Sunday, January 26, 2014

52 Ancestors: #4 Bernice Myrtle Stevens O'Connor

My grandmother never knew her birth mother Bernice. Grandma told me befuddling stories about how her one-time uncle became her brother and grandparents became parents. The concept sounded to me like a twisted Shakespeare plot.

As I researched Bernice's life, I was struck by its brevity and, throughout, the youthfulness at the core of each hardship.

Bernice Myrtle Stevens, my great-grandmother, was the second child of William John Stevens and his wife Eva. She was born in July 1910 in Idaho Springs, Colorado.

In March 1916, her father passed away at the age of 36. Bernice was only five years old. Sometime before the 1920 Federal Census, her mother Eva remarried to Thomas Augustus Fagan. In that census, Bernice is listed as the 9 year-old step-child of Thomas along with her brother Thurlow. The family had moved from the mountains of Clear Creek County to Denver.

1920 Federal Census - Denver, Colorado

As early as 1927, when she was only 17, Bernice appears as a working girl in Denver city directories. Her occupation is given as phone operator. She appears again in the 1929 directory with the same position. I can imagine her connecting calls on a towering switchboard - a teenager mastering the new technology of the day.

City of Denver 1927 Directory
In the 1930 census, she's still living at home with her parents and brother. However, we learn that she's landed a new job. She's working as a sales lady at a candy store.

1930 Federal Census - Denver, Colorado

On November 1, 1930, Bernice married Robert V. O'Connor. Less than five months later, she gave birth to a daughter. Clearly, she was already pregnant when she married Robert. Tragically, one week after the birth, Bernice passed away due to complications. She was only twenty years old.

Shortly afterwards, Bernice's daughter, my grandmother, was adopted by Eva and Thomas Fagan. The once grandparents became parents, and Uncle Thurlow became a brother. I speculate that a formal adoption was initiated so Eva and Thomas Fagan could legally keep and raise their daughter's child.

After her passing, Thomas Fagan made a gravestone for Bernice. For years, Eva would visit the burial with my grandmother and hold emotional vigil. Once, after Eva had passed away, my grandmother returned to visit the grave. The original handmade marker was gone. When she inquired with the cemetery management, she was told that it didn't meet new restrictions on grave stones and was subsequently removed. The cemetery did not have up-to-date contact information for next of kin, so no family was notified. My grandmother promptly commissioned a new marker, which rests on Bernice's grave today and serves as commemoration of her short life.

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