In the last few years Facebook has reconnected me with my cousin Karen, who, when we were young, moved with her mother across the country. I haven’t really known her since we were children, and so I forgot how much family history she missed. When I began scanning and posting old family photos Karen immediately had questions. “Would you write it down for me?” she wanted to know. What a good idea.
I am starting with Grandma Pierce. This is for Karen and Caitlyn, but I hope people outside of the family find it interesting.
(Ken LaGrone and Gertrude Pierce, late 1940s, Normal St. house, Chico)
This lady is known as Grandma Pierce, although she is technically no one’s grandma and she replaced the original Grandma Pierce. She was born in Germany in the late 1800s, and while she doesn’t look big in her twilight years, my father assures me that as a middle-aged woman she was heavy and strong, with thick arms and legs.
There are facts about Gertrude Pauli Pierce, and there are stories. The stories may be impossible to verify, but as they are far more colorful than the plain unvarnished truth, I’m sharing them with you and letting you sort it all out for yourselves.
Gertrude was married before she came to the United States; I don’t know if her surname was her husband’s or her maiden name. I don’t know anything about him, but I think he may have died in World War I. She had moved from Belgium to England when she answered a newspaper ad for an au pair for five children in Chico, California.
The children were Charles (Charlie, center), Gert (back), Patricia (left), Don (right) and Helen (bottom), in order of birth. In 1921 their mother was killed in a car accident near Vacaville, and their father Arthur Pierce found he needed someone to cook, clean, and raise his children. A poor immigrant from Wales who struggled as a plumber and chicken farmer, Arthur wrote to his well-to-do family in England for help, and they placed an ad on his behalf. Gertrude Pauli answered the ad, the London family members must have interviewed her on Arthur’s behalf, and her passage to the U.S. was paid.
Gertrude was an excellent cook and seamstress, organized, efficient and a seriously hard worker. Besides her household duties she also had to feed and manage a lot of chickens for the family egg business, and she managed her meager household budget and kept food on the table. She was a resilient woman - some would say tough. (In later years my father David remembers seeing her kill chickens without flinching, to feed the family.) This is where the compliments end, however - at least for this period of her life. The Pierce children quickly grew to hate their German au pair. Not only had she replaced their dear mother, but she was also harsh with everyone in the Pierce family except Arthur, and it became clear that she intended to marry him. As Arthur Pierce really had no money to pay Gertrude, her married her out of convenience; love was something he had reserved for his first wife and love of his life, buried in 1921.
Once the ink on the marriage certificate was dry, things got really dicey. The Stepmother, as Gertrude became known, ruled with an iron hand. One by one the Pierce children left home - first Charlie, the oldest, and then Gert, who graduated early from high school and bought a one-way train ticket to San Francisco to go live with the family of her school friend Stella LaGrone. Patricia didn’t let The Stepmother get to her, and for some reason The Stepmother left her alone.
Don ran away from home as a young teen, and ended up lying about his age to join the Navy early. Helen, who had been three when her mother died, bore the brunt of The Stepmother’s cruelty. It is from Helen that most of my information about Grandma Pierce has come.
Helen has said that at first Gertrude tried to please the children, but she hadn’t counted on them being suspicious of her taking their mother’s place, and really still mourning their lost mama. Gertrude took their wariness personally very quickly and turned cold and menacing. Helen describes coming home late from school - a walk of several miles - with a perfectly reasonable excuse, which was met with fury from The Stepmother. Ever after, if Helen was late, she made up a wild story and told it with a straight face, which seemed to placate The Stepmother when the truth would not. Sometimes, just to spite her, Helen would be late for no reason at all and dream up the wildest tale she could, just to see what she could get away with.
This brings up a major theme: veracity. After The Stepmother’s death, Helen learned from Gertrude’s German family that they considered her to be a pathological liar. Among the lies Gertrude had told were that her family were all dead - killed in World War I, which was not at all true. Three of her family visited California in the 1970s - Karl, Irene and Karen, pictured here with Gert (left) and Patricia (middle). Helen began questioning them about things The Stepmother had said, and she was in for a shock. “Oh, Gertrude took that job in a hurry,” they told Helen. “She needed to get out of Europe because she was a German spy in the first world war.” Whether or not this is true, it seems Gertrude was a German sympathizer at least, and possibly a collaborator, living in Belgium. This fit with Helen’s memories of her stepmother lauding Hitler and Nazi Germany, which was a risky stance to take in the U.S. in the 1930s and ‘40s. Helen didn’t stand for any support of the Nazis or antisemitism, and she let The Stepmother know it.
Helen remembers catching The Stepmother in outrageous and completely unnecessary lies, which Gertrude then defended past the point of sanity. It was grimly satisfying to learn that Gertrude’s own siblings thought of her as a pathological liar.
(Arthur and Gertrude, Normal Street house, Chico)
In her declining years, after Grandpa Pierce had died, The Stepmother softened. She was a wonderful grandmother to Ann, David and Ken - especially to David, who shared her love of the farm life and couldn’t wait to come visit her. David remembers her as being fiercely devoted to her husband Arthur.
As an old woman, Gertrude needed Helen’s help and she was grateful for it, even to the point of apologizing for how badly she had treated Helen and the other kids. She willed her Normal Street house and its contents to Helen when she died in Chico in about 1967.