Oral History: Interview with Thelma Knapp

“In every conceivable manner, the family is a link to our past, bridge to our future.” — Alex Haley
The bridge between two different worlds: the past and the present

My main goal regarding the interview with my grandmother is to explore her past and personal adventures. Because Grandma lived in New York during the Great Depression and World War II, I yearn to discover what American life was like as a young woman during the 1930s and 1940s. I wonder if sexism and racism of the mid-twentieth century ever affected my grandmother and how she instilled such a hardworking drive into herself and her children. Hopefully, my thirty prepared interview questions will spark an engaging conversation, unleashing the many intriguing memories of her past. Nervous but excited, I close the door to the sitting room of my grandparent’s home in Charlotte, North Carolina and plop down in the rocking chair. Directly across from me sits my grandmother, with her petite legs crossed comfortably. As I tuck my hair behind my ear, I press the start button to the recorder, hoping the relaxed atmosphere withstands throughout the entire course of the interview.

My loving grandmother

Sarah: So, Grandma, how is life treating you currently? You are still doing well?

Grandma: Doing great.

Sarah: I am glad to hear that. So, for the first question, where were you born?

Grandma: In Oshawa, Canada. That is the home of General Motors.

Sarah: So, what was life like as a child in New York?

Grandma: My mom was a stay-at-home mother; my dad worked in an office, so he didn’t get a whole lot of money. But, it was sufficient enough for us. It seemed as though my mom always managed to save a few pennies. And when it came vacation time, we all got new underwear and socks. She always seemed to do that just fine.

Sarah: Alright! But during the 1930s, was your father ever unemployed at any time?

Grandma: No, he always worked. He was a longtime IBM employee. Forty years.

Sarah: Oh wow. He sounds like a hard worker. So, what was life like during the Great Depression for you? Did you ever sense any tension or struggle within your family?

Grandma: I really didn’t notice it a whole lot, except in little things. I was always running out of tablet paper at school, and Mom thought I was making scrap airplanes or something because frequently I needed more paper to write on. I remember one time I did need new shoes, but there were three of us. And I can remember wrapping a rubber band around the sole of my shoe for a while until I could get new ones. But, we never seemed to be without food to eat. I was had coats, mittens, and hats; I never lived without that.

Sarah: What about your friends? Did you ever sense your community struggling at all during this time?

Grandma: No, I think we all fared just fine.

Sarah: Alright! So, what genre of song, book, and movie did your household enjoy the most during the 1930s?

Grandma: We listened to the radio a lot.

Sarah: Yes! That was a new fad and invention of the time.

Gene Autry (left) and Tom Mix (right)

Grandma: And Dad always took us for a ride in the car Sunday afternoon. And I think it was “The Shadow Knows.” We used to listen to the “Shadow” while riding. At the movies, I remember going and always paying the child price. On Saturdays, there were double features with cowboy and then the main movie. They would star people like Tom Mix or Gene Autry.

Sarah: What about books? What was your family’s favorite novels to read?

Grandma: My cousin had the whole series of Nancy Drew, and I used to read all of her books. Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins.

Sarah: I have read many Nancy Drew novels as well! As a child, were you ever a fan of Shirley Temple?

Grandma: Oh, yes. I loved all of her movies.

Sarah: What was your favorite Shirley Temple film?

Shirley Temple’s iconic dance performance with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

Grandma: She just had so many films. I love seeing her dance up and down the stairs with that one black gentleman. I don’t remember names, but I do remember her singing “Good Ship Lollipop.” When there are flashbacks on TV, then I remember, “Oh yes, I have seen that.” But now, I cannot seem to remember.

Sarah: Oh, that is fine! So, how do you think the educational system was different in the mid-1900s in comparison to schools today?

Grandma: We had homework, so to speak, and we did it at home. Our folks corrected it and showed us what was wrong.

Sarah: So, your family really helped you in school?

Grandma: Yes, they really did. Kindergarten was different. Now, children go to school pre-kindergarten when they are between the ages of three and five. When we were in kindergarten, we were five years old going on six, and kindergarten was playschool. You learned all sorts of things, but we didn’t begin to learn how to read yet. You knew your name, your telephone number, and where you lived. You played in the sandbox.

