Today I am going to share with you my helper in my genealogy search. She was my first cousin once removed who I only think I ever met in person once when I was in second grade and long before I ever became enchanted with my family history. At that time, I was a girl who loved the Muppets and I showed her a really cool science experiment (that I sometimes still do to this day to be honest). In November 1980 when I had my tonsils taken out Darlene Reese Prosser got me “The Muppet Book” for me to peruse while recuperating. I did and then some. I’m fairly certain that book is up in my attic struggling to keep it together as the binding came completely apart. But I loved that book as it had so many of my favorite sketches in type and colored photos for me to remember (I was always fond of Veterinarians Hospital and Pigs in Space).
But it was Darlene I turned to when I was in college and began a slight interest in working on my family history. She had sent me copies of family group sheets she had on our shared ancestors of the Blair’s to help me get started. I held onto that envelope of merchandise and scanned them into my own records that I have a few years ago (she also sent me a hat of my dad’s she had taken and finally returned to him, it’s still in the same envelope, she apparently took said hat when they were kids. Darlene was 5 years older than my dad and they were both born in Gary, Indiana.
It was also Darlene I have turned to off and on from 2016-2020 while I became obsessed with researching my family tree. She had begun working on our tree back in the 1980’s when everything was done with letters or in person, talking to her was always the perfect food for thought for my own research as we would discuss people and it would really click sometimes and send me on a new adventure of trying to find Andrew and Suzanna (yes, she was stuck there, too). When her daughter sent me the gedcom of Darlene’s research I was so excited and was amazed we had almost all the same information at least people-wise.
But today I am going to share with you the story of what I know of Darlene Reese Prosser, my genealogy helper, who I wish was still here to guide me.
Darlene Reese was born 9 May 1937 at St. Mary’s Mercy Hospital in Gary, Lake, Indiana to Charles Randall Reese and Vada Blair (Vada was the oldest sister of my grandfather, Leroy Blair) at 2:07 am.
Darlene was the youngest child of her parents, following the birth of her older brother, Charles Blair Reese (more commonly known as Buddy) in 1929.
In the 1940 census, the Reese family was still living in Gary, Indiana where Charles was a mechanic and Vada a housewife.
I find it interesting that one of the photos my Grandma had of Darlene was from 1943 and I liked it so much that I put it in the header of my blog. I think she is so cute and just stands out amongst all the faces in my collage.
At some point in time between 1940 and 1950, Charles, Vada, and Darlene moved to Arizona where they ran a hotel on Buckeye Road in Phoenix. I asked Darlene’s daughter if she knew why they left Indiana and moved to Arizona and her reply was “Charles got disgusted with it raining for X days straight in Indiana and decided to move west. They intended to go to California but stopped in Phoenix and stayed. Maybe he figured it would never rain in a desert as opposed to living on the West coast”.
Her daughter also elaborated, “They gave her (Darlene) total freedom to be a kid. This included riding the bus alone to go downtown to movie theaters when she was young. She’d sit behind the driver, so no weirdo would bother her. If they followed her, she’d cross the street. If they were in the theater she’d move. I swear she must have had a guardian angel”.
More from her daughter: “Throughout her life, she got her way most of the time. She’d done exactly as she wished as a child, and she carried on doing exactly that until the end of her life. She also tried to make sure those she loved also got their way.
She was endlessly loving, but she also had a temper – and she let you know when you made her mad. She had no problem putting the words together to say exactly what you’d done wrong, what she thought of it, and why you should never so much as think about doing it again in the future”.
Meeting Robert Lee Prosser
One of the specific questions I’d asked her daughter was how her parents met, as Darlene got married to Robert Lee Prosser on 18 March 1956. “My parents both went to West High in Phoenix. He was a senior when she was a freshman, and she knew of him only because: 1) he played drums for the band at the school dances; 2) he was cute. The year after he graduated, he broke up with his girlfriend (a redhead, as my mother liked to point out) and then asked a mutual friend if he know of any “petite girls”. The friend thought of my mother because she was 5’2″ and maybe weighed 100 pounds.
