Emily Ann Gray: A Mother’s Story

This slightly fictionalized account is drawn from the genealogical research of my parents, Edward & Janice Kuhlmann. All names, places, dates and the general family history are accurate to our understanding. I have crafted this story from what I know, and imagined what I don’t know as it might have happened.

Once upon a time, there lived a little girl named Emily Ann. Emily grew up in Ontario, near Dundas, which lies just west of the Great Lake Ontario. Emily’s father, Evison, was an Englishman. But not a proper sort of LondontownEnglishman. Evison Gray was a country farmer with family from Utterby, in Lincolnshire, in the northeast of England. His father, Robert, had died when Evison was only a child. And when he was old enough, Evison set off toward Canada, perhaps to find a better life.

In Dundas, Evison met Mary Ann Near, George and Jemima’s oldest daughter. Mary Ann was almost exactly a year younger than Evison. And when Mary Ann was 20 (and Evison, 21), they married. Evison and Mary Ann soon started a family of their own. Their firstborn was Emily Ann. Next came Mary Ann, named after her mother. Then Robert, named after his grand-father. And then the twins, Elvinia and Elzinia. Then came Ernest and William, Herbert, Harold, and finally Glennis. Emily Ann was the oldest of Evison and Mary Ann’s ten.

Farming has always been hard, and George Near knew that sometimes moving on can help a farmer find more fertile ground. And so, George and Jemima, along with Evison and Mary Ann, headed west. They traveled the length of Lake Erie, crossed into the United States, across the State of Michigan, and settled southeast of Grand Rapids, in Campbell Township of Ionia County.

Emily Ann worked hard on her parents’ farm. She helped with the farmwork and looked out for the younger children as well. When she was 22, her help on the farm was not as critical as it had been and she married Edward Harold in 1892. Within two years, Hildred was born, but Edward was not well, and by the time Hildred was 3, Edward had passed away. Life is bleak for a young farmwidow with a toddler. Emily Ann returned to Evison and Mary Ann’s farm for a short while, but she knew she wanted to make a life for herself and Hildred on their own.

No one is quite sure how Emily Ann and John Gabriel Roush met. His parents’ farm was 3 miles west of the Gray Farm, so they likely had friends in common and met in town. In June of 1899, Emily Ann and John Gabriel married. By this time, Emily was 30, quite far beyond marrying age. John was only 21. He was kind to Hildred and had a vision for dairy farming that Emily knew would provide for herself and her little girl.

John Gabriel Roush grew up on a farm a bit northwest of Freeport, Michigan. John’s uncles, Michael and Samuel, founded the town. The Roush family, German by descent, had settled long before the Revolution in Pennsylvania and had moved west through Ohio after the Revolution and to Kent County, Michigan in the early 1800s.

Roushes were the sort of people who got an idea and ran with it. John Gabriel’s idea was to start a dairy farm. Now, if you’re going to raise cows, you need land. But if you’re going to sell milk, you need to be near the people who want to buy milk, so John Gabriel and his new wife and step-daughter moved 8 miles south, toward the Barry County Seat. They purchased 40 acres of farmland on the banks of the Thornapple River and began to build a life together just outside of town, on the north side of Hastings.

Of course, the dairy barn was the highest priority. The cows were their livelihood and they needed a place to lay their heads in the cold Michigan winters. So, John built a state-of-the-art dairy barn, complete with running water at each stall for each of his eight Holsteins. Before long, John had also built a lovely farmhouse. It faced the dirt road headed north out of town, its spindled porch displayed for all who passed. They named the new business the Broadway Dairy.

John was good at dairy farming. He was a decent businessman and soon began making daily deliveries to many homes in the area — milk, cream, butter, eggs. He delivered his own, but also picked up and delivered milk from neighboring farms. Gyp and Cody pulled the wagon each morning. The worst you could say about John Gabriel Roush was that he was soft-hearted. He was patient when accounts were overdue and would often make bartering arrangements with local craftsmen who struggled to pay their bills. A lovely glass-front corner cabinet graced their living room, an ever-present reminder of John’s payment arrangement with a customer who made fine furniture.

Emily and John enjoyed Hildred and their family began to grow. In 1901, Dorothy Esther was born. She was Emily and John’s oldest daughter together. Then came the boys, Kenneth John (after his father) in 1903 and Sperry Evison (after Emily’s father) in 1906. Kenneth was soon Kenny, and Sperry was Spud, for short. In 1909, along came Mary Elizabeth, and 15 months later, the baby Lois Thelma. Mary and Lois were inseparable, and Hildred and Dorothy kept them all in line. Each of them attended Welcome Corners School and Emily took them to Welcome Corners Methodist Church each Sunday morning.

