A Gentle(wo)man and a States(wo)man

Aunt Harriet was my grandmother’s aunt who lived in Cornwall, CT. She lived to be 102 years old and the breadth of changes to our world she’d seen over her lifetime is staggering.

  • Harriet Lydia Clark
  • b. November 11, 1894
  • c. January 7, 1997

She was an educator and a legislator and a local historian. Her online obituary briefly sums up some of the milestones, but it’s hard to sum up a person in just a few lines.

Portrait of Harriet Clark, high school or college

CLARK. Harriet Lydia Clark was born in East Cornwall, Nov. 11, 1894, daughter of Andrew Miles and Mary Lydia (Brown) Clark. Her formal education included Cornwall District 16, Gilbert (Winsted) Western Connecticut State University, B.S. from Boston University, 1923, and M.A. from Columbia University in 1942. Her 40 year teaching career extended from East Cornwall, College Farm in Warren, West Side in Goshen to Danbury High School 1923-1953. She served four terms in the State Legislature where she was on the Education, Constitutional Amendments and Personnel Committees 1956-1965. Co-compiler of “History of East Cornwall”, she wrote many stories and was a founder of the Cornwall Historical Society, member of the Owls, Cornwall Grange, long active in the Camp Fire Girls, and was the oldest living member of United Church of Christ in Cornwall. Funeral services will be celebrated on Saturday, (Jan. 11), 1 p.m. at the United Church of Christ in Cornwall. Calling hours will also be on Saturday from 10 a.m.- 12 p.m. at the Kenney Funeral Home, 41 Main St., Sharon. Memorial contributions may be made to the United Church of Christ, Cornwall, 06753.

Obituary (courant)

One of the tales my father often tells about her is when he once asked her to what she attributed her long life and she replied, “I never married.” I think about that often these days. In many ways she was ahead of her time, in other ways, she was a product of her time.

I remember visiting when I was a young child. I was advised by my parents to be on my best behavior. That wasn’t anything new, they always wanted me to be on my best behavior (somewhat like ‘crying wolf’, am I right?) but my grandmother ALSO gently appealed to me to behave properly when we set off for Mohawk Farms and that was something unusual. Aunt Harriet was the matriarch of our family – something my grandmother became after Aunt Harriet’s passing –  and we were to treat her with respect.

She was hard of hearing and tended to yell when she spoke, making her stern nature even more intimidating. But Aunt Harriet loved children and would tell us to go run around in the yard and see if there was anything ripe on the raspberry bushes. It’s not my fault I tracked in mud after that!

The last time I visited Aunt Harriet, I was in college.  She had difficulty raising her voice then but commanded such respect from those around her that I noticed even the next generation of children quieted down to listen to what she was trying to say. 

I know my mother and her sisters and cousins have plenty of other stories – some I may not have even heard. I remember a woman who was a bit of an enigma, one who was warm but also formidable.


Bertha, who gave up comforts and security / To follow the man she loved into the mountains;

Bertha was one of the names considered by my parents when it came naming me. When I was younger, it was told as a joke – as in “be thankful, we could’ve named you this unpopular name or that unpopular name”, both being names of my parent’s grandmothers. I’m sure I would’ve rebelled against ANY first name when I was younger, so the joke lands flat. In fact, I did rebel and I have gone by my middle name since I was 11 years old. I site this particular branch of my family tree as precedence for this and have no regrets.

Great-Grandma Clark was born Bertha Marion Branch on September 10, 1885 in New London, Connecticut. She had a younger sister, Aunt Clarice. Her father died when she was four years old. The following year, her mother remarried.

Bertha attended college at Willimantic Normal School (today called Eastern Connecticut State University) where she received a teaching diploma in 1906. Her first posting was at a school in Niantic, Connecticut.

She married Ernest Dwight Clark on June 22, 1911 and spent her honeymoon camping in the mountains of West Virginia. Camping as a honeymoon isn’t my idea of romantic, but to each their own.

