52 Ancestors Challenge – Week #4 – Katherine Gertrude Bryant

My ancestor with the birthday closest to mine is my paternal grandmother, Katherine Gertrude Bryant, who went by the name – Kitty.  I’m not sure if she was known as Kitty while growing up in Washington DC in the early 1900s but that is what everyone I know has always called her. We are also “close” in name since my given name is Kathleen.

I was born on October 20, 1955, a week before Kitty turned 53. When I was born, Kitty was in Thailand with her husband Joe who was on an 18-month teaching assignment. Joe was part of a delegation of Americans who were establishing a department of Public Administration at Thammasat University and helping the Thai government develop personnel policies. Kitty was with him in Thailand from September 1955 through May 1956 when she returned to the US for health reasons. Of course I can’t find any pictures now, but I recall seeing a picture of Kitty on the porch of their house in Thailand. It is one of the few pictures I have of her.

I haven’t found Kitty’s birth record in the Washington DC records, so I’m beginning to wonder if she might have been born in one of the suburbs in Maryland or Virginia. Her father, Herbert S. Bryant was a government clerk in the Patent Office and Treasury Department before joining the staff of the Smithsonian Institute.  As far as I can tell, her mother, Elizabeth Monica Preston Bryant did not work. Kitty had two younger brothers, Herbert Preston who was 5 years her junior and Everett Deane, who was born when she was 13.

Kitty earned her BA from George Washington University in 1924. She worked as a teacher and as a clerk in the Library of Congress. Kitty lived with her parents and brothers on Rittenhouse Street in Washington DC. She was 24 and Joe was 37 when they met at a party. Within a year and a half they were married and for much of their courtship Joe was traveling for his job with Griffenhagen and Associates. It is easy to question how well they knew each other before they married and how much of a factor that was in their later difficulties. Despite being older, Joe was not as worldly and sophisticated as Kitty and he was charmed by her beauty, poise and intelligence.

Joe and Kitty married in Washington DC on January 4, 1928. I have not been able to find a newspaper account of their wedding. I have a copy of what I believe is Kitty’s wedding picture from a newspaper but without any indication of the date or name of the publication. After a honeymoon in Bermuda the couple settled in Annapolis Maryland where Joe was on the faculty of St. John’s University for several years. In the summer of 1929 Kitty and Joe took an extended trip to Europe that is documented in some post cards Kitty sent to her parents in DC.

In 1932, my father, Bryant was born and four years later, Preston Deane, was born. By the late 30s the family was living on Drummond Avenue in Chevy Chase Maryland. Joe began working long hours and Kitty began to resent his time away from home and the burden of raising two boys without much help. In 1944 Joe spent ten months with the American Financial Mission in Teheran, Iran, which meant even more time for Kitty alone with the boys. A year and a half after his return in December 1944, Joe joined the faculty of Indiana University and the family moved to Bloomington, Indiana.

It’s hard to know exactly when Kitty’s depression and alcohol abuse began to control her life but her misery and the toll in took on those around her is well documented in my grandfather’s dispassionate accounts of her behavior for almost four years from 1946 to 1949. Even when he writes about their earlier years together, it seems that alcohol, financial issues and differences of opinion on child rearing, were sources of trouble in their marriage.  It is pretty clear that Kitty felt isolated, misunderstood and cheated out of the life she felt she deserved. The details are painful to read but almost impossible to put down. In one account Joe writes:

“I have been sitting here all evening and most of the afternoon, and it is like watching someone drown and not being able to help. I am not angry, and I have no feeling of self-righteousness – only sympathy and a sick feeling because I cannot help you.”

For the four years documented in Joe’s account, the pattern seemed to be a few days when Kitty would “pull herself together” and stay sober, do the shopping, cook some meals and do laundry, followed by much longer periods of heavy drinking, ugly scenes, not eating, blaming Joe and the boys (mostly Bryant) for making her life miserable. I don’t think Kitty ever acknowledged that she was an alcoholic and I suspect that her drinking was an attempt to self-medicate for an underlying mental illness that today might be more easily treated. Whatever the cause, the effect was quite sad.

Yet amidst the scenes of domestic chaos, fights, verbal abuse and fits of rage and despair, Joe was able to document some of Kitty’s better traits.

“In your sober moments, you are still the person I once loved and admired. Your brain is as keen as ever, you impress people as a handsome, clever and charming woman, and your boys listen to you with confidence and respect.”

In the early 1950s, Kitty, Joe and Deane lived in Turkey for a year and Kitty also traveled to Thailand with Joe in 1955. I have the impression that Kitty was at her best when she was traveling and she probably wished she could have done more of it.  She might also have been happier if she’d had a career. Throughout the ’50s Kitty was hospitalized several times and I don’t think she was ever free of the troubles that caused her to drink. Kitty died in a hospital in Indianapolis on December 19, 1959, just two months after her 57th birthday. She is buried at Rose Hill Cemetery in Bloomington Indiana.

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