As the Roush children got older, they began to help out on the farm, just as Emily and John had both helped their parents. They were all milking by the time they were 8, and when Kenny turned 10, John began to take him on the morning milk run. But it was a year later that it was clear that something was wrong.

It was fall, the Fall of 1914. The warm Michigan breezes had long since left the hills on the banks of the Thornapple. Crisp air and the beautiful colors that arrived every autumn mottled the forests nearby. It was chilly getting up before dawn to milk the cows, hitch the horses and make the deliveries. But this was the life that John Gabriel had built for himself and his family. The trouble was, Emily wasn’t feeling well. Lois was 4 and Mary, 5. Spuddy was 8 and helped with the milking. Hildred was 21 by now, and about to be married to George Edwards. The plan was for a wedding on the first day of the new year. Dorothy, at 13, began stepping into the role of the older sister, knowing that Hildred would be gone come New Year’s.

Hildred and Dorothy tried hard to take the burden of farm life from their mother. After all, it takes a lot of energy to raise six children and keep a dairy farm running. But in that Fall of 1914, it became clear that something more was happening. Emily was in pain. And she was exhausted. At age 44, this mother of six was taking naps in the afternoon, even though Lois had long since given them up. Her chest ached and occasionally shooting pains gripped her and she bent over in agony. Something was terribly wrong.

By December, John and Emily knew that she must see a doctor. The Roushes delivered milk every day to the local doctor’s home and he usually made house calls. But this time, John and Emily took one of the horses and the wagon into town, to his office. This doctor had helped Emily birth her babies over the past fourteen years. And now, in a moment, he announced to her the news she had not wanted to acknowledge was even a possibility.

Emily Ann Gray Harold Roush had breast cancer.

In 1914, before mammograms or chemotherapy or radiation or monthly self-exams. Before tamoxifen and cancer-prevention diets. Before Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Before pink ribbons or 3-day walks.

Emily Ann had breast cancer.

And for her family — for John, for Hildred, for Dorothy, Kenny, Spud, Mary and Lois, life would never be the same.

Emily had a mastectomy in December. On December 19, they celebrated Emily’s 45th birthday, a bittersweet moment. Mary and Lois barely understood why Mama wasn’t feeling well or why everyone was so sad. Kenny and Spud carried on, making sure to be the best farmhands they possibly could be. Dorothy watched the children. And Hildred helped, while still preparing her wedding. Christmas came and went, a quiet time together as a family. Hildred and George were married on New Year’s Day 1915, a happy moment in a difficult winter.

As January progressed, friends and neighbors would stop by. Everyone knew the Roushes and everyone tried to help out with the children and the meals where they could. But the winter was hard and most of the days, Emily lay in bed, unable to do much more than eat and speak quietly with the children as they stopped by her bedroom.

In December, Emily was diagnosed with breast cancer. And two months later, on February 6, 1915, she died. Dorothy turned 14 just 13 days after her mother passed away. Hildred and George left town; they were moving back east to New Hampshire. John and Kenny and Spud kept the milk going out and money coming in. Along with caring for her brothers and sisters, Dorothy kept food on the table.

Emily had been a widow. And now John was a widower. At first, the Grays insisted they would take the children. How could John possibly care for five children on his own? But, like Emily, he found someone with whom he could share a life, a woman who could raise his children and keep the farm going. Mabel was 28 and John, 37, when they married. A former schoolteacher, Mabel took on her new duties as farmwife and mother of 5 with diligence and compassion. And yet, as you might imagine, it was hard for Dorothy. She was almost grown. She missed her mother terribly. And she’d become quite competent as the keeper of the kitchen and the children. She wasn’t quite sure if a new mother was necessary. And so, when she turned 16 and graduated from high school, Dorothy got on a train to Chicago to look for work.

Dorothy lived with an aunt and uncle in Chicago. A young, single woman in the big city, Dorothy enjoyed her job and her girlfriends, as well as visits back home. Mabel became a decent mother, especially to the little girls. Dorothy would bring back special things she’d bought with her earnings, like a camera. Kenny took pictures of the other four in front of the family’s car, Mary and Lois, 10 and 11, with Dorothy on the running board.

On October 11, 1930, over 15 years after her mother’s death and 13 years after moving to Chicago, Dorothy married a young man she’d met at Central Park Church, Edward Paul Kuhlmann. They lived on the west side for several years and eventually moved into a home Edward’s Uncle Will had built, at 220 S Humphrey Avenue in Oak Park. By this time, they had little ones: Mary Ann, named after her aunt and her great-grandmother, and Edward Gray (Teddy), after his father and his grandmother’s maiden name.

In many wonderful ways, Edward and Dorothy lived happily ever after. They raised their children, who both went on to marry and have children of their own. Mary Ann married Ted, and Ed married Janice. And in November of 1967, Ed and Janice gave birth to Jennifer Lynn, their oldest daughter. And Jennifer went on to marry Hal and have three children of their own, Austin, Haley and Aidan.