Sarah: Oh, that’s so funny! So, what schools did you attend throughout your childhood and education?

Endicott, New York

Grandma: Up through grade school, I attended Henry B. Endicott School in New York. And this school prepared you for high school, and high school lasted for four years.

Sarah: And what high school did you go to?

Grandma: Union Endicott High School. They just had there one hundredth anniversary or something.

Sarah: Did you attend?

Grandma: No, I haven’t gone back, but it has changed a lot. When I went, there was no swimming pool. It was two stories. One of our classmates was a hemophiliac and was in a wheelchair all the time. The front entrance of the school had huge stairs, so his good friend would take his wheel chair up. He would sit on the bottom steps and slowly inch himself up the stairs.

Sarah: So, did you ever feel like you were treated differently when receiving your education because of your sex? Do you think you ever treated differently because of your gender?

Grandma: Not really. When I got to high school, it was starting World War II time. And my high school offered a shop class on extracurricular Saturday mornings. And it was mostly girls; I learned how to run the big lathes and put knurling on things.

Sarah: Oh, okay. During the 1940s, did you ever work outside of the home?

Grandma: When I graduated in 1943, I worked at IBM for three years until I was married in 1946.

Sarah: So, what is your personal view of the stereotypical female role of the twentieth century, and how do you think it has changed over time?

Grandma: I am for women’s rights, of course. So many are supporting households now. It used to be women having the second job in the family. But now, a lot of women are single mothers, and they need to be payed the same amount as men. But I have to say, some of these women can overdo it and can be pushy. That just turns me off. You need to earn what you get.

Sarah: What was life like during World War II, and how did this time impact your family?

Grandma: I worked in the Navy Department which was a secure department. My mom and I also signed up downstairs in the police station. They had a command center where you took calls that came in. It was more for keeping you safe from foreign attacks. The officers received signals at the station when an air or ship attacks was coming. Mom and I both did a lot of knitting as well. We knitted socks that were very long and waterproof for sailors.

Sarah: I know you are a fantastic knitter now. I always get so excited when you knit scarfs for Christmas. I remember that one year when one of your knit scarfs was in the White Elephant gift exchange at our annual Christmas get together. You would have to fight to win that scarf.

Grandma: Yes, yes! I remember that year.

Sarah: So, did you ever participate in the energetic dance craze of the 1940s? Did you like going out dancing?

Grandma: We used to have, in high school, a band that played for the Friday afternoon sock hop. We used to dance the fast swing, and I can remember the conga line and the bunny hop lines going around the gym.

Sarah: So, did you enjoy those dances?

Grandma: Yes, I love to dance, but I haven’t danced that way in a while because Grandpa does not like that type of style. So, as a couple, we just danced to slow music. I didn’t swing anymore.

Sarah: Oh really? You stopped swinging when you were younger then. What was your favorite genre of music during World War II?

Glenn Miller Orchestra

Grandma: Big band music and dance music was my favorite.

Sarah: Do you have a favorite artist who you enjoyed the most?

Grandma: Probably the big band of Glenn Miller.

Sarah: Yes! I am definitely familiar with some of his music.

Endicott to Johnson City

Grandma: And Tommy Dorsey. I went to see a lot of them. In Johnson City, maybe six miles from Endicott, they had a big pavilion to dance. They would open the outside doors, so you could dance outside on the big patio with the lights. I used to go to that.

Sarah: Oh, so fun! So, do you have any personal wartime stories of young love to share?

Grandma: I used to write to your Grandpa frequently during the war. I still remember his number, 32839378; I wrote it so many times, and it is just one of those numbers that you remember.

Sarah: So, you wrote to him while you were in high school?

