For my Mother’s Day post, I thought I’d write about my late grandmother, Mildred (Milly) Booth Rollins, whom we called Nanny, especially since her birthday is this week as well.
Nanny was absolutely my favorite person on the planet, and I miss her dearly. She had such a huge impact on my life—she wasn’t able to be the best mother in the world but she sure was a special grandmother!
She was born in West Dennis, Mass. on 15 May 1917, the daughter of Wallace and Ethel (Kelley) Booth. Wallace was from Quebec of Anglo-Irish heritage. Despite Ethel’s Irish last name, she had deep Cape Cod roots with her ancestors founding all the original towns there and several coming over on the Mayflower.
|Milly with her brother Cedric ca 1918|
Milly was raised mostly in Brockton, Mass., in a house her father built, but during hard economic times her family lived at the Ferry Street, West Dennis home of her grandparents, David and Mary Ann (Kelley) Kelley. Nanny told me how her mother couldn’t wait to leave “backwards” Cape Cod, so she didn’t enjoy staying there. But Ethel loved her family beyond all else, so I would imagine spending a lot of time with her parents had its upside.
|House Wallace Booth built in Brockton|
Nanny said she loved living on the Cape. She adored the ocean and the Ferry Street land ended at the Bass River where her grandfather had a fishing shanty and small boats. They had chickens and an orchard in the yard. She didn’t mind the lack of amenities as a child. It felt like an adventure to sleep in the roughly finished attic of the Cape Cod style home where her job was to trim the wicks of the oil lamps each morning and refill them with kerosene. Nanny remembered the horse-drawn ice truck coming around and selling blocks of ice to keep the food in the ice chest cool. Her grandparents were resistant to installing indoor plumbing and electricity, but their children finally insisted on it.
|Ferry Street, West Dennis house where Milly was born|
It was Nanny’s stories about the Cape that really sparked my interest in family history and she loved hearing about my discoveries, even the “skeletons” that many people of her generation would have preferred to stay in the closet.
Excepting the years of the Depression, Wallace Booth provided well for his family. He always drove a Cadillac, and he liked to be the first on his block to have any new home invention, like a dishwasher. They frequently traveled to Florida in the winter and to Canada and Vermont to visit his family. Wallace and Ethel were devout Christians and members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (RLDS). Nanny did not share their depth of religious beliefs, and she resented not be able to wear a bathing suit or go to dances like the other girls did.
Nanny was a very beautiful young woman. She had brown hair worn in the latest style, trendy clothes and a gorgeous smile. As she grew older and became inactive she gained a lot of weight, but she was still very pretty. No matter how badly she felt, she was never without red polish on her fingers and toes.
|Photo of Milly that Al carried in his wallet (he also carried the silver leaves from their wedding cake)|
When she was a teenager, her parents’ marriage faltered and they were separated (although they would reunite and always seemed to have a strong marriage). Her mother lived in a house in Hyannis with her three children and took in borders to make ends meet. Nanny was miserable—she had to do a tremendous amount of household chores and some of the men made sexual advances toward her.
This unhappiness at home likely led her to be swept off her feet by Arthur "Art" Davis, a young man four years older who was from Falmouth. (He was born Arthur Washburn but took the surname of his step-Aunt and Uncle who raised him.) Arthur was handsome, personable and seemed so mature to 15 year-old Milly. He worked and had plenty of spending money and took her places in his car or on his motorcycle. He was athletic and had been a competitive swimmer. Nanny said she also got along famously with his step-Aunt Grace (Ellis) Davis and that the family was quite comfortable financially and very welcoming to her. They were church going people, but their household wasn’t nearly as religious as the Booth one.
Milly became pregnant and her father insisted on them being married and they did so in Ayer, Mass., on 23 September 1933. I have never figured out what connection either family had with Ayer.
At age 16, Milly gave birth to my father, Robert Davis, on 26 March 1934 in Somerville, Mass. His last name was later changed to Rollins when Milly’s second husband adopted him. There were complications during the home delivery leading to a hysterectomy, so she was unable to have additional children.
