Eleanor

Daniel McCoy
Mar 3, 2018 · 13 min read
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Tillie and baby Eleanor.

On July 23rd, 1926, a baby girl was born in the little town of Los Banos, California to Francis and Tillie McDonald. The addition of little Eleanor Lois made the McDonald family come out even, three boys and three girls: Roy, Lula, Buck, Jim, Molly Jean, and now, baby Eleanor. The age gap between her and her oldest siblings was enough that they were moving out and even bringing home little nieces and nephews while she was still a young girl. Her youngest brother, Jim, was older than her, but just close enough for Eleanor to idolize him, and Jim had a soft spot for her. Molly was the closest in age, but still five years older, so there was no doubt about who was the baby girl. Their father, Francis, worked in town as a butcher at a local grocery store. The way Eleanor told the story later, the family had moved to Los Banos because Francis had been hired to work at the other grocery store in town. On his first day at work, his boss had asked him to grind up hamburger meat and told him to include some liver for filler. Francis refused to adulterate the hamburger meat, so he walked off the job, went over the the other, more honest, grocery store in town, told them the story, and was hired on the spot.

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The McDonald Family, early 1930s.
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Little Eleanor cooling off in an irrigation ditch.

The McDonald family lived in a little farmhouse outside of Los Banos. It was a good life out on the farm. Tillie would sew dresses for her and the girls, using the leftover scraps to make quilts. In the heat of the summer a little girl could cool off with a little dip in an irrigation ditch. Eleanor had stories of jackrabbits and foxes and other wildlife around the farm. Feeding a big family during the depression wasn’t always easy, even on a farm, and Eleanor passed on stories to her children about how if she put food on her plate but didn’t finish it, the plate would go up on the mantle to wait for her to finish before she was served at the next meal.

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Young Eleanor, striking a pose.

Life was good until ten years after Eleanor was born when her mother, Tillie, Mathilda Rebecca Cook McDonald, got sick and died. It was probably due to complications around colon cancer, and would probably be treatable now, but not in 1936. This was devastating for a girl of ten, to lose her mother. But it was soon followed by more tragedy. The very next year, as Eleanor would tell the story, the family went on a picnic to Mount Madonna park along with some of Tillie’s Cook relatives from further south. The kids were thirsty on the walk back to the cars . Jim and Molly Jean both decided to take a drink from the creek. Little Eleanor had on a new dress that she loved and was afraid it might get mud on it, so she held her thirst for later. The family went home to Los Banos, and Molly Jean went along to stay with the relatives down south. Both Molly and Jim got sick, but communications in 1937 were not what they are now. Information didn’t make it from one family to the other until later. The doctor who saw Molly recognized Typhoid Fever and treated her for it and she eventually recovered. Jim thought his symptoms might have been due to something he ate. His doctor believed him and treated Jim for food poisoning instead of Typhoid, until it was too late. Eleanor’s favorite brother Jim died the year after their mother.

The older siblings had moved out by now and with only Francis and his two youngest daughters still at home, the little farmhouse outside of town just didn’t make sense anymore, so they moved into Los Banos. As luck would have it, they moved next door to the Warren family with three boys right around Eleanor’s age. The middle son, Bob, was closest in age to Eleanor but they were all pretty close in age. It was fascinating for her to be around the three of them, since her own three brothers were gone or grown. The mother of this brood of boys, Betty Warren was from Germany, so a bit exotic in a small town like Los Banos. Betty had always wanted to have a girl but had ended up with three boys, so she took this young neighbor girl under her wing. Betty treated little Eleanor as the daughter she always wished she had had. They didn’t stay neighbors for long, but they stayed in touch.

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Bobby-soxer Eleanor with a friend.

After Molly married and moved out, it was just Eleanor and her father, Francis, at home for a good stretch. She later looked back on this time as some of the happiest days of her life. One time Francis’s doctor called Eleanor to come in for a talk. Francis was diabetic and the doctor told Eleanor what kind of food he should be eating. This made her feel important, like she had a meaningful job to do. She loved cooking for her father and fixing the right kind of food to keep him healthy. Eleanor had her fun in high school. She was invited to parties because she had a portable record player and records. She could bring the swing to the party. Bob Warren became Eleanor’s high school sweetheart. But Eleanor wasn’t able to graduate with her high school class because she came down with rheumatic fever and couldn’t attend her final year. Her oldest sister Lula, with her family of four, moved in to help take care of the sick Eleanor, ending Eleanor’s quiet days living with just her and her father.

