May 7, 2010

Why I Admire My Great Grandmother

In honor of Mother’s Day I have chosen to share some history on one of my female ancestors. Her story explains why I admire her and shows how the lives of women in general have changed over time. It was not an easy task to choose just one female from my past, I have found such strength and admirable qualities in many. I will share the story of my Great Grandmother Katherine Stauffer Lammay (1860-1926) who has always held a special place in my heart.

I admire Katherine for her strength, perseverance, creativity, and ability to raise her family under very difficult circumstances. She gave birth to eleven children, ten surviving to adulthood. She married Eugene Ellsworth Lammay when she was twenty years old in 1880. She had difficulty from the beginning of her marriage. Eugene was fathering children with another woman right at the start of his marriage to Katherine. From oral history, the census, and other documents I know he pretty much came and went throughout the years, disappearing for good around 1915 (reportedly running off with Katherine’s niece). She was left to raise and support the family on her own.
There were so little resources available to Katherine as compared to women of today. Few employment opportunities existed for woman of her time, especially the type of employment needed to support eleven children. She lived in Pittsburgh, a booming steel town at that time. But it was out of the question for her to work in a mill, on the railroad, or most other manufacturing plants. The local chocolate factory and laundry did hire women but who would look after her children? Daycare certainly did not exist as it does today. She was also faced with the stigma of abandonment by her husband. This was always a very sensitive subject for my grandmother (her daughter). I suspect the family received ridicule at the time. My Grandmother would tell me these stories with the warning I must never talk about it (sorry Grandma!). Society today more easily accepts women raising children on their own, for whatever reason. Today a woman in Katherine’s situation might be admired for her strength instead of blamed for her circumstances as I believe she was by other family members.
So how did she manage? I learned from family stories she did a good job of raising loving and responsible children who adored their mother. The older ones helped out with the younger children. I believe all of the children quit school after the eighth grade to get jobs to help support the family with no complaints. From the World War I draft registration I know her son continued to provide financial support even after he was married with his own family.
Katherine used the skills she did have to earn money herself also. She cleaned other people’s homes and took in sewing when the children were young. Later on she worked in the local laundry. She baked 2 loaves of bread a day because it was too expensive to buy bread. She could not always afford Christmas presents for her children. So she creatively invented a character similar to Santa Claus who came at different times of the year (when she could afford gifts). The children were told this person came to only their house because they were especially good children. Sadly the name she invented for this character has been lost over the years. Her days must have been long and physically exhausting with constant money worries. In spite of this her children provided me with very happy stories of their childhood.
Katherine had few options available to her, not to mention any of our modern conveniences. I know you do not miss what you never had, but I am not sure I could accomplish what she did with what was available to her at the time. This is why I admire her so much. I am thankful for the opportunities I have had that she did not. Higher education for myself and my children, a career, daycare, and a dishwasher!
When I look at the pictures I have of Katherine she is always smiling despite her hardships. To my knowledge she never knew what became of her husband (neither do I—he is by brick wall). I never knew her cause of death until I sent for her death certificate. The family story told by all was that she died of a broken heart because of Eugene. The death certificate says Parkinson Disease. This post is dedicated to you Katherine, a very happy Mother’s Day to you.


  1. What a great tribute to Katherine. I think her children having happy memories of their childhood is a very telling observation and a real testament to Katherine's courage and spirit given her difficult circumstances. I enjoyed reading her story. Thank you.

  2. Your great-grandmother is definitely an admirable woman. I think it's great that you've learned so much about her. Thanks for sharing her with us.

  3. Your great grandmother reminds me of my grandmother Aggie. You've written a great

  4. I so enjoyed reading about your Aggie. What a wonderful heritage you have. Thanks for sharing.