My mom, Shelley, and Grandmother, Joan, on a recent trip to New England.

Shelley and Joan: the Dynamic Duo

Oral History

I wanted the interview to be more like a conversation, so I included my mom in the interview with my Grandmother. My mom also had more insight on our family’s far back history, so that would make the interview more in depth. My Grandma and mom have a sarcastic and humorous but also loving relationship, which I feel shows up in the interview from both of them. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from the interview, but I wanted to get more insight on my Grandma’s life and also her and my mother’s mindsets now. I focused on her early life, life as a military wife, family, and where she is at now. I am CH, my mother, Shelley DeLisle is SD, and my Grandmother, Joan Wheat is JW.

CH: Ok so this is, basically, I am asking you questions Grandma, but since mom knows a bunch about the genealogical history, and she’s a talker, I figured it would help with the flow of conversation, so it’s just not question and answer. So what are your names, birthdates, and hometowns?

JW: Alright. Just Joan Wheat.

SD: Joan Patricia (she interjects)

JW: Fine then, so Joan Patricia Haines DeLisle Wheat, is that better?

CH: Official. Its good.

JW: Ok well 1941, and the hometown is Ayer, Massachusetts.

SD: June 6,1941, D-Day as a matter of fact (but three years earlier). Ok Shelley Ann DeLisle, never changed my name to Hickey, born January 14, 1961 in Ayer, Massachusetts.

CH: Glad we got that settled. So now this portion is going to be more childhood oriented. What was your childhood like growing up in Ayer?

JW: It was a good childhood. I enjoyed it; we had some good times. We had the freedom to ride our bicycles all over town; we used to go down to the park a lot, in wintertime ice-skating. There was a pond right behind my house so we spent a lot of time ice skating. Even though I don’t like animals now we had lots of animals; we had chickens, we had rabbits, we had dogs, we had cats, we had birds.

SD: You had all those animals? I never knew you had all of those animals. Maybe that’s why you don’t want any now.

JW: That right! So anyways, yea it was a good childhood.

CH: And your mom, your dad, your siblings, they were all good to be around?

JW: Yea well my dad died when I was eleven, so I didn’t really have a dad because he was away most of the time because he was in the service.

SD: And he died of a brain aneurism, not a heart attack. I won a bet over that.

JW: Yea so it was just my mother. She had to work a lot but we always had a good baby sitter, my brother and I got along fine. There was quite a few years difference between my sister and I, and I hated babysitting her but I had to do that. My mother owned a gift shop and so I had to work in the gift shop. Little Red House gift shop was the name of it. My mother turned my fathers old photography studio into the gift shop, because before, the gift shop was in one of the rooms in our house. And I remember to supplement my mother’s income, after my dad died, Fort Devens is right next door almost, and my mother used to rent that out, so we would have service men and their wives living there and before she turned the photography studio into the gift shop, she would rent that out to military people.

SD: I remember that the little staircase beside the stove upstairs, I used to think it was a secret passageway upstairs and I was the only one who knew about it.

JW: No, everybody did, but it was a neat little staircase.

SD: It was a tiny little passageway because it was the oldest house in the town. I loved that house when I was little.

CH: What was your dream job as a kid? What did you want to be?

JW: I don’t think I ever had one.

SD: Back then women didn’t have any aspirations except to get married. No, you (Joan) had an aspiration it was to marry a military man.

JW: No that was the second time around. Back then if a girl thought about a career, it was to be a secretary or to be a stewardess. Those were the most popular jobs.

CH: How do you think getting married and having kids so young impacted your life?

SD: Screwed her up totally.

CH: Harsh.

JW: Well it had its advantages, but I was young, and maybe really stupid.

SD: But you know what back then a lot of girls got married young because there were no career paths for women, so it wasn’t unusual to see someone twenty years old getting married.

JW: My best friend got married the same year I did. We had children at the same age, so no it wasn’t so unusual back then. I mean I have had thoughts, what would I have done. I’m not college material; I didn’t have any big desire to do anything. I mean things were really different back then.

CH: So this is moving on to more after you married Grandpa Jim. Do you have any stories that come to your mind first pertaining to like Okinawa?

JW: Was the trip when we left Okinawa, and you’ve heard that one before, about everybody getting sick on the tiny airplane.

CH: Panama?

JW: Well your Aunt Sherry was born there. I just remember we went to the beach and we had to cross that Panama Canal all the time, and I remember I had never seen the poverty that I saw there when you went to downtown Colón. They didn’t have houses, they had shacks that were made out of tin signs and old wood pieces and they had chickens running around in the yard, which was all dirt, and they were drying their clothes on bushes and things like that, so I’d never seen that poverty before.

CH: From Berlin? Because I know you and mom seemed to like Berlin the best.

SD: I liked them all. I loved Panama. I loved Okinawa, but Berlin was fun because we got to go all around Europe and see lots of things. I loved Berlin because I had so much freedom. I could get on the train and go do stuff.

CH: Could you see the effects of the Soviets on East Berlin? Could you definitely feel the difference between the east and the west?

JW: Yea. I remember you used to walk up to the wall and you could look over the wall and see the other side. When we had to go over there you had to do so much paperwork, but boy you could buy things cheap.

SD: I remember one time we were playing on our side of the wall, and there were some kids on the other side playing with a ball or something. There was a platform you could get on and you can look over because the wall is really two walls, but these kids, we were watching them on the other side and a kid kicked the ball really high into the middle ground. I remember standing there, watching them and they all kind of stood there looking at the wall and you could tell they were bummed and they turned around and walked away. There ball was lost forever and I remember felling sorry for them because they couldn’t get it. That was sad. I remember another time we were shopping in East Berlin and I was wearing something yellow and it was really bright, and when we got there people were staring at me because nobody wore yellow.

JW: Everything was drab and grey. You could tell they hadn’t seen anything like us before. Also when you left Berlin it was really scary because you would have to have all of this paperwork and drive this long stretch. It was kind of a long process to be able to leave, but then you would have to drive through these checkpoints and there was the American, the German, and the Russian. All along this, up on big high platforms were machine guns and all this barbed wire on the road side. I remember them telling us “Do not get out of the car, say anything to those guards, don’t look them in the face, don’t do anything.” They told grandpa to just walk in give them the paperwork and don’t say anything. But I know we were photographed many, many times, because I was selling candles and they would see our car go back and forth often, and we always had a lot of stuff in it. You only had a certain amount of time to go through this stretch because if you were too fast, you were speeding, and if you were too slow they thought you were going down side roads and selling illegally.

SD: When dad would go in the building, the Russian guard would come out and walk all the way around the car and look at everything, which was creepy. It was very creepy. Because you’re sitting in this lone car with this armed Russian circling you.

CH: Did you feel any resentment toward you because you were Americans, especially in Okinawa?

SD: No, not really. They all liked us then.

JW: Yea we spent money.

SD: Only one time, when we were in Okinawa, there was one time when we were driving down the road and they were marching.

JW: For their independence or something. It had to do with Japan taking over Okinawa. But yea it was scary. We had this stupid little minivan like a tin can and the wind would just take it away, but we were driving from one base to another base and there was this whole marching band of people with scarfs around their heads and signs and they would chant. It was a protest and it was kind of scary so grandpa pulled off and we just got out of the way.

CH: How did you guys try and keep home with you while you were in other countries?

SD: I just kind of think it was the people you were around, because you were with other American on base and kind of celebrated the holidays, but you were always with other Americans.

CH: How do you think the travel, other than the obvious worldwide perspective, kind of changed you?

SD: I think that was the most important thing in life. Like I’ve said, I’d never heard the “n” word or anything like that until I moved to Georgia in the eleventh grade. We grew up with all kinds of people, and races, and food, and religion and I think you became extremely tolerant to everything around you and so moving back to a racist, southern place, and you’re like “Oh my God, people are really like this.” It shows you how appalling intolerant people are.

CH: Did you notice stuff like that in the north too?


JW: What I noticed though, when we came back we had gotten with some old friends to visit, and you notice you are completely different from them. These are people that had never left their hometown, and when you started talking, if you mentioned where you had been and what you had seen, even if it was just normal over there, you could see jealousy. People would think that we were bragging, that we were laying it on thick or something like that. I was not comfortable.

