By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 2/26/2020
Updated: 1/11/2016
Topics/Keywords: #EdnaMaeBrown #EdnaMaeCilwa #WalterCilwa #PhotoRestoration Page Views: 4527
Photos and narrative of my mom, Edna Mae Brown Cilwa, and her life up through her marriage to my dad.

A couple of years before my Mom passed away, she and I spent some time rummaging through her old photographs. She'd lost a lot of them when we lived in Florida; despite the fact that she'd wintered there as a girl, she was unaware of the voracious and wide-ranging appetite of Florida cockroaches—especially as regards to paper. They literally ate hundreds of her precious photos before she discovered the damage. We were able to preserve some.

(1890) Nelson Brown and Dr. Davis

Since then I've scanned prints, removed spots, and digitally reduced the graininess of these old photos.

Mom's paternal grandfather was Nelson Brown. At right you can see him with his friend, one Dr. Davis, in a photo taken in 1890. Nelson is the heavyset man. The stiffness of the poses, of course, is due to the long exposure times required in those days—as long as two minutes.

(1897) Vernon Brown…with hair!

In 1890, Mom's dad, my grandfather, Vernon Brown, was still a little kid. But by 1897, he was well on his way to becoming a dapper young man. Enjoy that hair, Grampa; you wouldn't get to keep it for long!

Rarely, one gets to look at a photo taken in past decades and marvel at how contemporary someone looks. Grandpa's hair and outfit are too 19th Century to mistake him for a modern-day youth. But his expression of youthful optimism, unsuppressed even by the necessity of keeping still for a long exposure time, shines through the years. I was that young, once!

Grampa was one of five siblings. Here he is with three of them, in a group portrait also taken in 1897:

Brown Family siblings

The two in the lower right are Edna, and her first husband, Len. Grandpa is in the upper right. Many years later, after Len and his three successors had died, Great Aunt Edna came to live with us.

(1900) Great-grandfather Nelson has caught some fish!

By 1900, Great-grandfather Nelson had lost his hair and eerily become the very image of the man his son Vernon would eventually become. At right you can see him showing off a rack of fish he may have caught…though it would be completely in keeping with the Brown family sense of humor to have purchased the fish.

(1900) Vernon Brown

Likewise, Vernon now presented a more sober demeanor. By now, he had been married, albeit briefly, to a young lady named Mary Wilson. My mom was completely unaware of this first, childless, marriage; it took a genealogical study to turn it up. Grampa and Mary were married in 1900; he married Mom's mother, Mary Virginia Chapman, in 1907. We have not been able to find a death record for Mary, suggesting their marriage ended in divorce (and that she is immortal).

Meanwhile, in a 1902 portrait, we can see Aunt Edna and her beloved, Uncle Len. Despite Len's slightly dated haircut, to me he has the most contemporary face of all these relatives.

Aunt Edna, on the other hand, could at best be described in the parlance of the times as a "handsome woman." And, bless her heart, she didn't age well as far as looks were concerned. She had a big heart, though, and certainly loved us kids—perhaps because, despite four husbands, she never had any children of her own.

The last photo in this batch is of Aunt Edna; it was taken a year earlier, in 1901, in her Bloomfield, New Jersey apartment. Notice all the requirements of Victorian era luxury living: a piano, heavily framed paintings, lacy drapes.

(1901) Great-Aunt Edna in her Victorian apartment.

His first marriage out of the way, Grandpa married Mary Virginia Chapman, who had been a proofreader in New York at the Harry Smith Printing Company. Mary Virginia remained best friends with her former boss, Kate Zabriskie, for the rest of her life.

And then, on June 18, 1912, my mom, Edna Mae Brown, was born. She was the second child to Vernon and Mary Virginia Brown. Edna Mae's older brother had been stillborn, but was nevertheless a presence in the household as her parents spoke of him often. He had been named "Walter."

In the first years of the twentieth century, cameras were still too bulky—and babies too wriggly—to make infant photography practical. Mom's first portrait was taken when she was about 1½ years old.

(1914) Edna Mae Brown

When going over these pictures my Mom, in her 90s, recalled that she used to "chew on that locket."

(1915) Edna Mae and parents in Atlantic City.

In 1915, Mom's parents took her to Atlantic City, a place which, judging by her expression, she didn't enjoy, despite the new pinwheel she clutches. However, that was before they brought in the casinos.

You can barely see Mary Virginia peaking out from behind her baby. An accident of the camera, or a psychological revelation?

Grandpa wears his proud look.

Mom enjoyed pinwheels all her life. She frequently bought garden pinwheels and made us display them outside.

The next two photos show Mom at four years old and at six, respectively.

(1916) Edna Mae Brown at 4 (1918) Edna Mae Brown at 6
Mom with her best friend, Bernice Fiesler.

In 1919, Mom entered kindergarten (something only privileged kids, like the daughter of an optometrist, were likely to do) and there she met Bernadette Fiesler. She and Bernie quickly became best friends, and remained so until Bernie's death a year or so before Mom's.

