Anni Josefina Lehtonen…..Anna Josephine Lee…Anna Frechette…Anna Drakopulos….Grandma Anna…or just Grandma.  It doesn’t matter what name I use (and she had a bunch of them)…she was, above anything else, my grandma.  I didn’t have enough time with her….but do we ever?  She passed away in 1975 at the age of 73 years old…I was 7 at the time.  I still miss her and think about her often.  Especially now that I’m working so hard on our family history. There are SOOOOO many unanswered questions that maybe she could answer for me.  If I could only have one more day with her….but I can’t….and I’m not sure I really want to.

In my 7 year old eyes, my Grandma was the best thing since ice cold lemonade on a hot summer day.  She was better than puppy kisses, jumping in mud puddles, swinging on an old tire swing, or even old playing cards clothes-pinned to your bicycle spokes.  She was my secret keeper, my ally, my co-conspirator, and one of the best friends a 7 year old could ever have.  She had old dishes and a cast iron stove outside at the farm to play house (and she always let me borrow one of her aprons), she always had hard candies in her apron pocket, and she’d try to sneak dollar bills to us (then tell us to “go ask mom”  if we can have them).   She loved playing with frogs, digging for worms, and I’m sure I got my love of raspberries from her.  I remember her and I walking down the hill at my house to pick raspberries.  We never took a container to put them in…that’s why she had an apron!  Sometimes we even had raspberries left when we got back up the hill…sometimes we just sat on the hill and ate them right out of her apron.

Every Saturday morning my mom and I (and sometimes my brother) would go to “the farm” (the family homestead) to pick up Grandma to go grocery shopping.  This was a ritual for us….it happened EVERY Saturday.  We’d pick her up, go shopping at the local grocery store, and then head to our house and unload everything.  Grandma’s stuff was taken downstairs and sorted…stuff for the downstairs fridge, stuff for the freezer, and a bag of pantry stuff that just sat on the freezer until we took Grandma back home.  Then it was time to have fun, play outside (if it was nice), play rummy, watch TV, and have lunch.  Normally after lunch we’d take Grandma back home.

One of the only pictures of my Grandma. Taken at "The Farm".  She made all her own dresses and aprons.

One of the only pictures of my Grandma.
Taken at “The Farm”. She made all her own dresses and aprons.

That was the Grandma I knew and loved with all my heart.  But I’ve gotten to know a totally different person since I’ve been working on the family genealogy over the last few years.  And I think I love her even more now…if that’s at all possible.

I’ve learned what a hard life she had.  The heartache she suffered.  The strength she showed thru the tragedies in her life.  I understand a little better, why, near the end of her life, she really just wanted to stay home and not go out in public unless she had to….she was content with her life on the farm…her life had gone full circle.

She was born in November 1901, on a remote island off the southwest coast of Finland…in the little town of Lövö, on an island named Vårdö in the Åland Islands.  The family spoke Swedish, not Finnish…and at one time had been under Russian boundaries….which adds to my confusion about this side of my family. She had a brother and a sister, Carl and Hilda.  Carl was 3 years older and Hilda, the baby of the family, was 3 years younger.  They came to the United States with their mother in August 1910 (her father had already arrived here and found work with the railroad in Chicago several years earlier).  It took me a while to find their passage to the US because they entered thru Canada not thru Ellis Island as we always believed.

I can only imagine what life for her was like on that island…how much different it had to be from living in Chicago….and then ultimately moving to Michigan to live on a farm.  She endured so much in her 73 years of life.  More than I ever imagined.

I have gotten to know a totally different side to my Grandma.  I can picture her running around on the Island in Finland.  She was not quite 9 years old when she got on that boat….saying goodbye to her friends, grandparents and other relatives that stayed in Finland.  She traveled across an ocean to live in a strange country, where she didn’t speak the language, didn’t know anybody, reunited with the father she hadn’t seen in a many years….and in a large city instead of a small fishing community.  They never seemed to move from the same neighborhood…when they did move it was only a block or two away.   She would welcome a baby brother, named Leo, in 1914…the first of their family to be born in the United States….and then lose him to Diphtheria in October 1916.  It was a month before her 15th birthday.  How do you say good bye to a sibling so young?