Milly quickly realized the mistake she had made in her marriage. Arthur wasn’t so charming as a young husband and father—he drank and had violent outbursts. He also had trouble holding down a job and Milly had couldn’t afford to buy much food. They were living somewhere on the Cape and her parents came down and were shocked to see the conditions their daughter and grandson were living in—no decent food to be seen and Milly had bruises from Arthur’s violent rages. They packed up their meager belongings, and took Milly and Bob to Somerville to live with them. Eventually Milly and Arthur were divorced.
|Milly and son Bob 1934|
Milly went to school to become a hair dresser, and Ethel watched her grandson Bob while Milly went to school and then worked. She also went out evenings with friends and on dates, so her parents had a large role in raising their grandson.
After Nanny’s death, I met some of her first cousins at a Booth family reunion. They were such lovely people and very welcoming. Her cousin Pearl said that she loved spending time with Milly when they were kids because she was so much fun; always up for an adventure on the Vermont farm where Pearl lived.
On 22 January 1942, Milly married the most wonderful man, Alfred Addison Rollins, who was from Dorchester. He was handsome and very loving and attentive. They dated off and on for years before they were married. Al, whom I called Gagi, served in the Air Force on the front lines in World War II. He loved my father and signed the papers to adopt him when he was overseas.
|Alfred Rollins 1944|
I’ve never witnessed anyone as much in love with someone as Gagi was with Nanny. He called her nicknames like “Peach Blossom” and “My Bride.” She’d pretend to be annoyed with him and tell him to stop acting like a fool, but she loved him too. After they both died, I found all these slips of paper--little notes and poems he’d leave for her to find around the house. Nanny had kept them all.
|One of the notes from Gagi|
It touches me that Gagi married Nanny knowing they would not have children together. In the 1950s they were foster parents to Steven and Richie Block, who eventually reunited with their father. Millie kept pictures of them and other items, such as Steven's 1958 Boston University application and Richie’s 7th Grade report card from Concord Junior High. Steven played the drums in a musical combo while at Concord High, worked as bus boy, bell hop and dishwasher at the Colonial Inn. He was interested in BU’s school of Fine and Applied Arts and wanted to be cartoon or commercial artist. Milly also saved some Mother's Day and Christmas cards they gave her.
Before they bought the Onset house, Nanny, Gagi and my Dad would vacation throughout New England. They loved to jump in the car and drive to new places, most of which were on the ocean or a lake.
|Milly and Bob at Newfound Lake, NH|
Nanny and Gagi had a nice life together and did a lot with the money he made as a truck driver. They lived in Concord, then Lexington in the same neighborhood where we lived (both were Cape Cod style homes). At times they had apartments in Boston and elsewhere, splitting time between an apartment and their ocean front home in Onset on the Cape Cod Canal. Eventually they stayed in Onset year round.
|Cove-side view of the Onset House on Sias Point|
That summer house was my favorite place and looms large in my childhood memories. The house wasn’t much to look at but the location was sublime. The fresh sea air, the combination of the warmth of the sun and the constant breezes, the sound of the ocean and the sight of boats going through the Canal equaled nirvana for me. They had a very large private beach—one side facing the Canal and the other a quiet cove. My sister, Beth, and I spent hours each day in the water and on the beach.
|View from the house toward Wicket's Island. We loved playing on the rock exposed at low tide.|
|View from the Canal side of the house|
We would bring our cabin cruiser boat down for visits, either moored off Nanny’s beach or at a nearby yacht club. We could watch the Onset fireworks from the patio on each 4th of July. We’d take the boat to see other fireworks in different towns as well.
|Nanny in her element--on board our boat the Sanderling 1965|
I don’t think anyone loved being out on the boat more than Nanny, something she passed on to my father and to me. We always said we had salt-water in our veins, which makes sense since I’ve found many mariners in our family history. Nanny was the kind of women who wasn’t bothered by things like many of us are—she loved fishing and was the one who helped me bait my hook because I found the worms “gross” and she gutted and cleaned the fish without batting an eye. She was not the least bit squeamish.
|Nanny at the helm of the Sanderling|
In addition to the fish we caught, we often ate lobster and Nanny would make clam chowder or stuffed clams with the clams and quahogs we dug. Sometimes Beth and I would play with the lobsters on the floor before they were plunged into the boiling water—that could be one of the reasons Beth became a vegetarian!
|Gagi, Beth and I 1967|
Unfortunately as she grew older she and Gagi became reclusive and became estranged from many family members and friends. She was always good to her parents, though, and she renovated one side of her house for them to live with her when they were aged.She then took in my father when he was sick with Parkinson's Disease.