SD: I think when I went to school that was part of the thing. They didn’t know what to do with a kid that had lived all over the world. For me it was just normal. And people here they were so close-minded and racist. They didn’t know what to do with a person like me and it was horrible; it was not a good experience.

JW: See I remember when I was in high school. We had three different area that went to our school. It was the town of Shirley, Ayer and the Fort Devens kids that all went, and there was a big difference. I mean they were accepted.

CH: Yea but its different having a whole base of military kids going to a school in a military area versus one kid.

JW: I always thought wow, and that’s when I realized I wanted to marry someone in the service because those kids seem so well rounded and so knowledgeable. They had all of these advantages.

CH: Yea I mean growing up, I definitely wouldn’t want to change the fact that we moved around so much and that we have done so much traveling.

SD: You’re a very well traveled child.

CH: Ok so this is moving on to more of our family past and present. Can you think of any traditions that we have?

BOTH: The stocking hunt!

CH: The stocking hunt has died! We haven’t done it in years!

SD: And thanksgivings we always have stuffing, and turkey, and corn pudding!

CH: We don’t really have any specific traditions but we always get together for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We live so close that we can kind of get together. So how much did you know about the family before mom did the genealogical research?

JW: Nothing, and I still don’t know anything because I haven’t look at the packet your mom gave me.

SD: Oh my gosh! Yea Robert, my dad, was more interested in the genealogy than Grandma was. Most of the family didn’t really care.

CH: So then more directed towards you mom, do you see any traits in older family members that you think have impacted who we are now? Anything that you think has survived the ages?

JW: Do you know the one thing that I have noticed? In my kids I see, not with the boys, the girls they all like to talk. No I mean seriously, I don’t mean it in a bad way. You’re not shy and you’re not an introvert. When I stop and think about all of the girls in the family, Jody has always been out there with people and friendly. Your mom is like that, took her a while.

SD: I think that were all Yankees. I think the traits that’s been passed down, probably from Grammy (my great grandmother Hattie) is we are all very independent, hard-working women.

JW: Yea I would say that.

CH: I think we are all stubborn, because I know you both, and I know me, but it’s not a bad thing. I think we know what we want and what we feel, and we’re not afraid to speak our minds.

SD: We’re opinionated. I think we’re strong, we have our opinions, hardworking, independent women. We have been taught that you need to take care of yourself and you don’t rely on other people. You need to be the kind of person who can take care of yourself.

CH: Like when I was asking you questions earlier Grandma. You said your mentality was just “I had to do it.” There wasn’t any moping or denial or anything like that, just a mindset.

SD: And I thing that you get that from Grammy. Grammy was like “ok, I have all of these kids, my husband is dead, and I just have to do it.” She didn’t complain about things. She just got out there and did it.

JW: I guess in a silent way.

SD: It was just emulation. You saw her having to do this and took it upon yourself to have the same kind of belief in life. I think that’s a very Yankee trait.

CH: How do you think religion played a role in our family?

JW: It hasn’t.

CH: Not in our immediate family, but we came to America for Puritanism.

JW: Yea, but I went to Sunday school as a child and that was about it.

CH: Why do you think there was that decline in religion for us?

SD: I think it’s because we have been around the world, like for me, because I have been exposed to so many religions.

JW: No it’s because I never taught you anything, my mother never taught me anything. I think it isn’t a family thing.

CH: Ok so how does that translate to Aunt Jody being a Jehovah’s Witness?

SD: She’s searching.

JW: She wants something. She’s had a lot of obstacles in her life, a lot of them of her own making, and she’s looking for something to grasp on to.

CH: Who do you think is the most influential person in our family tree?

SD: Probably Grandma (Hattie, Joan’s mother) and you (Joan). You know Grandma, I have a lot of respect for Grandma. She never complained about stuff. She didn’t have any money; she would just go out and do things. I never saw her upset about anything.

JW: Except for the time she beat me with the washing machine cord.

SD: Holy mackerel. I might have to change my mind about Grandma!

CH: Ok, so in one word how would you describe our family?

JW: Nuts.

SD: Normal

JW: Normal, yea.

