Kenneth Westhues
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Index of resources on Conran-Whitman-Oser family history

The family of origin of

Lena Oser Conran (1882-1956)


Kenneth Westhues
, Professor Emeritus, University of Waterloo, Canada
Published online in June 2021, as part of Conran-Whitman-Oser family history

 
 
 

Click here for a memoir of John and Lena, "Loving, being loved, and living well in poverty"

Three Oser sisters about 1950. From left: Lena Oser Conran, Anna Oser Kressig, Mary Oser Naberhaus.

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This webpage is about the family of origin of my stepgrandmother, Lena Oser Conran (1882-1956). It is one of a cluster of webpages I have written on the ancestry of my mother, Olive Conran Westhues (1902-2003). Click here for a webpage about the family of origin of Olive's father, my grandfather, John Henry Conran (1872-1955). A counterpart webpage about the family of origin of Olive's birth mother, Bertha Whitman Conran (1878-1915), is in preparation. All these webpages draw on both public records and my personal recollections.

 
 
 


Lena's parents and siblings

Lena was the second youngest of the six children of Joseph Oser (1850-1938) and Susanna Klamp (1847-1912). Joseph was born in Baden, Germany, and migrated to the United States with other members of his family about 1870. Information on Susanna is sketchy, but she appears to have been born in Prussia. In all likelihood, Joseph and Susanna met and married after migrating separately to America. Their first home was in Oxford, Warren County, on the west side of New Jersey. About 1880, they moved to Chariton County, Missouri, settling on a farm near Salisbury. They were faithful members of the Catholic Church.

I should note parenthetically that their surname, Oser, was pronounced locally in the German way, O-zher, with connotations of honesty, hard work, frugality, and respectability, though not of wealth or prominence.

The eldest child in this family was Julia (1872-1947), born in New Jersey but reared in Missouri. There is some evidence that Joseph and Susanna may not both have been Julia's natural parents. Perhaps they adopted her after the death of her birth parents. Whatever the case, Julia was six years older than the next eldest child. She married Henry Leir (sometimes spelled Lier, 1872-1939) and had four children: Raymond, Gladys, George and Ralph. Julia and Henry went separate ways sometime in the 1920s. She was living in Glasgow when Lena married John Conran in 1921, and hosted a wedding dinner for them in her home.

Anna (1878-1967) is shown on her death certificate as having been born in Missouri, but by available evidence, she was most likely born in New Jersey, about two years before Joseph and Susanna moved their family west. Growing up in rural Salisbury, Anna married a farmer named Frank Kressig (1871-1941). They had seven children: Edna, Leo, Lucille, Minnie, Helen, Joseph, and Cordell. Later on in this memoir, I recount the memorable occasion when Aunt Anna winked at me.

George (1879-1954) was born in New Jersey but grew up on the farm near Salisbury and married a local girl, Anna Caroline Ponder (1879-1954). They made their life on a farm near Glasgow and raised seven children: Emanuel, Irene, Frances, Edwin, John, Eugene, and George.

William (1880-1970) was born and grew up on the farm near Salisbury. He married Rosa Margaret Ginter (1896-1988). They were farmers near Boonesboro, south of Glasgow, and had seven children: Wilhelmenia, Robert, Bernard, Walter, Anna Marie, William John, and Lawrence.

The fifth child in the family was Lena (1882-1956), the only grandma I ever knew, whose way of life and kindness toward me I have described elsewhere — the present page being focussed on the family she came from.

The sixth and youngest child of Joseph and Susanna Oser was Mary (1884-1980), who had an important place in my family after Grandma Lena's death in 1956. Mary and Lena were especially close to each other because they were similar in age, shopped and socialized in the same Glasgow community, and belonged to the same St. Mary's Parish. Aunt Mary was married to William Naberhaus (1877-1954). They had no children. Living on a large, fertile farm alongside the Chariton River, the Naberhaus household consisted of Will and Mary plus Will's two unmarried siblings, his younger brother John (1873-1962) and his younger sister Mary (1874-1968). I was taught to call the latter "Mr. John" and "Miss Mary."

 
 

 
 


Contrasting life trajectories of Lena and Mary

For all their closeness, Lena and Mary were very different women. As a teenager, Mary took or was placed in a job as a live-in maidservant, a Missouri version of lady-in-waiting, to Berenice Morrison Fuller (click here or here), an heiress, patron of astronomy and the higher learning, by far the wealthiest woman in mid-Missouri as the twentieth century began. I don’t know how long Mary lived with “Miss Berenice” in Eglantine Castle, her mansion east of Glasgow, but the experience had a lifelong effect. Aunt Mary reminisced about it often. She did not absorb her mistress’s feminist and socialist politics, but she did acquire a certain sophistication, the manners of gentility.

Mary then "married up." In Glasgow's German Catholic community, the Naberhaus family ranked high. Aunt Mary worked hard keeping house for Uncle Will, Mr. John, and Miss Mary, but this family's level of living was a cut above that of most other farm families, and there were no children to care for. Uncle Will made shrewd investments in farm-machinery manufacturers.