Nanny had health problems, particularly issues with her heart, and clearly suffered from depression, although she never was in therapy or received a diagnosis. She and Gagi both drank too much, but when they were younger that was what most people in their circle were doing. They sure knew how to throw a party at their beach house or on the boat. As they got older it became more of a problem and took its toll on their health.
The house and boats were also chocked full of dogs, another love everyone in our family shares. Nanny and Gagi were partial to Dalmatians—some of them were high strung, living up to the breed’s reputation, but some of them were wonderful. They usually had three dogs at a time, so there were a lot of them over the years, but my favorites were Josie and Aggie. Nanny loved to tell the story of how she took me to the breeders to see Josie. She was in a pen and no one was home. She had the sweetest face imaginable and a birth defect I adored—a crook in her tale. I begged Nanny to slip the check under the door and just take her with us then and there!
In addition to the “Dallies,” they occasionally had other breeds of dogs. They had a terrier, Ronnie, and then a Boxer named Major when my Dad was young. There was a Cocker Spaniel named Sandy who was stolen and never found and a miniature Poodle named Muffin who was left behind by one of their tenants. After Nanny died, we took Muffin home with us. She was the sweetest thing but quite old herself. One day she her breath was laboring and she was laying under a tree in our yard. I carried her into the house and called the vet, but she died as I was getting ready to take her to likely be put to sleep. She’s buried in our yard, next to our beloved Chocolate Lab, Beau.
Another passion of Nanny’s that I share is home decorating. We would spend so much time talking about home design and antiques. As she got older she had way too much stuff in her house, so all the nice things she had weren’t as noticeable. We would poke fun at her for not being able to throw things away. A set of broken outdoor metal furniture wouldn’t be thrown out and she told us they’d look fine with seat cushions on it. She didn’t listen to the fact that if anyone sat on said cushion, they’d fall through and suffer some scrapes in the process!
I would always give her a Country Living magazine subscription as a gift and we’d talk about everything we liked in the magazine. She subscribed to Better Homes and Gardens for years and after she read them, she’d pass them onto me. I still subscribe to both magazines and think of her as I read them. I especially notice how many things in them she did before anyone else was—she would buy antique bureaus and have bathroom sinks put in them in all of her bathrooms, she painted and “antiqued” furniture which is popular again today, she electrified old oil lamps, crocks and pitchers to make unique lamps.
|Milly and Chippy at their Concord House, showing her Asian phase of decorating|
I have some of her things, although sadly my father sold or gave away much of her furniture and collectibles when he sold the Onset house. Our master bathroom is a definite “ode to Nanny” as it contains her marble topped commode, her pitcher and basin, various vintage perfume bottles, botanical prints she had that I framed, her small mirror with a marble base, her partial set of a china dresser set, an antique medicine cabinet she never used that I stripped and added a new mirror, a unique antique mirror that has lost its silvering, the beautiful flow-blue slop pail she saved from her sister-in-law Elsie’s zealous housekeeping which had already broken the lid and gave it multiple chips. I even have her ancient Christmas Cactus under the window. I know she’d love the pedestal sink and Toile wallpaper I chose.
Nanny and Gagi also loved gardening and until age and illness slowed them down, their yard was gorgeous. Nanny even sunk a kiddie pool in the ground where we put small fish in the summer and it surrounded by flowers and a cute bench she made from an old marble counter.
|An example of Nanny's green thumb and creativity|
Nanny and my mother were incredibly close until my parents divorced in 1988. She had a huge impact on my mother for the same reasons she did on me. She was so creative, interesting and told such great stories. She was warm, generous and loving to the people she cared about and that included my Mom. She knew her own son had some issues so she was thrilled he married such a nice girl from a good family. She even had an impact on my other grandmother who decorated her house just like Milly’s, even buying some of her furniture when she was changing things up. All three of them loved the Early American style of decorating, but Nanny went through other phases like leaning towards Asian decor. If Nanny was out shopping for household items, she’d often pick something up for my Mother as well, so they had some of the same things in their homes.
