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A. Rod Paolini
We were in Iowa, but I didn’t know where exactly. Or why! We had driven from my mother’s hometown in Minnesota. My mother, grandmother and I sat in the back seat of our car while my Uncle Rod sat in the front seat with my father, who was driving. We drove slowly down a neighborhood street, and my uncle said, “That’s the house!” We parked several car lengths past the house. My uncle, grandmother and mother got out and walked to the house while my father and I waited and watched in the car. Looking out the back window, I could see the three of them standing on the front stoop talking to a woman in the doorway. They talked only for about five or ten minutes, and then returned to the car. Nothing was said, but Grandmother Ausye was teary-eyed, and Uncle Rod was steaming. And we drove off. This incident took place in 1948. I didn’t think much about it at the time, being only eight years old. The memory of this incident was revived when I visited my mother’s hometown about forty-five years later as I began to review my past and search for my roots. I was born and raised in Chicago, but as a youngster my mother and I visited the one sister who remained in the hometown. The relatives and friends of my mother and aunt were quite different from my father’s. His brother’s and sister and their spouses were immigrants and first generation Americans. I was fascinated by them: they spoke exuberantly, and sometimes I couldn’t tell if they were arguing or just conversing. Though kindly, they largely ignored me. My mother’s relatives were quite the opposite. Not only did they speak rather slow and deliberately, they were so darn friendly–speaking to me and asking me questions--expecting me to carry on a conversation. It was so unusual that I was a intimidated and a little uneasy. In later years, I wondered what my life would have been like had I been raised in this small town. In the early 1990's, I persuaded my Aunt Bayonne and my mother to have a reunion, and as we walked the streets of the town, they recounted their stories, and I began to learn the what happened to their sister Alma Jean–partially, anyway. I was told that Alma Jean ceased communicating with family members: their letters were return “Address Unknown” and they received no letters from her. They didn’t know where she was for several years, but eventually she was found, and hence the meeting Shirley, Alma Jean, & Bayonne on her doorstep in 1948. They were given no explanation, but Alma Jean made clear that she didn’t want anything to do with her family; she had disowned them. The meager explanation that I was given was that Alma Jean felt, as Dicky Smothers often complained: “Mom liked you [and the others] best.”
Bayonne, Rod, and Alma Jean
I was naive. Of course I had read stories of family conflicts and scandals, watched television shows and movies for which the plot centered about hidden family secrets. But certainly the Daniels family had nothing to hide. They were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, born and bred in small-town America. The Daniels and related families, the Merricks, the Brokkens, the Harstands, could trace their heritage back to the settlement of America in the 1600s and beyond. They were friendly and neighborly, and they knew everyone in town, and everyone knew them. Could there be something that was hidden?
Why had this one daughter become estranged from her family, which, by other accounts, seemed quite close? What had happened that was so hurtful to be unforgiven, and too painful to be explained, for no one really understood why she had forsaken them and wanted to be lost to them. The story of Alma Jean’s estrangement from her family came to me only in dribs and drabs over the next ten years along with some investigative research of my own. I still may not have the full story; but here is what I know. The Daniels family lived in Harmony, Minnesota–“out on the prairie” as Garrison Keeler would say–a small farming town of about a 1,000 people, located just a few miles north of the Iowa border. The father, Herbert Alonzo Daniels, was a prominent and prosperous member of the community. Herb owned the John Deere dealership as well as being the co-owner of a flour and feed mill. He served two terms as president of the town council. At age forty-nine, he had married Ausye Gurine Harstad, age twenty-two. He was admired and loved by his wife and five children.1 And then it went bad, as it did for millions of families during the Great Depression. The mill became heavily mortgaged and was finally lost in foreclosure to the bank, the principal loan officer being his own brother. Though not as poor as some families, there can be little doubt that the strain took its toll. Herb Daniels became ill with asthma for several years, and then he developed eye cataracts. He suffered some minor strokes in 1933, and he died of a cerebral hemorrhage and cardio-macular degeneration and renal disease on December 21, 1936.
