Sunday, March 9, 2014

#52Ancestors (10) May Countryman Spencer, The Matriarch

On the weekend celebrating International Women's Day, this week's post is appropriate. As I contemplated the life of my great-great-grandmother May COUNTRYMAN SPENCER, I was struck by her place with her family. She was the spine, the glue, the Matriarch.

matriarch: noun. a woman who rules a family, clan or tribe.

May was the matriarch of her family in every conceivable way.

May Genevieve COUNTRYMAN was born 6 May 1864 in Tompkins Township, Jackson County, Michigan, the first child of Jacob COUNTRYMAN and Amelia TENNEY. Four sisters followed, and, I suspect, she spent time helping raise her younger sisters.

In the early 1880's, the COUNTRYMAN family moved north, near the border of Ingham and Shiawassee counties. May wed Asa Wyman SPENCER on 2 April 1883. Children quickly followed: Beulah (1884, died as an infant), Roy (1886), Edward (1888), Bessie (1890), Burr (1892), and Florence (1896). This new family lived with her aging in-laws, Wright and Sally SPENCER, on the Spencer family farm.

This photo is of May, Asa, and son Roy:

Lansing, Michigan, circa 1887

The mid-1890's saw tragedy: both May's father and Asa's mother died at the farm in the summer of 1895. I have no doubt May was integral in their final care. May had her last child in 1896, followed shortly by the death of her youngest sister who had been residing at the Shiawassee County Poor Farm.

This photo of May is probably during this period:

By the turn of the 20th century, life was moving forward on the family farm. After the deaths of her in-laws, the farm was now Asa's and May's and their growing children. Then tragedy struck again: Asa Spencer had a burst appendix in 1911, and died of surgical complications. May was now alone to run the farm with her barely twenty-something sons. 

Edward, my great-grandfather, married in 1913 and had his first two children while living on the farm. By the late 1910's, the family was no longer able to keep the farm running, sold the land for what they could, and moved into nearby Lansing, Michigan. At least Lansing had the booming automotive industry, and most of her sons found work in those manufacturing plants.

The 1920 census shows May living in southeast Lansing with her daughter Florence and husband, and her divorced daughter Bessie and Bessie's two young sons.

In 1930, May still lived with Bessie and sons, and now widowed Edward and his four children moved in. On the 1940 census, May was working as a clerk for the telephone company - at age 75! May continued to live with various children and grandchildren for the remainder of her life.

The recollections my grandfather had of May were of a stern, staunchly Methodist matriarch. May survived the loss of an infant and adult child, her sister, her daughter-in-law, and her husband way too soon. She supported her family through divorce and loss of property. She instilled order and constancy to her family.

Lansing, Michigan, circa 1930's

Spencer family, Lansing, Michigan, Easter 1940

For all that May lived through - family tragedy, war, the Depression - she still lived to be 79 years old. She died in Lansing on 15 June 1943 and is buried alongside Asa and five of her six children in Rowley Cemetery, Ingham County, Michigan.

Rest in peace, May.

(c) 2014 Sally Knudsen