Bertha & Ernest Clark, Summer 1911

The couple moved to Virginia where her husband worked for the U.S. Forestry Service. They had four children; Helen Melissa (Aunt Melissa – note the use of her middle name here) was born on November 10, 1912, Ernest Dwight Jr. was born on May 19, 1916, Hazel Elizabeth (my maternal grandmother, family called her Betsy when she was younger) was born on April 19, 1919, and Sarah Barbara (Aunt Barbara, see the trend?) was born on April 12, 1922.

The family moved back to Connecticut in the summer of 1926. In addition to being a mother of four children and managing a household farm, Bertha taught school in a one-room school house. My mother recalls hearing that she struggled to get a teaching position at the time because she was a married woman. The thinking was that married women shouldn’t work outside the home. Her husband had to “raise a stink” about her being able to get a job. It’s refreshing to me to hear that she had a supportive husband and that she was able to pursue teaching.

During WWII, her two eldest children served in Europe. Her only son died in the war. She saved their letters home, which seems like a lost art in some respects these days. I have over fifty letters that Aunt Melissa wrote to her mother over the course of the war.

Great-Grandma Clark died when I was 8 years old. I recall her as a quiet woman, gentle and quick to smile. At some point, I inherited the doll’s tea set you see pictured here. It has been carefully wrapped and carted around with me through several moves. It’s not worth much nor is it in particularly good shape. Several pieces don’t match, paint has worn off in places, and there are small chips and nicks – but it is one of my most beloved possessions.

framed photograph of myself and Great-Grandma Clark from Summer 1977

Below is a recipe that’s been passed down from her daughter Hazel, to my mother, and then to me. These were handwritten and I transcribed it to my own recipe collection some years ago. I recall that I included added notes in parentheses, but am uncertain if the added notes are my mother’s or my grandmother’s – perhaps both? This is the sort of recipe that assumes the baker knows how to make a pie crust and gives helpful instructions similar to the adage to “cook until done”.

Grandma Clark’s Pumpkin Pie Recipe

  • 3/4 c. brown sugar
  • 1 tbl. flour
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg (or more)
  • 1/4 tsp. ginger
  • 1 1/2 c. cooked pumpkin (or squash)
  • 1 1/2 c. milk
  • 1 well beaten egg

Mix dry ingredients, add to other. Bake in hot oven (450 F) for 10 minutes. Reduce to slow (325 F) and bake until firm. Usually takes a long time. We use not quite so much sugar – either brown or white and about 1/4 c. molasses for good old flavor.

I made this last fall and it was smooth, creamy, and full of nostalgia, bringing to mind family who are gone but not forgotten.

Tangents and Detours

I’ve not kept up with this blog as I had expected to, but have by no means abandoned it. A combination of new responsibilities at work and the general mental fatigue everyone seems to be facing have limited the amount of time I’ve spent here. 

What I have spent time on is gathering genealogical material from others in my family and organizing it into my own ancestry account. This seemed the most logical place to keep track while building my family tree, at least for the time being. While doing so, I found myself going down rabbit holes I hadn’t intended to find.

In most cases, building my family tree on the site was relatively easy. Members of my family have been interested in genealogy over the past three or four generations, so we have a lot of material already researched. My mother, by connecting with other archivists several years ago, was able to trace one line back to the 1400’s.

I’ll let that sink in for a moment. And by sink in, I mean I want you to stop and consider the amount of white privilege it entails to be able to easily trace ancestors back that far. 

Photo by Daniel Watson on Pexels.com

Speaking of being white, have you ever done those DNA tests? Ancestry and 23andMe are two common ones.  According to the DNA ethnicity results, my genetic background does not contain any Native American markers. Yup, I’m white.

I bring this up in conjunction with my next question. Do you know that story that goes around some white families – the one about there probably being some ‘Native’ relative? It’s usually a woman and she was probably important, unique, or special in some manner. My family had this story, only it was vague (unlike other ancestors stories, which were specific) and came with the caveat that we were never able to prove it. Which is weird, right? In hindsight. To put it right there in the tale that it you couldn’t prove it? 

The story even went so far to imply the reason it couldn’t be proven is she had “Christianized” her name to obscure her heritage because of the bigotry prevalent at the time.  Of what time? I have no idea. Centuries ago, apparently.

