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The Scarlet & Black

Column: Growing up in the 1950s surrounded by extended family

One of the myths prevalent when I grew up in the 1950s was that people lived in totally nuclear families and that women did not work outside of the home. My own upbringing, largely in Massachusetts, involved regular interactions with a very large extended family, including people who had emigrated or whose parents had emigrated to the United States, and a large number of professional women.

My mother’s parents, James Russell and Annie Guthrie, were both from immigrant families that came to the United States from Scotland (and also went back from time to time for further education and to see family). Both of my mother’s parents had a dozen brothers and sisters. We didn’t interact with all of them because some had returned to Scotland or lived far away but we did see some of the others regularly. A number of them, men and women, never married and had various occupations including college and public school teaching.

My father’s parents, Helen and George Osgood, were lifelong New Englanders who grew up within large extended families in Malden and Newburyport, Massachusetts, respectively. My Grandmother Osgood grew up in Oak Grove in Malden after her mother died of diphtheria while her father was deployed to Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

My grandmother was raised by her mother’s sister, my Aunt Grace Dean, who never married and was a professional musician, playing and teaching piano and the trumpet in hotels around New England. Aunt Grace’s parents owned the dairy store on the corner in Oak Grove (the milk came from a family farm in Cochituate, Mass.).

Across the street my Grandmother’s Magee grandparents (originally from Nova Scotia) owned the grocery store. She had several Dean uncles who also lived in Oak Grove and taught the French horn and the bassoon. Her father owned a legal stationery business in Boston and was an official in the American Legion. My Grandfather Osgood had a sister, Jessie, who never married and was an accountant with the New England Confectionary Company (NECCO) at its main Cambridge office. His other sister, Mollie, married the Chief Engineer of the New Haven railroad and I saw a lot of her when I attended college.
The amazing thing about all of these relatives is that they were uniformly long-lived and I got to know a large number of them. Indeed, we lived with them in series during the summer in an old cottage in Rockport, Massachusetts, which the family still owns. My great aunts and uncles and my great-grandmother (called “Aunt Emma”) would visit the house while my family was staying there (my parents and my brother and sister). We would be there with my Osgood grandparents, my father’s disabled brother, and a kaleidoscope of these relatives.

I can’t imagine a better education as I grew up. They were all different and interesting. Living with my disabled uncle was a seminal experience in my life because I learned about living with someone of different abilities, and I also saw my grandmother dedicate herself to seeing that my uncle had every chance to live a good life, a dedication that literally lasted until the minute she died in a Boston hospital many years later.

My Russell grandparents came to live eventually in Methuen, Massachusetts and were different but just as interesting. My grandfather was a learned and literary-minded Presbyterian minister. He was a wonderful figure matched only by his wife, my Grandmother Russell, who spoke English with a heavy Gaelic brogue. She had a feisty disposition and was a master of the house and the family. My grandfather was intellectual and not practically minded. I remember my grandmother even managing her death (at home) of cervical cancer and then the void after she died. She had a large coterie of brothers and sisters that left my mother and my siblings and me with a number of Scottish (and Pennsylvanian) cousins. She loved Zane Grey westerns and tried very hard to escape the role of being the minister’s wife. She was a superb Scottish cook and everything I know about budget management I learned from her and from my other grandmother, Helen Osgood, a smart manager and investor.

This could go on and on but I will finish with one other aspect of my family. My mother had two brothers and a sister and we would occasionally see their children (my Russell cousins). More important in terms of contact, my father had a second brother who had five children and a wife from the South, my Aunt Mary. While my older relatives would come to visit for relatively short periods of time (one week or so), my Osgood cousins, Joy, Susan, Helen, Bobby and Tommy, would come for a month and stay in a nearby cottage.

There were, no doubt, tensions in all of this family proximity but my cousins were a tremendously important aspect of our family life. Tommy and Bobby both died tragically while young but my brother, sister and I still occasionally see my three other cousins, Joy, Susan, and Helen, and visiting with them is a way that all of the memories of our growing up with the wonderful aspects and the hard lessons about death and sadness can be recalled gently.

So, while life in the 1950’s certainly had its negative aspects, in my case it was not a life of isolated nuclear families.

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