The friend introduced the graduate to the sophomore, and that was that. They dated until she graduated and for months after that. My father spent a lot of time at my mother’s house, sleeping on their sofa, until my grandfather told her to marry the guy because he wanted his sofa back”.
Darlene’s daughter was not sure when they got engaged, “but I think it was after she’d graduated. She often went to Pennsylvania to her cousins in the summers. She told me she didn’t want to come back the last year she went because she knew she’d get married.
They never set a date for the wedding, Mom was still living at home and Dad at his mother’s when they were out on a double date one evening, and the other couple asked when Bob and Darlene were getting married. No time like the present? So, Mom went home to get a dress and told her mother she was getting married. My grandmother didn’t believe her. They went to a justice of the peace (no idea how they reached him that night) and were married by him. I don’t know whether it was at his home or at a city hall. Don’t know where they went afterward.
They rented an apartment but a few weeks later Dad got drafted into the army. Spent 2 years away, most of it stationed in France. Mom said they likely would have gotten a divorce if he hadn’t been drafted because she wasn’t mature enough to be married. She moved back home and could have gone to France with him after his basic training was done but she refused. She got a job at AT&T tracking payments/accounting and said she spent her salary on phone calls from France.”
And Baby Makes 3
“From the time she was a teenager, she wanted a daughter, and she wanted to name her what she named me. When she was expecting me, her doctor told her she was having a boy (no idea how he knew). She cried for days.” Their daughter was born in December 1959.
I came on schedule, and she had me on a rainy Monday (rare for Phoenix) at 4:58 am.
She didn’t have labor pains until the final stage – go figure. She walked the hospital
corridors out of impatience, to move things along. Which likely didn’t work.
Dad couldn’t deny I was his: I had a cowlick in the same place and looked like he had as a baby. Mom had thick black hair. Dad had curly auburn hair. So did I when I was born. Then it fell out and came in blond. She never held it against me. She just made me grow it long and loved playing with it when I was a child and permed it for me when I was a teenager because it was dead straight.
Her Daughter’s Memories
I was fortunate enough to get 7 pages of memories from Darlene’s daughter with stories about her mother. I’m including everything for the simple fact that I enjoyed each and every word.
“I gave her a strawberry cake once, and she told me her mother nicknamed her Strawberry because she looked like one when she was born.
She always had a short-haired black cat while I was growing up because she loved them, though she loved all cats, black was the one that most fascinated her. Dad and she had a running joke that she was a witch because of this. She collected black cats throughout her life – knick-knacks, elegant Egyptian-like statues that book-ended our living room window, pictures, books. People would give them to her, and she’d prowl thrift stores for them.
She loved second-hand stores, junk stores, as she called them. Goodwill, Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul’s, any used store. Their prices were terribly cheap in those years, and she bought a lot of clothing, books, decorative items for every room, Christmas and birthday presents for everyone. She traveled a lot for years with my Dad (who sold John Deere industrial machinery, and whose territory was all of Arizona north of Phoenix) and always had to check out those stores.
We all had a lot of used clothes. Her reasoning was once a new piece of clothing was washed, it was used, so no shame in wearing used.
She sewed a lot of clothes for me while I was in high school. My inseam is 33”, so it was impossible to buy pants long enough for me, so she’d make them. Occasionally she’d find used pants that were long enough or buy men’s Levis on sale from western-wear stores, then take in the waist.
I grew up in the 70s, when maxi-dresses were popular, and wore them to church and
dances. She’d take me to a fabric store and have me choose wedding-dress patterns I
liked. She’d then have me choose the fabric and would make me a dress.
She let me be a kid because she’d gotten to be a kid. She was having me hang my Christmas stocking at the fireplace, and giving me Easter baskets, well into my 20s. I didn’t say a word; I knew I had it good.