The photo at right was taken on the occasion of their First Communion. (By 1919, handheld cameras were in common use and, as an optometrist and therefore interested in light and lenses, my grandfather was sure to have had a high-quality one. However, this is a studio photo.)

We have blurry photos of Mom's 7th birthday party—with 20 guests, most of whom Mom could still name in her 90s—and her 6th grade class, out of which she could name most of the 40-odd students. But the next photo that seemed meaningful to her was the following, taken on a vacation with her father to Nova Scotia.

(1929) Vernon Brown, Edna Mae Brown, Madison Burrell and friend.

It was taken in 1929. Grampa, in his sporty vacation attire, stands at the left. Mom sits on the running board of the car. A friend, Madison Burrell, sits next to her. He'd spent the vacation, according to Mom, trying to get her attention. (Mom often described young men "trying to get" her attention.) However, shortly after Mom and Grampa left to return home, Madison dove headfirst into a lake, striking a hidden rock and breaking his neck. Mom never found out if he recovered. I remember, as a young boy, being frequently told this cautionary tale by my mother, usually at unhelpful times, such as when swimming at the Kiwanis pool (where there were no hidden rocks) or while wading in the Moose River (which was so shallow that the water didn't reach our knees, therefore precluding diving).

Vernon and Mary Virginia Brown

On the way back from Nova Scotia, the Browns passed through Pawlet, Vermont, where they purchased a vacation home. By then, my grandfather's hair loss was complete, leaving only a blonde fringe around the sides. He was still a young man, but would retain the same look the rest of his life, creating an odd air of eternal age and agelessness. My grandmother's dark hair had turned white.

This was the last picture they had taken together. From then on, Mom and her mother took vacations in Pawlet together, while my grandfather remained behind in Bloomfield to work, and make only occasional forays out to meet them. Somewhere along this time, he began an affair with Dorothy Weems, his receptionist, that became his third marriage after Mary Virginia died of complications from diabetes.

(1937) Gramma Brown and Grandmother Brown in Pawlet. An open marriage?

An open marriage?! From the limited vantage point of today, with its misty, black-and-white view of the past, I can only wonder. It appears that Mary Virginia knew about this arrangement—indeed, in 1937, Dorothy Weems and Mary Virginia Brown had their pictures taken together at the house in Pawlet. Granted, Mary Virginia doesn't look very happy. But Dorothy does—not gloating nor triumphant, just enjoying herself and seemingly oblivious to Mary Virginia's scowl. Were Dorothy and my grandfather having their affair already? Did Mary Virginia know or suspect? What were the sleeping arrangements during this visit?

My ex-husband, Michael, is a genealogist and finds mysteries in the appearance and disappearance of names of people in the national censuses. I'm a photographer and I find them in the expressions of people, now dead, preserved in these photographs.

Certainly my grandfather, a Victorian gentleman of the first order, would be an unlikely adherent to the principles of what was then called "free love." No one in our household, when I was growing up, ever spoke of sex. No adult in our family ever told me or my sisters the "facts of life." In fact, neither of my sisters were warned before they had their first periods!

And yet…! For people who never admitted the existence of sex, they seemed to have an awful lot of it.

In 1931, when my mom was 19 and had graduated from high school, she was effectively managing her father's optometrist shop. She apparently decided that an education in business would be appropriate, and applied to Fordham University. She retained their businesslike reply:

My dear Miss Brown, In reply to your letter of inquiry we wish to inform you that women are not admitted to the course in Business Administration at Fordham University. Very truly yours, Dean.

Mom never went for a higher education. This seems to have been her only attempt. Did it scar her? Not obviously…but she did keep Fordham's response until her death.

Letter from the White House

The 1930s were, of course, the years of the Depression but Mom wasn't much affected by it. Grampa had never owned stocks so he didn't lose anything in the crash; and, as an optometrist, he provided a vital service people couldn't do without. He did extend credit to his patients as needed, and in gratitude they made certain to repay him. Mom's instructions from him were to never flaunt the fact that she had when her friends did not.

She became active in a church group, the Mercier Club, and participated in numerous plays and musicals presented by it, but those photos are among those that were eaten by bugs. She wrote poetry and, apparently sent at least one of her samples to the First Lady, as evidenced by the above response. A number of her poems were published in the local newspaper, some under the pseudonym "Mary Virginia Armstrong".

(1935) Edna Mae Brown, taken in Pawlet.

Mom and her mother continued to summer in the cabin in Pawlet, despite a fire that nearly destroyed it. They rebuilt it better than before, moving walls and paneling them in pine. Of course, they had no electricity or indoor plumbing; but few rural vacation homes did in those days.

Having spent her childhood in such out-of-the-way locations, Mom had been taught to shoot a rifle by her dad and she continued to practice sharp shooting into her twenties. She was known throughout the county as a crack shot, though she seldom shot animals. One story she used to tell from this period occurred when her best friend, Bernie, was spending the summer with her. The two young ladies were preparing to target shoot when Bernie spotted a small creature crossing the clothesline. "Oh, look!" she said. "It's a chipmunk! Did you ever see such a precious little thing, with those cute little eyes and those chubby little cheeks? Quick, shoot it!"