Anyway, I admit that as a child I liked the idea of being related to this woman and felt it made me ‘special’ in some way, too. Now see how truly harmful these sorts of narratives are, how they are laced with a combination of both white guilt and white supremacy. I’m thankful these things only remained stories – and that no one in my family claimed this identity (as far as I’m aware) in any official sort of way. 

What else do my family tales have wrong?

Another thought that crossed my mind as I was digging into some of this material was a conversation I’d had with my grandmother when I was in college during the early 1990’s. My roommate at the time was from an upper-middle class family in Connecticut. Their home was a large, old farmhouse. It had been remodeled and gentrified before that was all the rage.

When I visited, she showed me where there was a secret staircase that led to a small room in the attic. The claim was that it had been used as a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping hide runaways while on their way further north to Canada. I told my grandmother this story and asked her if any of the abolitionist members of our family had any similar tales. Her reply was vague and dealt more with the political support and church’s stance of the time. She also made an off-hand comment about being careful who I spoke with in the family because not everyone would want to talk about it.

Over the years I’d dismissed this conversation as unimportant, not understanding the possible significance. It wasn’t uncommon for my grandmother to be vague or unwilling to discuss certain subjects. In fact, I’d nearly forgotten the conversation entirely until recently. Recently I’d been thinking of what she said as it related to the social media habits of a branch off that side of the family tree.

According to an NPR article, the U.S. removed nearly 100 Confederate monuments in 2020. A relative took to social media decrying the trend – claiming that “our heritage is being destroyed”. Why they wanted to maintain statues of those who fought and lost the Civil War, I can only hazard a guess (…it’s racism…). I no longer have any idea what this person is saying on social media, but can imagine that their opinions regarding the any educational idea that included racial equality would be along the same vein. 

This made me curious about what else could be lurking underneath that particular branch of the family tree. If the mere thought of providing education on the true history of our country makes someone uncomfortable – what other truths might there be? Is it generic white fragility gone wild or could there be some unsightly blemishes on our family name? Why was my grandmother so vague?

A few months after having this thought and I have yet to find a slave owner in my family tree. That’s not to say one won’t turn up. My family has been here since the Mayflower arrived. As some of the original colonizers, the very act of our being here so long has contributed to the society we have today – including its structure of racism and white supremacy.  

Our histories, both in the textbooks and at the dinner table, have been written in a way that absolves us as white people from any wrong-doing. It forgives harmful actions in the name of some sort of ideology, turns the victim to the aggressor, or glosses over the facts entirely. Acting like the truth is too harmful for children to learn is simply a projection of one’s own fear and discomfort. 

When I look at my family tree I see names of people I’ve loved and of people I’ve heard about my entire life who died before I was born. Any historical truth I might uncover wouldn’t change that. History sheds light on the stories we’ve been told, places them in time and offers context.  As a society we can’t understand where we are unless we understand how we got here.  And if we don’t, how can we ever move forward?

Anyway, that’s what got me a little off track recently. I’m still working on this project, I’m just finding interesting and distracting detours along the way.

Scotch Shortbread

I love hearing about those small holiday traditions that families carry. Ones that aren’t necessarily common or unique, but ones that are held because it’s “family tradition”. For my family, they come about because it was how so-and-so did something and how we collectively remember that person. It’s how we hold them close to us, even if they’ve been gone for some time.

My childhood holidays always include my father’s cookies. He has some staples he makes each year and some new ones he’ll try. One that remains constant, and is “tradition”, is Scotch Shortbread. His mother made it for the holidays and he’d adopted the practice long before we lost her in 2011.

His mother was named Ella, but went by the nickname ‘Sally’. She was born in 1912 in Fraser, Colorado. Her mother died three days later. The extended family took to raising her, from her grandmother to her uncles. From everything I’ve ever heard, there were a lot of lean years. “We didn’t notice The Depression,” I once heard her remark. Implying they’d been scraping by before that, and knew what being hungry meant.

