SILVER SPRING, Md.– Helen Lacy was a loving mother and an extraordinary woman who rose above challenging circumstances to get an education and a job in a time when women were still expected to play a very specific, gendered role in society.
She was also my great great grandmother.
I only began looking into my great great grandmother’s story about three months ago. Before that, my family had mentioned her only a handful of times as “the one with the sneaky uncle,” or “the engineer.”
I never connected these things, and, having never lived in a world where I could be as fiercely oppressed as my great great grandmother must have been, it didn’t even occur to me how truly wondrous her accomplishments were.
My great grandmother was born on August 23, 1901 near Cobb County in Georgia. Her full maiden name is Helen Lacy Robertson. What little I know about her I learned through a short memoir my great grandmother (Helen Lacy’s daughter) wrote to my mother, and through the vague recollections of my surviving family.
When I first set out to piece together my great great grandmother’s story, I didn’t even think to dust off my great grandmother’s memoir.
My mom first showed it to me many years ago, at which time I gave it no more than a cursory glance, completely uninterested, and its existence faded to the back of memory.
But somehow, years later, while agonizing over historical records and making prolonged and confusing phone calls to my extended family, some aspect of my research managed to dredge up that long forgotten memory; and suddenly, upon fishing out the memoir from the depths of one of the bookshelves lining the walls of my house, I had what felt like a wealth of newfound knowledge of both my great great grandmother– a woman who I’d never met– and my great grandmother, who I realize now I never truly talked to.
According to the memoir, Helen Lacy was born into an affluent family alongside two sisters and one brother. Her parents died when she was only 10 years old, and an uncle who was meant to take care of them stole their fortune and dumped them in an orphanage shortly thereafter.
I’ve found no mention of her siblings later in on her life, nor do I know anything more about her early life beyond what’s written in the memoir.
When I first heard it, it seemed like something straight out the popular book series A Series of Unfortunate Events. That someone with such wretched beginnings, which I’d only read the likes of in works of fiction and biographies of important historical figures, was my great great grandmother made me feel, somehow, like I was interesting just by association.
“Her stories were not happy,” her daughter Helen Jeane Moore (who went by Jeane) wrote in her memoir, “but I always felt that she was a strong, stable and intelligent lady. She managed to get a degree in teaching and taught grade school… She was a big influence on my life.” How she managed to crawl out of the dark hole she’d landed in, I wish I knew.
In 1928 at the end of “the roaring 20s,” Helen Lacy had her first child with her husband, Russell White Moore– a “cowboy” according to her granddaughter, Jaye Sutton. This child was likely Jeane, who was born on December 4 that same year. Together, they lived on a 30-acre homestead they acquired through the Homestead Act on the outskirts of a small town in Montana, Opheim.
They owned a potato chip business through the depression called Moore’s Potato Chips.
“‘The Great Depression’ was quite vivid in my memory while growing up,” wrote Jeane.
Seeing so many references to time periods that I had only read about in history textbooks before was an eye-opener. I suddenly felt more connected to the past than I ever had. I became aware of my roots in ways that I never had before, and I could feel them stretching back, and back, to some sort of “beginning”.
Around the time World War II started in 1939, Helen and her family moved to a house in Cincinnati, Ohio, drawn by a job at the Ohio Corps of Engineers. Her degree in mathematics made her an asset, and she moved through the ranks. Jaye, her granddaughter, remembers visiting her when she was a child, and notes that she had her own office with “a candy bowl on her desk.” Of course those are the kind of details a child would remember, I thought, as I listened to my grandmother reminisce on the other end of the phone.
When Jaye asked her about her job she would simply say, “it’s just a job, Jaye. It’s just a career, it’s just something I do.” Her mother enjoyed “gardening, cooking and working on needlepoint,” Jeane wrote– traditional pastimes for a woman at that time. So average, compared to the glorified version of her I have subconsciously put together in my mind.
Her husband, who would have been 58, may have been sent off to join the war, as they needed every able-bodied man. A subsequent divorce left Helen a single mother until around 1960, when she had her second marriage. I couldn’t find any mention of this man’s name in the memoir, nor could the family members I talked to remember his name, but apparently my great great grandmother was happy with him.
It was at this point in her life that she finally began to slow down. “She was winding down [her job],” Jaye says.
“I sometimes don’t know how she found the energy to do all that she did,” Jeane wrote. She only lived a few years more and died surrounded by her loving family.
Helen Lacy’s favorite piece of advice was “whatever you do in life, do your very best.”
Her story is not entirely unique. Sure, she wasn’t the only woman of her time to have gotten a taste of higher education, secured a good job, gotten a divorce and so forth.
But she was my great great grandmother.
I hope that someday in the future, if I too try my very best, my descendants might look back at my history and take inspiration from me, as I have from Helen Lacy.