he nor his wife, Catherine Graham Jones, knew how to sign their names at the time of their marriage in 1875. The signature lines contained their names written by the registrar, followed by X his mark (or her mark). In the 1901 census, Thomas was still working as a Stoneman (a person who excavates stone or hard strata, according to the Durham Mining Museum) below ground at a colliery in the Benwell area of Newcastle. Five years later he had managed to leave mining. A 1906 directory from Newcastle lists his occupation as a commercial traveler, an independent sales person, an occupation he maintained until his death in 1937.
Gram was 19 when she married our grandfather, Joseph (Joe) Stage in 1907, a boilermaker (welder) at the Wallsend shipyards. We have always wondered how they might have met, as the two communities are not close to each other. While the marriage certificate does not list Elizabeth’s occupation, she undoubtedly was in service or apprenticed to learn a trade until she married. Whatever she did, it was not how she wanted to be known, for she didn’t declare an occupation.
“Her version of her past was how she wanted you to view her,” Chris commented recently.
In a letter I received from a relative a while back, it stated she had been told that “Gram’s family was very well to do and that she married ‘below her station’ in life…..she left her father’s house with only the clothes on her back and the money in her purse.” While Gram’s father was a sales person at the time and they lived in a nice neighborhood,
and Grandpa’s father worked at the ship yards – but still in a nice house,
Gram’s family definitely was not wealthy.
When my mother was born in September, 1910, Grandpa, Grandma and Uncle Colling, age 2, were living near some of Gram’s relatives in Gateshead, County Durham, where Grandpa was working as a miner. When Mom was about six months old, Grandpa left for Canada at Gram’s urging, where the railroad was expanding and they needed workers with welding experience. We were surprised to find him in the Canadian census, taken a few weeks after he arrived, and learned he initially obtained work, not with the railroad, but in the mines in New Brunswick.
When mom was 11 months old, Gram and the two children boarded a boat and sailed to Canada to meet him in New Brunswick. Their journey is detailed in “Retracing My Grandmother’s Immigration at Canada’s Grosse Ile.”
A job as a boilermaker opened up with the Canadian Pacific Railway a year later and Grandpa was sent to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. When they arrived on the Canadian frontier, I’m sure this was not what Gram had in mind. It is no wonder that when Grandpa joined the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in 1914 and was sent to Winnipeg for basic training, Gram took the children and followed him there – and then to Kent, England near where he was stationed in Shorncliffe. While she was probably glad to get out of Moose Jaw, it took a lot of guts to follow Grandpa.
Not long after his battalion was sent to France in 1915, Gram received news that Grandpa had been injured. She took the two children to Calais and secured lodging in a boarding house. She left the children in the care of the woman who owned the boarding house and took off to find Grandpa. She discovered that relatives were not allowed to see any of the soldiers, so Gram and the children returned to their apartment in Shorncliffe.
Gram had the ability to make friends easily, and always sought out people of importance.
Shortly after settling into an apartment in Shorncliffe she befriended the army commander’s wife and began volunteering with her. She was able to use this connection in 1916 when there were frequent air raids near the base and our grandfather wanted the family to return to Canada. Despite no civilians being allowed on the boats, they were able to get passage the next day. Mom remembered that when they arrived at the ship, the boarding sailor informed them they could not board. Grandmother whipped out the letter from the commanding officer and told him “You better read this.” They had no further problems and went aboard.
The family spent the remainder of the war in Montreal, where Gram learned to speak French, and again began to make many friends.
After the war, the Canadian Pacific Railway had a job for Grandpa in Outlook – really on the frontier in Saskatchewan. While I’m sure this was not the ‘better life’ Gram was hoping for, she always managed to make the best of things with a smile.
“Mom chuckled,” Chris remembers, “when she told us about the time that the home-brewed dandelion wine Gram had in the basement exploded one afternoon during a visit from the church pastor.”
Health problems necessitated treatment in Rochester, MN at the Mayo Clinic, and after extended treatments, the doctor told her she needed to move to a warmer climate – and the family headed to California in 1922.
They lived in Venice where Grandpa worked maintaining the cars on the amusement park on the Venice Pier. Even though he maintained the amusement cars, Grandpa was not interested in learning to drive real cars – however, Gram was. She had gotten a job at a nursery arranging flowers and wanted to drive to work rather than take the bus. After purchasing the car, she convinced the car dealer to teach her to drive.
Two years later they moved to Florida. Some friends from Outlook that Gram had stayed in touch with told them about the great job opportunities there. Since Grandpa had not learned to drive, it was Gram who drove the family across the desert on a plank road. One of mom’s memories from the trip that she chronicled in her life story described their experiences on the one-lane plank road. “If Mother saw another car coming, she would drive very slowly so the other car would be the one that would have to move into the occasional wide area and wait for us to drive by.”
In each place she lived, she seemed to easily get involved in the life of the community, joining local clubs and organizations, including Women’s Club, Girl Scout leader (including managing to meet Juliette Lowe, the founder, as well as Mrs. Herbert Hoover at a national convention in New York), and the Rebeccas (women’s affiliate of Independent Order of Odd Fellows) where she eventually became Noble Grand.
Later in life when she went on cruises, she made many new friends that she either corresponded with or visited later – and she always managed to be seated at the Captains table. P & O Lines gave her the honorary designation of Commodore. I’m sure that the person in Australia where I sent the postcard was one of those people she had met on an earlier trip.
Our cousin Barbara remembers a time after one of her cruises that Gram was visiting her and her husband Larry “She asked Larry if she could use his Ham radio to contact someone in Japan she had met on a cruise. It worked out fine and Gram was able to speak with her friend through a Phone Patch. Gram was a happy camper.”
In the box of mementos that she saved were letters and post cards from a wide variety of individuals, most of whose names have no meaning to us. What we didn’t find was any correspondence with family members in England. As far as our mother knew, they left England and never looked back. Mom had no knowledge of any relatives, which was what led Chris to embark on genealogical research. I remember a Christmas shortly after I moved to Albuquerque and Mom was in her 80’s when Chris was so excited to give Mom the gift of introducing her to her grandmother Jane Bell. By this time she had written her life story for us and didn’t seem excited about the ‘gift.’
What we discovered once we had located and met second and third cousins in Northeast England, was that she had corresponded. One of these second cousins, Alan Nicholson, had done a lot of research on his family (on our grandfather’s side), but gladly combed through documents to help us locate relatives. While visiting his parents in Northeast England, he was able to track down the grand-daughter of Gram’s older sister, Lyn Taylor. In her first email to us she shared, “After Alan left my house, I went and looked for an old address book of my Mothers…guess what? Under ‘S’ I found the name Stage on 1246 – 17th Street, Yucaipa, CA.”
It remains a mystery why she never shared that information with Mom.
Grandpa and Grandma were deeply devoted to each other.
Not only did we witness this, but it is clearly documented in the letters and postcards they wrote to each other – and both saved over their lifetime. They celebrated their 50th anniversary with the entire family eight months before Grandpa passed away.
Some of my memories of Gram center on food. When I was assembling a family history cookbook, I realized that there were no written recipes to pass on. I’m sure that she learned to cook from her mother. While the upper classes had started using written recipes during the Victorian era, miner’s wives, many of whom could not read or write, learned how to cook by watching their mothers and grandmothers.
Miners normally had a vegetable patch growing a wide range of vegetables, including peas, beans, cabbage, leeks, onions, carrots, turnips and potatoes. Grandpa maintained a kitchen garden everywhere they lived. Throughout her life, Gram had a knack for combining ingredients and replicating recipes. One of my memories was of her vegetable soup made with beef stock. It was never exactly the same twice, but always tasted delicious. Our mother described Gram’s cooking as “a bit of this and a bit of that.”
She was also an excellent baker – again learning the basics of baking from her mother. Both Chris and Barbara have vivid memories of wonderful aroma in her house when she was baking Parker House rolls, cinnamon buns and bread.
Some of my food memories center on eating out. She was very particular about her tea – sending a pot of tea back to the kitchen if it was not made correctly – embarrassing once I reached my teens. Tea was not acceptable unless boiling water was poured over the tea leaves. She apparently had an allergic reaction to potatoes and always inquired as to whether potato starch was used to thicken gravy. I always assumed that she was trying to get attention, when she claimed stomach distress, but with what is known today about food sensitivities, it was probably real.
“Oh, it was real alright,” Chris told me. “Mom made split pea soup once using potatoes to make the soup stock. She had taken the potatoes out before adding the dried peas thinking it would be fine. However, I was in the back seat with her when we were driving her home and she opened the car door while the car was moving and threw up.”
Gram’s creativity extended to other areas of her life as well. She knit striped socks for everyone in the family, as well as crocheted. Barbara remembers Gram crocheting a cute red dress. She also made rag rugs out of scraps of material, and made her own patterns for the clothes that she sewed.
These were all skills she undoubtedly learned from her mother while growing up.
While I have no memory of it, she evidently played the violin. Our mother described her musical skills, “Mother did everything ‘by ear’. She could read music, but would prefer to play the violin by how she remembered it sounding.”
Looking back over her life, our grandmother’s out-going, creative, and adventurous nature has had a lasting effect on subsequent generations.