Herbert Alonzo Daniels
The fourth daughter, Majorie, was born with spina bifida in 1920 and died two years after
The eldest daughter, Shirley, had married just prior to the death of the father, and she and her husband moved to Minneapolis. Mother Ausye was left with four children, ages 21, 18, 15, and 9. While she had a teaching degree and had taught for a few years after normal school, being married now, she probably was prohibited from a teaching position, even if one had been available, which was unlikely. Thus the only family income came from daughter Bayonne’s wages working at the post office and daughter Alma Jean employed as a bookkeeper at a trucking company. Mother Ausye moved to Chicago in 19382 and ran a boarding house. It wasn’t until sixty years later that I learned that her real motive was to follow a love interest. The man was married with a sickly wife; and he decided not to leave her. Ausye Daniels never remarried. The boarding house did not prove successful, and so she became a nanny for wealthy families for her many years in Chicago. The fourth oldest daughter, Isabel, graduated from high school in June 1938, and that same month boarded a bus for Chicago to attend the Moser Business College and make her life in the big city.
Ausye Gurine Daniels
And so sisters Bayonne, age 21, Alma Jean, age 19, and brother Rod, age 10, remained at home in Harmony.3 Bayonne had many suitors, several of whom offered a prosperous and comfortable life. Surprisingly to some, she chose one Allen Gregory Reburn from the nearby town of Le Roy, and they married in January 4, 1940. I was told that Al was temperamental: hot and cold. If you were on his good side, he couldn't do enough for you, but if you got on his bad side, he was disdainful. And he drank!
Isabel Flavia Daniels
Upon their marriage, Al moved into the house with Bayonne. For brother Rod, this did not prove to be a happy arrangement. His son, reports: Al spoke rarely to Dad and never with words of encouragement or affection. Dad was expected to work in the restaurant, and it doesn’t sound like Al welcomed his nephew into his home at all.4
My mother remembers that Rod went with her, but it unknown as to how long he stayed. The address of the house is 150 NE 4th Street in Harmony. Taken from an E-mail from Bruce Daniels, 2013. The restaurant was called The Travel Inn.
Rod then moved in with an aunt in Harmony.5 Alma Jean departed as well, for the 1940 census6 locates her living at 33 South Grant Street, Denver, Colorado on April 4 with an unrelated and unknown family.7 She is listed as a housekeeper in a private residence. So why and how does a twenty-one year old girl move seven hundred miles to a city that she very likely never visited? How does she find a position of housekeeper with an unknown family? We have no clue.
As stated in his biography,8 brother Rod moved to Denver “in the summer of 1942" at the age of 14 to live with his sister Alma Jean. Their living arrangement is Bayonne Alice Daniels unknown, but it’s resentment became apparent. Rod worked at a grocery store to help support his sister and himself, and to fund his college education. When he graduated from high school in Denver and prepared to returned to Minnesota in 1945 to attend the University, his sister said that she was keeping his savings as payment for his care.9 From the time Rod departed, there was no further communication from Alma Jean to any members of her family. Several years passed with no word from Alma Jean; and then, in 1947, a letter from her insurance company was received in Harmony, probably because she had indicated Harmony as her place of birth. The letter was simply addressed to “Alma Jean Daniels, Harmony, Minnesota.” The family requested the address of Alma Jean, but the insurance company refused, though it did reveal that she lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A private detective was hired to locate her, but he failed in doing so.
Herbert Roderick Daniels
As listed in the 1940 census, he lived with his Aunt Ellis and her son Rudolph (Rudy) Odine Ellis, Rod being age 12 and Rudy being 16 in 1940.
The 1940 census listing Alma Jean Daniels was enumerated on April 4, 1940. The family of Clarence and Nellie Cassada and his parents, both eight-nine years of age. Harstad Heritage Up-date Vol. III 1984.
As a consequence of not having any money, Rod had to postpone his college education, and he therefore joined the U.S. Navy.
