The Family Story

Susan Wynn McLean

I need to preface this with the reminder that every family has stories – whether these tales have any basis is truth is often a matter of perspective. The following came from what I was told when growing up and later conversations with extended family members during my research.

I only knew my grandaunt Sue for a short time. We both lived in Reno in the mid-1970s, and I visited with her several times. She was a very sweet lady who reminded me a lot of my grandmother Margaret. Most of the family stories I heard about Susie began with “Poor Sue.” I think her siblings felt Susie had had a pretty rough road in life.

The “Poor Sue” seems to begin with the death of her husband John Kelley. By all accounts, she loved him very much and his sudden death was shattering. Susie was pregnant at the time and she and her infant daughter (also named Nettie) moved back in with her mother. John Kelley’s son John Stewart Kelley was born in his grandmother’s home three months later. Her mother Nettie fired the maid and Susie picked up her duties to pay her way. It’s my understanding that Nettie never missed an opportunity to let her daughter know how “lucky” she was to have a place to go.

I’ve heard that when Susie married Edmund Griffin, Nettie told her that she didn’t like him or want him in her house. What is also clear in listening to the family stories is that Edmund and his mother-in-law Nettie butted heads frequently and the dislike and lack of respect was mutual.

Edmund was born 6 May 1894 in South Hampton, Queens, New York, the youngest son of James Seaman Griffin (1857-1915) and Alice Payne Phillips (1856-1936). His 5 Jun 1917 World War I draft registration provides his date and location of birth, as well as his employment as a gas fitter for the Public Service Corporation of Long Island in Port Washington. He is tall, of medium build, and has gray eyes and brown hair. A WWI Army abstracts states he was inducted at LB 2 Nassau NY on 19 Sep 1917 and served with Hq Co of the 307 and 327 Infantry until honorably discharged 22 Jan 1918. The card also states, “In view of occupation he was, on date of discharge, reported 50% per cent disabled.” I’m not clear as to the meaning of this as Edmund worked as a plumber/pipe fitter for the rest of his life.

Susie and her children moved in with Edmund, but there was trouble early on. He was not welcoming of Susie’s son Stewart, and the boy returned to his grandmother’s within a very short time and remained with her until grown. I’ve heard different stories about this. One story was that Edmund wanted to adopt Stewart, but Susie refused because she wanted Stewart to keep his father’s name. The second story (the one heard the most) was that Edmund was jealous of the attention Stewart received from Susie. Both stories end the same way – Edmund refused to have “another man’s son” in his home and cast Stewart out. Either story is plausible. I noticed that on the 1930 census young Nettie is listed as Nettie Griffin “daughter.”

Sometime in the early 1930s, Susie’s daughter Nettie also returned to live with her grandmother. The talk between the cousins was that Edmund treated her poorly and as she had matured, he began to “bother” her. Each of the cousins heard their parents talk about the problem with Edmund, and both my mother and uncle told me that their father had threatened to go up there and “straighten Edmund out if he came near the girl again.” Young Nettie would remain with her grandmother, brother, and uncles until she married. Of course, when young Nettie moved in the new maid was let go and she took up her duties.

I once asked my mother why Susie stayed with Edmund if he was such a problem, and she simply shrugged and reminded me that Susie really had nowhere to go. She had two more children and with the depression and no skills to support herself, her options would have indeed been limited. She’d had to go back to her mother before and doing so again would certainly not have been something she wanted to do. While her mother would no doubt have taken her in, Nettie would have been unlikely to let Susie forget her dependence. While those are good reasons to stay, it is also just as possible that Susie simply loved Edmund enough to accept certain things.

The other story I’ve heard that put Edmund at odds with Susie’s family was his political association as an active member of the German American Bund. According to Wikipedia, “The Bund was to consist only of American citizens of German descent. It’s main goal was to promote a favorable view of Nazi Germany.” I was told by Uncle Craig that Edmund was quite vocal in his opinions on the superiority of the Nazi way and this caused quite a rift in the family. I’m unsure how long Edmund remained a member, but Craig was clear about a conversation he had with his father about the enactment of a peacetime military draft (September 1940). The Bund counseled its members to evade the draft and Harry wondered about Edmund’s thoughts on how this might affect his oldest son when he became eligible. It’s my understanding that he gave up the Bund between the time the draft came effect and prior to the war. Edmund’s oldest son joined the US Army Air Corps and served in World War II. Edmund’s in-laws do not appear to have ever forgiven his early views and continued to discuss his politics for years to come. My mother said that her father referred to Edmund as “that damn Nazi sympathizer” for the rest of his life.

While no one appears to have much of anything good to say about Edmund, everyone in the family uniformly adored Susie and her two sons by Edmund. Even though my grandmother Margaret didn’t care much for her brother-in-law, she visited her sister several times over the years and they remained close. I was in my late teens when I was living in Reno and knew my granduncle Edmund – he was in his early 80s and still an impressively large man with a firm handshake. While my family’s stories had colored some of my perceptions about him, I found him to only be a tad overbearing, but generally polite and engaging. It was obvious to me that he was in charge and the focus of Susie’s world. My impression was of a very traditional household in which she cooked and cleaned and he controlled the money and the interaction. It was no different than many other household of its time with people of that age.

However, Edmund did control and direct the conversation each time I visited. When I was asking Susie about the McLean family, he said nothing bad about anyone, but always turned the conversation to his own family. The subject of Susie’s first husband and her children by John Kelley appeared to be taboo. I made several attempts to ask about her son’s middle name of Stewart, and I’d also hoped to find out the names of John Kelley’s parents, but Edmund changed the subject each time without giving her a chance to answer. I didn’t press the matter.

Edmund Griffin died 7 Apr 1977 in Reno, Washoe, Nevada. Susie passed away 15 Sep 1993 in Campbell, Santa Clara, California.

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