(1937) Mom and a friend shoot at targets in Pawlet. (1937) Mom as Annie Oakley (1938) Mom examines the Florida orange crop.

By the end of the 1930s, the Depression was easing but the clouds of war were looming on the horizon. In 1938, the Browns sold the house in Pawlet and Mom and her mother used the money to spend the winter in Florida. The following year they returned. That would be Mom's last vacation with her mother. Mary Virginia died of complications from diabetes in 1940.

With Mary Virginia dead, Grandpa was free to marry Dorothy Weems, which he almost immediately did. The two honeymooned in Cape Cod (where my Mom would later meet my Dad).

Together with Mom, who still lived with her father, they moved into a newly-constructed, luxury apartment building called Rockcliff in Montclair. The building was built, as its name suggests, on the top of a mountain cliff overlooking the city.

(1942) Vernon Brown (1942) Dorothy Brown
In the Red Cross

Mom, too short to join the WACS, joined the Red Cross and "did her part" to acheive victory, folding bandages and raising money at home for the boys overseas. The war threw a pall over the dating scene, as Mom was among the forefront of those who refused to date men who were "4-F"—that is, unable to participate in the fighting. As everyone else was either too old or too young, Mom volunteered to work for Canteen, which provided a place to relax for off-duty soldiers. Vacations were not an option, as gasoline was rationed and having a good time (except with soldiers) was considered somewhat unpatriotic.

But all things come to an end, and eventually the war ended and Americans returned to a semblance of normalcy. In 1948, Mom, Grampa and Gramma had what we would now call "glamour shots" taken of themselves.

(1948) Edna Mae Brown (1948) Dorothy Brown (1948) Vernon Brown
My Dad

In October of 1949, Mom made a trip to Cape Cod with her best friends Bernie and Norma. On Halloween, Norma threw a party and insisted that Mom attend, though Mom had gotten sunburned and wasn't really in the mood. Mom went anyway; that's where she met my Dad, Walter Cilwa.

Dad had a few strikes against him. First, he was more than a decade older than Mom, and hadn't fought in the war. (Mom didn't take up many causes, but the ones she did take, she clung to.) Worse, he was divorced; he was Catholic but, as Catholics go, pretty relaxed about it. Mom decided to have nothing to do with him, even though she found him very attractive.

Mom on board

They got engaged.

Mom had been planning her first trip to Europe, to be made with the Mercier Club and led by Cardinal Spellman. Despite Walter's attentions, she left as planned in February, 1949, touring Italy and the Holy Land. (Those photos are among those lost.) She kept a letter Dad sent her which began, "Hi, Honey, Since your departure things have gotten cold in more ways than one!" He also recommended that she include a visit to the Isle of Capri, which she did, asking for a full account but cautioning, "And I don't mean with some other Pilgrim, either!"

On September 9, 1950, Mom became Mrs. Walter Cilwa. She was 38 years old, and two months pregnant…with me. Mom dealt with this discrepancy by telling me, for decades, that she'd forgotten her wedding date. It wasn't until Michael began gathering genealogical data that he pinned her to a date and I did the math.

(1950) Dad and Mom take the plunge.

I should have guessed. My sister did: In Mom's wedding photo, she is not wearing white. Only my mother would have been such a slave to custom that she would keep this dark secret from her son, but reveal it to all the wedding guests by her choice of outfits.

Dad's best man was his brother-in-law Mike Ryan, so Dad's sisters knew about the wedding. However, his children by his first marriage did not—they found out about it when reading the paper.

Mom, as we used to say, was more Catholic than the Pope. She continued to abstain from meat on Fridays for decades after that rule was relaxed. And so Mom's sermons on why divorce was evil and no Catholic could ever remarry never made much sense, given that we knew that Dad had been married before. Mom always said that his first wife had died. But then she let slip that Dad had gotten a divorce. "Yes, but Lena died before he remarried."

As it turns out, Lena Cilwa died in 1955. Mom had been married in 1950. I don't know how she managed it, unless she just neglected to mention Dad's previous marriage to the priest…in which case, though her marriage was legal, it wasn't ecclesiastically sanctioned.

It took me a long time to piece the stories together, especially since Mom hoarded the photos (and some of the facts). My sister is still discovering odds and ends of Mom's things among her boxes and trunks. Paper photos and correspondence, as we've learned, don't last. Digitizations of them may last longer, with consistent backups and care. The stories behind the photos are even more tenuous. Unless told, they can be forgotten or obliterated. That's why I'm trying to get the stories I can remember written down, and why I'm trying to write down my own.

Each lifetime is unique, and therefore precious. We may continue to reincarnate a million times over, but each person we've been exists once and once only. The stories of those lifetimes deserve to be told.

This was my mom's, at least, up to the point where I entered the picture.

And Then I Was Born