In the Fall of 2009, in the suburbs of Chicago, the air was getting crisp once more. The maples displayed their brilliant gold surrounding the blue colonial on Scott St. In the evening, Jennifer received a phone call from the surgeon who had performed a biopsy the day before. And now, in a moment, he announced to her the news she had not wanted to acknowledge was even a possibility.

Jennifer Lynn Kuhlmann Merck had breast cancer.

But this was 2009, so the story is very different. Jennifer was 41. She’d already had several routine mammograms, including a baseline at 38. When, in June, the latest came back with some abnormalities, Jennifer consulted with a surgeon and arranged to have a biopsy done. Based upon three years of historical mammogram films, the surgeon could tell that whatever was going on was changing, but not rapidly. So, Jennifer scheduled the biopsy in the Fall, after the children were back in school, on October 13.

When the surgeon called on October 14, he invited her and Hal to come to his office to talk about a plan of action. And they came. And they took action. The cancerous cells and some surrounding tissue were removed by lumpectomy on November 30. Over the next two months, Jennifer consulted with leading specialists at two major teaching hospitals in Chicago. Chemo was not on the docket. Radiation was a possibility, as was hormone therapy — tamoxifen — a little white pill every day for 5 years. Jennifer spent February of 2010 researching on the internet. After many conversations, many prayers, many late nights reading study after study, Jennifer decided to forego radiation, take tamoxifen, and seek out nutrition and exercise lifestyle changes that studies show have close to equal positive impact as radiation.

And so, here we are, in February of 2011, a year and a half after the original abnormal mammogram, 14 months after surgery, and exactly 96 years after my great-grandmother died. My oldest will turn 14 this March, just as my grandmother did in February 1915. My middle, our daughter, turned 11 last August. And my baby will turn 9 in April. I believe I am on the right path, at least the path of what I know is best with what we know today.

It’s 2011. There are mammograms and chemotherapy. There is radiation and monthly self-exams. There is tamoxifen and cancer-prevention diets. There is Susan G. Komen for the Cure. There are pink ribbons and 3-day walks.

And there is life for this mother of three whose breast cancer was caught very, very early. Earlier than early. So early that the surgeon says, “In the cancer world, what you’ve gotten is terrific news!”

I am grateful. Grateful to my surgeon, Bob Maganini. Grateful to the medical and radiation oncologists with whom I consulted. Grateful to the physician friend who suggested I get a second and third opinion, which led me down the path of giving serious consideration to my treatment options. Grateful to the friends and family who supported me through difficult decisions and through recovery from surgery. Grateful to the friends who surrounded me with love and support and prayer as I headed to the operating table. Grateful to the friends and family who ask me how I’m doing and listen patiently while I recount my latest attempts to make my lifestyle more healthy. Grateful to a husband who has held me while I cried, listened to the research, and helped me make these difficult decisions. Grateful to three of the best children in the world, who jumped in to help while I was recovering from surgery and make living worthwhile.

And I am grateful to those who came before me. Grateful to my Aunt Mary Ann, Dorothy and Edward’s daughter, who was also diagnosed very early, at age 70, and is cancer-free now at age 74. And grateful to Emily Ann. There are so many women who never had a chance to live. They never had a chance to be there for their children. They never had a chance to make the choices required to take care of themselves.

I stand here today because of these women: the wives, the mothers, the sisters, the aunts, the daughters, the grand-daughters, who, at their moment of crisis, were willing to tell their stories and to participate in the research that informs the diagnostics and treatments available today.

Thank you.

And thank you to my great-grandmother, Emily Ann Gray Harold Roush, who has given me a wonderful heritage and a family I cannot imagine living without.

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4 Responses to Emily Ann Gray: A Mother’s Story

  1. Mimi Larson says:

    My friend, I did not know. I am grateful that you are okay and know that I will be praying for you and your health.

    • Mimi, I meant this as a reply to you, but it may have only gone to the blog. I apologize if you never saw it. I’m still learning how to do this well.

      Thank you so much, Mimi. I appreciate that. It’s been a wild ride: fascinating, educational, scary at times, but mostly resting in His providence. I have clung to St. Julian of Norwich’s statement, “All shall be well; and all shall be well; and all manner of thing shall be well.”

      • Mimi Larson says:

        St Julian has good words for us in a variety of situations! Know that we care and will continue to pray for your health. I am glad that we have reconnected friend, very glad.

  2. jlmerck says:

    Thank you so much, Mimi. I appreciate that. It’s been a wild ride: fascinating, educational, scary at times, but mostly resting in His providence. I have clung to St. Julian of Norwich’s statement, “All shall be well; and all shall be well; and all manner of thing shall be well.”

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