Growing up in the 1950s, I heard story after story from my parents and older siblings about how hard life had been in the 1930s, about the corners cut and comforts forgone. I once asked my mother how Aunt Mary and Uncle Will had managed during the Depression. Mom flinched. "Kenny," she said, "they never knew it happened."

After World War II, Mary and Will retired to a trim Craftsman bungalow on Commerce Street in Glasgow. Its backyard abutted that of an almost identical bungalow on Fourth Street to which Mr. John and Miss Mary retired. Aunt Mary cooked and cleaned for the four of them. After Uncle Will's death, she sold their house and moved in with Mr. John and Miss Mary. My first memories of her are from that period.

Grandma Lena’s life took a different course. While Mary and all the other siblings got married and moved away, Lena remained at home with her parents. She was dutiful and self-effacing to a fault. Then in 1912, when Lena was 30 years old, her mother Susanna died from an infection that had spread from a broken leg. Lena continued to live at home, caring for her father Joseph until 1921, when she married my grandfather, a widower who had recently moved to Glasgow from Colorado.

In the 1920s, Mary might have envied Lena. John Conran was a gentler, jollier man than Will Naberhaus, and his three chldren brought youthful excitement to Lena’s life, and grandbabies, too. The Naberhaus home, by comparison, was starchy and staid.

If Mary felt envy, drought and Depression cured her of it. Lena and John Conran lost their farm to the mortgage holder in 1935, and moved to the shabby house on the backwoods farm that Lena’s father Joseph bought for them. Mary and Will Naberhaus, by contrast, along with Mr. John and Miss Mary, came through the hard times unscathed. Aunt Mary showed me photos from a train trip to New Jersey she and Uncle Will had taken in the 1930s. Vacations like that were out of reach for Grandma and Grandpa. When my grandparents moved to town in 1951, it was not to a stylish bungalow but to a two-room apartment where they shared bathroom and telephone with the landlord.

The photo at right captures pretty well the two sisters’ contrasting temperaments. It was taken in the summer of 1956. Grandpa had died in 1955, and Will Naberhaus the year before. Lee and Dorothy Conran decided to take the two widows, his stepmother Lena and her sister Mary, on a road trip to Colorado, which neither of them had ever visited. The photo shows (from left) Mary, Lena and Lee at the Will Rogers Shrine on Cheyenne Mountain south of Colorado Springs. Which of the two widows looks like she is having more fun?

In Lee and Dorothy’s report, Grandma enjoyed Colorado enormously, especially because she got to see for herself the plains, the mountains, the flora and fauna her late husband had so often talked about. Lee recalled that one day as they drove on a winding mountain road, he heard Mary say to her companion in the backseat, “Lena, let’s pray.” Both women were deeply religious. Saying the rosary while travelling was part of family culture. But at that moment Lena had a different priority. “Not now, Mary,” she said, “I want to look at the scenery.”

Grandma Lena’s death on New Year’s Eve

Lena’s family of origin defined the circumstances of her death on December 31, 1956. Miss Mary Naberhaus was in St. Joseph’s Hospital in Boonville at that time, and Lena decided to ride with Mr. John to visit her. It was a cold but sunny day. The highways were clear. At 83 years of age, Mr. John rarely drove his 1939 coupe outside Glasgow, but he was confident he could make the half-hour drive to Boonville with no problem. Aunt Mary was not feeling well and decided to stay home.

I-70 was only beginning to be built. The main east-west highway across Missouri was still US-40. The normal route from Glasgow to Boonville was through Fayette on MO-5, then a right turn onto US-40 and across the Missouri River bridge into Boonville. That is the route Mr. John and Grandma took. They made their visit to Miss Mary and headed back to Glasgow. They would take US-40 east across the bridge, then turn left onto MO-5 back toward Fayette.

Mr. John slowly made that left turn into the path of an oncoming truck loaded with ten tons of corn. Trying to avert a collision, the truckdriver swerved to the right and crashed into a filling station, setting it ablaze, but he meanwhile clipped the front of the coupe and spun it around. That motion caused Grandma to be ejected from the car onto the pavement. A wheel passed over her leg, crushing it, and she had severe injuries also to her head. Mr. John was not thrown from the car and suffered only a few scratches.

When Grandma arrived back at St. Joseph’s Hospital by ambulance, the hospital phoned Aunt Mary, who in turn phoned my parents. Mom and Dad and I left the house in such a rush we left the front door wide open. I stayed in town with Aunt Mary while Mom and Dad hastened to Boonville.

Grandma was still conscious when they arrived, but soon slipped into a coma and died a few hours later. Losing her in so sudden and violent a way cast a pall over my parents and me that took years to lift. A hundred times I must have heard Dad say that if only cars had had seat belts in 1956 (they became standard ten years later), Grandma would have survived the crash.