Grandma and Grandpa’s magical wedding

Grandma: The year he was a senior, I was a junior. I first met him because he was my girlfriend’s date. Going back way back when, I was a member of one of the girl sororities, and we had planned to go maybe fifteen miles out of town to a square dance. Well, each girl invited her boyfriend. Since none of us drove yet, we got our parents to drive us. My girlfriend and her date rode with me and my date in my folks’ car. She brought Morris, and that is how I met him. After that, I went to one of the dances at the pavilion with this one young man who turned out to be a minister after a while. At the dance, my date traded with Morris, so Morris took me home. Apparently, it was prearranged, and I didn’t know about it. But anyway, it all grew from there. My mother always like Morris. I had other dates, and my mom didn’t even want to talk to them. One was from the wrong side of the tracks; I mean, I thought he was very nice and was a cute little blond. But, Mom didn’t like him.

Sarah: Very interesting! Alright, Grandma, how do you think the Civil Rights Movement affected you and your family?

Grandma: We never had much trouble with that growing up. We had one black family in town. And this one sorority all went to this house one night. Somebody invited this black young gentleman to the party, and all the girls danced with him.

Sarah: So, your community never really had an issues with African Americans? You never sensed much tension between different races?

Grandma: No, not really.

Sarah: Okay. So, what were your views on racial equality in the 1960s?

Grandma: Well, back then I think foreign born individuals, usually Italians and Polish people, learned to speak English. The parents were fluent in English for the most part and did not just stick to their own language, their own group; they intermingled. Morris’s dad taught night school for citizenship, and they learned the states and capitals and were integrated into the U.S.

Sarah: So, have your views on racial equality every changed, or have they always stayed the same?

Grandma: I think people always look down on other people who are not of the same cast or group. I remember our next store neighbors were from Italy. They were not from Southern Italy but Northern Italy. Back then, there was a difference. I always thought I was equal to everybody else.

Grandma: I know the difference between my sister and I. She hated coming along after me because I used to get really good marks. She struggled a little, but she was a cute little popular girl and was a cheerleader.

One happy family: Grandma and Grandpa with four of their five children (Steven Knapp at the back left, Christine Mowery at the front left, Vicki Finley at the front right, Gale Cooke at the very right, and Bruce Knapp not in the photo)

Sarah: What was life like as a mother?

Grandma: As a mother? Busy. Fortunately, I had a car available to me, so I could take kids to the dentist and things like that. Being a mother is a full time job. Vicki says she remembers me threatening her with a three-sided ruler. You had to behave. I can remember yelling at my kids, so I did lose my temper.

Sarah: Well, every mother loses her temper every once and awhile.

Grandma: I think along that line, you need to ask my kids how they felt.

Sarah: Tell me a fun and unique story about your children and about being a mom. Does anything stand out to you?

Grandma: We did used to have fun together doing things. I didn’t really play board games with them much. I hated monopoly; it took too long, and I always lost.

Summers visiting Lake Ontario

Sarah: Did you guys take trips to the lake? I think I heard you all would go up to Lake Ontario.

Grandma: Growing up, we would go to Canada every summer. We stayed with my aunt, and we always had fun. We would have to take the canoe down the lake to get drinking water at the well. I can remember going out late at night after everyone was in bed; we would have flashlights to go fishing with. We used to swim out to the raft and would fish for sunfish off the raft.

Sarah: Aw, so fun! So, what motivated you to become a hardworking individual? Do you think your parents and environment influenced you regarding your work ethic? Or, was it more self-derived?

Grandma: I liked to keep busy. I am happier when I am busy. I get frustrated when things don’t turn out. I am too much like your dad, a perfectionist. I get a little upset when somebody washes my windows and they are still dirty in the corner.

Sarah: Why do you think motivation, determination, and hard work are all very important values to obtain throughout life?

Grandma: When you work hard and feel as if you have earned something yourself, for yourself, you are much happier than having something just handed to you. You don’t appreciate it; you frequently don’t take care of things like you should. I think it is a great character builder.

Sarah: I agree. So, have you ever struggled in your life to have faith in your abilities, and if so when?

Grandma: Yes, sort of right now. I get the feeling that I am not very capable because I cannot do anything to help your grandpa, and he hurts. It keeps you from feeling well. Caretakers do have more trouble feeling good about something than you realize. Like mothers, they try really hard. Sometimes kids don’t turn out well; they don’t always do what parents want; they get into trouble trying things. I can remember getting ready to go on vacation. I think Bruce was riding his bike, and where we lived, there was a nice hill. Well, one night, a car comes in the driveway with a bike in the backseat. It seems he was off someplace, fell, and broke his foot.