There was a bath every Saturday night. Afterward, she’d roll up my wet hair on fat pink rubber rollers and make me sleep in them so I’d have curled hair for church. Dressed me in pretty dresses with scratchy net slips, and colored leotards that never fit right because my legs were too long. Put me in a red coat, patent-leather shoes, scratchy hats, and made me carry a muff! One of her favorite child movie stars was Margaret O’Brien. I wasn’t a Shirley Temple, so I think Mom turned to Margaret for inspiration.
She never forgot anything that happened, or anything someone told her. Woe betide you if you lied; she couldn’t stand being lied to or being betrayed. The flip side to this was that if she knew you liked something – a book, a movie, a performer, whatever the thing was – she’d keep an eye out for it/them in her travels and get it for you. All you had to do was mention it, and at Christmas or birthday or out of the blue, she’d present it to you. She loved hunting for treasures that way, and she always thought of others – that they’d like, what would make them happy.
Throughout her life, she got her way most of the time. She’d done exactly as she wished as a child, and she carried on doing exactly that until the end of her life. She also tried to make sure those she loved also got their way.
She was endlessly loving, but she also had a temper – and she let you know when you made her mad. She had no problem putting the words together to say exactly what you’d done wrong, what she thought of it, and why you should never so much as think about doing it again in the future.
When I was four or five, and she was on the phone, I took a bottle of blue India ink out of her secretary and carried it around the corner, into the living room. I then opened it on the coffee table and promptly spilled it on myself…and on the carpet. Not on a rug, on the CARPET. She was furious – not only with me for touching her things, but also for herself for being on the phone. She covered up the stain (no getting that out) with a rug and couldn’t afford to replace the living-room carpet for the next five years or so. She never stopped mentioning to anyone who’d listen how I’d ruined her carpet. She was still mentioning it the year she passed away.
She had used a fountain pen while taking shorthand in high school, and she used the pen while keeping a diary for years – hence the reason she had India ink. When I was 12, she gave me a Sheaffer school fountain pen which took ink cartridges or bottled ink. This started my lifelong interest in fountain pens, so she got her revenge. I also learned my lesson: I’ve never spilled another bottle of ink on any surface (knock wood).
When I was 11, Kurt Weinsinger moved to Flagstaff and went to our church. He was a music professor at Northern Arizona University who also directed our church choir. Through his influence, Mom began singing the opera / musical theatre choir at NAU, and I got to watch. She sang in Carmen, Die Fledermaus, Faust, and Camelot. I fell in love with Camelot / King Arthur, she had the Broadway soundtrack, and I decided I wanted to learn to sing like Julie Andrews. I didn’t tell her. Whenever I was home alone, I snuck-sang with her musical LPs, and told Weinsinger I wanted to sing. The first time she knew of it, I got up in church to do a solo, and she thought, “Where did that come from?” I wasn’t shy, I was introverted, but no one understood that, then. I was also terrified of piano recitals yet had no problem singing in public.
She encouraged me to keep singing. In addition to piano lessons, she supported me to the point I was able to sing in the top high-school choir, madrigals, perform in drama, and make it to regional and state choir. The audition for the state choir took place at West High – which I think was then a community college and no longer a high school. Years later, I also ended up singing with the same musical-theater director she’d had for Camelot and the operas. And Weinsinger gave me voice lessons for years at NAU. So that’s what you get for dragging your kid to The Sound of Music, Camelot, Funny Girl, and the like. She was always too shy to do anything in public, whether it was teaching Sunday School or singing a solo, but she seemed to be proud of what I was doing. No matter what I became interested in, she supported it. Except for wanting a horse. She and Dad didn’t want me getting hurt, so there was never a horse in my life.
When I was ten or so, she decided she wanted to take a trip back east to visit relatives and do genealogical research. This was pre-internet, so any seeking of birth/death certificates, civil records, etc. had to be done in person or through the mail. She and Dad owned a 1965 Chevy truck with a camper shell and foam-rubber mattresses in the back. The plan was for Mom, Grandma, and me to stay in KOAs along the way for this 6000+ round trip. Dad later said he expected her to turn around after 200 miles or so and come back home. Didn’t happen.
Did I mention she could be stubborn? (Before I forget to tell you, her method of dealing with anything she didn’t want to entertain or discuss was to meet your query or comment with silence. She could ignore things into oblivion.)