CH: That’s a boring word; I like nuts better.

SD: I think we’re just like an all American family. We’re not crazy, we’re not boring, were just like a decent all American classic family.

CH: Not the nuclear family thought.

JW: I mean we have our differences; we have some quirky things that we say or do or whatever. We have our ups, we have our downs, but that’s normal.

CH: Ok so now we are going to focus on where you are at now. How did the Secret Garden (her gift shop) come to be?

SD: Oh well here’s what I have to say about mother. She doesn’t realize it but she’s an entrepreneur just like her mother. Grandma (Joan) will not say that, but ever since I can remember, she was always doing some kind of business, whether Avon, or Sarah Coventry, or selling candles, soup mixes. When I look back at the history of Grandma, I think this is an entrepreneur and she got it from her mother. She made her own opportunities. There wasn’t a name for it, she needed money so she just went and did it. I think Grandma Hattie taught us fearlessness. It was like ok, just go do it; if you fail go try again. So many people don’t try things because of fear, including us, but we just go out and do what were afraid of.

CH: But I can see that neither of you think of yourselves in that way; you both started your own successful business while raising families.

JW: Well I wouldn’t call this successful.

SD: Mother, lets see, you’ve been on the square sixteen years and 95% of businesses fail within the first two years. We are scared like everyone else, but we’re willing to try and to work hard at it.

JW: When I left my first husband, that was probably one of the scariest things I ever did because, you know, I had no education, no skills, and I had three children and no money. That was scary.

SD: I think it was brave, very brave. You didn’t get a divorce back in the sixties. You just put up with your husband beating you, and Grandma Joan didn’t do that. I give you a lot of credit because you said “screw you, I’m leaving you.”

JW: Back then, the money, to show you the pay scales, we lived on $48 a week and that paid the rent, groceries, everything. We didn’t live fancy that’s for damn sure.

SD: I think we’re still that way. We have money but we aren’t spendthrifts.

JW: Material things don’t mean that much to me.

CH: What’s your favorite part of McDonough?

JW: Probably just the shop. I like to talk to people, but other than that it’s a small town just like any other small town.

CH: What’s your favorite part of Ayer and the New England Area?

SD: Well she loves everything.

JW: Yea, I love everything about it, it’s my home. Except for the winters though; I wouldn’t want to go through that again.

CH: How has it changed since you were a kid?

JW: Do you know really, I don’t think it has changed a whole lot. It really hasn’t.

SD: No, even when I drive around it still feels the same. It feels like a small, quaint town. Obviously it has changed a little bit, but when I go back there I can see everything I knew from my childhood. It feels like an old, quaint New England town, but I guess when its home it always feels that way.

CH: I get the feeling. I know I haven’t lived in Massachusetts specifically but being in the northeast just feels right kind of, when I go there it feels like a place I could stay.

SD: Yea the south doesn’t feel like home to me.

JW: Not at all. I always thought we would retire up there, but Jim found the job here and it was cheaper to live and so we just stayed down here. It was just kind of easy here.

CH: Do you think life is more about circumstance, or what you make it, or fate?

JW: I think it’s a combination, but I don’t believe in fate. I think as you get older though you just start to float along and let things happen.

SD: I think its more what you make it, but not destiny.

CH: Come on Grandma, I know you’re out there with your neighbors partying and having fun. You’re still very out and about all of the time.

SD: I think Grandma is having more fun now.

JW: Oh I don’t know. I enjoy the shop the most because it’s a goal and you have got to have a goal. I don’t think I could stand it just sitting at home doing nothing.

SD: You’ve got to have a purpose in life.

CH: If you could change one thing about a single event in your life, what would it be?

JW: That’s a tough one.

SD: I don’t think I would change anything because I firmly believe that we learn more from our mistakes than we do our successes. We grow from those things, but also I’ve never had anything majorly traumatic happen to me.

JW: Well one thing I would change is I should have found more opportunities to take tours or go out with friends. I missed some big opportunities there. Oh wait no, the one thing I would have changed, definitely, I’ll cry if I think about this.

CH: Oh no.