Sarah: Oh my!

Grandma: So, we went to Canada with him in a cast walking with a broken foot. But we had a big old tree in the front yard. Bruce liked to climb it as a boy. So, Gale would climb in it right behind Bruce. Well, one day, she went up higher, so he went up higher; she came down, and he couldn’t. I remember I climbed that darn tree to get Bruce who was stuck up there all by himself.

Grandma and her dear sister, Shirley

Sarah: Really? You got him down?

Grandma: Well he wasn’t that far up, and I climbed just enough to reach up and pull him down. He probably doesn’t remember that at all.

Sarah: So, he sounds quite adventurous as a boy. So, I know this is kind of a personal question, but was sex education ever covered while you were in grade school?

Grandma: Not a whole lot, that is for sure. I remember I was very slow to start my period and develop. The other girls in my gym class had started, and I hadn’t. It was never talked about a whole lot in school.

Sarah: I read when researching that puberty and female development was sort of hushed and not spoken of very often during your time.

Grandma: I am not sure how I learn about monthly periods. But I know when Shirley was growing up, my mother handed me the little booklet and said, “You talk to Shirley.”

Sarah: Wow, so she really laid it all on you.

Grandma: Yes, she did.

Sarah: Well, thank you so much, Grandma, for letting me interview you! I really appreciate it; it was a pleasure!

Sydney Knapp (bottom left), Grandpa (bottom right), Grandma (top right), and me (top left) together for a summer visit

Grandma and I had conversed for about forty minutes, and I savored every moment. We chatted about her memories and stories ranging from the energetic swing of the forties to grade school in Endicott to racial equality to the tapping little feet of Shirley Temple to the tranquil summers swimming in Lake Ontario. I learned that Grandma’s ambition and resilient drive was majorly influenced and shaped by her parents. Like my parents did for me, Grandma’s mother and father always helped her with her school work and pushed her to stay busy and motivated. After this reveal, I realized that my grandma and I are more similar than I thought. We both are very caring and determined individuals who had an extremely supportive family background, respect those around us, and get the job done right. As Grandma adored the big band dances during her high school years, I too thoroughly enjoy dancing and jiving to fast-paced, animated music. Grandma and I both participated in the bustling public dances of our communities; for three years, I actually took a ballroom dancing class and performed at the local James Brown Arena in my home town — Augusta, Georgia.

I was happy to hear that her household was one of the lucky families during the Great Depression; even though money was not easy to come by, her family, the Mitchells, did not struggle to stay fed and clothed for the frosty winters. Her father was one of the few who stayed employed throughout the thirties and avoided the intense suffering and agony of those who were unable to find work. Surprisingly and thankfully, my grandmother claimed that she did not experience very much racism or sexism in her community. This conclusion was quite shocking to me because these two topics were such controversial issues during the mid-twentieth century, a time when both women and African Americans were fighting for civil rights. In some areas of my research, I was looking solely through one lens; I was only viewing American life from one perspective, considering only those who suffered from unemployment and feelings of inequality. With my view clouded, I did not dive into the other possibility, the other side of the coin. Hence, I wish to take a step back and delve deeper into the lives of young American ladies who had the privilege of bypassing such grief and hardship.

At certain points in the interview, I felt as if I moved too quickly from question to question and was too strictly structured. A fluid and captivating dialogue cannot be forced. For any future oral interview, I will try to not rush and simply allow the conversation to unfold naturally.

If the roles were reversed and I became the interviewee, I would share stories of how I have slowly evolved into a more self-assured and courageous individual. In middle school and early high school, I doubted my strength as a student, was too uptight, and lacked confidence in myself. I would walk into a standardized test with my head down and my heart racing widely; I was unable to calm my pounding chest, to cease my clammy hands from shaking, to clear my head, and to have faith in my abilities. However, as I have aged and matured, I have learned to let go, relax, and be comfortable in my own skin. Life is too short to spend worrying about the future, to spend not believing in myself. As long as I am happy and satisfied, that is all that truly matters.

A single golf clap? Or a long standing ovation?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.