I spent the trip reading books in the back, and I have sporadic memories of the entire trip. But it does involve memories of your grandparents because it was the first of two times I visited them in Akron and went to the farm. One of the trips was the year a PBS special on Leonardo da Vinci was airing, and it was important to me that I saw it every week we were on the road. Your grandfather was amused I was interested in da Vinci.
I didn’t meet your Dad because he was in the military at the time, but I slept in his bedroom. He had a ticking alarm clock that I put under the bed and covered up because the ticking bothered me.”
She went into more details about my grandfather that I did cut just because this is about her mom, not Pappy. But she did say my Grandma had great pies, and she did.
“I remember my mother was given an antique round table in Pennsylvania on that trip. Into the back of the camper it went, and we climbed over its top and pedestal for the rest of the trip. I also remember visiting an old, old graveyard whose headstones were weathered to the point of being unreadable – at least to me. One had even been taken over by a tree growing next to it. Maybe Mom told you about this trip.
She loved antiques. My grandfather and she would go to auctions, and she’d buy boxes full of piano sheet music for cheap at the last auctions of the day, when most everyone else would have gone home. No one wanted 19th-century furniture in the 50s. Grandpa had a store – mainly a shed and a yard on Buckeye Road – where he’d sell appliances and furniture. (This was after giving up on the motel).
Mom had her pick of the antiques. Among other things, she chose an upright piano (that was later taken to Flagstaff, and I learned on it), a secretary, a cedar chest, a tapestry featuring Spanish galleons in port, two brass incense burners, and an assortment of big and small tables (but not the kind you eat on).
She didn’t like domestic chores or cooking. She wanted her freedom, to explore her corner of the world and see what there was to see. She loved Christmas and would take far too long traipsing through the woods in search of the perfect tree for Dad to cut… to the point of exasperating him. She’d wander off – not only in the woods (after he’d told her not to), but in Costco as well, leaving my Dad and me to fulfill the shopping list and wait for her in the commissary section. She’d get her own goodies…she did love a good treasure hunt, after all.
She was a beautiful woman, inside and out, who loved with fierce loyalty, compassion, and caring. I couldn’t have asked for a better mother, or Dad for a better wife. He always commented that she took good care of him, and she did it for years. She took good care of her mother and me as well. She didn’t really let others take care of her, except for Dad. He’d get her a box of dark-chocolate nougats every Christmas. She loved those, and black licorice.
I remember taking her to see Ladyhawke. The theatre was empty except for a few other people. Matthew Broderick / Mouse’s lines made her laugh out loud.
She loved Barry Manilow long after he was a pop music icon and inherited the LPs of him that I’d collected in the 70s and lost interest in. She took me to one of his concerts because she liked him, but she also took me to one of Michael Crawford’s in the 90s because I liked him. My best friend loves Kermit / Jim Henson, and Mom got tickets to an exhibition on Henson in Phoenix more than a decade ago… and bought Jim Henson videos for her whenever Mom ran across them. My friend was also into dressage and Arabians and Anglo-Arabian horses, so Mom was always on the lookout for things she’d like.
I hope she’s off in the Afterworld exploring everything and anything that interests her, spending time with Weinsinger and other friends who have moved on. I hope she and Dad are travelling together, and that she’s getting to do all of the things she didn’t have time to do.
I miss hunting treasures in second-hand shops with her and talking with her for hours on the phone. I miss hearing her laugh, and her endless questions about my life. I miss her”.
Her Next Chapter
Darlene passed away on 6 March 2020 after having a fall. For a woman I had only met in person once when I was 7, her death really affected me. Until reading her daughter’s memories I learned I had more in common with her than even family history, I love Barry Manilow, too, and always get lost in stores because I’ll just stop to look at something and not care what whomever I’m with is doing. And I like to think she has met Andrew and Suzanna in the afterworld and is somehow trying to get me to next level up in our family tree. Or at least I can hope she is.
Rest in Peace, Darlene. You were one in a million and are missed.