Just after supper in the very late spring of 1958, Mrs. Robert Leininger (Florence) put her 10-month old in an old antique buggy, lined up her other four children, who were all under the age of 6, and headed off down her brand new street to knock on a few doors.
Mrs. Harold Becker (Jean), who lived in the 200 block of Greenbriar Road, answered the door. Yes, she said, she would be very interested in helping Florence start a garden club on the block.
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”It was a diversion,“ says Florence, who was badly in need of one.
This summer, 50 years after Florence first decided to make her neighbors into her dearest friends, The Merry Wives of Greenbriar celebrated their continuous diversionary tactics with a backyard picnic and some bingo. More than a dozen of the 37 women who had served as president of the club came back to remember, Florence and Jean (the only two remaining original members) among them.
Greenbriar Road in 1957 was a tobacco farm. In 1958, it was new houses, small saplings and young families on the very outskirts of town. It was customary to be referred to first by your husband's name. It was also a bit more orderly time when it came to club formation.
The initial purpose of The Merry Wives of Greenbriar was formally stated: ”To learn gardening or the things interesting for new homemakers.“ They were a club with officers, rules, bylaws and programs with speakers.
One time, Jean remembers they invited their husbands to something other than the annual picnic but never made that mistake again.
The Wives have successfully waged battles for street lights and sewer and against vermin. They have standing committees for sending cards to the new mothers, the sick and the newly bereaved on the street. They have a limited number of actual members — limited by the number that could fit in any living room. That was 25, with a wait list. They had dues of $1 a year, which have since risen to $5. They have projects and charities.
Their children have called them The Merry Wides of Greenbriar behind their backs.
Never you mind. When it came to building a neighborhood, the Merry Wives, quite simply, got it done.
Gardening and growing
Now, the trees tower over the front and back yards, offering voluminous shade on the worst of summer days in the center of town.
At one point, there were 50 kids on the block and the moms had formed a ”walkpool“ to school, dropping one kid at one house, while another helped the little squadron across the street and another picked them up to take them all the way to the front door, and then back.
Families moved in and out. One of Jean's sons took one of Florence's six daughters (by then, she had eight children) to a prom. There was that time Ken Neiheisel mowed his toe off. And the winter that the kids had 31 snow days in a row.
Through it all, one night a month, 10 times a year, the Merry Wives took on the problems of everyday life in mid-century right here. For the first year of their existence, it was gardening but, says Florence, after they'd exchanged what they knew about shrubs, swapped bulbs and talked annuals, they expanded their scope.
A nurse would come speak one month about first aid; a banker about family finance the next; then a police officer about home safety; a florist about flower arranging. There was that time the group gathered to express their concern about bomb shelters and what was to be done during the Cuban missile crisis. And, who among them doesn't remember the time in 1974 when the club invited a speaker in to discuss Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique.
(In the yearbook for '74, duly noted: ”She must have wondered what she was doing at a gathering of contented housewives.“)
Mrs. Louis Jaquith (Beverly), a president of the Wives a few times over, taught the whole club how to use a microwave in the '70s ”much to everyone's amazement,“ says Beth Kramer.
Linda Ellinger (at some point, the women stopped being identified by their husbands' names) lived on Greenbriar Road for 21 years. She says she bought a canning kit at the club's annual White Elephant Sale, that her next-door neighbor gave her apples to can and that Beth Kramer taught her to properly put them up.
”If you could combine the wisdom here,“ she says, ”it'd be a better education than Harvard.“
Taking service seriously
Over the last 50 years, the women of the neighborhood have given books to Glendover Elementary and sewed hundreds of puppets for Good Samaritan Hospital.
That's mandated by their 50-year-old service component, which they take very seriously.
If it all sounds so very prescribed by social contract made in 1958, it's really not.
A few years ago, before Florence's husband died, he bought a large housing lot elsewhere and wanted to build his wife another house.
”I got so down,“ says Florence. Not exactly the reaction her husband was looking for.
A daughter-in-law told her she should tell her husband if she didn't want to move away from Greenbriar Road.
She did. No more was said about the new house or the new neighborhood he had waiting for her. The old one was plenty good enough.
It was here then that, when Bob became ill before his death, people took care of her and him. It is here that her children and her grandchildren return.
It is here the Merry Wives are set to meet, for the umpteenth time, in September.