Eleanor and Bob eventually got engaged to be married. Betty Warren loved the idea of Eleanor as her daughter-in-law. But World War II was raging during those high school years, and Bob and his older brother, Arle, were old enough that both went into the Navy. Sadly, neither one came back from the war. Bob’s ship hadn’t even succumbed to the enemy, but went down with all hands in a typhoon in 1944. Eleanor’s sweetheart, and her dreams of a life with him, went down at sea. Even so, Betty Warren treated Eleanor as her daughter-in-law for the rest of her life. Eleanor had no German blood in her, but she passed on this extra German “Grandma Betty” to her children.

Not long after high school, having lost her sweetheart Bob, and not being pleased with her prospects in Los Banos for jobs or marriage, she told her father she wanted to move to San Jose. Francis gave her a little money to get started on and pretty soon, Eleanor, alone, wearing her best suit, a hat, and carrying a small suitcase, caught the Greyhound bus to San Jose. One of her sisters had said, “Oh, you’ll be back”, which pretty much insured that Eleanor would do her damndest to make it work in San Jose. In less than a week in the big (to her) city of San Jose, she had rented a room, gotten a job at a lunch counter, and even made a friend for life, Josie. Eleanor started a life as an independent woman of the world in the late 1940's, working jobs as a waitress or in retail, living in her own rented room. She eventually even bought herself a little Chevy coupe all of her own, so she could drive herself back to Los Banos for visits rather than take the bus.

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New Mother Eleanor.

All of that changed drastically for Eleanor when she found out she was expecting a baby. The father didn’t want to get married so they arranged the sort of thing one did in the late 1940’s, a marriage for the purposes of the birth certificate with a pre-arranged annulment. That’s how the independent young woman about San Jose ended up a single mother in late 1948. Her little red-haired, blue-eyed baby was officially named after his father, but Eleanor called him “Jim” after the brother she had lost. He wasn’t an easy baby, but she was doing what needed to be done as a working single mother. Amazingly, she was able to rent a room in a house with an older woman who would watch the baby while Eleanor worked. She even managed to have a little two room suite, so that she had enough room that Francis could come visit from time to time. And Eleanor had found yet another mother-figure in her landlady/child minder. The widow Mrs. Donnan took Eleanor under her wing and “Grandma Donnan” ended up another extra grandma Eleanor passed on to her children.

Eleanor worked as a waitress in a downtown restaurant these days. When a man who came into the restaurant asked her out to dinner, her boss told her, “That guy asks all of my waitresses out”, but Jesse McCoy ended up asking Eleanor to marry him. Eleanor was able to quit work to be a stay-at-home mom. Eventually she had another boy, this one with black hair and brown eyes. The red-haired one stayed a handful but the black-haired one was pretty quiet and didn’t cause too much trouble. Jesse went off every day in his old ‘47 Dodge pickup to lead a crew building roadside billboards and Eleanor had the life of a suburban mom with two boys in school, driving the ‘55 Ford sedan to the grocery store.

Eleanor and Jesse.

Jesse was twenty years older than Eleanor, which didn’t make things easy. Jesse was a hard worker one of those who never took a sick day in his life. One day he fell off of a billboard he was working on. Jesse told his crew told his crew to keep working and drove himself to the hospital with three broken ribs and a punctured lung. Jesse didn’t enjoy sitting around healing and was anxious to get back to work. But then, not much later, he started getting very, very sick. The doctor ordered tests to confirm that it was cancer, probably of the pancreas. But nobody ever picked up the test results. Jesse had watched while a friend of his had gotten sick and drained the family savings into medical bills before dying, leaving his family broke. Jesse didn’t want to do that. And Jesse was miserable, in pain and unable to work. Eleanor had taken a job working a lunch shift while the kids were in school for a little extra money. One day while Eleanor was at work and both boys were in school, Jesse called the police, told them were to find him, and took the quickest way he knew out of his predicament.

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Eleanor with her two young boys.

In the summer of 1962 Eleanor is a single mom again. This time she’s widowed with two boys in school. This time there were Social Security and Veteran’s widow and surviving children benefits to help. But still, she worked a full-time job and took care of two latch-key kids. The red-haired boy was still a handful, maybe even more so without a man around the house. Worried about him turning into a delinquent, Eleanor eventually got him to a revival meeting and then managed to enroll him into a church boarding high-school near Fresno, California. It would be one more thing she had to pay for, but she hoped it would keep her red-haired boy out of trouble.