Grandma Sally, 1940

She married my grandfather in 1942 and they had three children. He was a rancher, she became a rancher’s wife. Or, perhaps more accurately, she also became a rancher – I know she worked just as hard. After retirement, the pair of them got a big truck and large camping trailer. They toured around the country. After my grandfather died, she traded it in for a smaller RV that was more manageable for one person. She eventually gave up the nomadic life and moved in with my uncle. She lived to be 98.

the last time I saw my grandmother, August 2009

I’m thinking about her in particular today as I make her Scotch Shortbread. The smell coming from the oven is sweet and buttery, warming my home with holiday vibes. I’m also thinking of my dad, who is traveling across country right now to visit. I am thankful to be able to share some Scotch Shortbread with him when he and my stepdad arrive.

Below is the magical recipe, original and in my grandmother’s handwriting. I can think of few things that contain so much love with so few ingredients.

Scotch Shortbread
9" pan

2 c flour
3/4 c powdered sugar
3/4 c cornstarch
1 c butter

Work together and pat out in pan about 3/4" thick.
300° until brown
(my father's handwriting adding "about 1 hr.")
  • Is it my grandmother’s shortbread recipe? Yes.
  • Is it my father’s shortbread recipe? Yes.
  • Is it my shortbread recipe? Yes.

Happy Holidays, may it be filled with your own version of Scotch Shortbread.

‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan, Flight Nurses, and French Luxury Liners

The first Army Nurse I knew about was Major Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan from the TV show M*A*S*H which aired from 1972-1983. For those of us old enough to be around then, the series finale was an ‘Event’ – the likes of which is rare in televised entertainment today.  Forget about streaming services, most households didn’t have a VCR and recording a show wasn’t yet a common thing. You watched it when it aired or you missed out. 

I watched the series finale with both my parents and it involved lots of popcorn and kleenx – those who experienced the event know what I’m talking about. I can’t recall us doing anything like that together before or since.  (We have done many things together over the years, sitting in front of the TV just isn’t one of them as we don’t share that interest.)

Anyway, Margaret Houlihan. That was my introduction to what an Army nurse was like. I’m still a little smitten with her, in that way I’m smitten with competence and the balancing act women do to be seen as equals while maintaining their ‘feminine’ habits and hobbies.  She was allowed to be both lusty and capable and, as in the video above, she was fierce!

Loretta Swit, the actor who portrayed Margaret Houlihan, remarked in a 2004 interview about what made her character so enduring that “she made a very strong statement, not only for the profession, but for women in the military.” 1

Aunt Melissa (aka. Lt. H.M. Clark or Helen Melissa Clark) wasn’t a nurse in a mobile unit like the one portrayed in the show. She was an air evacuation nurse, carrying wounded from one place to another.

Before World War II, the U.S. military didn’t evacuate wounded soldiers using aircraft. But advances in flight made it possible to treat wounded away from the front lines with trained medical personnel and fully equipped hospitals – leading to an increased survival rate.  The key was to get those wounded soldiers airlifted.

After a pilot program (forgive the pun) in 1942, the U.S. established formal training for medical air evacuation at Bowman Field in Kentucky in 1943. 2

Aunt Melissa was part of the eighth class to go through the program and graduated on January 21, 1944. From there, she was transferred to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey to await deployment. 

Her detachment sailed from New York on March 13, 1944 on the SS Île de France.  They arrived in Scotland on March 22.

The Île de France was a civilian ship – an extravagent Art Deco luxury liner – that had managed to leave France before the outbreak of war.

Lest we all think that my Aunt Melissa travelled in luxury during the war, I should note that the Île de France was retrofitted in 1941 as a troopship which “entailed removing her peacetime decor and painting the ship all gray, as well as installing berths for 9,706 soldiers, new kitchen facilities, a complete overhaul of her machinery, and the scrapping and replacement of her entire plumbing system.” 3 An account of the crossing noted that there wasn’t a convoy attached, so the ship zig-zagged across the Atlantic deploying occasional depth charges to avoid mines. It certainly doesn’t sound like a luxury cruise. 4

inscription from Aunt Melissa’s WWII scrapbook

Several years after the war, just before she was to be scrapped – the Île de France became a movie star.  Or, at least, that’s how I’m choosing to interpret her ending.  She featured in the 1960 disaster file, ‘The Last Voyage’ where she was filmed as she sunk.