From the time I was small, Nanny talked and listened to me like I was a grown up and made me feel important, and that’s the way she made my Mom feel as well. Mom was from a family of four kids, but Nanny made her feel so special. Milly finally had a daughter!
When Beth and I were kids, Nanny made Christmas magical for us. We were showered with gifts and attention. Nanny loved dolls, so I received paper dolls, baby dolls, Little Kiddle dolls and later Dawn Dolls and Barbies. She always gave Beth and me new nightgowns as well. They would be identical except that Beth’s would always be pink and mine would be blue.
|Beth and me at Nanny's. I'm wearing a Little Kiddle Pendant she gave me|
The beach house was so quiet in the winter. You could hear any sounds travel across the water in winter, sounds that would have just blend with the hum of noise over the summer. If someone yelled on one of the nearby islands, it was like they were in the yard. Walking on the deserted beach, all bundled up and looking for treasures that might have washed ashore was so special. There was also a fire in the fireplace in the cold weather (Nanny called Gagi a “firebug” and was thrilled my husband Dave was the same way) and we often toasted marshmallows in it year round. Beth had the patience to make hers nice and evenly brown, but I tended to rush and burn mine.
I remember often crying when it came time to leave—I didn’t want to leave my grandparents or that magical place. I also always felt like they needed us so much. I hated leaving them so very much alone.
We also saw a lot of wild storms at the house. Once the flooding was so bad that instead of being surrounded by water on three sides, the house was completely surrounded. Nanny and Gagi never wanted to leave the house, though, surviving many storms. I always felt excited by the storms; another thing Nanny passed on to me. One of her nicknames was “Hurricane Milly.” It was crazy seeing all the damage after the storm passed. Houses on Onset Island literally washed out to sea, a boat left in the middle of the lawn, the ramp down to the beach washed away but a set of stairs left in almost the exact location. When they weren’t claimed, Dave installed them in place of the ramp. A large picnic table washed up on the beach once in a nice spot for picnics and it stayed there for years until another big storm reclaimed it.
On 9 February 1999, at age 81, Nanny died suddenly of an apparent heart attack. It was an incredibly sad time, as she was like a second mother to me, as well as a good friend. I hopped in Dave’s truck for the 1 ½ hour drive, so upset and worried that I didn’t take heed when the engine light came on, causing major engine problems.
Beth came down the next day and we got silly driving around in Nanny’s big Cadillac. It’s so odd when I’m emotional, what a fine line it can be between crying and laughing. The funeral director was a small man with a noticeable limp whose name was Mr. Moose. Just introducing him to Beth made me even sillier. They probably thought we were heartless grandchildren who were getting some big inheritance! They remembered us from 8 years earlier when Gagi died and we came down with the cremated remains of their Dally Sparky who had also just died. Nanny insisted they be buried together, and I didn’t have the heart to disagree with her even though Gagi hated that dog! He had bitten him, which got infected and required a skin graft and hospitalization when he was already sick with lung cancer.
Nanny and Gagi (and Sparky) are buried at Agawam Cemetery in Wareham. It always struck the rest of us as morbid, but she loved that cemetery. They could have been buried free of charge at the National Cemetery in Bourne, but she wouldn’t consider it. Her parents and her brother and some of his family are buried there also. We didn’t know it at the time, but some of Art’s early ancestors are buried in the same cemetery.
|Rollins and Booth shared headstone at Agawam|
I think about Nanny a lot in my day-to-day life. I wish she got to see my kids grow up. I wish she knew my three dogs. I would love to still talk to her about interior design. I wish she knew how many Mayflower and other interesting ancestors she had and that she and her first husband were distantly related. I wish I recorded some of our conversations about the past so I wouldn’t have to rely on my faulty memory.
I wish you were still here to celebrate Mother’s Day and and your Birthday, Nanny. You are missed!