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Two Families, Two Matriarchs
Sarah Sammis

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Two Spirits -- by James McNelisThis past holiday season, two families lost their matriarchs, women who had been heading their families both spiritually and emotionally for seven decades. One family was mine, and our matriarch was Ethel Mandeville. The other was the Disney family, who lost Lillian Bounds Disney. My family is one you have never heard of, and the other has a name that brings a dozen or more images to mind. Still, these women ran their families in very similar ways and faced many of the same trials.

Lillian Bounds Disney was the wife of Walt Disney. They met a short time after she started work as an "ink and paint" person for Disney's fledgling studio. After marrying, she moved into the shadows of family life away from the celebrity she could have had for the asking. She did, however, continue to be a source of creativity for her husband and was credited with giving Mickey Mouse his name (he was nearly christened Mortimer). Mostly she raised their two children.

Though she was my great-grandmother, I know very little about Ethel Mandeville. As far as I knew, she was just the head of the family and would always be so. Her house was the place to meet during the holidays: Easter, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Just as she was a sign of permanence and strength, her house never changed; it was an immaculate time capsule from the 1930s, around the time she and her husband, whom I never knew, moved their family to San Diego, California, from the Midwest.

For both of these women, family came first. Though Walt was the spokesman for the Walt Disney Studios, doing the voice of Mickey Mouse for nearly two decades, Lillian chose to live a private life. Very little is written about her or her children. After Walt's death in 1966, all references to Lillian seem to cease. Until 1990, I had no idea that she continued to live a long life. I rediscovered her through her patronage of the arts when I visited the Lillian Bounds Disney wing of an art museum in Palm Springs, California. It was in the museum that I first made the connection between her and my great-grandmother because I could see that she loved life and wanted to contribute to it.

This past Christmas, I asked my grandmother if she could help by filling in a few missing pieces of information on her mother. She told me that Great-Grandmother had been a child model and a fashion designer before getting married. At first, I could not believe that our prim, proper, sometimes overly stern but well-meaning matriarch had been a model. She had given up her career for marriage, a sacrifice that most women made at the turn of the twentieth century. As far as I can tell, she was happy with her decision, and for the rest of her 98 years made her growing family her career.

In the mid 1960s, both women faced a new set of challenges and heartbreak when their husbands died. Lillian's children were younger than Ethel's and had just begun adulthood. Ethel's grandchildren were for the most part in high school or college, so neither woman faced the financial burden of raising children without the help of her husband. There was still the nagging question of why did daddy/grand-dad have to die? In Lillian's case, there was also the media coverage, which must have been extremely painful. I can only guess what it must have been like, as there are no records that I know of tracing her grief.

Widowhood for both of these women transformed their families from patriarchies to matriarchies and, in part, their desires to succeed and to keep their families strong kept them alive. Both women remained the heads of their households and families for three decades. Instead of being defeated by their losses, they excelled.

Eventually, the torch has to be passed. In the case of Lillian and Ethel, the transfer of power came at their deaths. Lillian passed the torch to her only surviving daughter, Diane Disney Miller, now a vintner in Napa, California. She takes after her mother in wanting to concentrate on her family and her family's winery, rather than choosing to pursue the publicity that could still be hers as a daughter of Walt Disney.

When Great-Grandmother died, I worried that a black hole would remain where her strength and leadership once was. I worried that her two daughters, Flora Mae (my grandmother) and Till (my great-aunt) would give up from the exhaustion of caring for their mother. For the last few years, they had been completely devoted to her care. Instead, I saw them gain strength. I saw them become like their mother, though neither would ever admit it. My grandmother now is the matriarch of the family, though reluctant to claim the title. She took to the role naturally and is thriving in it.

I don't know who will take over after my grandmother. I am guessing that the next matriarch will arise from the large clan of family still living in the Midwest joined by those who have relocated there. The remaining family in San Diego will follow a new matriarch, either my maternal grandmother or my mother, who is already planning her reign while waiting for grandchildren first.

I am left with two images of these women: a plastic light-up church that goes under a Christmas tree, and a song written in 1928. The white church was my great-grandmother's. It sat under her tree along with a collection of miniatures, making up a winter wonderland scene - positively magical. This year, my grandmother had the church sitting under her tree, and I took a photograph of it. When I had the photograph developed, I almost mistook it for an earlier one taken in the early 1980s at Great-Grandmother's house. That little church now serves as a reminder of all the good times we had as a family under the watchful eye of our matriarch.

The song is for Lillian, and it is called "Minnie's Yoohoo". It is a two-verse ditty credited to Walt Disney about Mickey Mouse's love for Minnie Mouse. Since Walt Disney first did the voice of Mickey, his personality is said to be reflected in the mouse. It has survived the years and several voice actor changes. Mickey has always been loyal to one mouse only, Minnie. If Mickey is Walt, then logically Minnie is Lillian. Couldn't Walt have been writing that song about his love for his wife? Their love for each other, I believe, has been immortalized in the lives of two cartoon mice, Mickey and Minnie. In much the same way, the members of my family will always be reminded of Great-Grandmother when we look at the miniature church.

Sarah Sammis is an artist, writer and web-site manager.

e-mail Sarah at
ssammis@coll.pair.com

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