  1. televisionacademy.com (2004 interview with Loretta Swit)
  2. legendsofflightnurses.org (The Story of Air Evacuation)
  3. www.scharch.org (Ile De France)
  4. https://archive.org (The Story of Air Evacuation, 1942-1989 by World War II Flight Nurses Association — History of the 816th MAES pgs. 85-86)

Lt. Clark Serves in Combat Zone

Aunt Melissa was born November 10, 1912. Among her possessions I have found several newspaper clippings, photographs, and letters – many dating to her time during the war.

The photo below, published in The National Geographic Magazine, is an official U.S. Army Air Force photograph taken on June 6, 1944. Aunt Melissa is the one in the middle front row. Another photo from the same day1 shows two of the nurses also pictured below (Lt. Suella Bernard and Lt. Marijean Brown) who Aunt Melissa had mentioned in her letters home. 

Not in Flander's but in France's Fields, These Poppies Grew - amid Land Mines
The poppies are still fresh upon arrival in England, so short was the flight across the Channel. They were gathered from the mine-planted fields near an emergency airstrip on the Cherbourg Peninsula. These 9th Air Force flight nurses, among the first to land on the beachhead, brought back battle casualties in C-47's.
Unknown newspaper clipping, June 1944
Is With Invasion Troops In France
Lieut. Helen Melissa Clark, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Clark of Cornwall, was one of the five American nurses who first flew into the zone of operations and formed part of an evacuation unit which landed on an improvised air strip on Cherbourg peninsula. They sent back three plane loads of wounded, the first flown from France. 
After spending an hour and a half on French soil with shells bursting nearby, they returned to Britain carrying bouquets of red poppies they picked on the battlefields. 
Seven wounded prisoners, one a Japanese in German uniform, were among those flown back. 
The airstrip used by the C-47 skytrains was 3,600 by 200 feet - constructed by the Ninth Air Force engineering command which arrived at the beachhead the day after the invasion began. 
Mustangs circled overhead to ward off enemy aircraft when the nurses, doctors and six enlisted medical technicians landed amid the bursts of artillery. 
The nurses were 2nd Lts. Marijean Brown, Columbus, Ohio; Suella Bernard, Waynesville, Ohio; Eleanor A. Geovanelle, Hershey, Pa.; Mary E. Young, St. Petersburg, Fla.; and Helen Melissa Clark, Cornwall, Conn. 
The flight surgeon was Capt. Thomas L. Phillips, Jr., Kuttawa, Ky. 
Lieut. Clark went overseas in April, 1943. She met her brother, Capt. Ernest Dwight Clark, whom she hadn’t seen in 26 months, in England in May. The last letter her parents received from her was on May 17. Another sister, Miss Sarah Barbara Clark, was graduated as a nurse cadet May 23 from the Portsmouth, Va., hospital.  
Lt. Clark, an air nurse, was graduated from the air evacuation school, Bowman Field, Ky. She is a graduate of Litchfield high school, class of 1930 and Danbury Teachers College. Formerly a teacher, she changed to nursing and trained at Union Memorial hospital, Baltimore, Md. 

The image above is an article clipping found in my grandmother’s things, most likely from a local paper in Litchfield, CT.   The article mentions a letter her parents received on May 17th – I can’t be sure which one it’s referring to, as receipt date doesn’t equal postmark date, but knowing my family’s penchant for saving things, I am assuming it’s included in the ones I have. 

Letters from Lt. Helen Melissa Clark home to her parents, 1944

Most of the letters are written in what I assume is an effort to put a mother’s mind at ease. Descriptions of every day activities, flowers in bloom, attempts to ship gifts and the speed of mail are all things that crop up frequently. Rarely does she speak of her work or her flights, except in late June to assure her family that she’s safe and in no danger.

  1. airforcemedicine.af.mil


Like most stories about women, mine is greatly inspired by my mother. Born in Virginia, she was raised in rural Massachusetts and lived in several states across the midwest before settling in Baltimore, Maryland. Among other things, she has been a teacher, a margarita drinker, a job coach, and a song writer. Years ago, she wrote a poem for me called ‘Legacy’ and it still evokes emotion for me – each time I read it I feel loved.

Mom teaching me to garden in Ashland, Nebraska. 1976
For my daughter, Colleen

You come from a long line of strong women,
I know sometimes you feel overwhelmed in this living
And the frantic pace of the world around you.
There are times, I think, you want to hide yourself away
And curse the talents you were given.