Eleanor still worked full time, but by now, Silicon Valley was booming all around her. She got herself a higher paying job, but it’s the graveyard shift, quality testing computer tape all night long. She still had one boy to feed at home, the other off at boarding school, and her father, Francis, staying with her about half of the time. It’s a good thing it was the quiet, not-too-much-trouble black-haired boy staying home alone most nights and getting himself off to school in the mornings. The Vietnam war was raging while her boys were in high school. The red-haired boy and two of his friends, maybe from having watched a lot of WWII movies on television, decided they wanted to enlist and see action in Vietnam. The thought of her red-haired boy going off to war terrified Eleanor, but the friends pictured themselves future war heroes marching home whistling that theme from “Bridge Over the River Kwai”. The three friends picked different paths, one the paratroopers, one the Marines, and the red-haired boy went into the Cavalry, which in Vietnam mean not horses, but helicopters. The Marine made it through training and shipped out to Vietnam first. He was killed in action in less than two weeks. The red-haired boy’s dream died with his friend and so he was already disillusioned by the time he shipped out for Vietnam himself. Eleanor would move pins around a map of Vietnam on the wall to keep track and send letters and photographs off to her red-haired soldier boy. He sent home postcards written on field ration box-tops. She relaxed for a bit while he was on an R&R in Australia. He even sent her home a big stuffed koala bear. But then he was back to the war and she was back to the pins on the map and the postcards.

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Eleanor and her boys, one a soldier.

The red-haired boy made it through his full year in Vietnam and came home. The worst physical injury he had suffered was a really bad sunburn bathing in a river under the tropical sun, being a redhead and all, but war leaves wounds deeper than the physical. Eleanor thought her red-haired boy was safe now, but fate was not kind. Just a few weeks after coming home he was in a motorcycle accident. The news that her red-haired boy had died was delivered to her by the same coroner’s office employee who had informed her of Jesse’s death. The man didn’t have to say a word. She burst into tears at the sight of him.

It was a hard adjustment to make, losing her first-born son, but Eleanor went back to work. She put flowers on the red-haired boy’s grave for years. But the black-haired boy stayed out of war’s way and he went off to college and a life of his own. Eleanor’s father, Francis, stayed with her full time for a few years, but eventually he needed more care than she could give so he went into a care facility in Sanger, near his oldest son, Roy. This left Eleanor on her own, and alone again. She would often get together with Josie, the same best friend she had met her first week in San Jose. They would go gambling together up at Lake Tahoe or Reno. This was before ATM cards so they would get cash out of the bank to take with them to gamble. Eleanor would always give Josie a twenty or two to hold onto, to insure she wouldn’t get carried away with the gambling and have to come home broke. Josie would always give Eleanor a twenty or two to hold onto, to insure she wouldn’t get carried away with the gambling and have to come home broke. Josie knew her friend didn’t want to be alone. She told Eleanor about this man who was a regular at the coffee shop where Josie worked. He was about the right age, single, never married, maybe a bit shy around the ladies, and a pleasant, even-tempered guy. Josie introduced them and Eleanor married Ralph Britton in 1980.

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Eleanor and Ralph

Eleanor and Ralph had a good life together, and they grew old together. Eleanor still tested computer tape at night. She had the seniority to switch to the day shift, but never wanted to give up that extra night shift pay. Ralph hauled gravel to construction sites around Silicon Valley. It wasn’t always easy though. There were battles with cancer, breast and colon for her, prostate and skin for him, but they both made it through. When Eleanor and Ralph both retired, they left San Jose for Los Banos. The black-haired boy gave them one grandchild to dote on. During retirement there was an RV and trips to escape the Central Valley’s summer heat at their favorite campsite on the Klamath River. They spent a few years in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Paradise, California, but as they got older it felt better to be back to Los Banos again. When Eleanor and Ralph got into their late 80’s, they were both getting frailer and it seemed as if each was keeping the other going. Ralph would sometimes stumble and end up on the floor. Eleanor would have to call the fire department to get him upright again.

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Eleanor and her grey-haired boy.

In 2016 Ralph had a fall that he never returned to upright from. Eleanor was all alone again, but this time, she was not really in good enough shape to be alone. After some months with help from different people to try to keep her in her own house as long as possible, Eleanor moved into assisted living, back in San Jose, where her black-haired boy, by this time more grey than black, along with his new wife could visit her regularly. Eleanor died less than two years after Ralph, with the grey-haired boy and his wife at her bedside.

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That smile.

Eleanor’s life was filled with so much loss. Early on her mother and favorite brother, later her high-school sweetheart, first husband, and first-born son. After all that loss, still, if you ask someone what they remember about Eleanor, they very often say it’s her smile.

Eleanor lived a long life. She outlived all her siblings, some of her nieces and nephews, and eventually her husband, Ralph. There needed to be somebody to outlive Eleanor and remember her, so here we are.

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