The Naberhaus connection to our family after 1956

Given the circumstances of Grandma’s death, my parents might have distanced themselves from the Naberhaus household. Instead, they became that household’s main social support.

The accident left the three elderly Naberhaus’s (Aunt Mary was 72, Miss Mary 82, and Mr. John 83) without means of transportation for shopping, church, doctor’s appointments, visiting, or anything else. Mr. John relinquished his driver’s license, and neither Miss Mary nor Aunt Mary had ever learned to drive. There were no children or grandchildren. No Oser or Naberhaus nieces or nephews lived nearby. The closest available kin was Aunt Mary’s step-niece, my mother Olive.

In the months after Grandma’s death, on trips to town for groceries or errands, Mom got into the habit of picking up Aunt Mary so that the latter could do her shopping at the same time. Mom’s habit became a routine that lasted twenty years – long after Mr. John died in 1962 and Miss Mary in 1968, until Aunt Mary herself moved to a nursing home about 1975.

It was the same with church. On their way to Mass at St. Mary’s, Mom and Dad faithfully stopped by the Naberhaus home, so that Aunt Mary, Miss Mary, and Mr. John could ride along.

This was not pure charity on my parents’ part. Aunt Mary reciprocated their generosity. She could afford to pay her own way and regularly picked up the bill at a filling station or restaurant. In the early 1960s, Aunt Mary gave my parents her home food freezer, saying she no longer needed it. Mom and Dad could then quit renting space at the locker plant in town.

For my part, I missed Grandma. The Naberhaus trio could not compare. I found them such gloomy company I coined a phrase, the “Naberhaus moan.” Just wait, I would say to Mom and Dad as we drove to town for Mass, you’ll hear the Naberhaus moan as soon as they get into the car. Sure enough, after all three had slowly piled into the backseat of the Oldsmobile, one would say, “Ohhhh, have you heard the awful news....” Dad would grin. Ever adept at smoothing things over, Mom would say something upbeat.

In the fall of 1958, I left home for high school at St. Thomas Preparatory Seminary in Hannibal. I had aspired to become a priest since Grade One. This pleased Aunt Mary, given her deep attachment to the church. Numerous orders of priests and nuns had her name on their mailing lists, and week after week, she put donations to them in the mail.

There were not, so far as I knew, strict rules for how tuition, room and board was paid for boys at Hannibal. I never saw a schedule of fees. The Diocese of Jefferson City ran the school. Generally, I think, a student’s home parish reimbursed the diocese for the cost of his enrollment, maybe $300 or $500 per year. If a student's parents could afford it, they would reimburse their parish for all or part of the cost, or sometimes make a special donation directly to the diocese.

Knowing that my parents were not flush with money, Aunt Mary leapt at the chance to make an annual donation to St. Mary’s sufficient to cover the cost of my schooling. This was over and above her generous weekly contributions as a parishioner. It was a great gift to me, and it relieved my parents of financial stress. Aunt Mary continued these donations not only during my four years at Hannibal, but during my four further years at Conception Seminary College in Northwest Missouri.

I quit studying for the priesthood in 1966, and went off to Vanderbilt University for graduate school. Aunt Mary must have been deeply disappointed, but she never let on. When Mom gave her the news, Aunt Mary said simply, "Well, we need teachers, too." To help assuage any hurt feelings, as well as to show genuine appreciation, I dedicated to Aunt Mary the history of Glasgow I published that year.

 
 
 

My parents with the Naberhaus trio in 1960. From left: Dad, Mr. John, Miss Mary, Mom, Aunt Mary.
 
 
 




Aunt Anna, Aunt Mary, and ice cream

Not often but occasionally, elderly relatives teach memorable lessons to the younger generation. I still treasure a lesson Aunt Anna Kressig gave me in 1960. She was one of my favorite aunts: more outgoing than her sister Lena, my Grandma, more voluble – also more voluminous.

My parents had a bumper crop of strawberries one year when I was about four years old. Aunt Anna came to the farm to pick some. I went out to the garden to greet her. She swooped me up and enveloped me in layers of fat. I squirmed out of the hug lest it smother me — but I liked it.

In the summer of 1960, just after I got my driver’s license, Mom asked me to take the Oldsmobile to town to pick up Aunt Mary, Miss Mary, and Mr. John, and then drive them to visit Aunt Anna at her home in Salisbury, a town 16 miles north. I said yes, of course, glad for the chance to drive and to be trusted with the car.

Aunt Anna greeted us cordially, then sent me to the store to buy ice cream. She dished out generous helpings.

“Anna,” Aunt Mary said, “you shouldn’t eat so much. The day may come when you can’t eat ice cream.”

From Aunt Anna came a quick and surprisingly tart reply: “Mary, I’m going to die one day, too, but I’m not gonna start practicing for it now.” Then Aunt Anna looked directly at me, smiled, and winked.

In my mind’s eye, I can still see that wink.

Aunt Anna died at 89, Aunt Mary at 96. I’m grateful in different ways to both those women, grateful especially for the lesson Aunt Anna taught me that day.