Please, take time to reflect on the women who came before you:
Melissa, the nurse who landed on the beach at Normandy
And “carried away cargoes of pain”;
Bertha, who gave up comforts and security
To follow the man she loved into the mountains
Harriet, who led a distinguished life of public service
And still visited schoolchildren at the age of 100;
Ellen, who went south to teach children of freed slaves
And then went on to become a doctor in a frontier town;
Mary, who carried her husband’s body in a buckboard
For more than 300 miles so he would have a proper burial;
Betsy, who died in an epidemic
After taking care of all the sick members of her family.
The list could go on…

Oh, my daughter,
While we carry our fathers’ names
We carry our mothers’ hearts
And their strong sense of fairness and determination.
Even more, we are living proof that their love endured.
A love sometimes brought forth
From great sacrifices and sorrows.

You come from a long line of strong women.
Do not turn your back on them,
For their stories cry out to be remembered and honored.
You are their gift to this time and place.
Let yourself be nurtured by their spirit 
And go forth every day, knowing that you too
Were born to be strong.

Barbara T. Swanson
May, 2000

Aunt Melissa

The internet is full of memes about the ‘cool aunt’ and the ‘crazy aunt’, but what if it were the same person? To this day I am both a little intimidated and a little in awe of my Aunt Melissa.

Aunt Melissa is my grandmother’s older sister. When I was a child, she lived with her mother on the old farm in Cornwall. When we went back east to visit Mom’s family, we’d often take a day trip there for lunch. Aunt Melissa’s lunches were memorable. Some dishes I recall are tomato aspic and sugar-free pie – she’d often try to experiment and wasn’t always successful. I remember my mom being horrified once when I spit something back onto my plate. I think I was 5 or 6 years old.

My great-grandmother would slip my father money and tell him to stop at the hamburger joint (aka. McDonald’s) when we left. 

She’d have the wonderful stories as we’d walk around the place, telling me tales about my grandmother. They’d grown up on that farm and the entire family lived there through the Depression. Neighbors worked the land by the time I was around, but some the old outbuildings were mostly still there. I remember once we buried Greek worry beads under running water at the fresh water spring, although I don’t remember why. 

Her brother died in WW2. She didn’t talk about the war much. 

Aunt Melissa and Uncle Ernest, April 1918

She died April 12, 1991. We lost my grandfather that spring, too.  It was a sad time for all of us – especially my grandmother.

After Aunt Melissa died, I was given some of her household items. I would be moving out on my own soon and it seemed that no one else in the family needed a hand mixer or a baking pan. I still have that hand mixer – it’s a Westinghouse and is older than I am.  I’m tempted to utter the phrase “they built things to last back then” which is how I know that I’m related to…well, everyone I’m related to… but especially Aunt Melissa. 

Thirty years later, my family still talks about her. We tell the same stories over and over again – the one about her shooting a raccoon, the one about her cooking, the one about her service in WWII.   

Aunt Melissa, “in service” was written on the back, location unknown

This past year, I’ve had more family memorabilia make its way to me – including letters and records Aunt Melissa kept from her time during the war. Some I had seen before, some I had not. This is the initial spark that inspired this project I’m doing here. Her story was nearly lost.  

Aunt Melissa, late 1950’s/early 1960’s

She didn’t marry. She didn’t have children of her own. Too long we have been mislead in thinking those where the keys to women being remembered when they’re gone. How many obituaries still note women in relation to others – “a loving wife” or “a caring mother” – instead of a life review based on their own accomplishments. Compare how men’s lives are remembered and you’ll see what I’m talking about. With or without a spouse or children, Aunt Melissa’s life was important. 

I am well aware that this resonates with me as I have also chosen not to marry, not to have children. And I will repeat that – because this is important to point out – I chose. I do not regret my choice. Did Aunt Melissa choose? It’s hard to tell. Some family members think she had a sweetheart in the war.  Maybe in all the letters, I’ll find some clues. Maybe it’ll remain a mystery. Maybe it wasn’t the point of her life.   

Me standing behind Aunt Melissa on my grandmother’s porch, June 1984