[NOTE: This is the first in a series of posts drawing on a family history and a memoir compiled by my mother, Elsie Elizabeth Knighton Lamplugh (1923-2013).
Mom, known as “Betts,” lavished upon her kids what we would later describe as “unconditional love.” As we grew up, she steadily supported us in whatever we wished to do with our lives. For example, Betts thought that her oldest child would end up teaching history, and so did he; but, in her mind, history teachers worked in high school, while his goal was a college teaching position, as a history professor. But, as readers of this blog know, although I did study to become a professor, I spent my career teaching history on the secondary level. So, Betts could chalk up yet another win for “mother’s intuition.”
What neither of us realized at the time, though, was that Betts herself would one day become a family historian and a memoirist.]
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The first of Betts’ contributions to family lore was the “Dobson-Knighton Family History,” which she completed in 1987 and distributed to family members in Xeroxed form. My siblings and I, impressed by what she had done, kept urging her to continue trying to make sense of her life as a wife and mother, and she finally capitulated. The result, a memoir whimsically entitled “Slub of Slife” (i.e, “Love of Life,” the derivation of which will be revealed in Part V), was actually written in reverse chronological order: the first section of “Slub of Slife” Betts completed began near the end of World War II and carried her story forward to the Fall of 1964, when “changes which affected all of our family” occurred. When she sent me a draft of that installment in March 1995, Betts described it as “far from perfect. . . . Kind of started in the middle—but maybe if I can think back a lot further I may be able to do something about my (our) early years. . . . Kind of feel like a lot of things are best forgotten.”
The second section of “Slub of Slife” that Betts wrote (completing it in July 1995) covered the earlier part of her life, overlapping with the final pages of the “Dobson-Knighton Family History.” In a note accompanying this part of her memoir, Betts predicted that it would “no doubt bore you to tears, but guess this is the way my childhood was. Good thing my Mom and Dad and doctor took such good care of me, look how long I have lived.”
One of the ways I tried to encourage Mom to finish telling us her “story” was by promising that, once I retired, I would “try to do something with it.” That seemed to satisfy her; at any rate, she did not add to the memoir between 1995 and her death almost twenty years later. For now, though, I am submitting it via the Internet, in installments, an initial effort to keep that promise.
As editor, I’ve tried to blend important family information from the “Dobson-Knighton Family History” with the earlier chronological installment of “Slub of Slife,” eliminating repetitions. I also “fill in the blanks” in two places: between the conclusion of the earlier chronological part of her memoir and the beginning of the later one; and, in Part VI, her life between 1964 and 2013.
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Over the course of the research into her family’s history, and in her memoir, Betts availed herself of numerous primary sources: photos; public records like deeds and birth, baptismal, marriage, and death certificates; military records; and clippings from newspapers in Newark and Wilmington, Delaware, and the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland. The work also benefited from information furnished by friends and family members in “interviews,” either in person or over the telephone; and in letters. Useful secondary sources included two published histories of Newark, Delaware, and a pamphlet history of Middle River, Maryland.
It is important to note that Betts began her work on the Dobson and Knighton families sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, before the “computer revolution” that would bring desktop and laptop computers and Internet access to anyone who desired them. Although Betts was an experienced typist, she never liked computers. In fact, their increasing presence in Christiana Hospital, her last employer, was one reason she retired when she did. Nevertheless, the drafts she prepared of her family history/memoir, work that continued into the mid-1990s, were produced in her home on an early “word processor” (a gift from a friend), but without Internet access.
Betts was extremely fortunate when it came to locating genealogical information, thanks to her brother, George W. Knighton, who lived in Virginia. Betts’ project dovetailed both with George’s own interest in their family’s history and, especially, with his computer skills.
Betts called or wrote her brother with questions and mailed him drafts of her work for comment. In turn, George sent printouts of genealogical information to Betts so she might include it in her manuscript. Betts shipped the finished project to George, who entered it into his computer, added pictures and a few maps, and returned this expanded version to Betts in Newark, where she made copies and distributed them to family members.
Today, this “research model” might seem very time-consuming, but Betts was learning as she went. She did not drive, so “research trips” in the traditional sense were out. Mostly, Betts relied on the U.S. Postal Service, the telephone, and the Xerox machine, along with a few books and newspaper articles, to provide information she needed to supplement primary documents, her capacious memory, and the stories she learned from family members, an informal example of what is now known as “oral history.”
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The story Betts tells is an interesting one. She traces her Dobson-Knighton family back to the 1830s and carries her own part in that story through the “changes” that befell her Lamplugh family in 1964. In her inimitable fashion, Betts remembers living in a crowded house with five siblings and her parents, in the small city of Newark, Delaware. Through her eyes, we see what a girl’s growing up years were like in that environment, including her family’s experiences during the Great Depression and World War II. Once she became a wife and mother, Betts had other stories to tell, especially about life for a working-class family trying to achieve some version of the “American Dream” after World War II.
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Between the 1980s and 1990s, then, Betts Lamplugh produced a record of her own life and that of her families: the one she’d been born into in 1923; and her second family, which she and her husband, Ben Lamplugh, had created with their three children. In a sense, the tale she tells is a microcosm of the broader saga of how Americans survived the Depression, found themselves caught up in the Second World War, and wrestled with the often painful, frustrating task of trying to get ahead in a far from peaceful postwar world.
NEXT: Part II: Grandparents, Parents, and Siblings
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject: