The Ideal Couple: Virginia’s Parents, Ella Choate and Eugene White

for part 1 of this transcription, click here

I had no grandmother. She had died long since before I was born. I did have a grandfather Choate. That is my mother’s maiden name and a great name it was because many of our ancestors were the settlers of the city of New York. We just, we were very proud of our heritage because even in the State House in New York—New York or Boston, I can’t remember exactly—but their pictures are all up in the State House. We’ve got quite a heritage.

[Barbara]: Now was your mother an only child?

My mother? No. My mother was one of five. There were four girls and one boy, but the boy didn’t live too long. His name was William also.

Ella L Choate White, Virginia's mother, Christmas 1931And the girls were all congenial, too. I mean, the family always seemed to need to be gathered together at various festivals like Christmas and New Years and Thanksgiving. My mother used to say, “I can never have everybody in my house on the holidays. We always have to go down to Grandmother’s.”

[Barbara]: What was your mother’s first name?

Ella.

[Barbara]: Ella Choate. And your dad was?

Eugene. Eugene Amos. And that’s how we happened to name Bob. Bob Eugene. See his name was Eugene. But we didn’t give him Amos.

[Barbara]: Do you remember all the names of his brothers? You mentioned some of them.

Well I don’t know. William for the oldest. Then comes my father Eugene. And after Eugene came Ralph. And then came George. And then there was Mort, Morton. I guess that’s the six of them.

[Barbara]: So I guess you remember that side. Do remember that side of the family more?

Well my mother’s side of the family was Ella, my mother. And then was Florence. And then Harriet, Hattie. And then Lillian. That was that side. Five of them.

[Barbara]: We went to visit, didn’t we go to visit Lillian?

Aunt Lilly.

[Barbara]: In Connecticut.

In Coscob, Connecticut.

[Barbara]: Now you said your father was a very congenial person?

Oh, he had the nicest disposition. And I say that Bob’s disposition was very much like him. You know he’s named for my father. And I just think, I really think Bob is a good disposition. Of course there’s times that he’s not done too well.

[Barbara]: Do you remember any stories about your father?

Ella and Virginia White, ca. 1900No. My father was a quiet sort of man, something like your father, you know. He loved my sister. I have only one sister, Ella. And myself Virginia. My name is Virginia. And Ella was eight years older than I and she got married when she was 21, so I was like an only child for many years. And I lived with my mother and father in the Bronx in 136th Street. That’s my last home in the Bronx.

I went to PS 42, that’s Public School 42 in the Bronx. When I got older, I kind of stayed right with the school. I walked a long way—they didn’t like you to do that—but I walked a long way to the school so I didn’t have to change.

Then when I graduated, I went to the Washington Irving High School [ca. 1913/14], which was in New York, 14th Street and 3d Avenue, I think it is. But I didn’t graduate from there. I went to a business school and took up shorthand and typing and business subjects. I graduated from there.

Then we went to Bridgeport, Connecticut to live. That’s where I spent several years until The War came.

[Barbara]: Let’s go back a little bit. You were Episcopalian as a child?

Yes, I went to Saint Ann’s Church [of Morrisania] in the Bronx [295 St. Ann’s Avenue, Bronx, NY 10458]. It was 138th, 139th, 140th. Three blocks it took up because there was quite a big lawn and property there. I went there until we left New York and went up to Bridgeport, Connecticut to live.

I never worked very much in New York. I only had a couple of small jobs, but we moved so soon.

[Barbara]: I hate to get off this period of your life because I’ve heard you tell stories to me about when you were a little girl. Didn’t your grandmother send you on an errand once? Is my memory serving me? Didn’t your grandmother send you on an errand for medicine? No, you don’t remember?

No, I sent Wally on an errand. It was Wally. He was only a little kid. He wasn’t much bigger than your little boy [Taylor].

[Barbara]: I remember, a picture, vision comes to my mind of you on the stairs and you fell down the stairs. Remember you said you broke your tailbone or something?

Oh, I jumped down. I jumped down. Everybody else was doing it, so I did it. And I really never got over that either. I still have a sensitive tailbone. I must have broken that little bone in the back. This was when I lived in the Bronx in New York. That was on 139th Street.

[NB: This is the third address in the Bronx that Virginia mentions. There were also 136th Street above and 146th Street earlier in the transcription, as noted in “Grandma’s Congenial Family.”]

[Barbara]: What was your mother like?