JW: No really. When I thought that Jody (she started to tear up), when I first suspected that she was doing drugs, and I didn’t do something. You know I had little twinges that she would fall for drugs and I didn’t want to accept it. I didn’t say anything to her and that’s what I mean. I wished I had been like a woman I knew. Her son had tried drugs one time and she found out and marched him down to the police station and had him arrested. I just wished I had done something like that with Jody. That’s my biggest regret.

SD: Jody doing drugs had to do with her mental disorder. She was self medicating to help with her undiagnosed bipolar disorder. There was nothing you could have done to help her.

CH: But it’s a mother’s guilt or what not. If I had a mental disorder and was suffering, you would still feel bad because you would keep analyzing all the things you think you could have done to prevent anything bad from happening, even if its not rational.

JW: I just feel like I should have done something. So that’s my regret, that and not traveling more (the mood had lightened).

CH: What do you think is the biggest motivation in a person’s life?

JW: Money. Ha no, accomplishment.

SD: Accomplishment. I have money, but if I’d won the lottery, I would still go out and work. Well, I might quit work, but I still would go out and be doing something because happiness is all about self-actualization. That’s what its about. That’s why I don’t care about having a new car and all of that stuff. There are so many people that put everything into their appearance, you know they’ve got to be the best and have the new car because that’s what they reflect. They’re probably not very fulfilled.

JW: I had a customer the other day come in. She was pissed at her grandson, and going out and spending one hundred bucks was her therapy. That would not be therapy for me, you know, maybe some chocolate or something, but to go out and spend money like that, that’s not therapy. That’s trying to cover up the real problem.

CH: So that’s how you guys think people live happy lives?

JW: Yea, purpose is what brings me joy in life. I mean look at all of these famous people who have millions and are depressed and killing themselves.

CH: Yea, but that’s also combined with mental health which is not a topic that is taken as seriously as it should be taken in this country. So would you consider yourself to be happy?

JW: I’m not unhappy. I’m content. I would like to be fifty years younger, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

SD: I’m content enough. I don’t think I’m really self actualized yet, but I’m working on it. It’s hard.

JW: You’re still young, you have so many years ahead of you.

CH: I also think you guys both just don’t see how great you are; how successful and brave you have both been throughout your lifetimes.

SD: Do you ever wish you didn’t marry Robert?

JW: No I don’t think I wish that, you know, because I had you three kids. No, I guess not. I mean it was a dumb thing, there’s no doubt about that, at seventeen, but you know, no. It was a learning lesson. Part of life.

CH: Ok well that is all of the questions I have.

JW: Well gee, nothing exciting here.

CH: Ok then, well tell me your deepest, darkest secret.

SD: You don’t want that written down!

JW: That I’m not doing. Nope nah-uh.

CH: Ok well with that, thank for the interview and your wisdom and what not.

My Grandma has a very strong presence in the McDonough community as does my mother. Both are heavily involved in city council and the McDonough Square Business Association. They are strong-willed and know what they want to get out of experiences and others, which is shown both in past and present. I tend to have similar traits; I know what I want and am willing to dig my heels in and just do it.

There were stories that my Grandma told me that I had never heard before about her life and about my mother and extended family. Overall I think my mom, Grandma, and Great Grandma are the most similar in characteristics and resolution. Despite the fact that we are definitely a New England family, we have traveled all over and somehow ended up living in the south, but now I know that the north had been drawing us all back, and continues to do so. I know a lot more about my history which kind of explains my actions and feelings. I can learn so much from my mom and Grandma; they have lived through so much and managed to gain so much wisdom and insight. The more I learned about them and our long ancestry line, the more interesting it became, which drove me to learn more.

Organizing and making sense of all of the genealogical research my mom had done was pretty intense. It took a good amount of time to make sense of everything. I think if I had to do it again I would try and learn more about the individuals in my family, and not just the events that could have affected them. With another oral history I would probably talk to my mom about the genealogical side of everything and separate it from the interview about my Grandma. I would like to go deeper emotionally and intellectually, and if it were me, I would probably focus on what kind of traits I see in the people, especially the women, that came before me and on my travels. There are a lot of stories that could be told pertaining to all of the things I remember from the places my family and I have traveled.