My mother, Isabel Daniels [Paolini] took on the case. She remembered that Alma Jean was always embarrassed by the slight protuberance of her front teeth, and my mother reasoned that she might have orthodontic work done in order to align them. Isabel wrote to every dentist in Cedar Rapids. While no dentist responded, a dental assistant of one of the dentists knew of Alma Jean as they worked in the same building. She responded to my mother's letter, and informed her of the whereabouts of Alma Jean. And so ensued the above described confrontation in 1948 at which she neither welcomed her family into her home nor explained why she had severed all relations with them. There were no further concerted attempts to reconcile with Alma Jean, but as Rod Daniels lived one hundred miles to the north in Rochester, Minnesota, he made a few additional attempts to establish relations with her, or at least try to get an explanation from her. He failed! Rod’s son Bruce writes:
Alma Jean Daniels (circa 1934)
Dad mentioned more than once that on one occasion either in the 1960s or 70s, I think it was about the time we moved to MN therefore 1969 or so, we drove through the town she lived in. He drove to her house, parked the car, and walked up to her door and rang the bell. Alma Jean came to the door holding and stroking her precious (Siamese?) cat, Nefertiti. She exchanged VERY few words with Dad, did not even deign to open the door but talked to him through the closed storm door / screen door. Dad was terribly hurt as she most certainly did not invite him in or have any desire to meet his wife and children. Whatever grudge she held had not softened over the long intervening years since whatever had triggered it. I asked, “Did she and your father ever reconcile?” Nope – Alma Jean ended up in a nursing home in Iowa. I presume her husband had already died but I really don’t know more than the fact that out of the blue she called Dad and begged him to visit her. He did go there on at least a couple occasions. She wanted him to get her out of the nursing home – end of story. It was not as if she want to make things right or anything of that sort - she did not ask about her siblings or assorted relatives. Returning from those trips he made to visit her left him drained and depressed for some time.
It is natural to speculate as to the cause of Alma Jean’s estrangement. She might well have felt that she had been ‘forced’ out of her own home when Al moved in with sister Bayonne. But then why did she take such a drastic step in moving to Denver, Colorado–a large city compared to Harmony, and more than 1,700 miles away? Did she not have other options to stay in Harmony, that is, staying with
an aunt and uncle? She had a job as a bookkeeper in Harmony, so she could have paid for her room and board. Given her confiscation of Rod’s savings, she seems to have resented having to take responsibility for him, though it certainly seems unfair to blame her brother for the circumstance. One would think that she would have felt sympathy for his situation in Harmony as she had the same experience, however briefly. These were desperate times, and everyone, save eldest sister Shirley, had probably been ‘forced’ to take paths that they would not normally have chosen. Mother Ausye very probably had to leave Harmony so as to earn an income, regardless of the love interest. Sister Isabel had been forced to do the same. Multiple families in the same household may not be the most desirable, but it certainly wasn’t unusual for poor families during the Great Depression. Almost everyone at some time in their life is forced to accept choices that are not of their liking, but most make the best of it and move on. Obviously Alma Jean did not or could not. The hurt must have been too great to forgive and forget. For the rest of the Daniels family, the lack of a resolution must have been extremely painful: no explanation, no forgiveness, no reconciliation. It wasn’t necessarily a dark secret, but at some point, they must have accepted their loss, and tacitly agreed not to talk about it, and so it was unknown to us their descendants. They, and we, will never know why Alma Jean disowned her family, as she took her reason to the grave on February 1, 2002. Peace be upon her! There is one remaining question that is personal. Why was I so fascinated by this story that I had searched for answers? I had never met Alma Jean, and I had–and have–little sympathy for her. I knew and loved the other family members: my mother, her sisters, and brother. It was hard not to wonder what was happening to them inside? How did they come to terms with this rejection? We know that she never forgave them, but did they forgive her? Did they ‘forgive’ themselves, even though they never knew their offense?