When I read that the Week 10 topic was “Strong Woman” my immediate thought was that all the women in my family have been strong. Maybe I should just make a running list of all the females in my family tree? No, probably need to choose just one, so I’m going to settle on Kitty (Saunders) Conrad, my maternal grandmother, who I knew as “Big Grandma.” She was a woman of both physical strength and strong personality.
The nickname “Big Grandma” (right) was used to point out Kitty’s contrast to her own mother, my great grandmother, Phoebe (Gilbert) Saunders, who we knew as “Little Grandma” (left). Kitty was the exact opposite of her mother. She was big-boned, tall, loud, bossy, opinionated, and uncompromising. Her hair was stick-straight, bobbed short, and turned white in her thirties. She was a handsome woman without a doubt. And in me, she stirred a combination of fear and fascination.
Kitty (1902 - 1969) was the only surviving child of Jack Saunders and Phoebe Gilbert, who immigrated from Leicester, England in 1904 - 1905. Kitty never forgot the voyage and often recounted its highlights to us grandkids. Her father doted on her and her mother, a woman of quiet inner strength, could not control her. Kitty was raised like the boy in the family, working on their dairy farm in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. When she was about 15 she ran away from home on horseback, and made it all the way to Newark, a distance about 30 miles, before her father brought her back. Kitty was a wild child who grew into the embodiment of the new woman of the Roaring Twenties.
She married my grandfather, Raymond Conrad, in the early 1920’s. He was an auto mechanic and they shared a passion for motorcycles and fast cars. Big Grandma became an undefeated champion on the powder puff circuit in central New Jersey. Even though they called it "powder puff," driving old time racing cars required physical strength and daring. Big Grandma had plenty. She was also the secretary of the Garden State Racing Association and, for propriety's sake, she would drag my 10-year-old mother along to the all-male association meetings as her chaperone. Big Grandma even won her last race at New Market , New Jersey in 1933 driving the “Conrad Special” which ended in a crash in which she was severely injured. (I'll come back to that next week under Week 11, "Lucky.")
Big Grandma's life took many twists and turns on and off the raceway. She was the first in their rural community to buy a television, which she placed on the front porch, so the neighbors could gather round to watch. Big Grandma’s backyard became the stage for neighborhood carnivals and a large scale chicken-raising operation. Big Grandma even found her husband employment during the Great Depression using her extensive local network.
Big Grandma pursued her interests passionately. She was a horsewoman most of her life. Her furniture was plastered with decals of western motifs and she loved the rodeo. She rescued a white colt named Powder from the Premarin project and raised him downstairs in the cellar of their house. She imported a parrot from Brazil (legal back then!) who became one of several in her lifetime, and later raised canaries and parakeets by the hundreds in her dining room.
The TV was always on with roller derby, baseball, or The Lone Ranger. Every year Big Grandma was very enthusiastic about dying Easter eggs. Her specialty was to blend multiple colors of dyes and then she would spend hours with us grandkids admiring their subtleties. Then there was her Christmas tree, which was a work of art and her annual obsession. She also taught us to pick the meat out of hickory nuts we gathered, how to play Nertz, and always reminded us to "sit like a lady."
Big Grandma was not a sweet or tender woman. Housewifery and mothering were not her thing. But she dreamed big, pushed forward, and didn’t really care what other people thought. She almost seemed to have a blind spot about being unconventional, or maybe she was just that focused and strong.