But worse yet, would be the death of her father, 3 months later.  His death certificate states he died of “internal injuries due to external violence while in the employ of the P?? Co. and in the discharge of his duties”.  Unfortunately I can’t read the name of the company he worked for.  Many friends have looked at the document and nobody has figured it out yet.  But he worked for a railroad company in Chicago (possibly the Penn Co.)…most likely on the East Side, as that’s where they lived.  She was 15 years old, her sister Hilda was 12, their brother Carl was 18…but was crippled in a scaffolding accident when he was younger.  Carl had a newspaper stand near their home…he was now the man of the family and most likely the family’s primary income.

Her father's death certificate. January 12, 1917

Her father’s death certificate.
January 12, 1917

I wish I knew the details of what happened next in her life.  I can only speculate from the documents I have found.  She would have a child, my Uncle Dave, on April 9, 1918 in Chicago.  I found 2 birth certificates for him.  One stating his name as Carl Wilbur Lee…and the other, dated almost 18 years later, with the name of David Carl Frechette.  I eventually put the pieces together and realized that my Uncle Dave was born out of wedlock.  She named him Carl (her brother and my great grandfathers original name) Wilbur (after the baby’s father) and the last name of Lee (her maiden name). He was born at home….I’m not sure if his father lived with them at the time.  The 1920 census lists him as David….and the whole family lived in the same house (or apartment) they did when her father was killed.  Three months after Carl/David was born, she would marry her son’s father, Wilbur Frechette, in Crown Point, Indiana (on July 23, 1918).

Going thru my grandma’s possessions (the one’s my mom kept after Grandma died), it didn’t take me long to realize that Wilbur was the love of her life.  She was happy…the few pictures I have of the two of them show her smiling and the two of them hugging or holding hands.  But tragedy would follow her yet again.  Wilbur died May 3, 1920 at 5:45 a.m….less than 2 years after they were married.  His cause of death was listed as Pyaemia with Mastoiditis as a contributing factor…A sepsis infection caused by an inner ear infection.  He was under doctors care for only 3 days prior to his death, but had surgery and was hospitalized April 18-20th.    They had apparently rented a house or apartment sometime between January 3rd (the 1920 Census date) and May 3rd (the day Wilbur died) in 1920.  As many times as I have looked at Wilbur’s death certificate and the other documents in my Grandma’s genealogy folder, I never noticed that Wilbur died at home…their own home.  I always assumed that because of his surgery a few days earlier, he died at a hospital.  I guess I wasn’t looking close enough…or wasn’t supposed to find that detail just yet.

Wilbur was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Hammond, Indiana. The same cemetery where my Grandma’s little brother and her father were buried.  It was across the Illinois-Indiana state line but only a short distance away.  This cemetery would hold many clues for me in the family history…and the more I “dig” (Yeah, it was a BAD pun, but you’ll survive!), the more I find out about my family.

I’m working more and more on my Grandma’s side of the family.  There are a lot of holes I want to fill in.  But where do I start and what are my next steps?  Here’s a few clues I need to work on….

  • Timeline of events and addresses – to better understand the movement of the family and map out what was around them.
  • What do I have and what am I missing – I really need to see what is in my files and see what I’ve overlooked (like where Wilbur died).
  • Who are my living relatives and what can they add to my history story – they are all older than me and I bet they can help fill in the holes.
  • ROADTRIP – to Chicago and to see my cousins – I think this one is LONG OVERDUE!
  • Documents, documents, documents – I need to really understand what I have and what I need.

This weekend holds another research project for me…not into what else I can find on my Grandma’s life, but to discover (or rather, rediscover) what I already have and might have overlooked.  I need to take a brief step back and see what’s in my files and in my boxes and really just get to know her again.  It’s not a labor intensive job….it’s a true labor of love.

I’ll be back later with Part 2 of this story….I can’t wait to share more about “Who was Anna???”.