Who Is Mamie?

This is the story of three women named Mamie.

Several years ago, my father insisted I bring his great-grandmother’s sewing machine home with me. The antique White sewing machine was — is — in excellent condition. Although the parts have not been oiled in years, they still move smoothly when the foot pedal is slowly, methodically worked. I had not given much attention to the machine before loading it into my car. For as long as I could remember it had sat in one corner or another in my parents’ home. They had moved to a new house and no longer had space for it; as a historian, I could not let them part with it. So, it was loaded into the back of my minivan for the long drive from Cleveland, Ohio to Grinnell, Iowa. When I got home and set it up in my living room, I was delighted to see that the needle was threaded. I had no idea who had been the last person to use the machine, and I found myself imagining my great-grandmother or great-great-grandmother sitting there, patiently trying to slip the thread through the small eye of the needle. This was the moment that the first Mamie became real to me.

Mamie Kleimer, pictured above, was born on December 21, 1871 in Plymouth, Indiana. Her parents, Mathias and Margaret, had emigrated from the German Rhineland in 1865. Plymouth was a small town; the population was just over 2,400 at the time of Mamie’s birth. Mathias worked for the railroad and then as a dairy deliveryman. Margaret kept house and looked after their nine children. Mamie was their seventh child. After her marriage to Horace Thompson in 1896, Mamie and her husband relocated to Cleveland, Ohio. They raised their five children there. The photo at the top of this page was taken sometime in the late 1920s. Before her death in 1935, Mamie would see her eldest daughter, Margaret, marry and give birth to four children of her own. In family photos, Mamie wears a housedress as she poses with her grandchildren in a backyard. This is the Mamie of the White sewing machine. When she died, the machine was passed to her daughter Margaret, who then gave it to her daughter Elizabeth, whose son, my father, eventually took it to his home before insisting I take it to mine. While we are connected through our DNA, it is that lingering thread in the sewing machine’s needle that creates the true connection between me and my paternal great-great-grandmother.

Around the time that Mamie’s sewing machine came home with me, I discovered that there was a second Mamie in my family tree – another great-great-grandmother. This time, on my mother’s side.

Mamie Slattery was born in Cleveland, Ohio. Her parents, Patrick and Bridget, were Irish immigrants who met and married in Cleveland in their late teens. I do not know much about their lives. Patrick was a manual laborer, working for the railroad and local foundries; Bridget kept house for their family and a steady stream of boarders. Mamie was born in 1877 or 1878. I know as little about her life as I do about her parents’. When she was 20, Mamie married Bert Mullennix, a dentist. The couple would have four sons and two daughters. Their eldest daughter, Helen, was my mother’s father’s mother. For as long as I knew her, Grandma Helen suffered from dementia. The only time she gave any indication she recognized me was the last time I saw her, shortly before her death. My mother had sent her my high school senior picture, and it was tacked on the wall of her nursing home bedroom. When I walked in, she excitedly looked back and forth between me and the photo, clearly connecting the faces. I wish I could ask her now about her sister and her mother and memories of her childhood. There are so many stories and people, including Mamie, that have been forgotten. This Mamie didn’t leave a sewing machine or any other possessions. She exists only in census data and marriage records.

These two Mamies lived in the same city for decades. As far as I can tell, their paths never crossed. But at some point, Mamie Kleimer Thompson’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, moved her family into a house on 160th Street in the Chatfield neighborhood of Cleveland’s West Side. Another family lived down the street with children the same age as Elizabeth’s. The other children’s mother, Marie, had a sister named Catherine. Catherine was married to Mamie Slattery Mullennix’s grandson. The happenstance of childhood friendships would bring Mamie Kleimer Thompson’s great-grandson and Mamie Slattery Mullennix’s great-granddaughter to a party when they were young teenagers. A few years later they would marry, and a year after that, I would be born.

As I have been researching my family history, the mirrored presence of these two Mamies has loomed increasingly large. I know so very little about them, and yet they feel very close. My training and knowledge as a historian of American women and American medicine enable me to fill in some of the gaps.

I find myself wondering about their daily lives. Both were homemakers with large families. Surely they spent a great deal of their time tending to sick children. As the daughters of immigrants, they likely turned to folk remedies to ease coughs and sore throats. Perhaps as children, the Mamies watched their mothers apply homemade poultices to ease the sting of blisters and the ache of overwrought muscles from their fathers’ hands and backs. Perhaps they later used the same recipes to soothe their own children’s skinned knees.

The two Mamies mothered at a time when American medicine was moving through important transitions. Even trained and licensed physicians relied on homemade herbal teas and poultices in the early decades of the twentieth century. Until the 1930s, they would have little else to offer even their sickest patients. Herbal medicine was, for most people, the only medicine available. By the time the Mamies were grandmothers, things had changed. There were antibiotics, and vaccines, and Nyquil. Physicians would increasingly dismiss homemade poultices and teas in favor of pharmaceutical compounds produced in regulated factories. Their patients would soon come to expect a prescription that would be filled by a pharmacist. They would scoff at the recommendations of their grandparents. Herbal medicine became a relic of a primitive past.  

As I have learned herbal medicine, I have often imagined my great-great-grandmothers standing behind me. I have wondered what would be familiar to them, what would be new. At times, I have prepared a salve or a tincture and thought to myself, This is the way that the Mamies would have done it, too. Of course, I don’t know this for certain, but I’m satisfied with the might have been.

They are not, however, the only Mamie in my story. In high school, I had a close friend named Mamie. She was the first and only Mamie I have truly known. Mamie was (I suppose still is) tiny and full of fire. She was a feminist before I knew what the word meant. This Mamie was confident, daring, fearless. She taught me to be brave. She affirmed my choices. She listened. We have lost touch, yet I remain grateful to her. Our friendship set me on the path that brought me to where I am today.

This, then, is why I am naming my company Mamie’s Way. As I learn herbology and create salves and tinctures and teas, I am finding my way back to Mamie’s — all of the Mamies! — way of doing things. In Mamie’s Way, my skills as a historian, my passion as a teacher, my curiosity about herbalism, and my beliefs as a feminist and an Earth-based pagan all converge. Mamie’s Way is my way of honoring all of the women (not just the ones named Mamie) who have helped to make me who I am. I honor them by offering these products and services to you. Thank you for joining me on this journey.

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