My mother was very austere. My mother was born in New York, in Harlem, but her uncle and aunt took a fancy to her. They had no children of their own. My mother was one of five children, so they asked my grandfather if they could adopt her. My grandfather would not permit that; however she went over to England and was educated in England. Then she went to Germany and was educated in Germany. She went to France—Calle, France—and had some education. She was a very well-educated woman.

She came home to visit her mother and father, and when she did, she met my father. He upset kind of the regime. She went back to England. She crossed over many times—three or four times.

[Barbara]: That was all by boat, too.

Oh, yes. It was all by boat. There was no other way to go.

When she came home one time, she met my father. That upset the whole regime. So then they must have gotten married very quickly. They must have been married in the Episcopal church in Harlem.

My father and mother were the ideal couple. I never heard them quarrel. Never. I’ve heard my mother say things that were short, you know. If she did to my father, what he’d do was put his hat on like this—I’ve seen him do it two or three times—and go out for a walk. He walked around the block, two, three, four times and when he came back he was all right.

But I tell you, she was very, very bombastic. Bossy, you know. You could do just so much bossing with my father. They really and truly got along beautifully. I often say if I have married as carefully as my mother did, why I would have had a whole lot smoother life.

However, I must say, my husband Tad, Taylor, Taylor Albert Duncan—that was his name—he was a very good-looking man. I met him during The War. I met him when I went into the Navy.

[Barbara]: We’re going ahead of our times. . . . Your father wasn’t as well-traveled, was he?

No. He didn’t. He never was overseas, but my mother was overseas at least four times and maybe five or six. They had lots of money. My uncle was what they called a merchant. He used to sell linen. That was his specialty and they evidently had a lot of money, or they were well-cared for. You know, I mean, he must have made good money. That’s how they could go across the ocean so many times. It must have cost a lot of money to go across the ocean so many times.

When they went to England, they lived on Brixton Road in London. I can remember Mother saying they this beautiful home in Brixton Road. They had several . . . well, they had help. They had two maids. One was a downstairs maid. One was the one that took care of the upstairs, the beds and everything.

Evidently they had enough money to do anything they really felt they wanted to do. My mother went with them to travel to England and Germany. I’m repeating myself.

[Barbara]: Now where did they make their money? They made it as merchants.

He was a merchant in London. Well, probably his home office was in New York. But that’s where they lived.

[Barbara]: Did your mother ever work?

No, not much.

[Barbara]: What was your father’s profession?

He was an electrician, a maintenance man. That sounds very humble.

Evidently she fell head over heels in love with him. He was such a good man. I really never saw him actually mad. I’ve seen him cross, you know.

He was very strict with me. Boy, I had to be in the house at ten o’clock and no later, even when I was old enough to go with young men. You just didn’t, they just didn’t stay out that late. Of course, there was no transportation except by horse and culture, something like that. And that wasn’t very often. You know, you had to be pretty well-heeled to go out like that.

[Barbara]: Now they died young, your mom and dad?

Yeah, they died in . . . we went to Connecticut.

[Barbara]: You had moved with them to Connecticut.

Oh, I moved with them to Connecticut.

[Barbara]: You were probably, what, in your teens?

Well I went to high school. I didn’t graduate from high school.

[Interruption]

[Barbara] You said you were in high school in Connecticut?

I went to high school in Connecticut. I didn’t graduate, but I went to high school and finished my business education in Connecticut [ca. 1917].

[Clarification, Virginia seems to be distinguishing between high school in New York, from which she didn’t graduate (see further above), and business school, which she took in Connecticut. Presumably she moved during her high school years and that is why she didn’t finish the former and entered into a different sort of school in the new place.]

partial transcription of Virginia’s life story as told to Barbara Duncan (Wally’s wife) in the summer of 1987, courtesy of Barbara Duncan

Can you add to the story? Please do. Write in the box below (You may need to click “Leave a Reply” above to make the box, name, and address fields appear.).

  • Do you remember whether the Choates that Grandma mentions in the beginning are in the Boston State House or the New York State House?
  • What other stories about Grandma’s mother Ella and her family the Choates can you relate?
  • Do you recall stories about Grandma’s father Eugene and his family the Whites?
  • Did you know Grandma’s parents before they died? What do you remember directly? When did they die?
  • Can you recite other stories of Grandma’s own childhood?
  • In this story, Grandma wavers around the issue of making her own “smooth” marriage, but she does not elaborate. What do you recall of her marriage to Taylor? What do you think she means? What comes to mind about her history that causes you to think this?
  • Do you remember her telling other parts of her childhood?
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